A few items caught my attention in the papers this week. Like the old days in the States, the Sunday papers here have classified ads. My favorite section is the “matrimonials”. These aren’t announcements – but want ads for brides and grooms with that particular Indian twist: the section is divided by caste, among other delineations. There are brides looking for Brahmin grooms, “High status Punjabi business family seeks suitable alliance for their smart, talented, fair, slim N/M (never married?), daughter 76/157 cm (birth year and height), convent educated, professionally qualified, looking for well settled, high status, business/industrialist, high paid professional N/M boy….”
And grooms looking for brides: “ A prominent Gupta family’s son ‘76/5’10”, handsome, good looking (if you have to say that twice, than you’re probably not!), MFA Florida State, B.Sc Berkley, scope of expected income no limit. Seeks well-educated girl from status family. Service class excuse.” (Which means, don’t bother responding if you are from a family of tailors!)
There are also sections for Christians, Doctors, Engineers, NRI’s or Non-Resident-Indians, Handicapped/Disabled and Divorcees.
The Indian Constitution makes it illegal to discriminate or identify a person by caste, but it’s difficult to escape the identification. Surnames reveal caste, as do hometowns, professions, etc… So really, everyone knows, regardless of whether they care. The obsession with caste is reflected in vocabulary. I read one newspaper article about a High Court ruling that supported affirmative action for the “backward classes”.
The caste system was first organized by skin color when lighter skinned conquerors swept across ancient India. Eventually, the northern, lighter skinned Indians became the Brahmins, the highest caste. As social and economic structures became more stratified and complex, society was subdivided into even more castes and sub-castes and the Brahmins finagled a religious excuse to freeze movement among castes to protect their “forward” class privileges.
The sad thing is that the residue of culturally institutionalized discrimination coats everything here and taints efforts to organize a civil society that protects and enriches its citizens.
But enough of caste and on to a more fun story: Monday was International Women’s Day and Air India celebrated with an all-female cockpit crew on a flight from Mumbai to New York. The airline fell short of setting a world record of having an all-female cabin crew, including the attendants BECAUSE…. (you’re going to love this!) the Supreme Court here has ruled that any flight that serves alcohol must have male pursers. So, flight AI-141 had four women flying the plane, eight women working in the cabin, and two men pouring booze.
I bought my first sari this week. I was looking forward to the experience. I imagined that I would sweep into the store and several beautiful and very helpful ladies would unravel swaths of silk before me. They would drape them over my shoulders in front of a mirror, and give me a thumbs-up or wink or knowing look that said – “yes, this color is for you”, or a shake of the head, a furrowed brow or a frown that said “no – you look like dead meat in that”. Instead, this is what I got:
Three blind mice. This was a most infuriating shopping experience. I had to beg the men to show me samples. I think that they didn’t want to unravel the cloth because they would have to later fold it. I had to beg for bright, happy, festive colors. I had to beg for different samples of quality so that I could compare silk, crepe, organza, cotton… and how each hung. In this photo, I’m trying to describe a halter top that I want to wear underneath the sari. You can see that I finally have some attention as I’m sweeping my hands over my upper body trying to describe the top! There is a happy ending – I left with a beautiful swath of embroidered and beaded light, silk something-or-other and my tailor thinks he can make the tradition-breaking top that I want. I wear the sari Saturday night and with luck and a few well-placed pins, it will stay wrapped and the halter will stay up after a night of dancing…