Hindi Language Blog

A Question of Caste Posted by on Dec 20, 2016 in Hindi Language, Uncategorized

In a recent Hindi movie called NH10, two characters, one a highly educated advertising executive named Meera who is originally from Bangalore, and the other a rural policeman based in the largely agrarian North Indian state of Haryana, have a compelling exchange:

Policeman (पोलिस वाला): चलो, आप अपनी caste बताओ । (Chalo, aap apni caste bataao. Come on, tell me your caste).

Meera (shocked, she hesitates): सिंह…पुरी हुआ शादी के बाद । (Singh…Puri huaa shaadi ke baad. Singh…it became Puri after marriage).

Policeman (पोलिस वाला): Hmm, intercaste marriage. सिंह, पुरी तो surname हुए ना मैडम । Caste, जैसे ब्राह्मण, बनिया, जाट, गुर्जर… (Singh, Puri, surname hue na maidam. Caste, jaise braahman, baniyaa, jaat, gurjarSingh, Puri, these are surnames, madam. Caste, like Brahmin, Baniya, Jat, Gurjur…).

Meera:  नहीं मालूम । (Nahin maalum. I don’t know).

Policeman: गाँव में, आप (अगर) बारह साल के से छोटे बच्चे को रोक के तो पूछो, जात, गोत्र, पत्री, तुरंत बताएगा अौर अपनी दो अपनी पड़ोसी की अलग…शुक्र मनाओ मैडम, caste system का । (Gaav me, aap (agar) baarah saal ke se chote bacche ko rokke, to pucho, jaat, gotra, patri, turant bataaegaa aur apni do apni parosi ki alag…shukra manaao maidam, caste system kaa. In the village, if you stop a (about) small, twelve year old child and ask him, he’ll tell you (his) jaat (caste or subcaste), gotra (lineage or clan), patri (horoscope) immediately and those of his two neighbors besides…be grateful for the caste system, madam).

Although this dialogue is from a movie and is, therefore, overly simplistic, it is a striking and relatively accurate depiction of the divide between Indians’ mindsets when it comes to the question of caste. The highly educated and upwardly mobile Meera, who hails from a cosmopolitan, urban background, has the privilege of being able to “forget” her caste (she happens to be high caste) because it does not affect her in her daily life. In this scene, however, she comes face to face with a person for whom caste is of major importance in day to day life.

One final, short anecdote to illustrate what I’m talking about: at an American-Punjabi-Iranian (yes, it’s complicated, in a good way) wedding (शादी/Shaadi, fem. noun) I attended several years ago, I had a memorable conversation (बातचीत/baatchit, fem. noun) with a family friend who happens to be Indian. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation meandered to this topic (विषय/Vishay, masc. noun), but before I knew it I was talking about “Dalits” (दलित) or a group of people sometimes called “Untouchables” who are not considered part of the Hindu caste system (हिंदू वर्ण व्यवस्था, Hindu Varn Vyavasthaa, fem. noun). The person I was talking to, who happens to be a Brahmin (see discussion below), became offended at this mention of “Dalits” (a name that means “downtrodden”) and vehemently insisted that there was no such thing in modern (आधुनिक/Aadhunik) India.

In the moment, I considered arguing the point further, but fortunately refrained from doing so. But, this idea continued to nag me until I decided to ask a Hindi professor of mine about his ideas (विचार/vichaar, masc. noun) on the matter. When I told him how my conversation with the aforementioned family friend had commenced and how it had ended, he smiled slightly and said, “that’s absolutely not true” (वह सच बिल्कुल भी नहीं है/Voh sach bilkul bhi nahin hai).

