City Style – The Classy Delhiwalla, Bazaar Sitaram
Searching for the stylish.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The Delhi Walla saw this man in Bazaar Sitaram, a grocery and vegetable market in the Old Quarter. He was wearing a black cap, white kurta, white dhoti and black leather shoes. His glasses were perched high on the nose, partially hiding his wiry eyebrows. Light-brown sandalwood paste was lightly smeared at the center of his forehead. His hair was grey, his moustache was trimmed and his skin was wrinkled. There was no one dressed like him.
The man’s casually crumpled kurta reached his knees. The round collar bordered his neck; folds of his aging skin gracefully emerging out of it. The white dhoti was striking.
An unstitched piece of cloth wrapped around the legs, dhoti is knotted at the waist; its two ends are pulled up between the legs. Once the daily wear of Mahatma Gandhi that Churchill dismissed as a loincloth, the garment is rarely sighted in Delhi. This man, wearing his dhoti so casually, exudes a vacuum-sealed minimalism that has withstood the fickleness of fashion. His style is frugal, traditional and permanent.
The sandalwood smear on the man’s forehead is the tilak, a Hindu caste mark. He could be a Brahmin, the top of the four caste groups.
For thousands of years, the caste system has stolen lives out of the living. Denied the right of being individuals, Indians had to choose a life according to the caste they were born into. Today, the caste divide is starker. The upper caste people, snugly padded in the privilege that has been theirs for generations, patronizingly talk of a world free of discrimination – as long as the status quo is not disturbed. They run the big business and operate the corporate media. But the low caste people – they are more in numbers – demand discrimination. They have been exploited, they want affirmative action. The sins of several centuries must be amended in a single century. And no thanks, the world won’t be doing a favor.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, an extremely casteist Hindu, there are many who struggle to transcend the caste. This man perhaps belongs to the same class. After I finished taking his photos, he affectionately patted me on the shoulder. Perhaps I’m an untouchable. The man didn’t ask. He simply touched me, as if it was no big deal.
Spotting the stylish
Mark the caste
His noble years
A rare style
Mayank, you seem to have somewhat of a skewed perception of Delhi’s society. You have clearly been reading too much of those intellectually irreverent works that are so characteristic of Arundhati Roy. Let me brief you as to what my viewpoint on the ‘caste system’ is.
All religions are stupid. That said, I must also assert that Hinduism has been a very divisive ideology. I am an Atheist ( not a commie, though). But, growing up in a Hindu Brahmin family in South Delhi, I never felt ‘privileged’. My caste rarely came into the picture. My grandparents ( originally from a North-Indian, Himalayan state) had to work their way up the economic ladder. No one handed ‘privileges’ out to them just because they were Brahmins. The same may be said of my parents. All that they have achieved has been strictly merit-based. A very large number of the ‘rich’ people you see in Delhi are ‘baniyas'( ‘vaishyas’,the third from the top). Going by your argument, Brahmins should have been the richest ( most privileged). Not defending Brahmanism here…just asking questions. At the same time, I must admit that the situation is very grim throughout rural India. I would like sum it up by stating that there is indeed a section of Delhi’s population that did not use the ‘caste-card’ in order to achieve its present economic well-being. They have been given a short shrift since their character does not jibe with that of the stereotypical Brahman. Nor does their merit-based achievement give much grist for the mill that seems to churn out pathetic stories about Dalit/Muslim oppression and the usual controversies surrounding reservation.
P.S. I feel areas like Noida, Gurgaon and Dwarka ( previously underpopulated areas) are quite democratic and egalitarian. Since the people are all ‘settlers’ alike, they have no prerogatives over the land or the ‘village well’.Parts of Old Delhi are a nightmare, though.
I think you got a little carried away there. Casteism, untouchability, and reservation – all within the space of a hundred words?
I feel for you, man. The change from whatever you were to Mayank Austen Soofi must have been quite an act of rebellion. Apparently, you still haven’t got the catharsis you were aiming for. Hang in there, pal. It’s the journey, not the destination, etc.
he could be a brahmin..one could assume that after noticing the tilak and the dhoti..but the man is wearing something comfortable enough to beat the humidity of delhi. as far as the caste system is concerned..first time i got to know that it still exists.. atleast in the mountains..it sickened me..you’re right when you say ” The sins of several centuries must be amended in a single century. And no thanks, the world won’t be doing a favor.”.about them demanding discrimination..the caste system in hindu society was divided according to the profession of people in ancient times..and sadly people(of upper castes) got too attached to it and didn’t let the people from so called “lower caste” to rise..and even today..deep within their hearts..people from the “upper castes” of society still judge people in some way or another on the basis of their caste..and that does affect everyone related to people with any kind of discrimination in their mind psychologically..i wont become like that..the whole thing is just so sick.
I agree with your observation that the caste system continues to exist in the mountains, especially areas like Kumaon and Garhwal( sub-divisions of Uttarakhand). But, I believe people from these regions make very good migrants in that they assimilate into the host culture pretty well. The literacy rates are quite high among the members of these communities. It is such a shame some ( older) members cleave to antiquated notions.
You presume a lot … you are kinda getting disappointing lately and what about censoring my comments on Ira Pande’s books… was it cuz I used Haryanvi, Mr High Caste Arundhati Roy Literary Guy or is it you wrote that article to buttress her to further your career and didn’t want any comments that were not outright toe licking… shame indeed.
In Islam there is no caste, thoeretically everyone is supposed to be equal, but in the subcontinent, muslims are treated worse than dalits and muslims also have loosely retained their old pre-conversion castes! Shame indeed.
I don’t think casteism is a pressing issue in India for anyone other than our politicians who periodically resurrect the phoenix to repolarize their vote banks.
I have not seen a single instance of a Brahmin or other “high caste” Hindu misbehaving with a “low caste” Hindu in my 42 years of existence. In fact I don’t even know how I would recognize a low caste person in todays day and age when some of them could be more educated, and in a better job and car than me.
I have however seen innumerable SC and ST people get benefited by reservations.
Like Sufi states, the man touched him on the shoulder, oblivious to the fact that maybe 100 years ago their parents would never have done that.
It illustrates to me that while the “untouchables” still retain a chip on their shoulder for discrimination that their forefathers may have undergone, it is not a overwhelming reality anymore.
hello… i have always regarded ur style of writing as documentarian and factually descriptive rather than analysing or imaginative/ fictional or intellectual for that matter.You deviate & ur article falls flat because of your preconceived notions, cliches & exploitation of what a reader wants to read rather than your own originatity… and that is completely contradictory to ur claims!! This article is a perfect example of just that. That is also quite apparent in the comments as well.
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