Learning gender, learning caste: two reflections

We received two brief submissions separately sent by two women, reflecting on incidents in their childhood or youth that returned to haunt them more recently. Rethinking, reworking their own sense of self, they present before us questions both timely and urgent.

AYSHWARIA SEKHER looks back on her ignorance of caste, PRANETA JHA revisits a childhood game that taught her about sexual violence.


I was seventeen, and an undergraduate when I met this friend at hostel.  She was from a southern district of Tamilnadu almost near Kanyakumari. I was always amused by her southern dialect and teased her immensely, for it was very different from what I was used to speaking, being a northerner. She lived next door at hostel, so we got into conversations every time we bumped into each other. One evening she was sweeping her room and cleaning it.  I stopped by to see the way she swept so I could bully her.  As I observed I did realise that she was so much better than me at it and did it with ease. As we got talking, she revealed that she always did it at her home, and it was not a task for her.

Ignorantly I enquired why they did not have a help at home, which according to me was something that every household possessed. She looked at me, and brushed aside the question plainly, saying simply that they just didn’t have any help. I pestered with the question giving her no space. She stopped sweeping and rested her hand against the wall and said that people would not come to her house to work. I was amazed at why people would not go to a home for work.  So my cross questions persisted and she had no choice but to answer.

Here was a girl whose dad working in the Gulf, which in my imagination made her definitely rich, and she didn’t have a domestic help at home. The pieces just didn’t fit together. So the next question I fired, “Why, is your mom a little too strict or harsh with them?”  She smiled at me and said, “No, they won’t come because my mother is from a scheduled caste.” I looked puzzled, unable to accept the fact. How can someone not go to another person’s house because the person belonged to a different caste?

Ignorantly and innocently I made a statement, but didn’t Gandhi say that all SC’s and ST’s were Harijans, ‘children of God’, doesn’t that equalise us all? All this while she had been very patient with my impertinent interrogation, but when I mentioned the name Gandhi, she flared up. “Don’t say that man’s name to me. He is the biggest betrayer.” I could not believe my ears that someone could called Gandhi a betrayer. Fresh out of school with the “mahatma” ingrained in my system, this was like a blow to my face.  I tried to reason out with her, trying my best to convince her about Gandhi with what little knowledge I had of him, but in vain.

A few years later, much after my ignorance had been rectified regarding the evils of the caste system through exposure to various kinds of people,  I landed in JNU for a course in International Relations, where I took a paper called Political Thought. I was exposed to various political philosophers of the world and India. A section on Gandhi and Ambedkar came up, and later on Periyar and his opposition to Gandhi. Gandhi’s varnashrama dharma and his masking of it in his sweet talk of religion and chasing away the British for an equal India seemed a chaalu rhetoric.

As the class proceeded, I returned again and again to the conversation with my friend back in hostel. Her contempt for Gandhi and anger when I mentioned his name seemed to make absolute sense in my head. I could relate to her and see the world from where she stood.



Long before I learnt the meaning of sexual intercourse (I looked it up in the dictionary when I was 12), I learnt the meaning of ‘rape’ through Hindi films.

I learnt that ‘rape’ was a terrible thing done by villains to women that destroyed the victim’s life. I learnt that it was the most terrible thing that could happen to you. That your lover won’t marry you after you got raped. Your parents would suffer such intense social shame they’d wish you were dead instead. Your in-laws would disown you. It’s like you became the untouchable, the unspeakable. Quite often, perhaps to spare the world of its collective shame, I learnt that the victim would commit suicide.

I learnt that ‘rape’ was the reason my parents did not allow me out of the house alone.

I learnt, of course, that only women got raped. But not all women: I learnt early that a whore could not get raped.

I also learnt that there was a perverse, theatrical fascination attached to it. The ‘rape’ scenes in films. But I learnt that particular lesson away from the screen, during playtime. A few days before my 10th birthday, two friends – one of them 13 years old, the other my age – and I decided to pretend-make our own movie (“chalo film banate hain”). Since I was the only girl there, I was naturally the heroine. One guy was the hero while the 13-year-old was the villain; and we had our film. Now, being the eldest amongst us, the 13-year-old was the director, though we were free to spout dialogues of our own making. Not a tough task, since all of us knew what to say in all stock situations from memory. (For context, it was the late ’90s.)

And our stock situation, as directed by the director-cum-villain, was that ubiquitous and immensely theatrical scene where the hero is tied up and the villain is raping his helpless wife/girlfriend in front of the hero’s eyes. Sometimes, the scene engendered such strength in the hero that he’d manage to heroically break his shackles just before the damage was done. But not before the audience got some titillation out of the rape preliminaries.

