Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Caste and I

by Saba Aslam

The diversity of Asia's peoples
Photo credit: Wikipedia/Nordisk familjebok

I come from a family where caste has little or no significance in either getting to know about a person or a particular family. This was one of the reasons why I never really asked my father about the origins of my ancestors. May it be social gatherings, or formal meet ups with colleagues, knowing about a person’s caste had never been a basis of interaction. However, I wasn’t new to the concept and had studied about different castes, cultures, races in an introductory socio-cultural anthropology course in my undergraduate degree. Moreover, caste is definitely talked about in instances when people get married especially in the context of highlighting somebody marrying outside his/her caste. This may be perceived differently depending upon how much weight a person places on his/her caste.

My interest in the subject arose during the course of my field visits in rural parts of Sindh for a LANSA study on women, work and nutrition. One of the instruments that we used in this research is the eligibility form that facilitated us in identifying a particular household. This form categorizes sample households into villages, neighbourhoods (also called paras) and goes further into details by listing mother’s name, father’s name, mother’s caste and infant’s name and age. Out of these, the category worthy of interest to us is neighbourhood that is usually named after a particular caste. So for example, all the Mallahs would live in the same neighbourhood, where as Bheel/Kohlis would have their houses in the same vicinity, and the Khojas would all live together, etc. How did these castes come about and how exactly did these people adapt to these castes are questions that need to be explored.

My interactions with Sindhi speaking field researchers was more or less the same as I would interact with my peers but the interactions among these researchers also brought the exchange of opinions of which caste each one would belong to. It was at this time, I was advised by a colleague to choose any caste and adapt it for the entire field visits. But I refused.

In no time I realized the significance of what my colleague had suggested earlier as my visits to the households became frequent. As a researcher it had become difficult to manage work with the way I had projected myself to others. Every household that I would go into; the introduction would begin by saying our names, briefly explaining the reason why we had come and eventually obtaining permission for a detailed in depth interview. During the introduction, the women would ask us which caste we belonged to. My colleagues would answer back; somebody would say she is a Mir, the other would say she is Barohi or a Kalhoro, and when my turn would come, I’d just say, “I don’t have a caste and I speak Urdu.” The woman would smile and not question further. Instead she would talk to my colleagues, exchange opinions about each other’s castes and the interview would start. In another instance, the woman would be inquisitive to know about my caste and would say, “You don’t want to disclose your caste, you are hiding it from us.” I would come back surprised at these responses. Not knowing one’s caste or not wanting to have one has great significance while communicating with the people in these villages. To get the feeling that you are not one of them becomes a huge barrier when you want to communicate with them.

In an urban setting the ways of knowing another person include where the person studied from, about the person’s hobbies, areas of interest, career aspirations, achievements and in some cases one may share his/her personal life. And these are so deeply ingrained within us that they have become our identities. Does the same exist for all those living in the rural areas or is it something else? From my experience, clearly these classifications hold zero value in getting to know a person. However, asking about a person’s caste and associating with it facilitates a conversation with the people in rural areas. Why is it that we do not refer to each other’s castes while interacting with each other? Caste is just one of the many other bases that are being used for social interaction.

The matter remains unresolved; I still need to chalk out a way when it comes to answering questions related to my caste. But for someone like me who had always been indifferent to where her forefathers had come from or who wouldn’t raise questions about other castes has now realized that these matters hold deep meanings in others’ lives, if not ours’.