By Manik Sharma
Around 12 years ago, we sat in the verandah of my home in a Himachal village, my grandmother and I, pining together for the winter sun. We’ve always had the kind of relationship where her tongue, slippery from old age, found steady, comforting ground in the curiosity of my ears. But that day I was less than happy. She had just told me that two houses in our small hamlet of seven, were built to not face the sun or another family because they were occupied by “different” people. Naturally, I was not allowed to visit them because one family belonged to the OBC category, while the other was SC. Both these houses still stand, in the shade of the dense forests they face, hiding, or perhaps forced to hide.
This is just the sort of thing that I was unaware of as a child – and for a long time, as a grown-up who is otherwise in sync with reality. Upper-caste millennials like me grew up cocooned, oblivious to how caste affects those around them, because we’ve never had to confront it. We see caste as that hook-as-bait at the end of our privileged swims. We discount it, or are simply too numb-skulled to observe how it has shaped our destinies.
For us, caste rears its ugly head only when we discuss college admissions or government jobs, and how “those people” have an unfair advantage over the rest of us. I have, like everyone else, seen the memes, filled the forms, failed to get the numbers, and then analysed them in retrospect. I have missed out on a course I was dying to do, by a single rank. And I’ve also heard the murmurs “Sab kuch ab lower caste walon ke liye hi hai,” or “Paisa humse lekar kaam unke liye karte hain”.
Outside of those discussions though, us upper-caste folks are happy to obliterate the role caste plays: In institutionalising our privilege, in solidifying our futures, in acting as the springboards from which we leap to our podium finishes.
Himachal’s rural, low-lying areas, particularly in the north-west, are morbidly poor. There is no cash crop, and whatever the average farmer sows, he eats. A lower-caste family, especially disadvantaged because they own no land, often feeds on the goodwill of the upper caste. My great grandfather, my grandmother went on to tell me that day, had helped the family that I was never allowed to visit, build their home in the hamlet. So entrenched were these caste ideals in our neck of woods that my great grandfather was never allowed to escape criticism for it. It came from neighbours, it came from within the family.
To upper-caste millennials, reservation is a way of snatching their piece of the pie.
Over the years, I learnt that segregation follows you even in death. The body of an old man from a neighbouring village was cremated at a location different from the one where the rest of our family was laid to rest. Ours was a largely Brahmin village, except those two families that neither faced the sun nor another being that drew breath. There were similar hamlets all around for lohars, another for gujjars.
In having that conversation with my grandmother, I realised that as an upper-caste kid, I was never really asked what currency my pocket was filled with… What millennials remain blind to, is the role caste plays in determining not just people’s histories, but also their future. We remain blind to it until the moment someone asks us to pay for our quarantined privilege. I call it quarantined not because it is infected, but because it is the infection. An infection that is too good to have, and too important to let out, like a dizzying fever you’d want for life. It is a kind of operational theft, so meagre on the eyes, but so meaty below the surface. And as I began to look around closely, I discovered old things with new eyes and a new perspective.
I remembered the gangly fellow from my neighbourhood in Shimla, the town of my birth and schooling, who’d often look on from the steps of his three-storey house as we played on the steep inclines. His house received just as much as sun as ours, but it never received visitors. For the 16 years that I lived there, this young man would look on at us – he might have wandered close or played half a game on the odd occasion – but was eventually always called back by his parents. Perhaps they feared that he’d be put in his lower-caste place by us brats sooner or later. So he grew up on the steps of his house, holding his bat and looking at us, until we grew wiser and simply stopped looking in his direction.
Recently, as fake news of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath abolishing a never-existent reservation policy, broke the internet, I braced myself for my upper-caste friends to pull at the wrong end of the stick. They did not disappoint. Everyone hailed it; some even called it the end of “casteism”. I couldn’t roll my eyes any further. It only confirmed what I have come to know about my peers: That we simply cannot look beyond the vector of our careers. To upper-caste millennials, reservation is a way of snatching their piece of the pie. And because we are never told to remove our eyes from the pie, we understand so little about how caste impacts us.
Of course, there is a case to be made for the way reservation misses a mark or two, or fails those who need it the most. But should you care to look at who cleans your clogged toilets, or who works at the mortuary, or who picks your trash, you’d understand that atonement for your caste privilege is not restricted to shifting asses in government job chairs. It begins with your heart and your mind.
In the intervening years since I had that conversation with my grandma, I found a friend in one of those two families back in the hamlet. We don’t meet that often. But whenever we meet, we sit together in the sunlight. A handful for the both of us.
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