Thursday, January 03, 2008

My ruridecanal caste is a cut above you peregrines

Humans can be irrational, murderous, and pathological without explanation. Still, it's hard for me not to be disturbed by this story of Subhash Chander, a father in suburban Chicago who burned his pregnant daughter, her husband, and their young child alive because the son-in-law didn't ask his permission to marry the daughter and came from a lower caste.

One's first instinct is to point out that this was a clearly troubled man who did something completely uncalled for by Hindu or caste beliefs. We cannot extrapolate from a lunatic to a general group. We worry, rightfully I think, about being thought of as xenophobic if we don't make it clear that we understand fully well that people in all religious, national, and ethnic groups kill their children, their wives, daughters, husbands, strangers... etc. etc. ad nihil.

And yet... none of this reassures me about the underlying wisdom of patriarchy or caste.

The caste system is a strange thing. Two of our very close friends were married through an arranged caste-specific marriage and they've been very happy for many years now. They're entirely rational and open-minded people. Yet they're having serious difficulties with the fact that their son wants to marry a white Canadian girl who is completely outside of the caste system. On one hand, I can sympathise with their desire to retain their traditions, especially as Canada and the world in general are evolving into one bland mass media monoculture.

On the other hand, it seems self-evident that the caste system itself is plainly unequal, if not basically racist. There's no logical reason to continue a system that tells a certain group of people that they are superior beings by birth and bloodline, and another that they are only fit to clean sewers and avoid all contact with higher castes. It's weirdly medieval in its irrational bigotry. And it's frankly bizarre to meet people who accept their caste without question. Where are the "untouchable pride" parades?

When you point this out, people tend to say, "But there are plenty of things here that are just as bad, you know." This is certainly true. The most obvious parallel would be ethnic racism. That's not much of an argument for the caste system though.

It's so strange this tendency to assign some totemic significance to blood. In the West, we overthrew the "lucky sperm club" of monarchical clans after centuries of that nonsense, only to continue the same principle in ethnic racism. Mr. So-and-so is simply superior by birth and blood. Sort of like a dog or a horse. Statistical group variations are made into ironclad general laws and enforced by social structures. Of course, underneath all of this is simply the fact that people with power tend to hold on to power, even if it has no real legitimacy. Ultimately, hereditary systems of social class ensure nothing but their own perpetuation.

In the end, it's up to groups to see through their own charades. But, as I do actually believe that we're all "cut from the same cloth", and that our differences are cultural and not biological, I'm not sure why I feel more comfortable calling bullshit on the foibles of white culture and not on those of other cultures. Also, is it harder to criticize caste because it's a religious tradition and therefore we assume it's more precious to the individual than secular traditions would be? You can't really judge religious beliefs by rational criteria- they're all irrational, or maybe I should say non-rational.

Nevertheless, traditions can either be enriching or lowering, and preserving them out of hand makes a sort of sepulchre out of them. I still don't see the justification for patriarchy or caste.


Holly said...

Minor quibble: I'd read that he'd done it because the husband had failed to ask permission, not the daughter. I'm not sure the daughter was supposed to get a choice either way.

Rufus said...

Oh, you're right. Okay, all fixed.

I'm actually pretty down on that whole beau-asks-the-father tradition too, which is why Claire and I both sat down and had a talk with both of her parents instead.

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