Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Question of Caste: How Caste Affects Work and Consumption in India

In my previous post about caste in India, I made a reference to Rama Bijapurkar's We Are Like That Only, a book about Indian consumers and devising strategies for Indian market place. In this book, Ms. Bijapurkar made a comment that caste is not important in business and consumption behaviour in India. My point was that this commonly held view is wrong and that the Urban India is in denial of the problems of casteism. I saw Ms. Bijapurkar's comment as representative.

However, I do think my comments on the contrary need elaboration. I said caste is important, but did not explain which way. Some readers wrote to me stating that while Caste is an issue, it may not be of significance in the urban markets, which the multinationals are primarily concerned with. I think even this view is wrong, and that caste has an enduring and deep significance in Indian culture and our behaviour. This post is a quick comment to justify why I think so.

Let's face facts. Today's India's workforce is mostly young, and the share of people under their 30s is ever rising. The Indian cities are growing fast, with a continuous stream of people migrating from villages to seek a better life. The country, for the first time in its long history, is actually achieving the state of the melting pot. However, while the Western influence is indeed spreading fast, and one can clearly witness this in pubs, festivals, women's clothing and recreational habits, it is wrong to assume that the old India, the one with traditions and history, has suddenly gone out of the window. On the contrary, to follow Edward Luce's observation - India always wins - the western practises are being 'indianized', which one sees in the beautiful floral tops of women, the tikka sandwich at Subway, the hinglish language, the very Indian chicken rolls, the dating ads posted by parents of the girl, contracts with shree written on top of the page and the puja which must invariably precede the inauguration of a new business facility.

In the same vein, caste refuses to go away and must be reckoned with in the modern Indian business. Try asking a Brahman boy to wash his own dishes and you will know. Narayana Murthy observes that the Brahminical tradition creates a bias against physical work - truly, because the caste system creates a hierarchy of work, thinking at the top, physical work at the bottom - and therefore, everyone wants to be a manager. Obviously, if you have to start a business in India, it is important to know that no one may want to be a salesman, no one may want to actually do the physical work of calls etc. Yes, indeed, a desk job, even it earns less, is often preferred by Indian graduates.

Caste also plays a role in intra-office relationships, though I have not heard of discrimination cases so far. But there could be, because I have heard people say that they prefer people from certain caste backgrounds over others. Besides, caste in India is not just four straightforward divisions, but many nuanced smaller groups inside them. I can not exactly tell how many, but people do have caste stereotypes and they behave accordingly. For example, when I started the current business in Andhra Pradesh, lots of people asked me if I am a 'Chowdhury'. I answered in affirmative, indeed I am one, but was then told by a helpful colleague that it is the wrong answer. I was told I am a Brahmin Chaudhuri, but the question means whether I belong to Chowdhury caste, which is the business caste known for its shrewd business sense. I don't still know whether that was meant to be a compliment, but I surely know that people who asked me that question, mainly suppliers who were negotiating business deals with me, were trying to apply caste stereotypes.

Besides, I would think caste has powerful correlations with consumption patterns. I am sure marriages, family obligations vary with caste to some extent. These still remain important in Indian family life. I shall also make a purely conjectural statement, without any statistical proof here: a lower caste person in India is likely to be more mobile than a privileged person [that's kind of obvious and applies to other cultures as well]. The higher castes in India takes a lot of things in life for granted, and their consumption patterns will vary in this context. Today, because of reservations, while the public education system may have achieved a certain balance in terms of caste distribution of students, the private education system remains dominated by higher castes and I suspect many of these institutions are run with a certain level of prejudice, though it may not be blindingly obvious. Ms. Bijapurkar makes a point that consumption relates to social class than caste, though the correlation between caste and class is significant in India.

I am not saying is that doing business in India is like dealing with tribalism. [I think it is more complicated] But a business strategy for India without the basic understanding of caste landscape may actually be off the mark. The businesses should understand the implications of castes in the context of their target market and their preferred locations before setting out to do business in India. Failing to do so will surely increase the risk of cultural faux pas and may hinder the prospect of business in India altogether.

8 comments:

opsudrania said...

Hello Sir, Before I go further, I must apologise to you for my ensuing forthright comments, I venture to do so with all my due humility and overdue respects to you as my younger brother. I myself spent about 10 yrs in that country and chose to come back to face the music. I did not even take the British Nationality which was easily available those days. I have no disregard to them but for some strong personal reservations.

