The Psychosis of Casteism

I was offhandedly complaining to a friend yesterday about a mutual acquaintance who had said that it was okay that 650,000 people had died in Iraq because he believed in the war. My friend to whom I was speaking jarringly reminded me that I had told her, though not in so much detail as below, that I am predisposed to casteism, implying that it was hypocritical of me to be so high-handed.

Of course, it always is, but I protested nonetheless that at least I was admitting there was a problem, and all that jazz, rather than taking the Dick Cheney "bring on the heart attacks" approach to personal morality.

She didn't seem convinced, and neither was I really.

Flashback about a year. Dr. Anonymous is getting the broom in his mother's house, and his mother flips out in a panic. Confused, he later confesses to his brother that he didn't understand what the hell had happened. Dr. Anonymous's brother explains to him that their mother considered the broom closet contaminated…and had for years.

Among the observances of purity and cleanliness in the home I grew up in were both the standard and the ones I consider excessively antisocial or over-the-top.

In the former category, I might put the requirement that you take off your shoes when you enter and others that I don't consider all that scary.

In the latter category I would put: the prohibition on the sharing of food that someone else, including a relative, had eaten (ehnto); the contamination and subsequent requirement that you wash particular areas -- especially of the kitchen -- because a plate that you had been eating from or half-eaten food itself was placed somewhere (shogri); the contamination of particular areas by dint of meat being placed there (shogri); the permanence of location of those areas (this is a place where X goes; this is a place where Y goes); the ability to contaminate with one's hands because one had touched meat and then something else (to make something shogri by hand).

The common theme is: obsession with purity of location; transferability of purity; and failure to submit to ready logic--"If the plate is contaminated, is not the cabinet underneath? And if the cabinet is contaminated is not the floor? If the floor is contaminated, is not the refrigerator?"

The answer to these questions in quotes is always no, because the contamination was reserved for specific areas, does not spread except by contact with the impure, and can be washed away. *


This has all had an affect on me, which leads me to believe that I'm, at minimum, a participant in what I'm calling the psychosis of casteism--that set of psychological conditions that makes you predisposed to further inculcation with the ideology and social conditioning of casteism proper. Here is some evidence:

I have always had difficulty sharing food, particularly food and drink that's bitten into.In 1994, I was grossed out by sharing pizza with a girl I was dating. Granted, I was grossed out by kissing her also, but for some reason, I was able to do the latter more easily than the former. The triumph of internalized homophobia over the psychosis of casteism.

The broom closet notwithstanding, I am prone to observing the relative purity status of various areas in the kitchen as described above. I had to discover these gradually on my own through various kinds of negative feedback form my mother.

For example I follow all this: the counter on the left is for puja-related items and therefore the most sacred; the counter on the right is not, and food can be placed there without the counter becoming shogri, but it's still not a place where you're supposed to eat food (though I occasionally will); the table in the attached dining room, on the other hand, you can eat food, including meat; if you're going to eat beef, you had better take it to the TV room and leave the McDonald's wrapper between the plate and the food or better yet not use a plate at all and just use newspaper underneath.



A lot of what I have described above are what I would--without expertise--consider symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder or something like it. My mother has diagnosed herself with it, as have I. She came home one day and said "I think I have OCD," and I said something sarcastic along the lines of "Ya think?" as if she had told me that hitting myself in the head with a rock would hurt. I knew she wouldn't do anything about it--and she generally functions quite well, likely better than I do--but the self-diagnosis was endearing.

I on the other hand, had marched into my psychiatrist's office in 2004 and said "I think I have OCD." He said, "Do you want the new stuff?" thus confirming my belief that all psychiatrists in the U.S., good and bad, are fundamentally glorified, overpaid drugdealers. Yes, they do some other stuff, but that's their basic function in my experience.


On to the social.

From the fear of contamination, as I have described above, multiplied by several hundred million, how far is it to purity-based division of labor; housing segregation (whether informally or formally enforced); refusals to sit at the table with people, etc....?

For example, I am incredibly grossed out by bathrooms and particularly the toilet and the area around it (the notion of contamination frequently involves the spreading -- to an ambiguous but seemingly fixed range -- of impurity, I have found). I hate cleaning them, I hate touching them, I hate using them.

This is crazy.

Now, there is someone that comes to clean my bathroom. She touches the toilet. With what, I don't know, because I have kept myself from knowing. I don't want to know. Part of the reason I do this is where the obsessiveness about purity becomes a truly damaging social problem that might be called casteism: the transfer of disgust from the objects and actions of impurity onto those that do them instead of you.

So I don't let her cook and hired someone else.

Begin caste.


I wonder, how far does the psychosis extend? Is it malleable and to what extent? Is it eradicable, or does it persist in your soul like American racism against Black people--which has some similar traits, but is, in my opinion, slightly qualitatively different today because of the greater emphasis on fear of violence rather than fear of impurity. You could give this a materialist or historicist reading about the state of American and South Asian cultures and societies, since blood purity is extremely important in American racism against Black people, but that's not my interest here.

