Archive for June 23rd, 2013

Ravi 1956

Ravi 1956

Ravi 1994

Ravi 1994

I find Ravi’s personal history remarkable. He moved through his lifetime from a childhood in Benares to a career in Paris, from the religious heart of Hinduism to a major international organization in the 16th arrondisement. Moreover, he did it two generations before Indians such as he, knowledgeable, urbane, at ease in all settings, had become a familiar presence in the media and in leadership positions across the globe. He led a productive, richly rewarding life and was largely pleased with himself despite the complexities, most, but not all of them, positive. There is much I am still trying to understand.

And I am trying to do so now, in what Ravi would have considered our fourth stage of life, one he lived through with his mind muddled by Alzheimer’s. He had told me when we were first married, when he was still new to America, that the American view of life was different from his, that Americans see an individual’s life as a trajectory that begins in the home as a launching platform, on into school, the job market, marriage and children, gradually rising to the prime of life, followed by decline into old age, while Indians see life in four stages. (for a man. A woman is always absorbed in family roles. Like other gender biases, I choose to ignore this one.) The first stage of life is for learning; one is a student. The second stage is for family and work. The third is dedication to the community, and in the fourth stage a person turns inward, preparing for reincarnation. Ravi had already modified the Indian model somewhat. A more usual definition of the four stages has the third stage as a time for increased focus on spiritual matters. Community may have been Papaji’s modification, an expression of his involvement in the independence movement and his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi. Ravi did not consciously believe in reincarnation; he said death is going to sleep forever, and he thought of the final phase of life as simply the turning inward to make sense of how one has lived.

The concept of life stages, or phases, does fit physical and psychological reality but it needs some tweaking for use in the modern world. Being a student in school for other than vocational training is rarely possible after youthful dependence but one should acquire early on the habit of learning and continue to study and learn throughout life. In these times of economic insecurity, the second stage of both earning an income and caring for family can extend well into one’s later years. More affluent individuals still find more time, though, during the third stage to focus on personal interests and community activities that began earlier in life. I am still uncertain, now that I have arrived there, what the fourth stage means for elderly persons in general and for me as an individual.

Ravi’s model outlines life in a stable, unchanging traditional society, and to a large extent it would have described life in the ancient city of Benares, with its ghats and temples, when he grew up there in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the economy and polity were changing and Ravi’s family, in particular his mother’s extended family, had already become part of the change. Papaji, in a quite radical way, adopted a new family name for himself and his young family. In traditional India, where caste was the basic organizational principle of the social and moral order, family name indicated the caste to which a person belonged. Whenever I told Papaji about an Indian I had met he asked me for the person’s full name, and his response always amazed me. He could tell, with a high likelihood of being accurate, the type of job held by the man of the family, the person’s language, religion, the region where s/he was born and therefore much of his/her cultural background, social status, and probably what s/he had for breakfast that morning. All from a name.

Ravi and I were newly married and still students when I learned from a stranger the significance of the family name I had acquired. I was hiding away one afternoon, curled up with a book in the quiet, cozy atmosphere of the Student Union Reading Room, when an Indian gentleman, elegant in his neat tailored suit and beautifully wrapped turban, sat down in the chair next to me, leaned over and asked in a pleasant, gentle tone, “And what is the name of your husband?” I told him, and he responded, “Ah, yes, a good Brahmin who has given up caste.” I forget the rest of our conversation and he disappeared from the campus. I questioned Ravi and learned that Papaji was born and raised a Brahmin, in the priestly caste. He chose not to be a priest. His children knew almost nothing of the religion but they were Brahmin nevertheless, by birth. Papaji looked like the archetypical North Indian Brahmin. Besides being handsome, he was tall and fair-skinned, dignified and soft-spoken. As a young man, influenced by an English missionary with whom he exchanged ideas, Papaji began to doubt his faith and the justice of a system that automatically granted Brahmins such great privilege. He took off the sacred thread that symbolized his caste status and changed his name from Sharma to an Arya Samaj name, that of a secular philosopher from the 4th century BCE, the period when Buddhism began and before the caste system overtook Hinduism. It is a name used by the Arya Samaj, but from all we know, Papaji did not join the organization. I do like the name. I like its meaning and the people who passed it on to me.

Clearly, Ravi’s family was upper middle class in a caste society. Caste and class are sometimes treated as being on a continuum from closed to open, but they are essentially different. One is born into a social class but can move up or down, depending primarily on the one’s occupation, income and education. A class system can be open or relatively closed; the American class system is moving from highly open to increasingly less so. Caste is not open. A person is born into the parent’s caste, carries that identity throughout life and passes it on to his/her children. Different class levels can exist within a caste. I think of a caste society as one where guilds solidified through time into castes, where the only security in life was with the family and the family ensuring a means to earn a living. The guild/caste organized around ownership of a skill or a right to property. Marriage was within the guild/caste, as was teaching sons in its occupation. It had its own god/saint, formed a guild/caste community across a region, and possessed rights and obligations within the larger social system. Modern society with functioning government and prosperity is antithetical to a caste system, and today in urban, modern sector India, with the exception of the lowest levels in the caste system, individuals mix socially largely on the basis of social class rather than caste identity. I will look for data about whether marriage remains largely within the caste.

