The Modern Day Caste System
When I was a young girl I would spend almost every vacation visiting my family in Mumbai, India. I consider it a great privilege to have been such a young traveler. Not only did I gain invaluable exposure to the big, bad world out there, I also learned a lot of hard lessons at the ripe age of three.
For those of you who don’t know, Mumbai has a very distinctive smell. Something about that sub continental air hitting your face, spreading through your nostrils quicker than a wildfire… There’s nothing quite like the feeling of walking off a plane at Mumbai International Airport. The best way I can think to explain it is as a mixture of the smell of the ocean, the sweat of hard work, the intoxicating aroma of hope, and a hint of luxury in the background. As soon as you clear customs/immigration, grab your six massive suitcases, reach the safety of your taxi, and exit the airport it’s quite obvious that you are no longer in Kansas. Surrounding the airport are some of the most depressing looking slums you will ever see in your life.
On one of my very first trips to Mumbai, I remember looking out the car window and watching as swarms of impoverished children came running our way to tap on the glass window and beg for a few spare rupees. Clad in tattered clothes and skinny as rails, these kids were something my little three-year-old self couldn’t grasp. I wanted to take them home with us. I wanted these kids to come be my new playmates in a foreign land.
They looked like me – same brown skin, brown hair, brown eyes. Yet there they were. Hungry. Poor. Seemingly alone. As I sat in the comfort of my air conditioned private car listening to our driver honk and curse in Hindi, I realized almost immediately that I could not be more different from those kids.
As I grew older and continued to visit my homeland, I came to learn more and more about the heartbreaking dynamic between the rich and poor. I encountered maids, cooks, watchmen, drivers, housekeepers, launderers, grocers, entertainers, waiters, and more of all ages. All of them at a level of poverty I never knew to exist. All of them working harder than I had ever seen anyone work. If you think Americans have a work ethic, take a trip to Mumbai and I promise your whole world will be rocked.
I would watch these hardworking men and women earn literally pennies as they spent every day serving the Mumbai elite. I would watch fat men and prissy women command these HUMAN BEINGS around in harsh tones without a whisper of thanks or appreciation. It was enough to make me want to vomit.
They say the caste system in India is dead. I am of the opinion that it is still very much alive. It is the only way to explain why those with money seem to think they OWN those without in Mumbai.
The summer after my first year of college I went back to Mumbai with my mother to visit family and friends. A very close, very well-to-do family friend took us out to dinner at a local hotspot. The music was great, the food was excellent, and the drinks were flowing. It was a fabulous evening, but like every great night it had to come to an end eventually. We were escorted back to our friend’s apartment by his car and driver. Upon reaching the apartment complex, two honks were given to alert the night guard that a car was at the gate and it should be unlocked and opened (a routine procedure in every apartment complex in Mumbai).
Two quick honks. No response. A few seconds later another two quick honks. Still no response. Fifteen seconds later. One long, LOUD honk. Still no response. A few more long, loud honks. Finally a groggy face appears through the gate and lets us in.
Our family friend, furious, immediately hops out of the car and throws a punch right into the poor night guard’s face. A few more slaps and hits and many fighting words later, he finally backs off and heads towards the elevator.
His response to my gawking face was something along the lines of “Sometimes these people just need to be put in their place. Sometimes they need to be reminded where they stand, who they are, and who they serve.”
I looked at him… this man that I had known since the day I was born. This man that had been my father’s best friend since the age of 15. This man that had given me nothing but love and kindness for 18 years… I looked at him and I knew that I would never again have any respect for him. In my mind, he was the devil incarnate.
It was the most heart-wrenching experience to watch and know that this wasn’t the first time a night guard had been physically abused in Mumbai. It certainly wouldn’t be the last. And there was nothing I could do to stop it or change it.
Except maybe learn from it. And maybe pass on a word of gratitude as often as I can to those that service the homes and restaurants I frequent on my trips to India. And insist on doing my own dishes, making my own breakfast in the morning, and fetching my own groceries.
I learned very quickly that although many people in my homeland have no interest in doing their own chores and have zero respect for the men and women that do them FOR them, I do not have to be like them. I was given the chance to be MAKE myself more like those children in tattered clothes I first saw outside the airport. I am a single young lady, living in Manhattan on my own, working three jobs to make my ends meet and I’LL BE DAMNED if I am going to let a 15 year old girl that looks exactly like me serve me tea because some rude, rich snob told her to.
You know what, little girl. Let me make YOU a cup of tea. You’ve freaking earned it.
Let’s have a toast to bridging the gap.
Nikki Pamani is a marketing mogul & copywriting connoisseur based in NYC who absolutely adores helping people find not only their niche space within an industry, but also their unique voice. She’s got unfaltering love for the written world, the smell of old books, and all things related to the Interwebs. Read more over at her personal blog or say hello on Twitter @npamani.