Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (33 page)

BOOK: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
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Part Seven
 
A
WAKENING
CHAPTER THIRTY
Shedding the Sacred Thread

Near the sacred waters of the alluvial plains, east of the Thar Desert, a man born to the highest caste in India had awakened slowly to a privileged despair. He had a position of rank in civil society and a high-born wife and family. He was a Brahmin, of the priestly caste, above even kings and warriors. He was the Indian equivalent of the bluest of blood in America. Unlike ordinary men, he was twice born—first, of his mother’s womb and then of the temple during the rite of passage for boys of the upper castes. The Brahmin, the Kshatriya, and the Vaishya alone have historically been granted this singular elevation. It is one of the many things—perhaps the most prized, transcendent thing—that set upper-caste men apart from lower ones as the most favored by the gods.

Many years before, on the day that he, as a young Brahmin boy, went through his second birth, his head had been shaved, and he was bathed in a ritual cleansing. The Brahmin priest read from holy text and called upon the god Vishnu for his strength and protection. At the appointed hour, they slipped a sacred thread around his neck that fell over his bare shoulders and draped it across his chest, three interwoven threads representing the body, the mind, and the tongue with which to speak wisdom. This was his initiation into Brahmin manhood, and, henceforth, he was to wear the sacred thread at all times, under his clothing by day, to sleep in it by night, and to wash in it, as it remained one with his skin. He was to keep it clean and pure as a Brahmin was to remain clean and pure, and to replace it if it became frayed or polluted, if, for example, he were by chance touched by anyone of the lower castes. When he became old enough to shave, he would have to tuck it behind his ear, or hold it under his chin as he washed, to protect it. The sacred thread was an extension of his Brahmin body, the purest of all human bodies, and a signal to everyone of his high rank in the land. He was now permitted to take meals with the men in the family and village and learn his place among the men of high caste.

But on a Sunday thereafter, his father was out surveying his land. The father came across a farmworker on his land, but the farm worker did not bid the father the respect due a Brahmin lord in the father’s eyes. The laborer was a Dalit, the lowest of the castes, one whose very shadow was polluting to the boy and his father’s caste. The Dalits were trained to bend in fear at the sight of their superiors. Untold thousands of Dalits had lost their lives for offending the upper castes and were at their mercy.

The boy’s father took a stick and charged after the Dalit laborer. The Dalit pulled the limb of a tree to protect himself from the father. Seeing this, the father gathered his senses and retreated from the Dalit and ran away from him. But a group of fellow Brahmins witnessed the father running, saw him permit an Untouchable to chase away his master. The father had not upheld his superiority over the Dalit. He had brought dishonor to his caste by allowing an inferior to prevail over him.

The caste system had a way of policing the behavior of everyone in its wake to keep everyone in their assigned places. Now he had brought shame and humiliation to himself, to his line, and to his caste in that one moment. Seeing no option to retain his honor, the father fled the village. His family searched and searched for him and finally found him chanting in a room surrounded by images of the gods.

“I lost my father that day,” the Brahmin recalled many decades later, “and I lost my childhood.” Perhaps his father had been mentally unwell from the start. Perhaps the pressures to live out a role that one was born to but did not choose for oneself, and to which one’s temperament was unsuited, had been too much for the father.

The Brahmin grew up and had a family of his own. He put his father’s humiliation behind him. But in the anonymity of the big city, he began to see the hardships and inequities all around him, the dust rising from the streets and into the thick air, the street sweepers and the scavengers who he had been told accepted their lot beneath him. But he knew from the Dalit who had stood up to his father that they did not accept their lot, that they were not the docile, lazy creatures of caste mythology.

The Brahmin came to know and to admire the few Dalits who crossed his path in his work, who had pushed through the walls of caste to become educated, professional. He came to realize that they were as capable as he was, and, in fact, that because they had to come so far, they knew things about the world that his privilege had not required him to know. He saw that the caste system created a smooth path for some and broken-glass shoals for others, that creativity and intellect were not restricted to one group alone. These were the people whose very sight and touch was said to be polluting, and yet here he was sitting across from them, sharing and learning from them. He was the beneficiary of their gifts rather than the other way around, and he came to see what had been lost by one not getting to know the other for his lifetime and all the lifetimes before his. He began to see himself differently, to see the illusion of his presumed superiority, that he had been told a lie, and that his father had been told a lie, and that trying to live up to the lie had taken some part of his father away. For this, he bore a heavy guilt and shame over the tragedy that had befallen the family and a memory that would not leave him. He wanted to be free of it.

He shared this realization with a Dalit he had come to know and told him of a decision he had made. “I have ripped off my sacred thread,” he told the Dalit, a professional man. “It was a poisonous snake around my neck, and its toxic venom was getting inside of me.”