I have been recently crossed across your blog in pursuit of my researches about Lord Macaulay- India before and India after. I noticed your comment about the part of his minutes delivered in the British parliament on 2nd February, 1835. I might enlighten you further that to my deep anguish I first saw that comment made in a poster in the "Freedom Express", a train circulated all over the country in the summer of 2007 by HRD Ministry. This makes it a serious matter as it immediately makes it an official and an authoritative statement. I neither reject it nor accept it as on today. But continue to dig on it deeper and deeper till I come to some plausible explanation. Keeping my mind open. I have been myself doing some searches about that particlar subject. I also saw all the comments and your replies thereto. I am not making any comment about it presently because my research is in the middle and am pursuing it as seriously as I can. I am constrained to the point that I am a surgeon not a historian but as you know that necessity is mother of invention.

Now that you are sitting in London and making comments on India and Indians is rather intriguing to me. If you say that you are a saviour of Indians, then I may point out some better arenas to you to work on. Lately there are reports appearing in local dailies about whiteman's discrimination against the Indians and coloured races. Only today there appeared a news in 'The Times of India'(Mumbai Edition) with caption, "Indian fliers in Paris cry racism". It then goes to describe that they were flying by Air France flight and the flight got delayed by 27 hours between USA and India. There were 169 passengers in total and 55 were Indians who complained of racial discrimination as they were left out to languish in the crammed up lounge at airport in Paris while all others were sent out to Hotels. On complaining, they were threatened by a local Airline officer of police action in stead. I think you are in a better situation to look after The Indians on this line then to make these comments on them while sitting comfortably in the Macaulayite ambience in London. I am sure the British will love to continue your such good work from there and you may even become their beloved but at the cost of what..........think? Or,you may leave this job to those Indians who are in India or actively involved in its day to day affairs. To me it sounds a little pedantic on your part? I hasten to add my heartfelt respects to you.

May God bless you,
Yours, Elder Brother From Siliguri and Mumbai, Om Sudrania

Anonymous said...

Sudrania brother, i support you. Mr. Chaudhury can't make comments on India sitting in London. May be he is very close to British rather than Indians.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Dear Dr Sudrania

Many thanks for leaving this comment. I note your interest in Macaulay's comments and your observations about my writing about India in London. I sincerely thank you for taking the trouble to read, and leave a comment, and I thought it appropriate to tell my side of the story.

What you see in this blog is my quest to understand India and myself. I don't pretend to know the answers and I have been straightforward about that. However, I did think I have a right to an opinion, and if I voice them on my blog, where readership is free and completely optional, it hurts no one. However, what I get in return is a chance to learn, from people like you, who are kind enough to read and comment.

I note with anguish the story of racial discrimination you recount. Indeed, I face it every day too, and I have written about this in the blog earlier. However, I do not think the faults of western civilizations necessarily make our practises right. I wish, as you do, to see our country successful and prosperous; and I just know that if this has to happen, we have to break our age old system of privileges, and become a fairer and more open society. I don't think my residence in another country necessarily disqualifies me from expressing that opinion.

I also think there are two other impediments in making India attain its deserved greatness. First, our pursuit of false glory, exemplified in that spoof passed on as Macaulay's. We don't need to reject the achievements of human progress to make our nation great; we rather need to internalize it and benifit from it. You, a surgeon, will understand this much better than anyone. I just see India achieving greatness being at ease with the world, and not by being prickly and uncomfortable with other nations and cultures.

Two, I do not think we shall achieve anything by reclaiming India for Hindu Brahmins. India's uniqueness is its diversity and it is wrong for a section of our society to be in complete denial of this fact. To me, Indian muslims are actually a courageous lot, who sacrificed the idea of Pakistan and subscribed to the idea of our modern secular nation, and I feel ashamed about people like Narendra Modi who choose to undermine that trust and drive a violent, racist agenda.

In summary, we all love our country. Wherever we are, whatever we do, whatever we believe in. That is the greatness of our country. I hope you will agree with me and not exclude me, or anyone for that matter, from your idea of India.

Warmest Regards,

Supriyo

opsudrania said...

