A friend from Delhi, on a rare visit to Chennai, was calling and we were engaged in pleasant talk when the doorbell rang. Two self-assured women in silk stood at the entrance with long sheets of paper in their hands.
“We are from the census department,” they said in a mix of excellent Tamil and effective enough English. “Can we ask some questions?”
I was torn. Here we were, my caller and I, having a much longed-for chat on nothing and everything over steaming coffee, and here were two enumerators on serious professional duty. I could either ask my friend to forgive the intrusion or ask the count-takers to return later. I chose to let my friend bear the interruption.
I spelt it out for them, apologising for its length. “How many in the family, sir?”
“Just my wife and I.”
“Your Mrs’ name, sir?”
“She is out at the moment,” I said, giving my wife’s name.
I spelt it out again.
“Do you not want my mother’s name?” I asked, “that is equally or even more important”.
“Yes, sir, we want that also.”
There was no need to spell that one. Who does not know ‘Lakshmi’?
“Sir,” she then asked in Tamil, “you have a car?”
“Ille,” I replied.
“Ille, it is many years since I cycled”.
“Okay, sir,” she said reassuringly and moved on with the questionnaire.
This was noted in a small square on the sheet.
No wonder, I thought, our Upanishads have a Prasnopanishad, the Upanishad of Questions but no Uttaropanishad giving us the answers.
“Retired from the IAS”.
Further questions followed about my “academic qualifications”. Whether this millionth respondent is literate, a school-finalist, graduate and so on would be an understandable Census curiosity. But the subjects of his under-graduate and post-graduate study? Surely, that is a redundancy? Reminding myself that the enumerator was only asking what she had been told to ask, I volunteered: “English Literature”.
The session went on for a while but the ‘question of questions’ did not come. From the moment the queries began I was expecting the big question about my caste to be posed and readying myself for a likely answer. But no, nothing was asked.
Being the child of a mixed caste marriage, I was unsure as to what, if anything at all, I should say if asked “Are you SC, OBC…?” The question did not come.
Returning to my friend with admiration for the gargantuan exercise that the Census of India is but also relief at the ending of the question-and-answer session, I told him about the missing question. “That issue has been frozen for now,” he reminded me.
Would the caste query have taken us back to what we had ceased to think about? But then, who are the ‘we’ we are talking about? ‘Out there’ in the villages, caste has not been forgotten. And so…
Besides, censuses are not just about fixing numbers. They are tools to shape policy, and who can deny that social backwardness in India must be weighed against numbers if it is to be tackled?
Predictable thoughts, these were, and they proceeded on predictable lines.
The mixed-caste puzzle did not, however, leave my thoughts. The ‘mix’ is not just of castes. There are the offspring of parents from different religious backgrounds, Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Christian, Hindu-Sikh, Hindu-Jaina, Hindu-Parsi, Hindu-non-Hindu Scheduled Tribe and even of different nationalities, half-Indian and half-European or half-Japanese, or half-American (though not, it must be said, so many half-Indian and half-African). Where do all these rainbow people fit? Does the architecture of caste have a home, a room, even a verandah for them? Probably there is a Shastraic text somewhere which accommodates them. I am not aware of one.
I spoke some days later about this to a valued friend, the distinguished social anthropologist, Professor Andre Beteille. “Tell me,” I asked, “if the question about my caste had been posed to me, what should I have said to the two enumerators?”
“You could of course have declined to respond to that question,” he replied, “but if you wanted to respond, you would’ve had to say that as your father was a bania and your mother a brahmin, the Dharmashastra of Manu makes you a…”
Professor Beteille, whose mother was a Bengali Brahmin and his father French, then said, “you see in Manu’s scheme, I would be a…”
Traditional rules of marriage in India, Professor Beteille has explained elsewhere, are changing and the sanctions behind the concepts of ‘anuloma’ and ‘pratiloma’ are now virtually obsolete. The younger generation in Hindu society is unlikely to have even heard of the phrases. But by custom an ‘upper caste’ Indian can marry and have children from a woman of a ‘lower’ caste without jeopardising caste. Not so, if the reverse happens. ‘Out there’, where Manu speaks and the laws are undecided or unverifiable, custom prevails and khap panchayats are called upon to turn the greys of life into the black or white of social authority. Caste identities with their not-so-subtle gender axis, entrench male superiority in the name of caste.
Those from a ‘clear’ caste line will, therefore, wrestle — and enjoy wrestling — with the issue of whether the caste question in Census 2011 is a progressive or a regressive step. They will know the answer they are entitled to give. But for one of mixed parentage I have in mind, the issue becomes more complicated. It is not about answering or not answering the controversial question. It is about finding the right answer, even if to keep it to oneself. It is also about positioning oneself in India’s male-female discourse.
Is that a serious enough issue? After all how many children of such mixed marriages would there be in our country? Several million, I should imagine. ‘Several’ is no quantification. The truth can drown in that description, like the man who sank in the swimming pool’s deep end because he went by its average depth. To find out with any accuracy, the size of India’s ‘mixed-parentage’ puzzle in a post-Manu sense, however, the question: “Would you like to mention your caste status… SC, OBC...” would have to be accompanied by a sub-question: “or TC…?”
Trans-caste, trans-community, trans-creed, trans-creation?
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor.
The views expressed by the author are personal