For most of his life, he had worn the sacred thread as if it were strands of hair from his head. Removing it amounted to renouncing his high caste, and he considered the consequences, that his family might reject him if they knew. He would have to determine how to manage their knowing when the time came.

He was now born a third time, the shades lifted in a darkened room in his mind.

“It is a fake crown that we wear,” he came to realize.

He wished every dominant-caste person could awaken to this fact. “My message would be to take off the fake crown. It will cost you more to keep it than to let it go. It is not real. It is just a marker of your programming. You will be happier and freer without it. You will see all of humanity. You will find your true self.”

And so he had discovered. “There was a stench coming from my body,” he said. “I have located the corpse inside my mind. I have given it a decent burial. And now my journey can begin.”

The Radicalization of the Dominant Caste

We had sat down for dinner, a family friend and I, at a chic restaurant in a hip section of a major American city. I did not know her well, but I knew that she was an artsy free spirit, kindhearted, well traveled.

She was also from the dominant caste and had grown up in a neighborhood surrounded mainly by people like herself. As we sat catching up on each other’s lives, lives that each of us had known only from afar, several waiters passed by, and it was unclear which one was ours.

Finally, a waiter stopped at our table. He was blond, curt, and matter-of-fact. I ordered fish, she ordered pasta. We both ordered drinks, an appetizer or two.

While we waited for the drinks to arrive, a couple from the dominant caste, same caste as her, sat down at the table next to us. Our waiter rushed over to take their order, now charming and effusive, filling them in on the specials, chatting them up. Seconds later, he brought a basket of bread to their table. He brought them their drinks shortly thereafter, while we sipped water and waited for ours.

The family friend was growing impatient, seething actually, and turned to see where he was. She was trying to process an unaccustomed disregard. The waiter rolled around to check on the people next to us yet again and to deliver drinks and bread to other tables down the row.

Trying to keep calm, she motioned for him to come over. “We haven’t gotten our drinks yet,” she said. “Can you bring us our drinks, please? And we’d like bread, too,” she added, looking over at the couple who had arrived after us. They were now dipping theirs in olive oil, as we stared at an empty table.

He nodded and said sure, but stopped to check on several other tables on his way back to the kitchen, which delayed him further. He reappeared later with dishes on his tray, but these were now the appetizers for the couple at the next table.

The family friend motioned to him again. “Our drinks? And we never got the bread.”

“Oh, right, sure,” he said, turning back again.

It was now hard for her to concentrate on whatever it was she was saying. The people next to us were remarking on how good the appetizers were and had all but finished their bread. Their table was laden, and ours was empty, and she seemed exquisitely aware of the couple beside us, that they were passing us on the escalator of dining attention.

On one of his many rounds past our table, the waiter at last brought the drinks but not the bread, and the exclusion was now impossible to ignore. Finally, he showed up with the entrées. The people next to us were on to their desserts, which were lovely apparently, from what they were saying. She stared at the pasta and jostled it with her fork, tasted it, and set the fork down.

“Pasta’s cold. It’s not even good. How’s your fish?”

“It’s okay. Not great. Mine’s cold, too.”

“I’m getting the waiter.”

Her face was now approaching crimson. She fidgeted in her seat and looked around for him, shaking her head in disbelief. She was barely able to keep it together.

“Can you come here a second?” she called out to him as he passed again. “I know exactly what this is about. This is about racism!”

Her voice was rising, she was loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear.

“You’re a racist! This restaurant is racist! We sat here all this time, and you served all these other people at all these other tables, and you ignored us this whole time just because she’s African-American.”

People at other tables were now looking over at me, when I had not wanted the attention. I had no interest in making a federal case out of this. If I responded like that every time I was slighted, I’d be telling someone off almost every day.

But she was just getting started. “I want your name, I want the manager’s name. I will turn this place out.”

She pushed the bowl of pasta to the center of the table. “The pasta’s cold,” she said. “I can’t even eat it. Her fish is cold. She can’t eat hers. I’m not paying, we’re not paying. I’m telling everybody I know not to come here. This is crap.”

With all of the ruckus, the manager came out to see what was going on. As it happened, the manager was a petite African-American woman, who seemed cowed by the ferocity of this newly minted anti-racist, anti-casteist, upper-caste woman, standing before her enraged at the unaccustomed humiliation. The manager apologized profusely, but my friend was having none of it.

She stormed out of the restaurant, and I walked out with her. It took a while for her to calm down.

Part of me wanted to say to her,
“Imagine going through something like this almost every day, not knowing when or how it might happen. You wouldn’t last very long. We can’t afford to be blowing up every time we’re slighted and ignored. We stand up when we need to, but we have to find a way not to go off every time and still get through the day.”

