Every morning my host father and I wake up at 6 (before the temperature has risen over 100º F) to go for a walk in the nearby Jahanpanah City Forest. We walk through a peaceful neighborhood of elegantly decorated Upper-Middle Class Delhi apartment to a massive public park with trails through the forest. As we walk, we pass many live-in servants washing cars for their employers or chatting with each other before their bosses wake up. Each walk is interrupted many times by run ins with old friends or acquaintances of my host dad R.K. He and his wife have both served as president of the rotary club, and he was once heavily involved in his “neighborhood welfare society.” At first I thought it was really coincidental that we ran into to so many old friends, but as time went by I realized that everyone knowing my host family was not a coincidence. Each friend was introduced as Manager of X, Founder of Y, friend from Rotary, and so on. Eventually I came to understand that I was staying with somewhat of the South Delhi Elite.
Being only a block away from this park, which people came to from all over the city, meant that we were living in one of the nicest neighborhoods in South Delhi. Once I realized that I was living in what could be likened to property near central park in New York City, I started to see the signs of this status everywhere.
I was really surprised when I was picked up at the airport that there was someone else driving my host father to greet me. I asked who he was and my host dad said “Oh, that’s Harry” but gave no further introduction. As it turned out, he was a servant in the house I would be staying in. He would help me with things like filing my water bottle, making me tea, or toasting my bread, all of which I of course am comfortable doing on my own. I realized that everyone on my block had a guy just like Harry, so I tried to adjust to this as just a cultural difference. When I discovered however that Harry didn’t go home at the end of the night and slept in a room on a different floor by himself, I found that much harder to brush off. He would wake up before us every morning to make us tea, drive us anywhere we needed to go, help prepare all the meals, serve us while we ate, and didn’t even eat at the same table as us, rather he would eat what we had leftover in the kitchen by himself once we had finished.
After a week of my homestay, Harry left to go to his home village for a month, where he apparently has a wife and many children. He leaves for only about two or three months every year, but while he is in Delhi he works every day of the week, whenever we need him. The day Harry left, my host dad and I went to the market for groceries. We walked up to a local outdoor grocery market where other customers moved aside and my host dad R.K. was greeted by the owner. They exchanged enthusiastic pleasantries in Hindi, and we were both offered something to eat and drink for free. My host dad agreed and we were brought cold yogurt drinks by the workers at the stand. After we handed our list to the grocery store owner my host dad started walking away. We hadn’t paid or received our groceries so naturally I was confused. He told me that because everybody knew that our “help” was gone, someone from the grocery stand would walk the groceries from the market to our apartment climb the flight of stairs and leave them at our doorstep. I was amazed. Seeing my astonishment he told me, “Marianne, our country is a democracy now, but we all still have our little kingdoms. They don’t do this for everybody,” he gestured toward the free cold drink in my hand.
I don’t mean to make it sound like I’m living in a palace with luxuries strewn about. The apartment that my host family own is the second floor of a three-story building, with a living room, small kitchen, study, and two bedrooms. There is air-conditioning and the house is always tidy, but I still sleep on a mattress on the living room floor and shower with a bucket. All of which I have no qualms with at all, I am very comfortable, but nonetheless, this kind of obvious class status is embraced by India in a way that it just isn’t in the United States. Although the caste system itself has been abolished, the word class and caste are used interchangeably in Indian society. Predominantly, particularly in rural areas, sons still learn the trades of their fathers, and daughters stay at home if they marry into a life with the means to.
As I kept this notion of kings and queens in my mind, a lot began to seem clearer. All across the country there are old palaces, fortresses, and other remnants of long lost kingdoms. To me, born and raised in the United States, this acceptance of strict class structure seems bizarre. Whether or not the American dream of class mobility has any basis in our modern reality, we are told in our history books of how people long ago came to the United States to escape such class rigidity.
I am learning to see the class structure in India from a different set of eyes, and trying to pay close attention to the cultural context. Before British Rule, India was one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Even to this day, India’s prized jewels come from an era before colonization. People come to India to imagine a country of riches, elephants, ornate temples, and heartbroken kings who build massive marble palaces for their wives. Sure, modern India has super malls and beach vacation towns, and all the other luxuries of the modern world, but it’s no surprise that much of India’s national pride is tied to a time before colonial invasion.
However, even with this cultural context, working with lower caste children makes it difficult for me to accept such strict class separation as a harmless cultural difference. Every day I leave my apartment with its live-in servant and walk less than a mile to the slums where the kid’s parents are considered lucky if they’re working as these servants for other families. Is it possible to work towards an India with more equal opportunity without compromising culture when class divide is so deeply ingrained and so widely accepted? Every day I continue to wonder about where the line is drawn between a cultural difference and a human rights concern.