On many occasions when I introduce myself – ‘I am Jitu Mishra…’ I find people give me a special respect. It is not because of my professional identity but due to my caste identity. I am a Brahmin by caste, and according to Hindu Varna order, it ranks highest among all castes. I may boast that I am not a firm believer of caste system, but despite it when I receive due respect or honour because of my caste tag, for a moment I get touched and even develop a subtle pride on me. Perhaps it is an aspect of human behaviour, which has to be accepted wholeheartedly.
In last 40 years of my life I have journeyed through casteism from its core orthodox practice to its milder version in the 21st century.
It was early 1970s. My father was posted in a small town called Jeypore in the tribal dominated Koraput district in south Odisha. He was serving as a lecturer in zoology in the local Vikramdev College. At Jeypore I began my schooling. Around that time the region had a very low literacy rate. There were very qualified people from the scheduled caste communities. As the head of the zoology department, my father had the authority to appoint office bearers to whom he wished and found capable. One of the office bearers appointed during his tenure was named Ghasi, a scheduled caste. After getting the job he had brought sweets as gift for my parents. But he had to also maintain a distance since he was a scheduled caste and we were Brahmins. He said to my mother,”Mam, the sweet I have brought is actually bought, not made at my home. Please accept it. I will be deeply obliged”. My mother’s kind-hearted soul accepted his gift, but it was redistributed to our servant, not us.
In the late 1970s, we moved to Sambalpur, a comparatively larger town and considered as the heart of western Odisha. We lived in a quarter provided by the authority of Gangadhar Meher College, where my father served as a lecturer in Zoology department. Taking an additional duty my father also became a rector of a boys’ hostel. During the tenure as a rector, a woman called Kamla in her 40s, who served as a bathroom cleaner and sweeper in the hostel used to come to our house to clean toilets on daily basis. But because of her low caste tag, she was never allowed to come inside the home. However, as I remember she was a very sweet person and also very clean.
In the mid 1980s there had been waves of changes taken place in the mindset of my family members, especially in my parents. Now there were no discriminations with relation to acceptance of gifts and food from people belonging to scheduled castes. However, in my mother’s native village there were still strict rules followed. As I remember on vacations when we were going to the village, I was not allowed to enter the kitchen because I was according to the norms was not pure as I ate non-vegetarian food. My maternal grandmother also did not eat anything outside home as she was a staunch Brahmin widow and the orthodox tradition always prevented her. The outside food was considered polluted because of hands that were involved in the preparation could belong to any caste members.
One aspect still dominated in the orthodox caste system, the prohibition of inter-caste marriages. In 1985, one of my uncles, a cousin of my mother, had got married with great difficulties. The problem was not because of the immediate caste tag of my aunt. My aunt was a Brahmin, but her mother was a low caste, although she was an educated woman. My uncle lived in Sambalpur where we also lived. As we all travelled in his car to his village on Andhra-Odisha border, about 400 km from Sambalpur, throughout the way he was found tensed. Once we reached his home, all his brothers and their wives surrounded him and started firing on his decision.
In 1990, I moved to Pune to pursue a higher education degree. As I lived away from home I was distancing myself from the orthodox tradition to a great extent. In Pune, I lived amidst a cosmopolitan crowd that had students from most of the states in India as well as from Sri Lanka, Jordan, Thailand, Japan, Sudan, Israel, and so on. Eventually my thinking was broadened and I started perceiving humanity as one extended family. Though we belonged to different castes and religions, often we shared food from the same plate.
These changes I presumed were also happening throughout India. However, in contrast to my presumption, rural India was still going through a staunch tradition of caste prejudice. In the year 2000, I had gone to Balathal, a village near Udaipur in Rajasthan to participate in an excavation. During our stay of 2 months there were many instances of caste discrimination. I remember one incident. In the village, there was a birthday celebration at someone’s house. The family belonged scheduled caste. Most of us (from Deccan College, Pune) attended the function except two local participants, who belonged to the Rajput community.
Years later, when I watched Amir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate, I was stunned to see the caste prejudice in India in its extreme form, an institution that was established by Manu, about 2,500 years ago.
However, back home, there had been significant changes in the mindset of my family members and perhaps among many other educated middle class families. When I started courtship with Kalini (my wife), who belong to a Gujarati Vyashya (Vania) caste, and decided to marry, surprisingly there was no resistance from my parents and even from my maternal grandmother, who is now about 90 years old.
35 years later, when I met Ghasi in 2009 at Jeypore, I was told that his daughter was working as a software engineer with Infosys at Jaipur, Rajasthan. I was invited to his home though no one could recognise me. It was a great surprise to see how education has brought significant changes in lives of people who otherwise were distressed and trapped so badly in the Manu’s institution of caste prejudice, just a generation ago.