After my conversation with this professor, it seemed to me, as an American, that the notion of “caste” (जाती/jaati, fem. noun) in a North Indian context (I refer specifically to North India because that is the region with which I’m most familiar) was similar in some ways to how “race” is discussed and conceived in an American context. In modern America, one’s race can have great bearing on the neighborhood(s) (पड़ोस, masc. noun) where one grows up, which school(s) one goes to, which opportunities (मौका, masc. noun) or lack thereof one has access to and which occupation(s) (पेशा/pesha, masc. noun or काम/kaam, masc. noun) one is able or inclined to pursue, amongst many other considerations. In a similar way, one’s caste in modern India can greatly affect the above circumstances.

In modern America, for members of a race deemed to be dominant or overwhelmingly in possession of opportunities, white Americans, talking about race and how notions of it disadvantage other groups of people can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Similarly, for a North Indian who may be highly educated (बहुत शिक्षित/bahut shikshit) and may hail from an urban (शहरी/sheheri) background, the very idea of caste and its significance in the daily lives of many people may very well be perceived as shameful (शर्मनाक/sharmnaak, adjective) and even reprehensible. To such a person, “caste” may represent certain negative aspects of Indian culture. Understandably, these aspects are not something a highly educated and urban “representative” of modern India would want seen as “defining” India, especially on the world stage or in a context in which they feel, accurately or inaccurately, they are defending, representing or explaining their culture to a foreign audience, as in the context of the wedding.

Of course, this aspect of Indian culture in no way defines the country (देश/desh, masc. noun) of India or its citizens (नागरिक, masc. or fem. noun). The topic of caste is just one, among many, that may be chosen for discussion because it is interesting. Yet, it is not only misleading, but blatantly false, that no such thing as a “Dalit” exists in India. This community rejected Mahatma Gandhi’s (महात्मा गांधी) campaign to rename them “Harijans” (हरिजन) (or children of god) during the Indian Independence Movement, arguing that this label was patronizing. Instead, they chose to call themselves “Dalits” or downtrodden people as an accurate descriptor of the extreme disadvantages they sometimes face, “even” in modern Indian society. Although it is convenient to pretend that the caste system and the “Dalits,” who face the brunt of the inequality engendered by this system, do not exist, this system and its effects (असर/asar, masc. noun) are a fact of life for many people in India today.

In Jaipur (जयपुर), a mid-size or tier-2 city in North India (in the state of Rajasthan/राजस्थान), a certain group of people are regularly employed to clean (साफ़ करना/saaf karnaa) bathrooms in homes. This is a task that the majority of comparatively well-off city residents choose not to do because it is seen as “unclean” and therefore potentially polluting. The Hindu caste system is divided into four main castes: Brahmins/ब्राह्मण or the priestly and teacher caste, Kshatriyas/क्षत्रिय or the warrior and ruler caste, Vaishyas/वैश्य or the farmer and merchant caste and Shudras/शूद्र or the laborer caste; use this model with caution however, as each region of India has vastly different subcastes, mostly based on occupation, that do not necessarily follow this overly broad schematic.

One of the major concepts on which the Hindu caste system rests is that the highest or “twice-born castes” (usually considered to be Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas) are inherently “purer” than the lower castes, who are seen, conversely, as inherently polluted. In fact, in the Manusmriti/मनुस्मृति, an ancient Hindu law text regarded by many as authoritative, the origin of the caste system is explained through the story of the primordial man. The first castes originated from his body parts according to the purity and pollution associated with each part: Brahmins from the head, Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaishyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet. According to this logic, the higher castes perform higher prestige, less polluting tasks or occupations and the lower castes (including Dalits, who are actually seen as outcastes from this system) perform less prestigious, often highly polluting tasks or occupations. Thus, in modern India, some people are born into communities of trash scavengers, who collect bottles for example and sell them for money, or sweepers, who sweep streets of refuse and then burn the refuse. Anyone who has contact with contaminating substances as part of an occupation that is usually hereditary, such as human waste, trash and animal hides, usually belongs to a low caste or Dalit community. Hence, this system all but ensures the existence of a group of people employed primarily to clean bathrooms for those who can afford to pay them.

