By Timothy van der Veken
When I first arrived here in India, I decided to travel for the first two weeks to see the south of India before heading up to Mumbai for my fieldwork. Traveling by myself in India offered many interesting experiences of discovery. Often, I would find myself in a position of cultural dissonance that would leave me feeling either greatly confused, highly frustrated, or newly insightful. One such experience offered me all three.
I was on my first Indian train going from a city to a small hiking town up in the mountains. The trains, like many public spaces, are organized hierarchically to define passengers by their membership in the social strata. I was in the 1st Class non/AC sleeper car. The presence or absence of air conditioning in one’s life positions a person on the continuum of success and worthiness. A person is constantly being scrutinized by society based on a combination of their choices and ancestry.
“Are you Veg(etarian) or Non-Veg?” — It is a question, laced with judgment, as to whether or not a person is Hindu or Buddhist and what is that person’s level of dedication and spiritual depth.
“What religion are you?” — The question doesn’t refer to what your spiritual philosophies are, rather what your family’s history is and how you should be treated accordingly.
“What languages do you speak?” — If you converse in English, you are educated. You are a functioning member of the academic and professional class. If you speak Hindi, you are a populist. You are working class. All of these attributes are concrete declarations about a person’s societal worth. They are articles in the constitution of one’s being that define both a person’s understanding of themselves and a person’s space and trajectory in the caste-class based country.
On this train, I was sitting by myself for most of the ride. However, for the last hour or so, a well-dressed woman and her daughter sat directly across from me. They spoke excellent English. We chatted light-heartedly while I munched on a snack from the train’s food vendor. When I finished my snack, I crumpled up the cardboard container and stuffed it into my backpack to throw away later. Upon doing this, the little girl started laughing and looked from me to her mother for validation. Her mother gave a brief laugh and then instructively stated “just throw it out the window of the train.”
referring to my garbage.
“No, that’s okay. I can just throw it out in a trash bin when I get to my stop,” I said.
“No, No. Just throw it out the window. Nobody holds onto their trash.” She said with a little less patience.
“Really, it’s okay. It’s not a big deal at all. I’ll just throw it out when I get to my stop in a couple minutes.”
“Just throw it out the window.” She says as a final declaration. And then, without waiting for a response, she reaches into my backpack, grabs my trash and heaves it out the window of the moving train.
I would laugh about this later with my mom on the phone. We would discuss how funny it is to be in place where the customs are so different.
She says that she can’t imagine just throwing a big wad of trash out the window of her car. We go on to talk about “the jerks” who recklessly throw trash out their car windows in her small town.
I’ve been here for over a month now and although I will never be able to understand India like a native, I am at least starting to get a glimpse into the “why” of people’s behaviors. Today, we had a lecture about the lower castes –t he “dalits,” or the untouchables. The lecturer talked about dalits as being the garbage collectors of society, the toilet scrubbers, the oppressed. They are oppressed by a fundamental belief of impurity, of inferiority. The belief runs so deep that it is as close to genetic as a belief can be. It is fashioned into the caste system as a token of heritage. The belief is that there is a section of society that is so irredeemably lowly that they are never to be seen or heard. They are lucky to be given the privilege of cleaning toilets for 50 cents a day.
This belief pervades all behavior and conduct in society. The belief is vindicated through constant questions about a person’s definition — caste, religion, language, etc. The belief seeps into the unconscious day to day happenings. The upper castes know that for every peice of trash that they throw on the ground, there is a dalit to pick it up. I think back to the well-dressed woman who threw my trash out the window. Was she enforcing that belief? Was my resistance to littering a passive attack at her position in society? Was she threatened by the thought that a person could be responsible for their own garbage? Was my holding onto my garbage a statement of dangerous equality? I could be, and probably am, far from understanding the social values that would cause a person to defend their right to litter a beautiful countryside railroad track. Nevertheless, I was impacted by the event. Now, I can’t help but ask myself if I too function with the belief that someone will always be there to clean up the garbage from my privileged life.
(Timothy van der Veken is a master graduate in social work from Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. He specilizes in strucutural social work and is currently working in Washington DC. This article was written by him in 2009 as a part of his field work in India when he was posted in TISS, Mumbai under the Student exchange program. The article has been published in the website of the social work students in Tulane University Website and is being republished here with the permission of the Author)