So anyway, one friend was standing in one corner of the room, screaming and pretend-struggling against his imaginary fetters while I lay on the bed, all ready to pretend. But I realised I didn’t have to. The pretend villain’s pubescent body was real as it lay on top of me and rubbed against mine. Before I could open my mouth not to pretend-scream, it was pressed shut by his, as he tried to imitate what he had learnt to the best of his imagination.

Unfortunately, the 13-year-old did not grow up to become a Bollywood hero.

19 thoughts on “Learning gender, learning caste: two reflections”

  1. Really liked Preneta Jha’s piece. So many of us have had such experiences with friends, even cousins, in our childhood. And of course the inspiration at that time was always the ubiquitous rape scene.

    1. Indeed her piece touches a chord in most of us. Incidentally, her name is Praneta, erroneously credited as Preneta.

  2. Powerful piece by Preneta… I am reminded of instances from my childhood. I was 5 or 6 years old, and I didn’t know what alcohol was, or what effects it had on men who consumed it. A drunk man in my building came near me, and I had no idea what the strong smell meant. He fell on me, and I ignorantly helped him get up and showed him the way to his home.

  3. Preneta’s incident has parallels in all our lives,whether it is real abuse or just a plain discomfort that a word or gesture makes you feel,girls get “the lesson taught” very early in lives.a total rethink on how we look at sex and especially sexual identities in terms of parent and children.
    till this doesn’t change,we don’t utter the three-letter word more often we will grope in the dark and be shamefully groped.

  4. It is a pity that someone misunderstands Gandhi after doing a course in JNU on political thought. It is easy to set Ambedkar vs. Gandhi and Gandhi vs. Ambedkar. But if a course in JNU reinforces that or introduces only that perspective then something is wrong somewhere. Don’t they refer to Nagraj’s work on Ambedkar and Gandhi, and do they teach that Gandhi was for an unequal society based on caste differentiation. I don’t know.

  5. Was Gandhi supposed to be ‘born perfect?’ I believe he grew up learning, complete with trials errors like you and I did, and then had courage to be honest about his experiments.
    Did he talk about Varnashram Dharma as a concept or his belief system that must be followed by people?
    The sum total of his life experiences came through in how he treated people of all castes and ages, how he won majority support to drive away the colonisers.
    Your friends experience is interesting though.

    Jha’s experience reminds me of DTC buses…where ‘baccha boodha ek samaan’ tried out their fantasies on strangers for seconds before they got elbowed, yelled at, or get the ‘classic slap.’
    But at such a tender age, it is just ‘grown ups’ to blame to put such books or movies in the childs view, thought, or leave room for action. Maybe a masala film with everything in it isnt a good idea Bollywood! If more people speak about this, we could develop criteria for Rating system for Indian films?

  6. I have also been a bit uncomfortable about this Gandhi vs. Ambedkar stance and the very strong negative feelings that Gandhi evokes in supporters of Ambedkar because of the Pune Pact. Isn’t it time to let these two stalwarts peacefully co-exist as leaders who contributed to the good of the country? One can only speculate on the empowerment of the Dalits, if Gandhi had gone along with Ambedkar with regard to a separate electorate for the Dalits. The fact is that we are a caste-ridden society and the tag stays with you for life. I still can’t get over the number of times that I have been asked “What caste are you,” by people of all religions and from different walks of life- people you would never imagine being bothered by such an issue! So, to lay the blame of the present plight of Dalits at the door of one man, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, seems a little exaggerated as does his fight for India’s freedom being termed as “chalu rhetoric!”

    1. In contrast to the poster Melanie, I have never been asked a question like “What caste are you?” My adult life was spent in Bombay/Mumbai. My experience is shared by my friends and family. For that reason I think tha the the caste issue will go quietly into history, unless politicians and academics of a particular persuation have an interest in keeping it alive.

      1. Congratulations, Prakash. Your experience is in fact shared by 0.0034% of all Indians. Some of them, shockingly, from outside Bombay. Yes, caste will go away only if we pesky academics of a particular persuasion let it. Just two days ago I travelled by train from Delhi (my big city) to Bombay (your big city). A lively conversation on the Delhi rape and other national issues was taking place in my compartment, as often happens on Indian trains. Not once but three times one of the participants – a smartly dressed young officer from the Merchant Navy – referred to the lower castes as the cause of social evils. He said he lived near the colony where the Delhi rapists were from, and it was a colony of “chuda-chamars” with a very low mentality. He also insisted, to some protest by his conversation-mates, that rapes were in fact not that common in a modern city like Delhi, and that this incident was just “too much”. I felt I had to say something, so I pointed out that all of the rapists were Brahmins or Thakurs. He was nonplussed, but only for a tiny second. He recovered enough to say that it wasn’t their actual caste he was referring to, but the influence of low mentality people in the colony. So hmm, caste is not caste any more in India. It is low mentality, it is poor hygiene, it is laziness to get jobs without quotas, it is politics, it is divisiveness. I’m truly surprised you’ve gone through your entire life in Bombay without experiencing caste. Perhaps you want to watch a documentary called ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’ by Anand Patwardhan. But then, the filmmaker might be “of a certain persuasion” so you might do well to avoid it.