My dear brother Mr Chaudhuri,
I never meant to snatch your right to comment about India but I certainly do mean that I should know what I am talking about. The issues you have further raised about Narendra Modi and Muslims in India is a totally different thing altogether which is not what we were discussing. I certainly shall not get involved with you in this particular thing because if we talk of this particular issue, it is not just limited to or a simple matter of India only.It is running away from the original point. I believe there were some good number of Hindoos too who had opted out to stay back in Pakistan. I do not know as to how disloyal do you think them to Pakistan that the number of them has now slowly become dismal. I think you have missed out the recent Jajia Levy on Sikhs by Taliban. Do not worry, this is not important. I should also not talk of Kashmiri Pandits who are homeless in a secular state.The world knows their plight too. I am sorry, I should not have raised it and I beg you to forgive me. Because it is nonsecular to talk it like this. I couldn't agree less with you that Narendra Modi is the only one who does not deserve American visa. However, I again hasten to respectfully withdraw myself from this unhealthy discussion as I am, at least equally sympathetic to all the creeds and races in this Great land of India. Because I feel that this is a very sensitive and an issue of far reaching consequences both nationally and internationally. Not only in near future but in distant future too.

I certainly recognise the diversity but also feel that like me all others should equally do that. A one sided thinking alone does not work but rather leads to strife, which is what is happening. Pakistan raised and nurtured the monster and now they are a victim themselves. I certainly feel and appeal to all - Hindoos, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsees and all concerned to rise above this petty mentality and learn to live in harmony if we wish to survive. Not only you but we all have our rights to say whatever we want to. Unfortunately, we more often recognise our rights while forgetting our responsibilities. We must not forget that we all have our rights as well as responsibility. While I do not deny and certainly not- at no cost, your right but you must also see that you are not befooling yourself innocently and ignorantly.A wise one is he whom others praise and recognise. We can all be wise and right if we do not have the fear of being proved wrong. Lastly, it is not always easy to prove everything with direct proofs, specially if you were to contradict a government or a monarchy where you can never have a direct accesss to everything. I am sure the Quatrochi case is the current best example.

Regarding those minutes of Lord Macaulay, I have already surmised that I am in the middle of it. I only make you a request to be patient before drawing a conclusion. I am an investigative scientist and I do not like to make loose comments on anybody, lest I have to bite my own finger. Lastly, I coundn't agree more with you that we should all learn but my humble suggestion is to learn through good means not through, how should I express myself without offending you; I suppose I should leave this word for you to substitute for yourself.

However, before I conclude, we have completely digressed from our original issue of the Lord Macaulay's Minutes. I very humbly and sincerely request you to kindly go a little deeper into the archives in that country when you are living there and there is a lot of publications which you could research into to enlighten yourself about those minutes. I shall be grateful to you if you can help me in trying to dig in Mr Macaulay a bit more. I am conducting my sincere and impartial inquiry into it ever since I first saw it in that train. I certainly feel that it is a serious issue which should be clarified. Lest you are thrown out of a restaurant like Obama's father. Or you are stranded in a crammed lounge on your air flight. I shall feel very sorry then.

With love and regards, Om Sudrania

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Dear Dr Sudrania

Thanks again for your comments.

Yes, indeed, let's wait to see the outcome of your research on Macaulay's minutes. So far, I have checked, he could not have said it, and I have written about that. But, then, I am an economist by training and not a historian, and hence, I have no problems in accepting findings based on evidence and not hearsay or political convenience.

One other comment in the context of rest of your remarks too. Some of the worst crimes in history was done in the name of 'what others did'. Something like, we must discriminate because Taliban did this. I am sure you did not mean it, but Hitler ran the holocast and killed millions by selling stories like that. My question to anyone propogating such a view will be - since when we took Taliban as our moral guide for governance - but as you say, that's another matter and we should stay away from it.

As for me, while I do see racial discrimination, I must state that I have so far not been thrown out of restaurants. I don't expect to be - I do think the world has moved forward since then. In all fairness [and I risk being told that I have become too much of an admirer of the British because I stay here], I think the equal opportunity legislations are something we should learn from, and the institutional discrimination, on grounds of race, religion, age, sex, disability and sexual preference, is largely history. But then, anyway, some of us will rather take lessons from Taliban than the West, and I am sure, following the largely western tradition, we should have everyone have their say.

Warm Regards,

Supriyo

opsudrania said...

