Saturday, October 7, 2006

Caste into a mould

KHUSHWANT SINGHAMONG the legacies left to us by our forefathers, the worst is the caste system. Other nations have class hierarchies depending on how much a person owns. If a poor man becomes a millionaire, he becomes an aristocrat but we Indians are cursed with a system which determines our status in society from birth to death. Much as our reformers preached against it, they failed to achieve success.

With the Hindus it was sanctified by our sacred texts. The Gita warned us against mingling of castes because it would lead to chaos. Manu codified it.

Muslims have a caste hierarchy of their own. The upper sections claim their ancestry to their Afghan, Persian, Arab or Turkish ancestors. Others who converted to Islam in India boast of descent from Brahmins (e.g. Allama Iqbal and the Kashmiris), Rajputs or Jats. They look down on converts from lower castes.

Sikhs’ 10 Gurus wrote against caste system but not one of them married outside their Khatri caste. Guru Gobind Singh proclaimed "Maanas kee jaat sab ek hee pehchan bo (regard all humanity as one caste)." Nevertheless, there are hundreds of villages where Mazhabi (Scheduled Caste Sikhs) have been forced to have separate gurdwaras. And believe it or not, even Christians of different denominations are conscious of their Brahmin or Kshatriya ancestry.

The acid test is who one can marry. You don’t need to have this confirmed, just take a look at the matrimonial supplements of Sunday papers. What matters most to us Indians looking for husbands or wives is their caste and sub-caste.

There is no logic about the caste system. Men who patronise brothels don’t ask about the castes of whores they make love to in return for cash. Nor when they seduce their maidservants, washerwomen or sweeperesses. Then they forget about untouchability or pollution. Lust overcomes all their inhibitions. But when it comes to marriages of their sons and daughters, caste raises its ugly head. It is a stigma tattooed on our flesh and cannot be washed away with soap or detergents. We could think of no better solution to the problem than providing the lowest castes with reservations in educational institutions and jobs. We did so in the hope that in due course of time they will become as educated and prosperous as upper castes. I am not sure if reservations will work, I keep my fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, educated Christians are upset about Dalits of their community being excluded from the list of beneficiaries simply because they have converted to Christianity. I got an anguished letter from Jaya Thadani, daughter of the late Sir Dalip Singh, Judge of the Lahore High Court.

His branch of the ruling family from Kapurthala, including Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, converted to Christianity. Jaya, married to a Hindu, is a devout Roman Catholic and has been living abroad for over 30 years. "Why don’t you protest against the discrimination against Dalit Christians?" She wrote to me. It was followed by a visit from Reginald Massey, who lives the life of a country gentleman on his estate in Wales shooting pheasants flying over his air space.

He is in India to teach creative writing in Himachal for a few months, without a salary. He gave me a copy of the letter addressed to Justice Ranganath Misra, Chairman of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities. He points out that keeping Dalit Christians out of the list of reservations in institutions and jobs is contrary to the spirit of our Constitution and discriminatory. It makes good sense and I hope Justice Misra will recommend that Dalit Christians be given the same opportunities as other Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

Sarson ka saag

Come autumn and the mustard is in flower. Patches in the flat lands of Punjab and Haryana turn a canary yellow and gold. I look forward to my favourite food of all times. — sarson ka saag. Since a child, I have looked forward to savouring it at least three times every week for my mid-day meal. In my opinion it is the best thing to keep the stomach in order: it is nourishing, and, above all, if properly cooked with the right ingredients, delicious to taste. What is served in dhabas (few hotels or restaurants have it on their menus) is the tinned stuff marketed by the Punjab Government’s Markfed — it falls short of the required standards.

The best was, and is, made in my own home. My mother learnt the art from her mother, who had learnt it from hers. She taught her cooks among whom one was Chandan Singh Pundir, a Garhwali who has been with me for over 50 years. Now he is old and reluctant to take the trouble. When I start pestering him, he puts me off by some excuse or the other, "Abhee shalgam market main nahin aaya." I don’t know what turnips have to do with saag but he thinks it is a must. Also, Bathua. And much else. Then he gives in and spends hours cooking it with other ingredients, including lots of ginger and garlic.

He makes it in quantities large enough to last me a week or more. I do not put blobs of home-made butter or desi ghee on it as many people do. I do not have makki or bajra rotis to go with it. I simply sprinkle freshly ground black pepper on it and eat it with a slice of whole-meal brown bread. I do not wash it down with lassi or chhaach. My stomach welcomes it: no gas no belching. I ascribe some of my longevity to Chandan Singh’s sarson ka saag.

Some years ago, when I had a three-month stint at the Wilson Centre of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, I took a few tins of sarson ka saag manufactured by Markfed. I was disappointed by its poor quality. I wrote about it in my column. Apparently it was taken notice of. A few weeks ago, D.S. Jaspal who looks after Punjab’s Public Relations and a colleague of his Balbir Singh Sudan, dropped in and brought a few tins of their improved saag. They have impressive labels in English and French with lists of ingredients. They do not include shalgam or bathua but do have ginger and onion and garlic but not in the needed proportions.

I sampled it on my next meal. There is a lot of scope for improving its taste. The best suggestion I can offer is that they acquire the services of Chandan Singh Pundir for a few days and make the world know why Punjabis make such a song and dance about sarson ka saag.