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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, September 10, 2012

An Inequality You Probably Don't Know Much About

Source: docstoc.com
What do you know about the culture and/or history of India? If you're like most westerners, probably not much. :D But India has a rich culture with a distinct class or "caste" system. There are five major categories:

1)  Brahmin: the rich, priestly caste
2) Kshatriya: the military and elite ruling caste
3) Vaishya: trading and agricultural castes
4)  Shudra: the serving class--servant's to the first three
5) Untouchables--the people were entirely shunned by society and were not actually considered to be their own caste because they were not worth noticing or mentioning.

When I was in the 6th grade, I had an amazing teacher who I knew only as Miss Nelson. (Really not kidding.)

One day she came around the class while we were doing individual work. She held a hat with many folded-up pieces of cardstock in it above our heads. She told us to pick one without looking. Mine had a purple dot colored on it. There were five different colors, and what color we picked determined what group we would be in. Miss Nelson had decided to teach us about India's caste system.

I was lucky enough to blindly pick the color that represented Brahmin, or the highest, richest caste. The teacher instructed us on how to place our desks into lines by caste. The Brahmin's, of course, were in front. Members from other "castes" were assigned to us as our protectors or servants. The servants had to follow us wherever we went around the room, because they had to wait on  us hand and foot. The warriors had to do the same, in order to "protect" us.

That meant I was annoyed because people had to follow me around all day, while they were annoyed because every time I got up from my seat, they had to as well. I remember the teacher handing the upper two castes of children water bottles, saying we might be thirsty. Then she gave us Brahmins a candy bar as well. One of the children in the class objected.

"That's not fair!"

"No, it isn't," Miss Nelson said, "but this is the way it was."

I remember a profound silence settling over the class. What a great way to drive a point about inequality home in a classroom of twelve-year-olds. On our first recess, we were allowed only to talk to and play with those of our caste. (By 2nd recess, she gave us a break. :D)

It was a supremely enlightening experience and, of course, soon after I started formulating a story. I actually started writing it, but I never felt like I could get all the research I needed. I was too young to have an adequate grasp on it all. Besides, my premise was VERY Romeo and Juliet. What can I say? Teenaged-girl.

Now, looking back, I can see how profoundly that experience effected me. I would still like to do a story set against this backdrop, but probably won't very soon. It's something to think about for the future, though. And hey! You learned something new, didn't you? :D

What do you think? What kinds of conflict would you put into a story based upon the caste system in India?


  1. Wow... a touching lesson. I remember as a kid having this unshakeable faith that everything was supposed to be fair, and I think one of the biggest parts of growing up is understanding that this just isn't so.

    I think a caste system story would be a great opportunity for a 'fish out of water' story -- a character is for whatever reason thrown into a different caste, and has to learn the rules to survive.

    1. That's a great concept! Thanks for visiting, Nickie! :D

  2. I am from India and I think inequality is one of our biggest problem.
    The whole idea of dividing a society on the basis of caste is wrong and unfair.
    I would be interested to read a book on this issue. Actually that would make a good dystopian novel.

    1. Yeah it would, huh? Thanks so much for the input! :D

  3. Why wasn't I already following this blog also? Thanks for commenting with the other link! Following now!

    1. LOL. Thanks Ninette! No worries. Two blogs can be a big confusing for my readers! Glad you're here now! :D

  4. I learned about this in AP World History class last year. It makes you think about the state of inequality the whole world is in. Men vs. women, black vs. white... even America hasn't shaken free of it. I think it would make a fantastic fantasy society, with all those possibilities and limitations provided by castes. (I'm a fantasy nut. I can't help it.)

    1. Me too. And I agree that it's make a great template for a society. Thanks for stopping by, Danielle! :D