Caste and the Kitchen

We all grew up knowing what caste was, though for people like me who grew up on a campus – neither religion nor caste entered our reality. As children all of us played together, equally cruel and kind regardless of where we came from. Caste was a question that came from the outside – and as a child one notices the smallest, silliest things – the persons who came to clean the toilets were the only ones who had their trousers rolled up. Men came to clean toilets – even now I have hired a man to clean the toilets. (He does make tea too if all the other help is away and I am working or unwell – that is because it is his regular job – he is a tea seller). Even now I do not know the caste, or even religion of the help who cooks, cleans the house, looks after me and my family. Well, maybe religion – I know it makes no sense to call the plumber or electrician between noon and 4pm – they will be at prayers they say and I realise they are muslim and it is how they arrange their working lives. Sometimes I wonder if I am discriminating when I call another professional at that time – or am I respecting the professional terms they have laid down. Their shop, their call.

I did say that this piece would be politically incorrect. By my standards it already is – and I’m digging deeper. But before I do – a caveat. Some of these are things one hears, receives, processes and discards. Some remain as troubling thoughts. Some – just an acknowledgement of a reality that must be changed.

So I begin:

We heard of caste first in civics and history textbooks when we read about ‘harijans’ and Mahatma Gandhi’s fight against untouchability. Yes, we led a sheltered life. Like Siddhartha, one started looking around then, and watched and learned. I learned that we were sheltered from injustice. In our lives people from all castes cooked for us, sat next to us on the train or bus and came to school with us. This was not so everywhere. Some would receive left over food, while the food given to the priest’s wife when she came for her fortnightly collection was fresh, often uncooked. Across houses that one visited, the priest and his wife collected food and money, had the first fruit of the season sent to them and for that privilege their feet were touched and blessings received. Left over food first went to the maid, and if it was something she wouldn’t take, then it went to the sweeper on the street or the lady who came to wash the toilets. If the rotis were too dry, they went to the cow. One wondered if the street sweeper who also cleaned the toilets was tougher and hardier than others – they must have superior digestion surely to be able to deal with food that we could not handle.

Of course I asked, everywhere – and was told how lucky the sweepers these days were – we had plumbing. So much more progressive than the times when they had to go from house to house collecting poop. Of course this was icky and seen as something they could never wash off – how can one wash off a smell, an aura that sticks to you? How can one wash off a belief, a fear, a prejudice? Of course cow poop was okay – you could cook with it once it was dried on sunny walls – the cook’s fingerprints still visible on each round. It was a confusing world. The person who pooped, and presumably washed off could also cook – there was a secret formula here that needed to be figured out.

It took me years to try to figure out this magic formula. Movies helped. Watching rich friends helped. The ‘old’ families always had a cook, often hereditary. And the cook was almost always called ‘Maharaj’. For a while, till I learnt Hindi properly – I wondered if ‘raj’ was one of those words that had two meanings – king and cook. Didn’t seem likely. But this maharaj was obviously a job, a role – not quite a caste. Caste? I started looking carefully, and sure, most of them had the little ponytail that marks brahmins. The boddi or chutiya as punjabis said. I asked a friend’s grandmother why all the traditional cooks were brahmins, why not others? Of course by then things had changed, and our households had eaten food cooked by many. Her answer was simple – brahmins were trained to be clean. (I baulked, but I was just listening, and now I’m just relating. And trying to understand what/how other ppl think)

That simple. Skills.

It’s not really about the caste. It is about the assumption of skills. That’s where we are stuck.

People still believe that these are stuck in time and still think that castes represent certain skill sets, rules, disciplines. Some niggly feeling that the problem may lie here.

I thought about what the grandma had told me, and to my young mind it made much sense that cleanliness and kitchen skills were required in the kitchen.
Our textbooks told us about four varnas or castes. (Yes, we have more nuance in the discussion now, manthan ahead) They had roles, we were told – brahmins worked with knowledge, Kshatriyas with weapons, Vaish with money and the Shudras with all the yucky stuff. (I wondered where the farmers went if 70% of India lived in the villages? The broad classification left one puzzled – where do the postmen fit? And doctors?) I think we were taught less about the systemic classification of professions and more about how one accepts it as traditional. It is what was.

