Sunday, January the 30th, 2005

When you’re Indian, and in grad school (or anywhere else in a foreign country for that matter), people can come up to you and ask you the most annoyingly-cluelessly-hilarious things. Case in point, last afternoon I was lunching with a bunch of guys (yes, new territory there), few I knew quite well, and few others I met for the first time. Things eventually ended up being — we all talking about, analysing and giving advice to one of the chaps who was having relationship trouble.

Is this a big deal?

Not if it’s a bunch of women doing the exact same thing.

If it’s a bunch of guys, hell yeah it is.

Guys don’t talk about things, they “deal with it”.

Long story short, random hot dance partner was throwing herself at this one guy, and he, in a rejecting-her-sort-of-way, said something akin to “No, I just want to dance”, and now she hates him and treats him like dirt. He doesn’t like being treated like dirt. Of course, the funny part here is — HOT chick was throwing herself at him, HE rejects her, and SHE’s supposedly the crazy one. (“She’s crazy” was his rejection reason.)

And no, none of this has to do with our central story. All of this was just a fun aside.

Where was I? Ahh yes, I, an Indian in an American university, lunching with folk usually clueless about how things are outside their little inward looking circles. Out of the blue (as usual?), someone brings up the caste system. Usually, they know very little and it’s some very generic thing like, “Does it exist?” (of course, not really realising what it entails). But this time, they had some half-correct ideas of the mechanics of the thing, and the questions were more direct. For instance, “Which caste do you belong to?”. Erm, hello, 1. It doesn’t matter 2. You wouldn’t know what to make of it if I told you. With much pestering, I say OK, fine, I’m from the Priest/Teacher/Intellectual class — for lack of a better way of putting it across. The response sort of stunned me. “Oh, so you’re a Brahmin. Aren’t they like the highest rung of the ladder?”. Woah, dude. 1. How much do you really know? and 2. What’s any of this to you?

Things move on, and I figure out this group knows a bit about all these things (more than I do?), and then things get to the next level of complexity. “How favoured are you because of this? I mean, is it easier to get a visa and such?” Hello, the frickin’ visa thing’s handled by YOUR PEOPLE employed by YOUR GOVERNMENT. I doubt they know the specifics enough to make informed racist calls. “What caste is (insert one of the people I work with here)? Would it make a difference if you both knew and you were of a higher/lower caste?”.

And that was when I had to politely change the topic. No, things don’t matter. Few generations ago, people paid a lot more attention to all these details, for now, I barely know anything. Let alone being able to “see a guy on the street”, figure out his social place AND consequently discriminate for/against his interests”. Much to my chagrin, this change didn’t take us too far, and dropped us at another hot favourite, arranged marriages.

This <sarcasm>smooth</sarcasm> transition occured when there was talk about where caste figured in terms of mate selection, of course.

I will not bore you with the details, but I ended up explaining all of it roughly like so — No, it’s not that you’re totally in the dark as to who the woman is or where she’s from. You get to meet, hang out, find out if you like her and such. IF you’re willing to assume 1. Your parents want best for you and 2. They know what they’re doing and will do the right thing (1 is usually most probably true, 2 takes a lot more faith on the child’s part) THEN you let them try to look for someone who’s in some sense “compatable” with you. Intellectually, socially, culturally, (or what ever other “allys” they/you want to add here). They’ll do things like get in touch with her family and figure out where they stand on all these things (where, by all these things, I mean “the guy”), and then take it from there if everyone seems to think it’s a good idea. After which it is probably obvious how things follow.

When I was done with all of this, all of what I said was brilliantly paraphrased by one of them in a way everyone got it. “So… if you’re a 7, they try to get you to meet a 6-8.”

Yes, precisely.

Wherein another insightful person chimed in, “But what if you’re an 8 and YOU actually like a 4?”

Bingo, again.

These now-not-clueless folk know exactly how the system works.

And why it tends to break.

This is a printer-friendly version of the journal entry “Caste systems and arranged marriages” from actuality.log. Visit to read the original entry and follow any responses to it.

2 Responses to “Caste systems and arranged marriages”

  1. vedha says:

    Quite a old post… but happened to stumble upon ur post! U might feel people abroad are not able to understand arrange marriage… but the caste system is so rigid educated people still try to identify themselves as Priest/Teacher/Intellectual class!… how ridiculous that can get! Do u still tel people u belong to Priest/Teacher/Intellectual class!!! and u prefer a partner from Priest/Teacher/Intellectual class!

    • S. Thiagarajan says:

      Searching historical info on this topic for a novel, I happened accidentally on this blog. Interesting topic.

      Having read a lot of Indian marriage advertisements, caste is still a selling point in India. It is often more so among Brahmins (obviously not all of them, you being a case in point.)
      It is a sensitive subject, and obviously not one most people are comfortable discussing (for example, my husband gave a similar answer to yours –i.e. “it doesn’t matter”– when a white gentleman in Walgreens asked him what caste he was.) Here in the states, it really does not matter for the most part. Many Indians are highly educated and/or successful regardless of caste. In India, however, one has to admit that there is more emphasis placed on social position, with privilege being afforded to the higher social strata.

      When I see Brahmins openly marrying Dalits, I will gladly change my opinion.

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