The revolution India never had
This excerpt from a new book explores the fate of the Brahmins of Benares, caught on the cusp of tradition and modernity in 21st century India
One evening, a few days into my return to Benares, I was given a first-hand example of how the Modi election had brought some of India’s oldest tensions to the surface.
Below the Alice Boner House was a wonderful bookshop. The owner, Rakesh, and I soon became friends....
During what had become our usual end-of-day banter, a large man burst in through the double doors of the shop. The sight of Tiwari, the travel agent, brought an expression of dread to Rakesh’s face.
Tiwari was the kind of man the election had empowered. He was a loping mountainous figure, long armed and prognathous, and dressed in jeans and a green waterproof jacket. Rakesh’s shop, with its wide selection of imported books and daily stream of foreign visitors, was at once repellent and attractive to Tiwari. The two men were divided by politics and education, temperament and sensibility, but they were roughly of the same class. Tiwari was also a Brahmin, which still meant something in small-town India. He now entered Rakesh’s shop full of a story that was sending him into transports of rage and joy.
For many days now, a rumor had been circulating about two Muslim boys being beaten up on the riverside. They had apparently showed up with Pakistani flags on their bikes. If so, they were inviting trouble, but it was unlikely. Pakistani flags were not common in the Muslim neighborhoods of Benares. Now we were given a detailed account from one who had seen it all:
Tiwari had been running down to the ghat to see Brad Pitt. The actor was in town and, as Tiwari said, “I am, you see, a great fan of Brad Pitt. It was my dream to see him in person." On the way, Tiwari passed the bikes—and, yes, the flags looked odd to him—but he didn’t think anything of them at the time. His head was full of worries related to an insurance claim. Besides, he was in a hurry to see Brad Pitt. Only on the way back from the river did he see Radhe, the wrestler, in a confrontation with two Muslim boys.
I had seen Radhe on the ghat. He was a friend of Vishal’s, a burly figure in a tight T-shirt. He was part of a group of young men who worked out at the nearby Chitvan gym. The mania for building bodies had come to India; gyms had sprung up in places that lacked even basic amenities. The new love of physicality, especially in this country that had historically prized the attainments of the mind over the body, was in part a simple assertion of crude strength, in part a nation shrugging off the depredations of socialism and Gandhism and partaking in the joys of the flesh. Radhe was forever making crude jokes to Vishal about the dim prospects of their getting laid.
“So, there is Radhe," Tiwari explained, “standing next to the bikes. And he has broken the flags on the bikes. There is an altercation going on between him and these two Muslim boys. ‘What?! You live in India,’ he is saying, ‘and you dare to put Pakistani flags on your bikes?’ The boys do not seem to know that the flags are Pakistani. They try to tell Radhe that their madrassa, which was promoting an Islamic conference, had asked they put them up."
“What did the flags look like?" Rakesh discreetly inquired.
“They were red or something."
Rakesh tried to point out that in that case—even if they had “only a little bit of red on them"—they could not be Pakistani.
“Whatever they were, they were certainly not Indian." Tiwari continued, “These boys, they fought back hard. They were demanding to know why the flags had been broken. It was their bikes, they said, and they could carry whatever flags they liked. ‘Why are you getting so hot under the collar?’ Radhe said back."
Tiwari, now full of animation, came over to me. The memory of violence excited him. He grabbed me under the arms and lifted me up, to show me what Radhe had done to the boys. Then he made to throw me to the ground. Laughter bubbled up in him. “The dispute was growing hotter," he said. There was a mention of police. A crowd assembled around Radhe, threatening the boys with inciting communal tension, a bookable crime in India. Tiwari, by his own proud admission, now exhorted the crowd to beat the boys for what they had done. Then, before another word could be said, the first blow fell. Radhe, with his open-palmed broad wrestler’s hand, slapped one of them. Tiwari, the fingers of his own large hand splayed, showed me how. Phataaak! It split one of the boys’ lips in two. Blood was everywhere.
The boys were Muslim, and, significantly, of low-caste backgrounds.... (They) worked for Sulabh, a nonprofit organization committed to the “Gandhian ideology of emancipation of scavengers." Sulabh had tried to give Untouchables, who still did the majority of cleaning work in India, a modicum of humanity by providing its employees with bright orange uniforms and modern cleaning implements.
Sulabh’s good work had won it the contract to clean the stretch of riverside where Tiwari runs his travel agency. The two Muslim boys, in protest of the unwarranted violence against them, decided to go on strike.
Tiwari now told us how he brought their protest to an end. “I summoned them and told them that if they did not start working in one hour flat, I would call the police and register a complaint against them for spreading communal tension." The boys took fright. “I give you one hour," Tiwari had said. He knew that the police, if they came, would be sympathetic to him. He chortled at the memory of the boys’ fear. Then, he did an imitation of them groveling before him and hurrying back to their work of sweeping the street that ran in front of his shop....
Modernity should be the natural enemy of caste. Urban life, apartment buildings, restaurants, even something as simple as municipal water and housing, has the power to erase the connubial and commensal restrictions upon which caste rules depend. Democracy, too, ought to be the natural enemy of caste. The Shudras and the Untouchables, together, form a significant voting bloc. They cannot be ignored by any politician hoping for success at the ballot box....
Modernity and democracy undermined caste, but they also exacerbated old tensions by upsetting traditional hierarchies and making people aware of one another as never before. The higher castes, whose numbers were small, became insecure about their place in the world. So, the spread of modernity in India threatened caste but also made the need to assert it more vehement; and the unfolding story was not of the disappearance of caste, but of its surprising resilience....
Caste had the power to hide in other forms of distinction, such as class, race, education, and privilege. But deeper than the manifestations of caste was that basic grounding in the intrinsic inequality of human beings that had been bred into the Indian psyche. It was the society’s deepest affinity, stunting the ability of people to transcend their group. Caste, secreted away in the Indian soul, prevented men from seeing in the experience of others a shade of their own. It abolished birth as a shared point of origin, leaving it instead as a spiritual stain....
Too often I am asked abroad why India was spared an all-out class revolution, though outwardly the conditions are so opportune. My answer every time is caste.
Excerpted from The Twice-Born by Aatish Taseer with permission from HarperCollins Publishers India.