We've all heard about the caste system. Being amongst the privileged 'educated' middle class I had never seen/experienced it first hand, until I went to Sikar. The instant we drove into the district town it became quite clear that the system was very deeply ingrained in the social fabric there. Take the student hostels for instance (the number of village boys attending university in Sikar is impressive)- there are separate hostels for Jats, for Rajputs...and for the dalits?
In the main village of Rewasi (most peasants have moved to live by their fields) one can distinctly separate the Rajput, Jat and Dalit settlements. Did I mention that Brahmins live in blue houses? Socially, the caste hierarchies are still intact from days of old, however economically there have been changes. Note, that I do not dub these changes as 'developments'.
Not restricting the discussion solely to the past agricultural year, where the monsoon failure affected one and all,my point is that the average Rajput of the village is not far better off than the Dalit living on the outskirts of the village. And yet they insist on lavish social ceremonies (in times of drought even), with outrageous sums spent on dowry. Most non-agricultural loans in households I interviewed were incurred for a daughter's or sister's wedding at 24% p.a. r.o.i (the standard lending rate in the village). Also, as a result of their proud tradition Rajput women do not work on the land, whether own or others', regardless of economic status. This practice deprives HHs of atleast two bread winners on average. Oddly, this reminded me of Shaw's characters the Eysnford-Hills in Pygmalion: a class of the genteel poor.
Caste consciousness was so very prevalent there, that us liberals bred on the principle of equality, could never quite get used to the inevitable question "Aap kis jaati ke hain?" I'd always manage to get away with an incoherent mumble about being Bengali. It helped that Mahender, my local investigator team mate was a chaach-loving Jat boy in those situations (there's nothing like bonding over a glass-full of thanda chaach/lassi). This one time that I was with my punjabi friend Navpreet however, a rather perceptive old lady of the village caught on that we had no clue and no care as to what our respective castes were. She reacted with a mixture of concern and horror, saying "toh beti, shaadi kaise karoge?" It turned out that the lady was the match-maker in those parts-she was most eager to rescue us lost causes.
On the bright side, most children, regardless of caste or economic status were attending school. The current generation seemed by and large to be the first school-going generation of families there. In this one Rajput HH I was delighted to find a young girl who had finished a B.ed and an M.A. in Sanskrit from Rajasthan University. Her father was a proud man (his only son was a school drop-out who now drives a lorry). He had however a major problem weighing on his mind at the time-where was one to find a Rajput boy nearly as accomplished as his daughter, to marry her? The idea of an inter-caste marriage was unacceptable not only to him, but also to his 'educated' daughter. As I left that house the same evening, I remember feeling frustrated...not knowing who was to blame...or what the solution was. The residents of Rewasi don't realize that the system is pernicious. To them it is a given.