Multimedia reporter Ben Piven spent nine months researching and documenting for Caste in the City [PDF] on a Fulbright grant. He recalls his field research and the questions surrounding caste and Indian nationalism in the slums of Mumbai. Ben is currently completing his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.
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The peppery aroma of snack carts permeated the humid air. Workmen gathered under a corrugated tin overhang to sip on mango lassis and sweet lime juice.
At the end of a long day of interviews in the scorching April sun, I was finishing up my fieldwork inside a predominantly Dalit slum called Ramabai Colony in eastern Mumbai. A passerby stopped to ask why I was conducting research on the relevance of caste in contemporary Mumbai.
“What is your caste?” he asked me in Hindi.
“We don’t have caste in America,” I responded abruptly. “America is different from India.”
I then paused for a few seconds, quickly becoming pensive. After 15 grueling interviews, I was not keen on explaining the nuances of American social stratification in my choppy Hindi.
On other days when I was in more edifying moods, I explained class distinctions in the U.S. and how the religion of my birth did not differentiate along caste lines. When folks demanded to know, I sometimes joked that I was a Hindu of the Hebrew caste.
To many ordinary Indian people, caste is a universal. Humans in every country must belong to a caste, they suppose. How could any society function otherwise? Some sanitation workers even believe that their filthy profession is predestined.
Across India’s biggest city, thousands of leather workers, washermen and rag pickers ply the same trade as their ancestors. But many of their children have become bureaucrats, factory workers and merchants. Dalits are members of the lowest rung of traditional Hindu society, and they are increasingly asserting their political and economic rights.
To be sure, the enigma of caste is not entirely unique to India. Yet its omnipresence on the subcontinent makes it as quintessentially Indian as curry, Gandhi, and the head wiggle.
Even so, some Indians place national unity far above caste. In front of the Bombay Stock Exchange – arguably the most important symbol of India’s 21st century prosperity – I interviewed a bank watchman named Yogesh Kumar Singh. A young migrant from poor, rural Uttar Pradesh in north India, he simply could not identify his own caste.
In a proud defense of his caste ignorance, he declared, “All castes are the same. We’re all basically just Indian.”
Singh turned toward the crowd of people who were observing the interview and said triumphantly, “The caste divide doesn’t matter because we’re all brothers.”
– Ben Piven