Let me make an admission: I’m privileged, therefore I am

The benefits that accrue from the accident of my birth are emotional, psychological, social, and economic
Last Updated : 11 February 2023, 20:19 IST

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My columns have been about observations of the outside world and expressed my views on what I have seen, felt or read. Rarely has my own life and its ebbs and flows been a part of my writing. There is a reason. Bringing oneself into the story can make it self-absorbed, thereby losing the larger discussion. I am going to break that self-imposed rule in order to explain how society is constructed to favour men with caste privilege.

The benefits that accrue from the accident of my birth are emotional, psychological, social, and economic. I have placed the economic last because this is a default fall-out of all the former. Does this mean poor people do not exist in the privileged? Of course not. But caste gives them the wherewithal to make a life of it, and this is embedded in the social, emotional and psychological.

In 1997-98, my father fell ill. He suffered a heart attack, which was followed by a rapid deterioration. Parallely, the company he had built collapsed and the financial debt far exceeded anything we could cough up. In between all this, I got married. My father died in 2000, just a few days after our first daughter was born. The company was liquidated. In order to settle the dues, we sold everything we owned. Within the next couple of years, my oldest brother died of cancer. Despite these personal losses and financial disasters, we were able to rebuild our lives.

Social privilege gives you the mental strength to face the worst that life throws at you. From childhood, we are told that we are ‘special’. Though not articulated overtly, the uniqueness that we are made to feel is caste, inculcated through cultural and religious habits. We are told that we are not like others and that our caste-related knowledge gives us an understanding of the world that the rest of society cannot comprehend. It is sophisticated, spiritual, abstract and elevated. It also constitutes learning, for which we have a ‘natural’ aptitude. It is innate because we are subconsciously informed that we are smarter than the rest. Which is why marks in examinations is an obsession. In other words, we are born to lift the ugly baseline of society by doing what we are destined to do. When the worst happens, I psychologically tap into stories that inform me of all these qualities. This gives me the inner strength to push through horrible moments.

Compare this with the home of a marginalised person. From birth, they are told that they need to be grateful for anything good that happens to them because they do not deserve it. Life is a tiring sequence of events within which happiness somehow needs to be found. Unlike my caste identity, which is celebrated as the ideal, theirs is undesirable. Intricately rooted in caste is the mind, physical attributes, body language, linguistic dialect, and sense of beauty. Each is held against the marginalised. Society constantly tells them that nothing of what they are is respectable. In such a state, self-worth is much harder to find. Something that I so easily access.

There is one more reason for me to be able to find the confidence and self-reliance: Cultural and family memory. My home is abuzz with stories of grandfathers and great-grandmothers who achieved something or the other. Even silly, stupid acts are turned into a humorously reverent telling. All this instills in me value and gives me the courage to move forward. The emotional stability that comes from caste privilege is unquantifiable.

This does not mean that the caste-privileged do not crumble in the face of adversity. There are enough examples of that. But to not acknowledge that they have a far better chance of pulling through than the oppressed is a travesty. There is one more ugly truth. The suicide of a person with caste privilege receives abundant social attention. Compare this with hundreds of farmers who have taken their lives. The latter has been normalised by caste. When it happens to someone who is “upper caste”, it is a shock because it is not an everyday happening and it is unimaginable that such a person was driven to taking his/her own life. More often than not, the blame is, in some convoluted manner, shifted on to the marginalised.

Caste-privileged collectivity provides us with a wide and unsaid network that is always available. It is perpetually functioning and does not wait for difficult times. Which means the community feeling is well established and self-actualising. There is always a way to get out of a jam because we know someone who knows someone; not necessarily people with wealth, but caste-cohorts. The emotional support and strength that can be gathered are invaluable, especially in times of adversity. And people like me always have it. The network is not limited to members of one’s own caste; it cuts across communities and is hence an unending resource. Others who want to associate with my caste identity will also come forward. Even if there is little support, there will never be rejection in a manner that a trans-person, a Dalit or a person from the tribal community will encounter.

Evidently, none of this is about the economic aspect directly. It is socio-cultural, and even the economically backward among the caste privileged have access to it. Societal frameworks and norms acutely favour those with social privilege. The advantages are not just material, they are psychological and emotional. When I grow up informed of my community’s importance, a constantly reaffirmed caste legacy, and know that ‘my’ people will look out for me, I know I can somehow make it.

(The mind questions, the music moves, the mountains beckon. Twitter: @tmkrishna.)

Published 11 February 2023, 18:27 IST

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