  7. I hope we will see a day when young men and women in India can learn history and sociology in great places other than JNU/DU. There is no single truth in these sciences and we really need multiple points of view to move forward.

    It is heartening that the IITs have opened themselves up to peer and external reviews. Perhaps these universities should consider the same.

    1. All those who are so “uncomfortable” about assessing Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi as a significant figure in the contemporary political and intellectual field, with indefensible views on caste, rather than as a god who must not be critically engaged with, never feel any discomfort in his idolization as “Mahatma” by a culture that disrespects his dismissal of narrow nationalism and his insistence that nature is not simply a “resource” for human consumption that can be endlessly exploited. All thinkers must be critically evaluated by every age, even Gandhi and Ambedkar. I wonder how many of you, especially Vikram, absorbed the fact that Ayshwaria actually read Gandhi, Ambedkar and Periyar, and arrived at her own conclusions. If these three figures are not “multiple points of view” on caste, then I’d like to know what is. And if she encountered a counter to the deification of Gandhi from significant intellectuals of our time only in her post-graduate experience, it says a lot for what passes for education in our country.
      And the IIT’s as an exemplar of offering “multiple points of view”! Don’t make me laugh.

      1. I don’t know if calling Gandhi Chalu without backing it up with argument is all that different from calling him Mahatma without an understanding of what Gandhi thought and did.

        I’m not sure words like ‘sweet-talk’, ‘Chalu’ add anything to my understanding of Gandhi.

      2. I don’t know if Ayshwarya arrived at her own conclusions. From my rather large acquaintance with folks from JNU, they all have identical views.

      3. Nivedita, of course the anachronistic views of Gandhi on caste had been rejected by Dalit and non-Dalit intellectuals even in his time. Even the nascent Dalit middle class of the time was skeptical of his efforts (Untouchable – Narendra Jadhav). But to claim that he was a proponent of caste based discrimination and was masking this in sweet and ‘chalu’ ‘rhetoric’ is something very different.

        In any case, my issue is not with criticism of Gandhi (which is of course necessary and important) or anybody else. It is with the tenor of the criticism and tendency to paint things black or white. A student concluding Gandhi’s struggle against the colonial authorities was ‘chalu rhetoric’ after one paper in Political Thought is as disheartening as the fact that she only encountered a critique of Gandhi in her post-grad studies. Btw, not that I agree with them, but I am curious why criticisms from right-leaning individuals were not included.

        Regarding the IITs, glad I brought out a chuckle. But I didnt say that the IITs offer multiple points of view, only that they at least seem to want to reflect on their shortcomings.

  8. “Gandhi’s varnashrama dharma and his masking of it in his sweet talk of religion and chasing away the British for an equal India seemed a chaalu rhetoric. As the class proceeded, I returned again and again to the conversation with my friend back in hostel. Her contempt for Gandhi and anger when I mentioned his name seemed to make absolute sense in my head. I could relate to her and see the world from where she stood.”

    Hats-off Ayshwaria for this self-realisation of yours… I had also undergone this experience few months ago…

  9. Most people think that this story was similar to, what has happened to them? Not all but readers must have experienced sexual violence or discrimination in their lives. i think these cannot be Ironic for the northern girl because we do inherently hear a lot reports across India.

  10. Both incidents brought back memories of my own that seem startlingly similar and like Ayshwaria a lot of the insight I needed to look at my own life experiences in a different light came to me only after I joined JNU. It bothers me that one learns a certain “fact” all their life and only a few get the opportunity to unlearn and open their minds to a much larger understanding and far more extensive ideas.

  11. Also, as much as I understand this isn’t a post about JNU, I see this tendency to dismiss points of view proposed by JNU students as “brainwashed” opinions. No. All JNU students (or teachers for that matter) don’t hold the same viewpoints. Please, don’t be afraid to accept a point of view that’s different from yours and try to club it in with other opinions to make yourself more comfortable dealing with it. I don’t say this as a student of JNU. I just say this as someone who was taught to understand and respect other ideas apart from my own.

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