If you are an Indian, then you inevitably belong to a religion, a caste, a community, a class within the community, a geographical location within that class, and so on… It doesn’t matter whether you are an atheist, agnostic or a potato. We, the Indians, will trace your roots back to the first stone that touched your great-grandfather’s father’s little toe and accurately determine all of the above factors.
It is highly exasperating, especially when people watch your movements with a predetermined set of stereotypical notions. Your individuality quickly loses its value and you just become one among the ten thousand other minions who, according to them, belong to the same category as you. Once your category is established, then anything in your behaviour that seems contradictory from the largely accepted rules set down in your compartment, raises serious eyebrows among those groups of people who had it all sorted out. For example, “Oh, you are a Bihari, but you speak such fluent English”, “You don’t look South Indian, you are so fair”, and so on. I have been subject to many such comments because of my own “category”, however, I always found them more comical than offensive. I was never exposed to caste or religious practices (except the forced masses in my Christian schools and colleges which was always received with a mutual lack of enthusiasm irrespective of what religion you follow), therefore, I never believed that people actually care about these aspects in their everyday interactions. However, the first time that I began addressing and acknowledging my caste and religion were when I joined an even bigger university in one of the biggest cities for my higher education.
This college is highly reputed for practising a ‘no tolerance against social, cultural and sexual discrimination of any nature’. This rule was repeatedly stressed upon during our induction and also later during certain common lectures which were conducted for the entire batch. I remember wondering, why are they making such a big deal out of this, it’s not like anybody actually cares what caste anybody else belongs to. Although this was right to a certain extent, caste, I realised later, is not something one can sidestep in this country, no matter which University or city you run off to.
Moving on, I quickly found an apartment which I shared with three other students from the same college and we began attending these common lectures together. Being an introvert, my communication with my room-mate was limited to just general topics like where we are from and how we find our classes. But the very long and sometimes very boring common lectures urged me to open up more quickly to my room-mate than I would have done otherwise. It was during one such lectures about social issues and the minority caste issues that I whispered to my room-mate that I didn’t really know which category I belonged to according to the Manu chart (Manusmriti). For those who don’t know, Manusmriti, in detailed texts, divides people into four categories and each category is assigned a set of rules. These rules decides everything about your life, your employment, your social life, and the simple everyday tasks that you should and shouldn’t do.
My room-mate was a bit amused by my confession and asked me what caste mine was. I told her, but it was not one that she was aware of. So we decided to follow Elimination Method and finally arrived at the most probable possibility. She then hi-fived me and said she too belonged to the same category as she was a Bhangi. We were pretty happy with our discovery and went on whispering about other more important topics (probably what snack we could have with tea later).
I think this is the right moment for me to mention that it was monsoon season during this time and my room-mate had a very sad umbrella which was covered in rust in some places and one of its rig rods was highly depressed and suicidal (she did have a different and better umbrella, but why damage it in the rain when she can use the already damaged umbrella). While she very religiously carried her umbrella wherever we went, I would shamelessly make fun of her umbrella and then force her to share it with me because I, for the life of me, could never remember to carry my own. This soon became a habit, and on one particular day as we were getting out of our lecture hall, I find her struggling to open her umbrella and bring back to life that fallen rig rod. I watched her struggling and began laughing and commented ‘you and your stupid Bhangi umbrella’ and laughed some more and immediately shut up as soon as I realised what I had said. I slowly turned to look at her who was staring at me with a very confused expression and asked ‘did you just say that?’. I did say it, so I replied a very long and soft ‘yeeaaa?’. And the next thing I see is, she holds her own tummy and starts laughing out loud. I quickly join her and she manages between tears ‘Oh God! I hope no one heard us…’.
Bhangi umbrella soon became popular and loved in our apartmnet. We constantly worried about his well being and panicked every time we forgot him at the library (not that anybody would ever steal that umbrella). My room-mate soon decided that Bhangi had to be put to rest, she just couldn’t torture him any more and moved on to her new and improved Bhangi umbrella. Fit, shiny and sturdy, but not as loved.