Sunday, October 24, 2004

The NY Times on Caste in the Indian Diaspora

The New York Times (free subscription required), in its Sunday edition has run an interesting take on the role of the Indian/Hindu caste-system in the Indian diaspora in America. I use a hyphen because followers of non-Hindu faiths found in India (Sikhism, Islam, and Christianity etc.) continue to have remnants of the caste system as part of their cultural traditions as referenced in the NYT piece's example of Pinder Paul, who the Times describes as a

"spirited 50-year-old Punjabi Sikh (the Sikh faith absorbed some caste distinctions) who came to New York City in 1985 and worked as a dishwasher at Tad's Steaks. Now he and his wife spend seven days a week running the Chirping Chicken outlet he owns in Astoria. He could cite no instance of outright discrimination, but said looks and gestures sometimes betray upper-caste condescension. "Our friends who came here from India from the upper classes, they're supposed to leave this kind of thing behind, but unfortunately they brought it with them," he said. Yet in a paradoxical demonstration of the stubborn resilience of caste, Mr. Paul is active with a local Dalit group and said he would prefer that his son marry a Dalit. "We want to stay in our community," he said."
The Times use the story of Dr. Bodh Das as their lede, a "silver-haired cardiologist in the Bronx," who they compare to Tivye from Fiddler on the roof, and his attempts to ensure that his three daughters marry into the same familial caste they were born into.

As Dr. Das's experience shows, the peculiarly Indian system of stratifying its people into hierarchical castes - with Brahmins at the top and untouchables at the bottom - has managed to stow away on the journey to the United States, a country that prides itself on its standard of egalitarianism, however flawed the execution. But the caste system, weakening for a half-century in India, is withering here under the relentless forces of assimilation and modernity. While it persists, its vestiges today often seem more a matter of sentiment than cultural imperative. Sometimes, the caste distinctions, recognizable by family names and places of origin, linger as a form of social snobbery. Keerthi Vadlamani, a 23-year-old chemical engineer from an affluent Brahmin family in the south-central Indian city of Hyderabad, said, "Some people are stupid enough not to mingle with a Dalit, to cold-shoulder them. "You won't invite them home, you won't go over to their home," he said. Other upper-caste Indians here say that they do not bother to probe someone's caste and that most compatriots will do business with anyone. Few Indians would admit to such behavior as refusing to eat in a restaurant because its food was cooked by an untouchable, something many upper-caste Indians might have done 50 years ago. Mostly caste survives here as a kind of tribal bonding, with Indians finding kindred spirits among people who grew up with the same foods and cultural signals. Just as descendants of the Pilgrims use the Mayflower Society as a social outlet to mingle with people of congenial backgrounds, a few castes have formed societies like the Brahmin Samaj of North America, where meditation and yoga are practiced and caste traditions like vegetarianism and periodic fasting are explained to the young.
The Times has an interesting take on the whole thing, but kudos to them for exploring a facet of the Indian diaspora that has remained, at least to my knowledge, relatively untouched by mainstream journalism.


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