Thursday, January 03, 2008

Reversal of Fortune Isolates India's Brahmins

Reversal of Fortune Isolates India's Brahmins
By ERIC BELLMAN
E-mail: eric.bellman@awsj.com
(Tariq Engineer contributed to this article.)

CHENNAI, India -- Brahmins, as Hinduism's priestly and scholarly caste,
have traditionally occupied a place of privilege in India. Brahmins have
been advisers to Maharajas, Mughals and military rulers. Under British
rule, they served as administrators, a position they kept after Indian
independence in 1947.

But in today's India, high-caste privileges are dwindling, and with the
government giving extensive preferences to the lower-caste majority, many
Brahmins are feeling left out of the economy's rapid expansion.

R. Parameswaran has suffered that reversal of fortune. The 29-year-old
starts every day with a prayer to the Hindu god Shiva, marking his
forehead with red and white powder to let the world know he is a Brahmin.
In his home village, his caste's mark brought him respect, but since he
moved to Chennai, a sprawling high-tech city in the southern state of
Tamil Nadu, in the late 1990s, he has found his status a liability.

In Tamil Nadu, nearly 70% of government jobs and public-college slots are
reserved for people from lower castes and other historically disadvantaged
groups. Although he says he graduated near the top of his high-school
class and had strong test scores, Mr. Parameswaran couldn't get into any
of the state engineering colleges. His family had to borrow from friends
to send him to a second-rate private college.

He now teaches English at a small vocational school. On a salary of $100 a
month, Mr. Parameswaran can't afford an apartment, so he sleeps in the
classroom at night. "I am suffering," says the intense young man, using
the exaggerated enunciation of an English teacher. "Unfortunately, I was
born as a Brahmin."

Although the role of Brahmins has never been synonymous with accumulating
wealth, many are affluent enough to educate their children in the better
private schools. On average, members of the caste, who make up about 5% of
India's population of 1.1 billion, are better educated and better paid
than the rest of Indian people.

The term Brahmin has come to be used globally to describe those at the top
of the heap with an attitude to match, as in Boston Brahmins. Yet close to
half of Brahmin households earn less than $100 a month, according to the
Center for a Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi think tank. For
these Brahmins, the array of state-mandated preferences for other groups
present a high hurdle.

The reverse discrimination is rooted in Indian history and politics. For
decades, Brahmins were resented for their dominance of the government,
economy and culture. Indeed, political parties in Tamil Nadu sprang from
anti-Brahmin feelings. "If you see a Brahmin and a snake, kill the Brahmin
first" was an old slogan.

A national constitution adopted in 1950 reserved more than 20% of
government jobs for lower castes. In 1990, an additional 27% were set
aside for what were called "other backward castes." Some states set higher
quotas, including Tamil Nadu, which reserves 69% of government jobs for
lower castes and other needy groups.

The ugliest Brahmin bashing in India ended years ago, but Mr. Parameswaran
says that in college in the late 1990s, he still faced ridicule as a
Brahmin. He says one student tried to break his sacred thread, a simple
circle of twine Brahmins wear under their clothes.

After college, he had an internship in a state-owned chemical company, but
says he was told he wouldn't be hired, as there were openings only for
lower-caste applicants. He says he took exams to join national railways,
state banks and other government agencies, such as the immigration
department, but found most posts closed to all Brahmins except the most
brilliant.

From his makeshift home where he sleeps with a blanket on a desk most
nights, Mr. Parameswaran still applies for government jobs. He pulls out
his latest application form and shows a visitor where he always gets
stuck: the three squares where he has to write the abbreviation indicating
his caste. "I want government work," he says, shaking the application,
"but they have no jobs for Brahmins."

Mr. Parameswaran has tried to adapt to the lessening of caste distinctions
taking place in many parts of India today, especially in cities. The
changes are less in villages such as the one where he grew up some 200
miles away. There, his grandfather, who is 101 years old, still won't wear
Western clothes and won't eat outside of his home for fear of mixing with
lower castes. Mr. Parameswaran's father has a job with the state telephone
company and is more liberal. He dresses in shirts and pants, doesn't mind
eating at restaurants and doesn't expect lower-caste neighbors to take off
their sandals in his presence. Mr. Parameswaran has had good friends from
lower castes all his life, many of whom have used their communities to
grab good government jobs, he says. He won't eat meat but has no qualms
sharing a meal with people of any caste or creed. His 22-year-old sister,
R. Dharmambal, is even more liberal, he says. "She will take
non-vegetarian food," he exclaims, using the common Indian term for eating
meat.

Mr. Parameswaran often visits the sister in the Brahmin enclave of
Mylapore. On a recent day there, dozens of shirtless priests in the
traditional Brahmin uniform of a white dhoti and partially shaved head
were standing around at a Hindu-scriptures school, hoping for work. For as
little as 100 rupees, about $2.50, they offered to perform complicated
rituals and blessings required when any Hindu has a baby, a wedding or a
new home. "My sons can't support me, so I have to survive by performing
Hindu rituals," says K. Narayana, an 81-year-old scholar. "If we had been
from another community, we would have had better opportunities."

Nearby stands the Kapaleeshwara Temple, with towering gates of colorful
carvings from Hindu mythology. It is one of the most important places for
worship for followers of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction. The temple
used to be surrounded by rows of simple single-story homes, each with its
own courtyard and well so the Brahmin families wouldn't have to share
water with other castes. Most houses have been replaced by concrete
apartment blocks and small stores.

At the temple's back gate, Brahmins beg for spare change or look for odd
jobs as cooks or even bearers of bodies to funeral pyres, normally a
lower-caste pursuit. "

I see so many Brahmins begging" in Mylapore, Mr. Parameswaran says. "It's
very difficult to see. It makes me totally upset."

-30-

2 comments:

guttocut said...

I did not know the hidden talent in you. I casually read a review on an article sometime ago., and found your name as the reviewer. Since there was no mention of place, I did not think further. During recent conversation with your father did I learn that you are the reviewer. Good job. Keep it up.I am surprised at the collection of blogs you have posted. I wonder where you get the time with a baby.

Leo 009 said...

In a way brahmins are to be blamed.
Earlier days when a lower class person enters the village, the streets were cleaned.He is not allowed to enter the village thro main streets.He can enter thro the back side only.
Brahmins do not follow this rituals.Do not do Sandhayavandanams.Do not regularly go to temples.Many brahmins cannot recite simple slokas.
Why many cannot speak Tamils,leave alone Sanskrit.
They do not perform pujas at home even periodically.
They are proud of Western culture.
So others take advantage of this.
Why blame the system,society,Govt for their mistakes/downfall?
How many brahmins ware PUNAL(CROSS THREAD)?
How many perform Yearly SRARDHADS FOR their beloved parents? They only want their wealth.
Even Brahmins leave their OlgAge Parents in OLDAGE Homes. This is increasing.What a Shame.
Let the Brahmin Community try to corrct themselves.