I met the Patels, but they didn’t talk about caste

When the results of a survey on caste in the United States came out—first of its kind, published by Equality Labs—the results weren’t surprising in the least bit. Here is an infographic:

caste in usa
Key findings | Read more about the survey here

Indian-Americans, popularly referred to as a model immigrant population, brought along with them many ideas about caste and purity. They pride themselves on their superior intellect, secure in the belief that the best of the best made it to the United States, this last bastion of true merit. Even as reservations in India produced graduates of dubious quality, here in the United States, hope remained alive, in social cliques that avoided onion and garlic and animal protein, teaching their children the same prejudices. They conflate caste with culture, eroding the thin line that possibly separated the two, protecting discriminatory practices under the umbrella of Tradition.

I watched the mostly-charming movie Meet The Patels, a real-life romantic comedy about Ravi Patel, the thirty year old son of Gujarati parents who are on Mission Impossible 7: Get Ravi Married. Ravi has just broken up with his white girlfriend, because of some complex feelings about his double life, and the need to keep his relationship a secret from strict parents (who are typically Indian in the way they support gendered lives until you are of marriageable age). Ravi meets numerous Indian-American girls, all Patels, all presented to him through a flourishing network of Aunties and Uncles, certified matchmakers, dating websites, matrimonial alliance websites, once even at a Patel marriage convention. It is all mild and mostly harmless fun, with the witty Geeta (Ravi’s sister) behind the camera, teasing her brother and sneaking up on people to capture their real emotions.

Throughout the movie, the word caste is used twice, both times in a very casual manner, and you might even forget that it is the foundation on which this whole enterprise has been mounted. It does not make any of the Indian-American characters uncomfortable, that their family expects them to marry someone who shares their last name, and what this actually means. Gujarati, Hindu, vegetarian—Ravi ticks off the qualities a potential candidate must possess. These are treated as residues of a traditional upbringing, as wanting to be with someone from a similar Background (interchangeable with Culture), and not seen as the rigid caste boundaries they in fact are. These first generation Americans are comfortable calling out their parents’ racism, colourism, Islamophobia. But they seem to accept caste as a way of life, undeserving of discussion.

Often, when I meet Indian-Americans, I observe that their definition of India or Culture is restricted to what their family exposes them to. It is limited in its scope, it seems to exist in a vacuum, where Bollywood songs breathe and die. In this vacuum, prejudices grow and take strange shapes. Like the Tamil boy from California who asked another Tamil boy from Chennai if he has a thread across his torso—simply because they were both Tamil.

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4 thoughts on “I met the Patels, but they didn’t talk about caste

  1. I enjoyed reading this piece though I find it very hard to believe that there is discrimination of Dalits in the US. Maybe for people outside of Tamilnadu/Kerala, the caste is obvious based on their last names and therefore is it easier to identify the dalits and discriminate them? In my 14 plus years in the US, I have hardly encountered caste conversations in the US. My cousin who is married to someone outside of Tamilnadu has decided to not have a surname for her kids so that the caste is not obvious.

    Funny about the thread around the waist question. I am married to a Tamil Brahmin and my son was asking relatives from my side, if they wear a Poonal. It was comical at first but I also realize how offensive this question can be. He also used to think that everyone in India spoke Tamil as he had only been to only Tamilnadu during his India trips. So I get your point about kids having preconceived notion of culture/India.

    Also recently I watched Ali’s wedding a movie about Iraqi immigrants in Australia. It was an interesting watch on how difficult it is break out of traditions/ family expectations even when you are so far away from your home country.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading!
      I found Ali’s Wedding quite enjoyable. It gives you the pleasure of a rom-com while still managing to make some unique points. And to think it’s a true story! Left me smiling. 🙂

      Like

      1. Yes exactly, I enjoyed Ali’s wedding very much. I thought that all the actors had done such a brilliant job. I watched a Malayalam movie called Angamaly diaries on Netflix today. Beautifully shot and great acting as well, though some scenes were gruesome.

        Liked by 1 person

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