Part of me resented that she could go ballistic and get away with it when I might not even be believed. It was caste privilege to go off in the restaurant the way she did. It was a measure of how differently we are treated that she could live for over forty years and not experience what is a daily possibility for any person born to the subordinate caste, that it was so alien to her, it so jangled her, that she blew up over it.

But part of me wished that every person in the dominant caste who denies and deflects, minimizes and gaslights African-Americans and other marginalized people could experience what she did. She had been radicalized in a matter of minutes. She knew full well that this was not how people treated her when she was out with others in the dominant caste. She had come to the realization on her own.

And part of me, the biggest part of me, was happy to see her righteous indignation on my behalf, on her own behalf, and on behalf of all the people who endure these indignities every day. It would be a better world if everyone could feel what she felt for once, and awaken.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE
The Heart Is the Last Frontier

December 2016, One Month After the Election

He smelled of beer and tobacco. He was wearing a cap like the men at the rallies who wanted to make America great again, the people who had prevailed in the election the month before. His belly extended over his belt buckle. The years had carved lines into his face, and stubble was poking through his chin and cheeks. He let out a phlegmy cough.

I had called the plumbing company because I had discovered water in the basement, and he was the one they sent. He was standing at the threshold of my front door and seemed not to have expected someone who looked like me to answer. It’s a predominantly white neighborhood, with joggers and cyclists and purposeful moms in yoga sweats pushing baby strollers, ponytails bouncing, maybe a labradoodle trotting behind. Landscapers’ trucks and housekeeping crews squeeze past each other on every side street. I was used to that reaction.

“Is the lady of the house at home?” a leafleteer or survey-taker will ask me—the only lady in sight, standing right there in front of them. The assumption doesn’t inspire me to indulge them. I could correct them if I wanted, and they might try to play it off, or I could just spare them the embarrassment.

“No, she’s not here,” I’ll say. They never press me, never seem to suspect.

“Do you know when she’ll be back?”

“No, no, I don’t,” I’ll say. “Who shall I say is calling?” They will hand me a card or a flyer, and I will give it a glance as they go on their way.

So the plumber checked to see if this was, in fact, the right house, then walked in with a let’s-get-this-over-with look on his face. “Where’s the basement?”

I was reliant on this man and others like him, now that I was both widowed and motherless, having lost the two most important people in my life within a span of eighteen months. I was having to depend on contractors to fix things in this house, people who might resent me for being here and might or might not be inclined to help me or even to do their job. And now the air had shifted after the election.

He followed me into the basement and stood there as I moved boxes to make space for him to better inspect it. I moved my mother’s portable wheelchair, the one she would not be needing anymore, and a lampshade, stacks of my late father’s engineering books, and an old bucket, as the plumber watched, never reaching over to help. I began sweeping water toward the sump pump as he looked down at the wet floor.

I told him that there had been three or four inches of water, that the HVAC man had helped get the sump pump restarted to drain most of the water out, that this had never happened before.

“I hardly ever come into the basement,” I told him. “We had that drought, so I didn’t think about water in the basement. My husband was the one who came down here.” He was the one who checked the filter on the furnace, checked the fuse box, patched things in his workshop, which was exactly as he had left it, the sawhorse and drill bits untouched from whenever he’d last come down to fix something before he died. He died last year, I told the plumber. The magnitude of that statement seemed not to register. The plumber just shrugged and said uh-huh.

I was sweeping the water with him standing there, and I was remembering what had happened in the last week. I had been trying to get as far away from the grief as I could over the holidays. I would have left the planet if that had been an option, but that was not yet possible, so I had planned the next best, most convenient recourse to detach from the gravity of loss, which was a ticket to Buenos Aires. I had never been to Buenos Aires, so there were no memories to surface there, nothing to make me think of having seen or done this or that with anyone I had lost. As I was preparing to go, the HVAC contractor arrived for the semiannual check of the furnace and discovered water in the basement. He was an immigrant from Central America, and, though it was not his job, he helped to drain it as best he could.

——

The plumber was now surveying the boxes and stepped around a few of them, knocking a lampshade and wreath to the wet floor and not reaching over to pick them up. I kept sweeping. It appeared as if there was nothing further for him to do, or at least I would say he wasn’t doing anything.

He pointed to the sink. “That’s where the water is coming in,” he said, looking to wrap this up.

“But the sink’s never overflowed before,” I said. “It had to be more than that.”

“How long’s it been since the water came?”

“Maybe since the rains last week. There’s a drain here somewhere. I wonder if it’s clogged.”

I started moving boxes and was feeling more alone with him just standing there. I lifted a heavy box, and he watched, made no gesture to help. He merely said, “You got that?”

