"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
June 16, 2007

Untouchability And Glocalisation

During our years in Delhi, reading the Saturday edition of the paper was always a unique experience. It wasn’t the sport, or current affairs that caught the eye of ourselves or our visitors. It was the matrimonials section. Sure, in other country you find heartfelt and detailed personals for those seeking life-partners, sure in some […]

During our years in Delhi, reading the Saturday edition of the paper was always a unique experience. It wasn’t the sport, or current affairs that caught the eye of ourselves or our visitors. It was the matrimonials section. Sure, in other country you find heartfelt and detailed personals for those seeking life-partners, sure in some the ads are placed not by the potential partner, but by their family. But perhaps only India would organise those ads by caste.

Of course India is a country where traditions are changing fast. Many of the ads make clear that “caste is no barrier” and more and more young Indians are opting for “love marriages” over arranged ones. But the expectations of caste, along with financial standing, educational background and ethnicity still play a role in defining acceptability in a potential partner for many.

But my first experience with all this came not through voyeuristically reading the matrimonials, but from more direct and personal negotiations. I came to India prepared to see a lot of poverty, but ill-prepared for both the abundance of wealth that some had and for the coldness with which they accepted the “fate” of those who did menial work for them and thus sustained their lifestyles. I soon started reflecting not on caste per se, but on the lives of the hoards of domestic staff, office sweepers, delivery people and even caddies who populated the scenery of the places I moved through. No-one spoke about untouchability, but clearly a lot of these people were invisible.

Extreme wealth next to extreme poverty is a huge part of my memory of India. That’s why this photo means so much to me – it sums up the optimism and hope of a technologically-driven, highly educated Indian future, next to the inventive squalor that is home for those who can’t quite make it onto the good ship globalisation. It’s India’s glocalisation.

Like most ex-pats in India, it was assumed we would have a small amount of domestic staff. Initially, this meant a cook and a nanny, who would both live with us. My Indian education began when I started trying to sort out their living arrangements. The “staff” accommodation consisted of two small, exposed concrete box-rooms on the roof of our townhouse. Each was about 9 foot by 5 foot, with a tiny cracked window and warped door. The floors and walls were rough, unpainted concrete and within them an adult was expected to live, sleep and house their worldly possessions. There was poor ventilation and no cooling, which with the heat reaching 48C in the daytime, made them unspeakably hot. Worse still, they were clearly not waterproof and with the impending monsoon they screamed out the potential for disease. As for the sanitary and washing facilities – I can’t begin to describe them.

When I spoke to our company representative about the conditions, indicating that I did not consider them satisfactory I was met with a sternly disapproving reply. “That is good enough for these sorts of people.” These sorts of people? The implication was clear – these sorts of people are not like you and I, not at all.

What made all this more galling was that the landlord had a set of three large, mostly empty, rooms on the top floor that were locked (rumours abounded as to why). These could easily be used as two decent marble floored bedrooms, a kitchenette and bathroom of comparable standard to the bathrooms in the main house. After offering to pay a modest amount to relocate and store the landlords few belongings, I was given the key to those rooms on the condition that the staff were not, under any circumstances allowed to sleep in them. Of course, I lied (and slept well as a consequence). In less than two months we had found a new home, again making ourselves unpopular by insisting on a decent accommodation for our staff.

I soon found myself cautious about bringing up issues of poverty, class, caste and ethnic background. OK, these problems can be a conversational minefield anywhere, but in India it seems more-so. I meet some people who were genuine in their concern for the poor, for the need to change traditions to make them more humane. But, I also heard some very aggressive justifications along religions, historical and cultural lines. Most of these were backed up with the claim that as a westerner I could not “understand” India and moreover, was blind to the failings of my own “culture” (as is being of Swiss/German/French/Spanish ancestry, converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, born in Chile but living most of my life in Australia before falling in love with London made me mono-cultural!).

So it was with interest that I read Mark Tully’s justification of Caste in his recent book, India’s Unending Journey. Tully has two broad justifications for caste – tradition and non-meritocracy. I’m not interested in using tradition to justify keeping anyone down, limiting their future or justifying their low wages and poor living conditions. But the argument against meritocracy has more traction.

In the west we do tend to accept meritocracy uncritically. Traditional cultures have something to teach us about giving everyone a role and place within society. Meritocracies can be pretty bad at valuing people who do not fit narrow definitions of success and sometimes have just as bad a record of exploitation as any other approach.

