In Kerala, one of the first things you are bound to be asked by even new people you've just met is, "What is your caste?" This is not a tirade against any caste but my experience, personally. As some one who is a Menon by birth, I can tell you frankly that it is a bloody curse to be born as an upper caste in this state known as "god's own country." Except that it has some social benefits at times and in some places, it helps.
In Trivandrum, when I was studying there, I was the last admission to the hostel that was already full. I got one of the best rooms - very spacious for four people, and it had a clean bathroom too. I didn't know how lucky I was till i got to meet the others who were final year students.
They all told me that you had to be either a VVIP (you know i am not that!) to get the room in the first year itself, or you had to be a Menon (that I am). I was shocked. I couldn't believe it though I was grateful for getting a good room. When the phone in the hostel stopped working during a holiday weekend, some of the girls asked me to go to the neighbor's house and make the complaint by phoning the telephone department. I said, why should i do that, why don't you people do this?
They told me, "The lady of the house will let only upper castes into the house."
I said, you must be joking. I couldn't believe this is happening for real. With these girls in tow, we went to the neighbor' s home. A Christian doctor's home! Imagine, and i thought Christians were totally opposed to the caste system! Anyway, the door opened. Lady of the house looked at us like we were scavengers, carrying some terrible infection. I explained and she asked very rudely, "whats your caste?" and when I said Menon, she said, "Only you come in, ask the others to stand out." I was so uneasy and angry. I made the call and quickly came off. This is the extent of literacy in Kerala - we ask for caste, we demand dowry and gold but of course, we call ourselves very educated and cultured.
No wonder, Swami Vivekananda called Kerala as a 'madhouse of caste.'
In real life, being a Menon is like being denied every decent right that is available to everyone else in the country.
It means you get no government jobs even if you are eligible than hundred others, it means you can kiss goodbye to most government-based admission processes like entrance examinations and what not. It means every tom, dick and harry is allowed to make fun of your forefathers for things they themselves may not have supported in anyway. It means your own community is so closed to any form of openness that your different ideas become synonymous with unacceptable rebellion.
It's a typical truth in Kerala that we judge the honor of a family by its caste and religion, and of course, social sign posts. This phenomenon has further divided Kerala as a caste-ridden, materialistic society that places almost zero emphasis on nurturing human values like compassion and commitment to the unfortunate or vulnerable sections of the society. We have become a state that is obsessed with status symbols more than anything else. This shame is growing with us, destroying all that was good, pure and beautiful about Kerala.
Okay, i am not accusing anybody here, am just telling u what an ordinary Menon/Nair/Nambiar goes through in Kerala. It also ironically means that you get more respect in the homes of Christians and Muslims who in turn love to call you by your caste name, as a sign of respect. For many of their weddings, they tell us, "We have kept separate seating arrangements for you, Menonkutty." Not sure whether that's a good or bad sign yet.
In a nutshell, we as Menons and Nairs, are deprived of every freakin' legal right (except the right to die out of frustrations) that the others have simply because we are perceived to be the Kerala equivalent of the Japanese Samurai clan. Our folks are denied jobs, education and promotions at every point. So what? We have social respectability, as if that can pay our bills! Worse, people prefer to forget that the very last Rajah of Travancore passed a law which allowed those who were socially vilified as "Untouchables" to enter the temples in his realm. This was way back in 1936. Does anyone remember it today? We talk of other social reformers who have now earned the status of gods. I admire them but why is it that the last Rajah of Travancore is never given the same respect? Is it because he is unfortunately of royal birth and lineage?
The one truth that everyone likes to bury is that it is the so-called, much vilified upper castes in Kerala that supported and paved the way for equality based social reforms in Kerala. Today, their contribution is buried under the sand and they are all condemned as perpetrators of caste based prejudices.
In an intimate conversation that I was blessed to have with Her Divine Grace Jagadguru Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (Amma, as those of us who love her call her - but please note, I am not a devotee, i am someone who loves her deeply - ), I asked her, "Ammey, why is there so much hatred and anger and intolerance in the name of caste in our society? Isn't God above caste? Why is it such a big problem even today? Do you support it?"
Amma looked deep into my eyes and held me close and said, "My child, it has and will always be a big problem in our society. That will not change. No one can change it."
I was deeply disappointed by her reply and I persisted, "But Ammey, you emphasis only on love. Why then do you speak in support of the caste system?"
She smiled a beautiful smile, the one that intoxicates our hearts with deep, unbelievable love. Then, she told me, "God is above caste. Caste is of no importance to God. God sees and responds only to love. But when you, as a person, live in a society that believes in caste and has age old practices relating to caste, you have a duty to respect the beliefs of others because you are part of the society, your family is part of it and so it goes. God is not bound by caste, it is people who are bound by it because they chose to. Amma, specifically, believes only in love and not in caste."
I always wonder - Why is it that in God's Own Country, this is never really put into practice? Why have we not yet opened our minds and hearts to greater awareness?
Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba addresses all as "Embodiments of Divine Love" and says "There is only one religion, the religion of love" and that is what we all are - sparks of God's love. Except that these sign posts of caste and religion continue to affect the way we think, perceive and communicate with others.
I am a Menon by birth. I will remain so till I die. But while I live, I will live as an instrument of God.
And God, ultimately, is Love.