Hello,
Thanq. I would like to wind up my present conversation with you as under.
(1) I do not feel that anybody is imposng himself on you to accept or reject something. It is your own cocoon you have weaved around you and now professing to 'not to accept something on hearsay'. If I am forgiven, it is you who is imposing your hearsays on others. I shall now leave the people to make their own conclusions.
(2) You started the discussion and now expect me to bottlefeed you evidence. I feel that it is none of my business to do so at the risk of further unnecessary loose comments from any corner. It is upto you to educate youself. I do not have time myself for all that.
(3) I certainly, if you permit me, suggest to restrict yourself to your subject which you can claim to know better. There is no point in making a comment on an open forum on ones own will then making an excuse that I am not such and such. I do not think that some one had invited you to make comment on .........!
(4) I would not like to make such comments which could/has serious political, racial, cultural,economic, ethnic, religious, social, spiritual, and/or environmental repercussions. Then do not have the enough intellect to support my view point.
(5) I do not know as to how much have studied the past glory of India? But I have done so in the wake of my lectures to the elites. I feel only sorry for west that they dedignified a glorious heritage for their rapacity; the world could have been a better place than what it is. Our ancient Indians were far far ahead of these so-called modern thinkers in so many ways. I feel sorry for the west and the rest of the globe.
(6) I have my sons older than you though this does not qualify me that I am wiser or superior to you.
I certainly would not accept any hegemony. I conclude quoting Abraham Lincoln,"If I can not be slave, so I could not be a Master". But why did he have to speak of slavery at all, my point is that?

Please look after yourself better and God bless you,

With my blessings,
Om Sudrania

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Dear Sirs,

I apologise if I have offended anyone in any way - that was certainly not my intention. I have confidence on my own intelligence, but I have never used this to undermine others, nor wish to do so in future.

I know Dr. Sudrania said this discussion is over, but I shall still need to post a concluding note lest my humility is taken as my ignorance.

So, by way of clarification:

(1)I had not started the discussion. I was writing my blog, which is my own private quest to understand India. I had not made up speeches in Macaulay's name and circulated, but was only a receipient of that spoof. It seemed logical for me to check the authenticity of the comment, and I found none. Since then, I was subject to various forms of shouting down, including questions about my Indianness.

(2) I am no stranger to social science research and did my checks before writing about the comment. To be honest, the quote in question offended my intelligence. What I did indeed know that India faced several famines in the period preceeding 1832, when Macaulay arrived in India, which cost us several million lives. I knew that at the time, Brahminism degenerated into an oppressive social system, excluding a vast majority of our society from decent life. Macaulay talking about the prosperity of India seemed like a sick joke, completely bereft of historical truth and an iota of senstivity.

(3) So, I had to write what I found, and obviously it was not acceptable to people who wanted to perpetuate the lie. I did get shouted down. My intelligence and knowledge were questioned, and even my right to write on my blog was questioned. I would not mind that at all, except for the fact that I see the same intolerant philosophy being imposed upon India, and hard won gains of our independence and progress stand threatened.

(4) My humility was certainly mistaken for ignorance. I have found that we continue to undermine respect and tolerance in our day-to-day life. If I wanted to achieve one thing out of my endeavours in writing this blog, that would be to campaign for restoration of respect and tolerance for diverity in our public life.

(5) Indeed, I did read about ancient India and know about the achievements of our scientists and philosophers. However, the obvious fact of history is that we managed to loose all that ancient glory, and become a stilted society, left out the majority of people from our nation, and thereby created a society where the ability to express an informed opinion got finally restricted to the 'elites'. Unfortunately, while that surely is cozy, that did not help us in creating a strong, stable country. My thinking, out of all my readings of history, is that this remains our problem, intolerance and exclusion, and this helped us achieve what we did achieve - the undoing of the past glory of India. We closed the door on progress and fresh thinking and started creating imaginary pictures of our glory, even trying to put words of dead people's mouth.

(6) Our comfort in our backwardness comes from pointing to others' past backwardness. The point is that we use such excuses to remain backward and intolerant. I am sure no real progress can come from hiding behind history. We must be at ease with the world, and reconcile with the truth of history, to move forward. Going back to the supposed golden age that Macaulay saw can not be the objective of any sensible public policy; we must move forward from this point on.

Respectfully,

Supriyo

opsudrania said...

Thanq,
Your repeated comment of trying to understand India through your blog sitting in London appears to me to try to understand the North Sea from London.

I am sure that the Government Of India will be kind enough to grab your invaluable and helpfu message.

Be Good, See Good and Do Good.

Live happily.

Om Sudrania

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