Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Is caste discrimination making a comeback in our largest cities?

One of indfia's top executives tells me of an incident when he went to one of Mumbai's upscale shopping areas, with a short list of items to buy at one shop while his wife was busy in another shop and they were under time-pressure.

At "his" shop, there was a well dressed woman customer already in the shop, with five or six items packed in front of her, and she proceeded to ask for another ten or so - with the shopkeeper and her chatting in the most animated and friendly fashion.

Having got all she wanted, she asked the shopkeeper to ring it all up, and he did so on the till.

She reached into her handbag to pull out her purse to pay and, as she did so, asked him his name.

As soon as she heard his name, she dropĆ¼ed her purse into her handbag, said "Thau tho hum tumsay naheen khareegenge", turned around and walked off.

What was the shopkeeper's sin? Simply having indicated, through the name that he gave, that he was of untouchable origin.

The shopkeeper threw up his hands in despair and said to my friend, "What am I to do now? I have already rung up everything on the till!"

My friend immediately offered to buy the lot, and added whatever else he needed from his list, and went home with much more than he had thought he was going to buy.

A not-so-bitter ending for the shopkeeper as it might have been, but I am sure it is not an experience that he would like repeated.

My friend's comment on the incident was: "And this in one of the most upscale shopping malls - and in the middle of India's most cosmopolitan and Westernised city!"

I was even more shocked than my friend: even though I am well aware of caste discrimination in the villages and even in the small towns, I have long harboured the idea that caste discrimination is declining in our largest cities.

But perhaps, if guruism and idolatry make a comeback, we should not be surprised at caste discrimination also making a comeback - at least in those parts of the population.

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