On Friday, some members of the group, including myself, had spent a good chuck of the afternoon in a small group discussion with the editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine Ivan Kostka and the author of the book Debrahmanizing History Braj Ranjan Mani. Both men were communicators, part of the initiative to articulate what caste injustice was and what the solutions were. This conversation, at the culmination of the week, made me more infuriated than ever at the oppression of India’s dalits and shudras.
Mani asked me what I was studying at university. Knowing full well that Global Studies does not exist as a discipline outside of European and American schools, I explained the major in terms Mani would understand: a multicultural, multidisciplinary approach to understanding the world. Mani, the brilliant scholar he is, understood better than I did what my major was about, re-describing it in terms of the blind men and the elephant story, where those who know only in a single part (or a single discipline) end up ignorant and in disagreement. He then started, it seemed, to make stuff up: “What a great opportunity. You do not just read books. You read people. People are texts.”
The return plane to America departed minutes after midnight. After an intense week under the pressure of eleven-hour jetlag, it could just as easily of been any other time of day. In addition, I was neither hungry nor full after tossing away half of an undecently spicy meal I had purchased at Indira Gandhi International Airport’s incredibly modern-looking food court. The time in India had been too short, as expected, but yet there was no reason to stay. My spirit was in a state of traveller’s moksha.
When I claimed my seat on the plane, both the rows in front and behind me were occupied by members of the North Park group, along with the seat to my right. In the window seat to the left of me, however, sat an older Indian woman draped in a orange-red sari. Her fashion and accessories indicated her high-caste status.
It took moments after I had settled down for her to ask me why all these Americans were on the plane. For the sake of the next sixteen hours we were to spend sitting next to each other, I spoke in half-truths: “We all go to school in Chicago, and we came here to learn about India and Indian culture.”
Her English was nothing spectacular, but her curiosity was strong. “Where here did you visit?”
“New Delhi, Agra, and Aligarh.”
“I do not know that place.” This was surprising. If Aligarh, where we did our first footwashing, was in the United States, it would be the tenth-largest city, behind Dallas. Perhaps she did not understand my pronunciation, perhaps she did not expect any Westerners to be interested in this city void of tourism, or perhaps she simply did not know about this city.
The conversation shifted to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We talked briefly about how beautiful the mausoleum is. This prompted her to say, “The British. They conquered India for 500 years. At the Taj Mahal they took their knives. The British carved out the rubies and gems. They took them for themselves. The British tried to destroy the Taj Mahal. India became independent August 15, the year 1947. Since then we have worked to restore the Taj Mahal.”
It was hindutva post-colonial political discourse: the more England can be villianized, the stronger “traditional” Indian identity can be asserted. The plus-side is that the Taj Mahal can be restored. However, so can the oppressive caste system.
If there was any doubt of this connection, it was what came next. The conversation shifted towards people in the villages, predominately low-caste. “Those who live in the villages,” she explained, “are people without a light. People without a lord.” They were, in her eyes, illiterate, unable to learn, uncivilized. A fate they deserved due to the karma of their past life.
In a brief moment of courage, I challenged her on this point. “Is there a solution?”
Silence. “Yes.” More silence.
As the plane began to take off, we both looked through the window across the nighttime Delhi skyline. She asked if I knew what today was.
I did: it was the Hindu festival of Holi. While I do not recall the religious significance of the day, I got to experience, in brief, the ritual celebration of powdered-dye throwing upon strangers on the street. We Americans had spent our some of our last few hours in New Delhi covered in blue and pink and yellow: after showering, I still had some purple highlights in my hair.
“Do you want some Holi cookies?” She pulled out a ziploc bag of treats she had made and gave me a handful. I thanked her, they were actually quite delicious.
When I asked her why she was going to America, she announced that her daughter was pregnant with a girl due next month. The proud grandmother-to-be was beaming. Her daughter had taken after her father’s, the power plant engineer, footsteps, earning a PhD in chemistry at a state university in the South, where she now taught. The daughter had married a successful banker-lawyer type, also an Indian migrant. They had finally established themselves, lived out the American dream (the version colored in shades of hope, not greed or envy), and were ready to start a family.
I asked the woman sitting next to me if she wished her daughter would come back to India. I am not sure if she quite understood the question, but she talked about education in India: the ultimate goal is to make it to America. The woman showed me some gold jewelry from India she had purchased for her granddaughter.
As we landed, the woman pulled out some boarding information for her next flight asking me if I could help her with directions. She had mere hours to make it through customs, beyond the international terminal to her domestic flight. She had written in errors in the Homeland Security arrival form that I tried my best to correct. Once we touched ground, she borrowed my cell phone so that she could briefly call her daughter, and I then talked to her daughter to help clarify a few things. As we exited the plane, I stuck back for a few moments to find her an airport guide that would help her with the next many complicated steps.
It was a puzzling experience. I had been part of a group invited to India to participate in the low-caste liberation movement, my final act of the week was to help a high-caste woman, in whatever limited way that I was able. She was going through with her life to celebrate a universal joy, the birth of a child, that can be celebrated by oppressed and oppressor alike. She had talked about her rural Indian compatriots in a dehumanizing way, yet was she to blame for the political-religious system that told her this was how these things were to be? Could her missteps truly be counted against her?
Just minutes after sunrise, Chicago was cold yet bright. I reentered the city with a vague sense of all the privileges given exclusively to people like me (American, Protestant, white, male, etc.) that could just as easily be chalked up as oppressions. All the little things that I held onto, not knowing that they stood in the way of that vision of how the world could and should be. From deep inside came a prayer like a whisper, pleading for grace in that brief moment, when morning dew revealed the cobwebs of my invisible sins.