And each of them had rules. The brahmins, the custodians of the intellectual property, the teachers of the generations were prepared and disciplined to live longer. (Of course, this was my child like logic making it up, trying to parse what the friend’s grandma had said). Their food cooked a certain way, the levels of hygiene they exercised much higher than others. Their task was to avoid contact, contamination and therefore illness. They held knowledge and they had to pass it on, to do everything they could to pass it on. The Khshatriyas were charged with security – they had no such constraints. On the contrary, they were charged with passion, gusto, bravery. Were their rules, their festivals different? Did they have different festivals? Did they celebrate them differently? At a recent wedding I was reminded that even today a groom takes a little sword from the bride’s parents and returns it to them after the wedding – after their girl has been troth to him. A simulation of a kidnapping or an enactment of a (strange) act of valour perhaps. The costume certainly includes a sword even in these times. The business people were charged with prosperity – their rules included glorifying consumption, and the demonstration of joys of consumption.

The Shudras had fewer rules, we were told. They did not know how to ‘do it right’ so one could not bring them into the house. Did they know that leather was not allowed into the kitchen, that milk and meat were not to be touched with the same hands unless washed and purified in between? Did they know how to segregate and keep away from contamination and contagion? It wasn’t clean, they were not clean – the handed down urban legends said. Does this still get told in some places? I am sure it does. The segregation of the ‘unclean’ continues, sadly. Do refer to the NCAER survey that started off this conversation.

Was this the magic formula I looked for? Pure conjecture, surely. We can only speculate. It is unlikely that there will be evidence for any of these quotidian rules and their mutation over time. Something that would rationally explain the myth of untouchability? Is it possible that in passing it down the generations only the rigid shell of the rules remained and we forgot it was about rules of living to fulfil professional goals?

Does that make it right to discriminate? Of course not. Can one not include simple sanitary processes regardless of caste? Duh. Of course one can. What would I tell the friend’s mother who would not let the same person clean the toilets and cook in the kitchen? (Yes, Rupa said something like this – but she was reflecting a pragmatism that is based on experience and reason. Other people have said it before her. This is not about her, it is about the reason for that wrong practice).

For many of us who have gone beyond the idea of caste as apartheid, we still maintain the divisions between the various functional areas of the house. And until we are sure that processes that ensure health and sanitation are adhered to (process, six sigma in the household in India – hah!) we will continue that separation between the zones. It is not about the people, their caste or where they come from anymore. It is now about skilled and reliable best practices near our food – and that comes from attitudes, experience and training.

Some of us have moved on from believing that these skills and practices are associated with caste. Others still continue to believe the old even in the face of new evidence. The journey continues.

(Saturday afternoon writing brings a half asleep memory of childhood questions. Questions we parked to deal with another day. In my daily life I hope I do not discriminate. And will correct myself if I find I do slip up. Sharing that half asleep, half thought through conversation with myself. Because conversations are at their richest when mid way)

2 thoughts on “Caste and the Kitchen”

  1. Interesting piece of writing. I stumbled upon your article from

    I will not repeat what has been already questioned in the above mentioned link as a response to this article.

    But I would genuinely like to know that other than your experiences and opinion and that of your immediate circle of friends, family and ‘help’ , what have you based your article on?

    Because caste is a reality – institutionally and socially so entrenched that it appears to not exist. We are talking not about personal experiences of ‘a few of you’ who have moved on, but of a larger malaise afflicting our society. It is not about individuals but about structural inequality pervading each and every aspect of those who suffer owing to this system.

    Since you have ventured to make a sweeping statement and analysis of the caste system, you ought to have, I would like to believe, read up substantially on the Caste system – the literature on which is by no means less or inaccessible. On which researched piece or book or author or thinker would you draw your opinion as you have stated here?

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have read much of the literature. As a blogger I am entitled to offer opinion, anecdote and hearsay too. These are questions that have popped up over time and I share the questions.

      If anything here seems to suggest to you that I support the caste system, please do read it again. And again. There’s not much point in rewriting the blogpost 🙂

      As for citations – plenty available. Will I add them here? Wish I had the time to do so – but I’ll let some grad student earn a thesis doing so.

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