—By Ekta Andani
Through this article I attempt to bring to the fore the generous contribution of our teachers at home in fostering prejudice
Every Sunday morning at 11 AM a dark-skinned lady of lean physique came with a broom in her hand and shouted ‘didi’ from outside. She was calling out to my mother or grandmother to open the gate. Instinctively my grandmother would ask us all – the children of the house to go inside. She would open the gate and step aside for the woman to enter and directly head towards the bathroom in the house. There was a bucket and a bottle of cleansing agent specifically kept separate for her to use. A big silver kada adorned on her right leg, this woman would mumble something in her language, do the magic with her broom and leave our toilets sparkling.
My sister and I, I remember, would peak with curious eyes from the window and she, the lady with the broomstick, always gave us her vibrant white-teethed smile before she left. On asking, my grandmother would only say – because she cleans toilets and always has germs on her we should never touch her or get closer to her.
That was the lady who cleaned the bathroom in my ancestral house for more than 20 years. And the custom of her arrival on Sundays never changed. This custom perhaps is also the first and the most prominent imprint I have of caste and class discrimination that I witnessed as a child.
As I attempt to revisit my formative years – both inside and outside school, such vague anecdotal impressions coupled with a self-reflexive enquiry to understand the underlying patterns has resulted in a long list of questions:
- What was my friend circle like, growing up?
- Were there demarcations of caste, class and religion in my classroom? Was I a part of them? A victim or a bushwhacker?
- What was the contribution of my teachers in supervising these demarcations?
- What role did my family play in the beliefs I imbibed as a child and the demarcations that I see retrospectively?
- Did I too, like my fellow friends cry over reservations and deemed them unfair?
Did you pause to think about these questions too?
For most of my teenage years, the people I befriended and called my close friends were those from very similar backgrounds as mine – Sindhi, middle class, upper caste – who had similar kinds of sabzi and roti in their lunch box like my mother packed for me. We sat in the same row of benches, shared our lunch boxes, went to the same tuitions and often visited each other’s homes.
In my search to find a valid explanation to the homogeneity of this friend circle, there are many things I can point my finger to now. For one, I studied in a school where the majority was composed of the so-called similar background. But as I delve deeper, I can think of more reasons why my close circle lacked diversity.
Growing up, my grandmother invariably told all the children in the house to not befriend Muslim students in our class. And if someday one of us innocently mentioned a name that she identified as that of a child who must not be befriended she summoned us to a long lecture which began with ‘You have no idea how those people are…’.
And it’s not just my story. As I spoke to more friends I learnt how the families invariably encouraged their friendships with those of the same class, caste and religion. (By no means am I claiming that this was the behavior everywhere, but one could agree that majority exhibited it)
A friend recollecting stories from his school days said that every time he fought with his friend who belonged to what was presumed a lower caste his mother subtly fueled those fights; concluding without any enquiry that the cause of the fight was the boy from the different caste. She however promoted his friendships with all the other boys from his own caste, often using that as an opportunity to expand their own upper-caste circles.
It is parents who decide which school and what kind of children they want their kids to study with. In a school in Kozhikode, upper caste parents denied enrolling their children because ‘they
don’t want their kids to sit with the parayas’(Athira,1). The implications of this divide, instead of diluting as a result of modern rational thinking, have become so strong that we don’t see a binary of upper and lower caste anymore. It is more nuanced. Allegedly, in this school in Perambra village, parents belonging to the OBC community stopped sending their children to school because SC(Dalits or Parayas as prevalent in the region) children came there.
How then does it remain a ‘school’, when the basic lesson of equality is not inscribed in its functioning?
In Tamil Nadu, the parents association threatened to disrupt the functioning of a school when a dalit cook was hired.(Rajasekaran). Even worse, in UP, children refused to eat meals cooked by a Dalit woman. Within days, the school authorities transferred the dalit lady back to the school which was 16 kms far from her home; for surely the struggles of an under-privileged female weigh less on the scale when it comes to ‘purity’ of food consumed by upper class Brahmin children.
But this is just one side of the story.
On the other extreme of this spectrum are the parents of the marginalized – the ones who either stand alongside their children in this fight or teach them to accept and live with it or perhaps
acquire the power of money to safeguard their children and eliminate the concept of caste from their lives. Many stories of parents who choose to not attribute a caste to their children have been recorded. And while the attempt is honest, are we not in our attempt to create a caste-free world, creating a caste-blind world? Isn’t then educating rather than protecting the children, the need of the hour?
Various studies on Parental Involvement in children’s education conclude that ‘Parents carry a huge responsibility for their children’s education’. Not only do the children grow comfortable with the unequal imprints of caste, class and religion their parents leave on them but they start emulating the same. Education is a very long scroll that presumably opens at school but travels through the nooks and crannies of our homes, societies and communities and a child learns from all those implicit patterns that are inscribed in our behaviors. Then it is not the sole responsibility of the school education, which involves the teachers and the students to overcome these biases. The lessons of secularity must begin from home.
How diverse is my friend circle today, now that my education enables me to think beyond my grandmother’s statements? I ask myself.
Ekta Andani is a graduate of the Young India Fellowship batch of 2020.