I had moved enough boxes to see where I thought the drain would be and still didn’t locate it. It seemed this should be part of the troubleshooting, but he showed no interest.

“Maybe it’s the sump pump?” I asked.

He went to look at it. “Nothing wrong with the sump pump,” he said.

I now noticed packing popcorn floating in it. “Could that have kept the sump pump from working?”

“No,” he said, “but the sump pump needs clearing out, though.”

Why was he not doing that? Wasn’t that what he was here for?

Instead he offered to write an estimate for a new one. But why buy a new pump if this one was working? I had called him in to fix whatever caused the water to build up. Since he’d arrived, I was the one sweeping water, moving boxes, searching for the drain. He was doing less than the HVAC guy had done.

I was steaming now. All he was doing was standing there watching me sweep (as women who look like me have done for centuries) and not fixing anything. He had come up with no answers, shown no interest, and now it appeared I was going to have to pay him for doing nothing.

Since he wasn’t helping, I felt I had nothing to lose. Something came over me, and I threw a Hail Mary at his humanity.

“My mother just died last week,” I told him. “Is your mother still alive?”

He looked down at the wet floor. “No…no, she isn’t.”

Somehow I had sensed that already, which is why I brought it up.

“She died in 1991,” he said. “She was fifty-two years old.”

“That’s not old at all,” I said.

“No, she wasn’t. My father’s still alive, he’s seventy-eight. He’s in a home south of here. My sister lives nearby to him.”

“You’re lucky to still have your father,” I said.

“Well, he’s mean as they come.”

I contemplated the significance of that. What might his father have exposed him to when it comes to people who look like me? But I kept it to the present.

“You miss them when they’re gone no matter what they were like,” I said.

“How about your mother?” he wanted to know. “How old was she?”

“She was way older than yours, so I can’t complain about that. But she was sick a long time. And you never get over it.”

“I have an aunt in her eighties who still smokes and will ask you for a taste of beer,” he said and let slip a laugh. “She’s on my daddy’s side.”

I smiled and tried to look at the positive. “So your father’s side is long-lived,” I said.

“Yeah. I guess they are.”

His face brightened, and he went over to the sump pump, bent down, and reached into it. A minute or two later, he stood up.

“Okay, sump pump’s cleared out.”

He turned to the area where the drain was likely to be.

“It’s probably under this coffee table,” he said. “If you get one end, we can move it and see where it is.”

Together, we moved the table and, sure enough, there was the drain.

“Drain’s not clogged, so that’s not the problem,” he said. “Lemme go get my flashlight out of the truck.”

Once back, he trained the flashlight along the floor, inspecting the perimeter of the basement, past the sink and the washer and dryer hemmed in with boxes, past the sawhorse, along the base of the furnace, every corner up and down.

“I found it!” he said, jubilant.

I ran over to him. “What was it?”

“It’s the water heater. Water heater’s gone bad.”

He shone the flashlight onto the top of the heater, onto the corroded pipes and the steam rising from the gaps. Water had been escaping from the broken heater and had risen into a low flood on the basement floor, which explained why the floodwater was clear and why my water bill was high.

I stepped back in relief. “I knew it had to be more than the rain.”

“You’ll need a new water heater. This one’s gone.”

How different things had been just minutes before. “My mother must’ve been talking to your mother,” I said, “and telling her to get her boy to help her girl down there. ‘My daughter needs your son’s help.’ ”

We smiled at the thought of that. He shut off the water to the heater, which meant no more hot water in the house for now, but, more important, no more water escaping to the basement floor. He gave me the estimate for the replacement heater and charged me sixty-nine dollars for the visit, which I thought was fair. We wished each other a happy holiday, and he left.

The phone rang. It happened to be Bunny Fisher, whose father, Dr. Robert Pershing Foster, I had written about in
The Warmth of Other Suns
. She was calling to check on me, having kept in close touch over the years and even more so with my recent losses. I told her about the encounter with the plumber and the minor miracle that had happened, as we began to catch up.

Just then, the doorbell rang, the call cut short. It was the plumber again. He said he had driven back to shut off the gas to the water heater so it wouldn’t be heating an empty tank. He knew his way around now, made his way to the basement, was lighthearted and chatty, momentarily family.

“This thing could have been much worse,” he said. “Water could have burst from the top, destroyed everything, and scalded you or anybody else who tried to fix it. I’ve seen way worse.”

As he headed back up the basement steps, he caught a glimpse of some old Polaroid photographs that I had salvaged from the wet boxes and had pulled aside to air out.

He paused in the middle of the staircase. “Oh, you want those,” he said. “That’s memories right there.” Then he bounded out of the old house and into the light of the day.

BOOK: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
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