Last month I finished reading 'A toss of a lemon' by Padma Vishwanathan.
It is an epic family drama that spans from 1892 to the 1950s. It is the story of a Tamil Brahmin woman who got married at age 10 and was widowed at age 18. Though I found the novel monotonous at times, it offered me a peep into a world that I would not have explored otherwise.
The book at times almost celebrated the Brahminical way of life and heightened the community's superiority over the other castes in British India. Reading it, I could not help draw comparisons with the social structure prevailing in Bengal at the same time. The caste structure was not as rigid in Bengal due to the tireless efforts of reformers like Raja RamMohan Roy, Vidyasagar and Vivekananda and the Brahmo Samaj. I could not help feeling a bit triumphant over my state's progress into modernism at that time.
Casually discussing this issue with a Bengali friend and revelling in our progress, I happened to go to her kitchen for a glass of water and could not help noticing something. A separate cup kept for the maid.
This was a common practise in most Indian families. My joint family house in Kolkata, where Iwas born, there were separate plates, glasses, cups kept for the family help. The help were treated with respect. They were paid well and every basic amenities were provided for. But the servants did not sit on our beds or sofas, did not use our bathrooms and always drank tea from separate cups kept specially for them.
In Delhi, where I grew up, things were not much different. The domestic workers were more professional and paid better their their Bengali counterparts. They demanded a lot more privileges. Holidays every month. School bags and shoes for their children. New clothes every festivals, but they knew that when they drank tea, they would have to drink from a cup meant for them. And they would have to sit on the floor if they wanted to rest for a while.
Was this casteism? Perhaps not. Even if they were Brahmins, there would have been separate utensils for them. It was more likely discrimination based on their economic status. Most families thought being poor meant poor hygeine. They were also subtly reminded of their economic status...apni aukat mein raho...was almost a catch phrase.
Years later, when I bacame a mother, I kept a girl to look after my first born. She would bathe my child, feed her, take her to the park. She loved my daughter selflessly and took very good care of her. She had almost become a part of my family. One day, I found my daughter sharing her food with her. Later when I reprimanded my daughter for doing that, my wise three year old said, " If didi is good enough to feed me, she is good enough to eat from my plate."
I was stunned. I never expected my daughter to pick up this very glaring case of discrimination being practised in a middle class, educated household. It was such a profound statement coming from a small girl. I was so disturbed by her blatant and harsh statement that it took me quite a while to recover. I felt my daughter was accusing me of being unfair and a snob. I felt small and demeaned. I was deeply hurt. May be because I knew it was all true. A few days later, I threw the cup and the plates I had kept for her. Afterwards, I felt immensely relieved. I felt I could finally practic what I preached her. When I told her I did not discriminate on the basis of caste or economic status, it would not be an empty statement. It was a major load off my chest.
But I know, even now, many educated, well read Indians, who take pride in the Constitution that proclaims that India is a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular Democratic, Republic and there are Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all, do not really adhere to these beliefs. They pay their maids handsome salary to look after their children, give them expensive Diwali gifts, buy them cell phones to call their homes. But they deny them basic human dignity. They bar them from sitting on their sofas and their beds. And they keep a separate cup for them at home for their tea.
On my country's 63rd Independence Day, I wonder, how many more years it will take for us to achieve our real freedom.
Freedom from discrimination. Freedom from prejudices. Freedom from inequality. And the freedom to share our love with our own people.