I'm more interested in that I'm deeply, deeply sick, and now I no longer have the excuse that I'm not in the social environment in which the sickness can take further root and create havoc in my personality and result in participation in social systems that are regressive. The danger is the passage from "predisposition to" to "full-blown membership in" casteism.

For now, I am content to sit on my ass and ponder how I am sick. At some point, I may want to do something more proactive about it -- remove myself to another society where class and caste are not so fundamentally intertwined, or assist myself in becoming a more decent person by uncovering various tactics to get better, or some other thing.

I can't, though, use the advice that a friend of mine had given me about White people in the U.S. and how one should approach them: "that's their sickness--let them worry about it".



Because it's my sickness.



* this latter quality - remediability--is the only difference I see between the notion of purity I inherited and more virulent ones.

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Dr. A, Is this why we always

Dr. A,

Is this why we always go out to eat? Why I've never had the pleasure of breaking bread over your table (or sofa/couch/bed as the case maybe)?

Seriously though. Its also quite interesting that although caste rarely permeates the upper-middle class mind in the same way that it might in a village...a particular caste monopoly tends to remain, e.g., Kayasths dominating the bureaucracy, the trading castes of the Punjab dominating in Delhi's business community, Diamond Jains etc.

Often "caste-mindsets," seem to just be expressions of entirely banal sentiments. for example, my landlord, after a I negotiated my security deposit down, said, "I'm not a pakka Bania-type," which basically meant that he had no mind for business. I wonder if some line has to be drawn between caste as distinction among the upper castes/class (or rather the confluence of the two) and caste as a purity/pollution distinction, which seems to function (today) mainly between the upper and lower castes.

Is this why we always go out

Is this why we always go out to eat? Why I’ve never had the pleasure of breaking bread over your table (or sofa/couch/bed as the case maybe)?

Completely. Every time I see you eat, I cringe at the thought of possibly catching the cooties. Especially when I'm mooching off your kulfi :)

I wonder if some line has to be drawn between caste as distinction among the upper castes/class (or rather the confluence of the two) and caste as a purity/pollution distinction, which seems to function (today) mainly between the upper and lower castes.

Yeah, of course. When upper classes talk amongst themselves, so to speak, in the way that you're describing, it doesn't sound like part of the same belief structure as what I'm talking about and what you reference in the second example, but it's largely jovial or annoyances or rivalries. It's a bit like the way West Bengali upper classes might defend their language and alleged culture from homogenizing nationalism, as opposed to, say, the Assamese or cops in Bangalore ;)

I'm more interested in the second part of the sentence you give, obviously, because it lends itself to an understanding of a psychosocial belief system. I don't know enough to know whether the purity-based belief system is wholly restricted to a division between lower and upper castes, though I would tend to belief, on minimal readings like the part of "Why I Am Not A Hindu" I read that "upper" and "lower" here are very relative terms to the community you find yourself in. I think it would rather be a tactic, tool, mechanism, or, in my case, predisposition, for being able to construct or reinforce what "upper" and "lower" mean, the basis for which might be something related or altogether.

Other people would have a better eye for that than I would, being an NRI trapped in Delhi and all. My analysis reeks of American thought about race :)

that is intriguing - where

that is intriguing - where did you grow up? Only thing about "cleanliness" i was told was not to share "ehto" food - not even with my sister or other family members, because of the potential to share diseases. I'm Bengali American. Fam is Hindu and bourgie. Though I am a wuss about cleaning up areas with bugs or entrenched dirt (or clearing the drain filter).

"He said, “Do you want the

"He said, “Do you want the new stuff?” thus confirming my belief that all psychiatrists in the U.S., good and bad, are fundamentally glorified, overpaid drugdealers. "

lol! IAWTC.

same, same, same. ehto is

same, same, same. ehto is not just about the germ theory - unless it is for you - in which case you are quite fortunate :) it's really hard to tell where "custom" (whatever the fuck that is), psychological disorders like OCD, caste-ism, sexuality-related shame, etc. begin and end.

Sounds like you've got mad

Sounds like you've got mad money to hire two people for your house. Maybe you can get over your squick by doing your own work. I know I will have to when I'm living on my own ;). The gunk in the drain will become mine, all mine. My precious.

Being a huge hypocrite here because i'm lazy and my parents do almost all the chores.

what's the same? I have not

what's the same? I have not personally experienced the part where brooms are forever tainted and objects touching the object that is "dirty" (like a cutting board) are off-limits too. But it is intriguing to consider the origins of "ehto".

bengali american, hindu,

bengali american, hindu, bourgie.
and two people in delhi, if you overpay them, cost about $40 a month if I did my math right. not counting what one of them bilks out of you in guilt money.

hmm...i just remembered that

hmm...i just remembered that food is not permitted in the pujo room, and fruits in the pujo room before they were, uh, pujo-ed, were not permitted in the kitchen. because i mostly ignore my parents, i don't think i asked why. my mom is a bit of a fundy and has her own issues so sometimes i just let things be. she also tells me not to clip my nails on thursdays.

oh, okay - i thought your

oh, okay - i thought your newfound realizations about caste were because you were some kind of diasporic dude. my bad. perhaps i am projecting ; ).

oh wait, i just re-read that.

oh wait, i just re-read that. bengali american. ok.

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