When our maid or नौकरानी/naukraani in Jaipur, who was a Rajput/राजपूत (a Kshatriya or warrior caste that is seen as highly prestigious in Rajasthan), suggested to us that we hire a woman to clean the bathroom in our apartment, we were mystified. Our maid eventually convinced us, however, arguing that she had taken it upon herself to find work for this woman, who was extremely poor (गरीब/gareeb). Whenever this woman would enter our apartment, she seemed to exist almost as a shadow, with her head bent, never making eye contact, wary of touching any surfaces and barely speaking to us unless first spoken to. Our maid would usually scavenge in our refrigerator and give her whatever food she deemed unfit for our consumption, such as stale bread. The woman who cleaned our bathroom was married to a man who collected bottles for a living, so our maid would knock all of our bottles from the countertop onto the ground while the other woman crouched on the floor to collect them. It did not take long for me to notice that our maid would go to any lengths to avoid physical contact with this woman, whom she undoubtedly saw as “unclean” due to the community into which she was born and the work she performed. Whenever this woman would eat or drink anything in our apartment, she would always sit crouched on the floor, accepting whatever scraps of food were thrown to her and using her own mug to drink chai.

Interestingly, despite the fact that these two women were both socially disadvantaged in terms of their illiteracy, gender and straitened economic circumstances, caste in this situation trumped any notion of socioeconomic “class” as we would think of it in an American context. Because our maid was a Rajput, her disadvantaged status as an uneducated and poor woman did not matter as much in her caste dominance over someone from a “Dalit” community.  Although this was by no means a typical situation, it is a highly plausible one in a mid-sized, predominantly conservative city such as Jaipur.

It does not usually help anyone to deny that a problem exists, such as denying that racism is a major social issue in modern America that can have drastically negative consequences for its victims. And, just because America does not have a formal caste system as does India, does not mean there are not a plethora of issues in American society that need to be addressed, such as endemic racism, cultures of violence and pervasive sexism, to name just a few. Sometimes we must ask ourselves, just because some aspect of our culture makes us uncomfortable, makes us feel ashamed, is that a reason not to talk about it? Or is that a reason to talk about it even more so that, perhaps in a more socially equitable future, we may have less reason to feel ashamed?

Read the words below carefully and, after the vocabulary list, see how some of these words can be used in sentences: 

Vocabulary List

(शब्दावली की सूची):

  1. जाती/Jaati, fem. noun: caste.
  2. शादी/Shaadi, fem. noun: wedding.
  3. बातचीत/Baatchit, fem. noun: conversation.
  4. विषय/Vishay, masc. noun: subject, topic.
  5. दलित/Dalit, adjective: “downtrodden,” refers to a group of people not considered part of the Hindu caste system.
  6. आधुनिक/Aadhunik, adjective: modern.
  7. विचार/Vichaar, masc. noun: idea.
  8. पड़ोस/Paros, masc. noun: neighborhood.
  9. मौका/Maukaa, masc. noun: opportunity.
  10. पेशा/Peshaa or काम/Kaam, masc. noun: occupation or work.
  11. शिक्षित/Shikshit vs. अशिक्षित/Ashikshit, adjective: educated vs. uneducated.
  12. शहरी/Sheheri vs. ग्रामीण/Graamin or देहाती/Dehaati, adjective: Urban vs. rural.
  13. शर्मनाक/Sharmnaak, adjective: shameful.
  14. रूढ़िवादी/Rurhivaadi, adjective: conservative.
  15. देश/Desh, masc. noun: country.
  16. नागरिक/Naagarik, masc. or fem. noun: citizen.
  17. असर/Asar, masc. noun: effect.
  18. साफ़ करना/Saaf karnaa, verb: to clean.
  19. नौकरानी/Naukraani vs. नौकर/Naukar: first, maid or female servant. Second, male servant.
  20. गरीब/Gareeb, adjective: poor.

