Recently at the residency I am curating I was witness to a calling out of what was interpreted as an offensive gesture – the pouring out of water into the sink from a bottle filled by another person- which because of the contexts of untouchability, purity in India – took on a bigger troubling form – that of caste. The answer to the calling out was a defense of hygiene which interestingly is quite a liberal Indian Brahmanical response even though it came from a non-Indian, non global south person (White, Polish to be specific). Here’s a brilliant take down of the construction of hygiene within the context of Brahmanism, liberalism in India by Abul Kalam Azad on Round Table India:
Caste is couched comfortably in the veneer of pragmatics: the necessity of hygiene inside the twice-born homes. This makes it easier to shift the limelight from the Savarna brotherhood to the dirty Shudras, ati-Shudras ( it is really amusing how not once did the author mention the castes that lay outside the varna fold even while writing about people cleaning here toilets) and minoritiies. The solution to untouchability, hence, does not lie in the annihilation of caste (how can you annihilate something that does not exist? Priniciple of energy conservation, my Physics professor reminds me in my mind), but in purifying these unhygienic people, training them to acquire the skills of cleanliness which the Brahmin has long mastered, thus making them worthy enough to enter the unpolluted kitchens of Savarna households. Of course, caste is pragmatic. it is pragmatic to not worry about who collects our garbage, it is pragmatic to not care why “a crime is committed against a Dalit person every 18 minutes”, it is pragmatic to not know the caste of your maid, your cook etc, it is pragmatic to marry a person from the same caste, it is pragmatic to deny caste, cocooned in our ‘sheltered’ lives while reaping the benefits of its existence, it is pragmatic to be apathetic, it is pragmatic to be a casteist upholding the standards of purity set by their not-so-different ancestors.