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Caste, Class, and Hierarchy in India

Lawrence Bush
March 3, 2018

A Travelogue, Part 3

by Lawrence Bush

Click for Parts 1 and 2.


WHERE IS IT SAFE TO GO in Delhi, and where shouldn’t you go? Hard to say. I’ve just found my way on foot to a large park, and whether it’s like a park in New York City circa 1980 or circa 2018, I dunno. And what does “safe” mean to me — free from robbery, or free from panhandling? No matter, it’s Saturday afternoon, time to sit on a park bench in the blessed shade and scribble in a notebook. Guidebook warnings aside, I’ve been in this city for five days, now, and I’ve only been panhandled once, through a car window at a traffic light.

So: the squirrels in India look like chipmunks with squirrel tails. I would call them chipmunks (grey instead of chestnut), but people have insisted to me that they’re squirrels. And there are hundreds of soaring eagles, flocking like vultures (but everyone says they’re eagles, who, I suppose, eat the squirrels). I’ve seen lots of green parrots, too (though not, so far, in this park). And two days ago, in the Crafts Museum, I saw a sheet of fabric made entirely out of peacock feathers.


WHAT I’VE MOSTLY been seeing and obsessing about, however, is how the class system functions in India. Yesterday, we spent the morning celebrating the “festival of colors,” Holi (they call it “playing Holi”) in the apartment of a woman who is one of Susan’s core group of students here in Delhi. The woman is actually a surgeon, trained in the UK, who cannot practice in India (“at least, not the way I would want to”) because of a retaliatory campaign of non-recognition between the medical establishments in both countries. She is in her early forties, and is also a former industrialist and has founded a couple of NGOs, she said. (I asked her with a smile if she flies airplanes, too.) Her husband is a fourth-generation duke who’s now got political prospects in the anti-Modi opposition party. Her grandfather is a major Indian landowner. Now she’s switching careers to education so that she can launch a school by the time her adorable 2-year-old daughter is ready for it.

In short, the woman is an Indian aristocratic. And she’s accomplished. Progressive! A feminist. Friendly! Hospitable! And there in her “spare” apartment (she and her mother own three apartments in Delhi as well as a palatial homestead outside the city), were three live-in servants: a cook, a housemaid/childcare worker, and a driver.

She has no choice but to have them here, full-time, she said. Why? Because it’s expected of families like hers, she said. They entertain all the time. They travel all the time. They need the help, even to keep their households going when they’re not present in them. It’s expected within her class. This is how people of wealth live.

We were introduced to the two household servants when we arrived (the driver was off for Holi), but there was no conversing with them, even when I tried, and no sharing of food with them. Do these women have children of their own? I would think so, but perhaps they have been servants since childhood and knew that they’d barely get to see their kids, so why bother?

It felt too rude to ask our hostess.

We played Holi with the little girl, pouring flower petals from a huge basketful over each other’s heads and powdering our faces and hands with colored corn starch and making a colorful mess on the marble floor as the servants looked on at what they’d later be mopping. We also made and ate samosas (the cook stood back) and unwrapped and ate various sweets. We met Grandma and talked with her about Hinduism, and we met a sister and talked with her about NGOs and Trump and social work. It was all quite delightful. I’ve never before been showered with rose petals. Then we got into a cab and came home for under $3 for a 20-minute drive.


DO YOU REMEMBER the computer-generated hologram artworks of about two decades ago, which became three-dimensional and representational when you let your eyeballs relax a certain way? At the Craft Museum yesterday, I saw a piece of painted fabric, maybe 7’x18’, that did the same psychedelic trick and summoned me back to the 1960s, when Hindu mysticism invaded America. . .

I also saw an amazing assortment of puppets, masks, statues, sculptures, ranging from the 15th century to the modern. And we took our first tuk-tuk ride to get there — a motorized, three-wheel rickshaw. About $1.50.

Before riding, we had walked from our home down crazy, rubbled streets to the Tomb of Humayan, a 16th-century Mughal bigshot. (The Mughal empire claimed its descent from the Mongols.) Its facade was adorned with giant six-pointed stars, a spiritual symbol for the Mughals. Landsmen!

And at night, we attended another lovely party at another wealthy, enlightened, and progressive woman’s house, where I met several people with either major business interests or homes or both in the U.S. It was amusing to reminisce about Long Island while standing here in Delhi . . .


ALL OF THIS HOBNOBBING has me wondering why it is that I bridle so strongly at caste, class, and hierarchy — Tomb of Humayan, indeed, where does he get off? — when it’s so very obviously and deeply engrained in human culture. Here in Delhi, I find people to be entirely unperturbed by the idea that some should be on top, some in the middle, and some — lots and lots — at the bottom.

So why should I care? Yes, I’m a socialist, an identity that runs very deep in me, but why? Is it because I want EVERYONE to like me and not resent me? Is it because I’m kind of intimidated by pleasure and privilege and prefer to opt out of it? Why have I never simply said, Whoopee, I’ve won! I mean, I’m married to a Fulbright specialist, for heaven’s sake, who is getting paid to be here, about 12,000 rupees per day -- enough to ride tuk-tuks for 24 hours and still have the means to eat a nice dinner out.

The only answer I can offer for the time being is this: I feel grateful for, more than entitled to, my well-being, and I believe that privilege, whether you build achievements on top of it or not, is mostly a matter of dumb luck — which means there might be a whole bunch of potential Fulbright specialists driving tuk-tuks at this very moment.


Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.