Being a chameleon in India's multi-caste system

Published: 24th September 2016 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th September 2016 05:08 PM   |  A+A-

When P.V. Sindhu won a silver for India at the recent Olympics, a great to-do was created about what caste she belonged to. Every caste wanted to claim her for its own. A victory for India was good, but a victory for a particular caste was even better.

Like tribalism in Africa, caste in India is an entrenched sub-nationalism. Or what some—like Hardik Patel, the leader of the Patidar agitation whose avowed objective is to dislodge the BJP government in Gujarat in the next election—might call supra-nationalism, in that it supersedes mere nationalism.

This being the case, logic suggests that if having one caste is good, having several must be better, on the principle of the more the merrier. Or, the Mandal the merrier. Or so I’ve discovered.

Coming from Marxist Calcutta, Bunny and I had no clue about caste. In Calcutta, you were either a comrade or a capitalist, there were no intermediaries. We didn’t know what caste either of us belonged to, and never—or almost never—thought about it. Once, at a beer party, we’d got into conversation with a chap who turned out to be the second son of a somewhat hard-up maharaja. 

We’d been chatting for a while before his royal lineage was revealed. At which point the princeling asked us if Bunny and I were Brahmins, as princely protocol demanded that he should not have social intercourse with non-Brahmins. Bunny and I had to inform him that we weren’t Brahmins, not that we knew of, anyway.

This admission put the princeling in a quandary.  On the one hand, he said, he wanted to carry on talking to us, as he rather liked our company. On the other hand, he couldn’t fly in the face of princely custom and have truck with non-Brahmins.

“What caste are you, anyway?” the princeling asked.

“Dunno,” Bunny said. “SC/ST, maybe?” Even in Calcutta one had heard of Brahmins and SC/STs.  It was the caste of thousands that came in between that was the problem. The princeling blanched at the mention of SC/STs. Then he revived. 

“Tell you what,” he said. “Being a Brahmin, and the son of a maharaja, I can make you temporary Brahmins for a day. Then we can continue chatting.  How about that?”

I made him a counter-proposition. “Instead of making us temporary Brahmins, why don’t you use your princely clout to turn yourself into a temporary SC/ST? Wouldn’t that be easier, maybe?” I said. 

The princeling looked dubious for a bit.  Then he brightened.  “All right,” he agreed. “Let’s all be SC/STs for the day.”

Behenji would have been proud of me.

And that had been our only close encounter of the caste kind. Till we came to Delhi and were introduced to the teeming caste menagerie that lay beyond what we’d so naively believed was India’s seamless social fabric.

I was astonished by the sheer variety of castes.  What was the difference between a Gujjar and a Jat and a Yadav? Or were they all the same? And who or what was a Kurmi? (A question which, years later, a colleague on the edit page would also ask: “Has anyone ever met a real, live Kurmi?”)

One day in the edit page conference, something came up about Kayasths. I had no more notion about what a Kayasth might be than I did about Kurmis. But it seemed that a number of Kayasths were journalists, or the other way round. Indeed, it seemed that almost everyone in the room was a Kayasth.

People looked at me. “What are you?” someone said. I was flummoxed. What the hell was I? Then it occurred to me that Arvind had just admitted to being a Kayasth. Apart from being one of the most intelligent, Arvind was also one of the nicest guys I’ve met. If being a Kayasth was good enough for him, I guessed it was good enough for me.

“Kayasth?” I said.

Everyone beamed at me. Welcome to the caste club.

Except that in my case, my caste identity is like a chameleon. It adapts itself to blend in with its surroundings, which ensures that though I might well end up as a social outcast, I minimise the risk of being labelled a social outcaste.

Jug Suraiya  is a writer, columnist and author of several books


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