I hesitate to impose further sociological background on the reader, but one must know the past. Without knowing about India’s caste system I could not understand my husband and the consequences of his past for my life, and my children’s. In traditional India, four categories of caste, the Varna, defined status and the occupational hierarchy. (I discuss caste again here.) At the top were Brahmins, the priestly castes. They had the highest ritual status; they were literate and ritually “clean” (a concept to be discussed later). Second in ritual status were the Kshatriyas, the caste communities of warriors and rulers. They held the levers of government and power. Next down in rank were the Vaisyas, hundreds of occupational castes.  Commerce was included, but wealth did not elevate social status; it might give power and did give influence but rarely prestige. (The place of commerce in our two cultures caused much discussion between Ravi and me.) I do not know the castes of all craftsmen, such as the potter, weaver, woodworker. It is complicated. At the base of the caste system were/are the Sudra, the laborers in the villages, town and cities, the vast majority of the population, the folk who provided food and the basics for everyone else.

And I must describe the people who remain largely invisible to others: Below the four caste categories were/are outcaste people, the Harijans, those who did/still do the most difficult and unpleasant work, the woman who cleaned the toilets, collected garbage, the men who made the leather in smelly places outside the city walls. The government of India has, under the law, an Affirmative Action program for the outcaste people, now called the Dalits. For an excellent account on current caste relations, see The Tragic Truth About India’s Caste System.

Ravi grew up without being taught caste or religion in the home. In the English medium school he attended as a child in Benares, he liked the Austrian nuns who taught him but their Catholicism did not interest him. Most of what he knew of Hindu rituals he learned from watching his grandmother, Papaji’s mother, as she practiced her puja in the home. She told the children traditional stories but he remembered none of them well enough to repeat to me. In fact, he spoke little about her, except for a vivid memory of her throwing away her small god figures because the last, save Papaji, of her children had died and she found the gods useless. Muslims and Islam were not part of Ravi’s life, except for the tensions over independence for India.

Didai’s extended family, based in Bangalore, was unusual in many regards. They had broken two generations previously from caste community and identity. Papaji had done so as an individual. Didai’s father, who was known as Panditji,  came from a Maharastra family that followed the Lingayat sect of Hinduism. He had been an outstanding student in school, with an unusual ability to memorize whatever he heard or read, resulting in a community elder arranging for him to study in London to pass the test for entering the Indian civil service. He returned instead as a Barrister at Law, but the council of elders accepted him back and arranged his marriage to a girl from the community. Panditji, however, left the marriage, or she left him, and he so offended the community that he left it as well. On his own initiative he contacted a Calcutta family following Brahmo Samaj, another reform sect within Hinduism, and married their thirteen year old daughter. She became the mother of Didai, three sons and two other daughters. Didai and her siblings married across caste and across regions but within families where the men followed professions – medicine, law, engineering – or were highly placed civil servants, the All India Services. They educated their daughters and by the mid-1970s accepted the young person finding, usually at the university, his/her own marriage partner. From what I observed, nearly all the marriages, whether arranged or self chosen, were within the Hindu tradition. However, not one family practiced Hindu rituals in the home or in a temple. When walking with Ravi’s aunt, his mother’s sister, past people engaged in religious activities, she muttered to me, under her breathe, comments about the naiveté and uselessness of what they were doing.

It is not surprising that Papaji and Didai arranged for Ravi and the other children to spend time with her brother in Bangalore and become part of her family. Ravi went to an English medium secondary school in Bangalore, as well as being tutored in French. The family house, that of the oldest brother, was on a street of similar British colonial style houses, each set behind a low wall. In the 1960s on one wall was a small plaque with the name of the house — Silicon Valley.

A novel I read decades ago, could not put down, thought about when not reading it is Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, about a woman in search of a suitable boy for her daughter to marry. I felt I knew the families and individuals in the novel. They are not exactly the same, of course, but they reminded me of the Bangalore family, of Ravi’s maternal aunts and uncles and cousins.

Papaji and his personal history was another matter. It occurs to me that Ravi’s steady move toward the expatriate life, pulling me along with him, may well have been a continuation of Papaji’s youthful transition from a traditional local, small town elite familial inheritance into a secularized, cosmopolitan, middle class social identity. In matters of faith, he went from a traditional Hindu sect (I never learned which one), to Arya Samaj, to Marxism and finally to the Catholic Church. Instead of religion, Ravi picked up on Papaji’s humanitarian values and progressive ideologies, plus the theme of moving on and up and out, on beyond British colonial India to America and beyond.


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