Thursday, July 19, 2007

The "NRI advantage" a.k.a. the "American Upgrade"

Most people with an outsider’s knowledge of India will tell you that it is a place with rigid social structures and oppressive gender relationships, etc. They will mention caste (along with the other 2 C’s, cows and curry, to complete the clichéd characterization of India). Most NRI’s who feel attached to their homeland may defend the system as maintaining balance and order in society, and others still will argue that the rigidity that we assume is no longer there. I have for a long while subscribed to these sorts of arguments. But so far, I am seeing that caste and social hierarchy are very much present in society, even in the cities. Gender inequality is also pervasive. Women put up with a whole lot more, work harder, and get less recognition for it. Surajbhai told me that women here feel it is a part of their life and thus do not resist their difficult situations; in fact, they would feel more uncomfortable if you tried to help. I told him in America it is customary for a husband to help his wife cook and clean. He said that here, husbands have ego and social pressures to make their wives do these tasks only, and the wives themselves feel that they should be doing these things for her husband without help, because it is her role and it would be embarrasing for her if people saw that she was "making her husband work". In a rickshaw, I saw one driver ask a low-caste kid to put the money for the ride straight into his shirt pocket, so that we wouldn’t have to make physical contact with the kid. The kid obliged without hesitation.

Surajbhai talks about his ex-girlfriend who he can never be with because her parents insist on an upper caste boy. The working class people in the ashram keep their distance in certain activities and conduct themselves with deference around me. In the villages, it is more pronounced still. In Dheduki, we were sitting on Samatbhai’s farm, near his well. A Harijan from a neighboring plot came over to take some water from the well, and Samatbhai said he could, and asked him to fetch it himself. The Harijan refused, saying that Samatbhai should fill the bucket for him. Kapilbhai explained to me later that the Harijan felt uncomfortable getting water from the well by himself because people from the society believe that he would pollute the water if he touches the well. This was despite the fact that Samatbhai himself gave him permission to take the water, again because he didn't want Samatbhai to get in trouble with the society for allowing his well to be "polluted". We see in these instances not only top-down oppression, but that the discrimination has been so ingrained that those discriminated against often participate in preserving the discrimination, as it is the accepted way of society. Thus it is difficult to say whether it’s right or wrong or that the practices should be ended, since both the discriminator and the victim have a mental dependence on the roles they create.

Anyway, my original point was that the social hierarchy has manifested in the way people treat me because of my NRI (non-resident Indian) status. Though we may not have it for long, foreigner Indians enjoy a privileged social status here. It is awkward for me because I do not expect it and sometimes don’t want it if it makes me stand out. When Kapilbhai and I went to Anand Agricultural University to have a meeting on Jatan’s new student scholarship for research on organic farming, we were in a room of students and faculty members. When the meeting broke off into informal discussion groups, I was expecting to be met by the students, who were my age. But the faculty members were the ones approaching me and making me feel like a peer, while when I finally got a chance to talk with the students they seemed scared. It was awkward because they saw me as up there and I saw myself as down here. And at Indian universities the divisions between faculty and students is so pronounced, you have to just pick a level and stick with it. So I spent that day on the faculty peer-level, meeting with the school’s dean (headmaster? President?) and the other faculty. In this way I think it’s cool that my status as an NRI gives me the access to influential people who wouldn’t have paid any attention to me had I been a student there. I intend on taking full advantage of the privelege, but hopefully can draw a line at exploitation. What a difference a birthplace makes.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. give me 50 feet...give me 50 feet. maybe they thought you were a bollywood actor with the cool haircut