Sentences (वाक्य/Vaakya):

1. एक बार जब मैं शादी में थी, (तो) मैंने एक दूसरे व्यक्ति से बहुत दिलचस्प विषय के बारे में बातचीत की ।

Ek baar jab main shaadi me thi, (to) main ek dusre vyakti se bahut dilchasp vishay ke bare me baatchit ki.   

One time, when I was at a wedding, I had a conversation with another person about a very interesting topic.

2. आधुनिक भारत/हिन्दुस्तान/इंडिया में, कुछ लोग हैं जो अपने आप को “दलित” कहते हैं और वो (वे) लोग आम तौर से बहुत गरीब होते हैं और दूसरे लोगों से अलग पड़ोसों में रहते हैं ।

Aadhunik Bhaarat/Hindustaan/India me, kuch log hain jo apne aap ko “Dalit” kehte hain aur voh (ve) log aam taur se bahut gareeb hote hain aur dusre logon se alag paroso me rehte hain.

In modern India, there are some people who call themselves “Dalits” and they are oftentimes very poor and live in separate neighborhoods from other people.

3. हम बहुत शिक्षित हैं और शहरी इलाकों में रहते हैं; इसलिये, हमारे पास मौके हैं जो देहात में रहनेवाले लोगों के पास नहीं हैं ।

Hum bahut shikshit hain aur sheheri ilaakon me rehte hain; isliye, humaare paas mauke hain jo dehaat me rehnevaale logon ke paas nahin hain.

We are very educated and we live in urban areas; therefore, we have opportunities that those who live in the countryside do not have.

4. दुनिया के हर एक देश में, कुछ विषय हैं जिन्हें उस देश के नागरिक शर्मनाक समझते हैं ।

Duniyaa ke har ek desh me, kuch vishay hain jinhe us desh ke naagarik sharmnaak samajhte hain.

In every country in the world, there are topics that that country’s citizens consider shameful.

5. मेरे परिवार की नौकरानी हमारा घर साफ़ करती है और, उस के अतिरिक्त (in addition to), कुछ और कठिन काम करती है ।

Mere parivaar ki naukraani humaaraa ghar saaf karti hai aur, us ke atirikt, kuch aur kathin kaam karti hai.

My family’s maid cleans our house and, besides that, does some other difficult work. 

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About the Author: Rachael

नमस्ते, मेरा नाम रेचल है/السلام علیکم، میرا نام ریچل ہے۔ Hello, my name is Rachael, but I also on occasion go by Richa––an interesting story for another time :) My two great loves are Hindi and Urdu. I first traveled to India (Jaipur, Rajasthan) in college on a Hindi study abroad program. A little over a year later, I returned to the same city to study Hindi in a yearlong program. I've also spent a summer in Kolkata, West Bengal learning Bengali, and I studied Urdu at the University of California, Berkeley, where I was a graduate student in South Asian Studies. I hope to share with you the fascinating world of Hindi and Urdu literature, society, culture and film through my blogs!


  1. Shawn शाॅन:

    This is by far the most interesting piece you have written so far. I have never really thought about the similarities between race relations in America and the caste system in India. It is truly something to think about.

    • Rachael:

      @Shawn शाॅन नमस्ते शॉन,
      मुझे यह टिप्पणी पढ़कर बहुत खुशी हुई । बहुत अच्छा हुआ कि आपको यह ब्लॉग पसंद आया ! Happy Holidays 🙂

  2. A~:

    Great article! The posts on this blog lately have been excellent–interesting and educational. Really appreciate the Hindi/English mix. Maybe consider writing some posts with entire paragraphs in Hindi. That would be great!

    Keep up the good work. 🙂

    • Rachael:

      @A~ Hi!
      Thank you for your comments and your feedback. I’ll be sure to implement your suggestion in a future post! अपना ख़्याल रखिए 🙂