Tully quoted a criticism of his position on caste from parliamentarian Radhakant Nayak,

“The church teaches that Christ came for the poor. The rich man is made to feel responsible for the poor and warned that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is going to be for him to go to heaven. In the caste system the rich man’s conscience is not pricked. He tells the poor ‘What can I do about your problem? You are suffering for your past life.'”

When I sent a reply to his critique suggesting that the suffering of the poor might serve to warn the rich that they will pay for their selfishness in their next lives, R.K. replies succinctly, ‘In my experience it doesn’t!’

I recall one friend saying westerners were obsessed with caste and because of that could not see the bigger picture of why India is what it is. I think that is right. India has no monopoly on fatalism towards the poor nor is it fully free to address the problem. The plight of rural workers is perhaps the biggest economic justice issue in India today, but that is linked to issues in global trade that no one country in the world can fix alone.

Looking back on those years I’m somewhat optimistic that more and more Indians will tackle poverty in creative ways, both from within the country and from the growing non-Resident population. There is a growing social contract and generations of educational and social reform have made a difference. But, I’m still pessimistic about how fast the attitudes will change in such a vast country, since so many lifestyles depend on a steady-stream of low wage employees.

I still find caste, indifference and ethnic prejudice abhorrent. However, I’ve come to wonder exactly why that is and where it comes from. More than challenging my ethics, India has made me question where my ethics come from. The place will do that to you…

[tags] Caste, Poverty [/tags]

Steve Hayes 17 years ago

The attitudes you describe towards menial workers were quite common in South Africa before we got democracy, and the justifications were very similar — “good enough for these kinds of people”.

I think they have become less common, though I suspect that the nouveau riche are not much better than their “old money” counterparts. The government has started a programme called “Black Economic Empowerment”, but many think it would more accurately be called “Black Elite Enrichment”. It does little to improve the lot of the poor.

sally 17 years ago

Well said- I was brought up in Malaysia, we too had “servants” whose living conditions were poor, these attitudes are dehumanising- we must fight past them. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

brodie 17 years ago

Fernando – thanks for sharing this. I’ve sensed from past posts that reflecting on your time in India is not an easy thing to do, so I appreciate what you’ve written here all the more.

Paul 17 years ago

Thanks Fernando. Now I am wondering, after reading your piece on eduction as well, if we in the west don’t have our own form of caste system – both within in our economies and within the global economy..?

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Steve – thanks for your comment and for offering another perspective on this. It seems the “good enough” argument can be a safe-haven for all sorts of prejudices.

Sally – Thanks for your comment and encouragement. You are right that these kinds of attitide strip people of their humanity.

Brodie – Yes, it is not easy. Thanks.

Paul – One of the most common defences of the caste system (and sometimes other economic factors in India) is that it is “ugly but honest” whereas the west hides this mistreatment. For example, in India you pay bribes but in the west you pay “handling and administration fees” in India you have caste but in the west you have the old school tie and the country club network. I don’t buy it as a justification, but it is a valid critique.

Lydia 17 years ago

Hola Fernando

son las 3.54 am y tenia ya un par de horas revisando informacion sobre una posible vida en Delhi cuando cai en tu blog. Interesante,entras por el lado humano de la experiencia expat.
Resido en Saigon hace 3 anios luego de una vida entera en Peru y se presenta la posibilidad de un cambio a Delhi.
Mi experiencii en Vietam fue de lo mejor, me rehuse desde uncomienzo a refugiarme en un getto extranjero y me fue realmente bien. Sin embargo Vietnam es un pais extraordinariamente seguro(alguien mas viajado que yo me dijo quizas una de las pocas ciudades en el mundo donde una mujer puede caminar sola pasada la medianoche sin problema ).
De ahi mis dudas- Leo sobre el agua contaminada, el clima,la lluvia, la pobreza y pienso que con todo podre pero pensar que salir a la calle puede ser un problema, que puedo ser asaltada, secuestrada ,estafada con harta frecuencia me hace pensar dos veces….
Se de violencia e inseguridad urbana debido a los anios que pase en Lima durante el acoso del grupo guerrillero Sendero Luminoso.

Ya pase por Indian Mike y otros foros, me encantaria tu opinion.

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