Three Books That Convey The Complexity Of Caste

As India has embraced its economic successes, it still grapples with social change.
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There's been a glut of India books in recent years, most of them excitable narratives with titles like Billions of Entrepreneurs that look at how the country's fast-changing economy is revolutionizing global business and the Indian lifestyle.

Fewer and further between are those that acknowledge that the country's progress toward social change has been stuttering and uneven. And it's even more unusual to find authors willing to admit that the ancient Hindu caste hierarchy still defines much about modern country. But these three don't shy away.

Untouchables

My Family's Triumphant Escape from India's Caste System

by Narendra Jadhav

Paperback, 307 pages, Univ of California Pr, $24.95, published March 5 2007 | purchase

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Untouchables
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My Family's Triumphant Escape from India's Caste System
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Narendra Jadhav

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The subtitle of this memoir makes the journey sound easier than it was for Narendra Jadhav's family to escape the oppressive expectations of caste. Jadhav is one of India's 165 million Dalits, or "untouchables" — the group of Indians who were literally outcaste from society for centuries. In some ways, little has changed: Dalits are still disproportionately impoverished, malnourished and illiterate. Jadhav's father, Damu, makes his living guarding the bodies of the dead, hauling away animal carcasses and cleaning the village toilets. But Damu's political awakening takes him out of his backwater village to the teeming metropolis of Mumbai. There, his son, Narendra, not only attends college but becomes chief economist at the Reserve Bank of India. In this, Narendra's telling of his family tale, we see just how much mettle it takes to transcend the lines of caste in today's India.

The White Tiger

A Novel

by Aravind Adiga

Hardcover, 276 pages, Simon & Schuster, $26, published April 22 2008 | purchase

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A Novel
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The rustic hero of Adiga's Booker Prize-winning novel, Balram, shares something with Jadhav's father, Damu. He is an uneducated, low-caste villager determined to find his way out of "the Darkness," as he calls rural India. In Delhi, he sheds the restrictions of his caste and lands a well-paying job as a chauffeur for a rich man. Here's where the similarity to Damu ends, however: In the name of what Balram calls "social entrepreneurship," he murders his boss and takes off for Bangalore, the tech capital of India, hoping to start his own business and get rich. But joining the new economy doesn't mean he overcomes his grudge against rural India — ruled by a corrupt elite. "In the old days," he says, "there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days, there are just two castes — Men with Big Bellies, and Men with Small Bellies. And only two destinies: eat — or get eaten up."

Nine Lives

In Search of the Sacred in Modern India

by William Dalrymple

Hardcover, 275 pages, Random House Inc, $26.95, published June 15 2010 | purchase

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In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
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William Dalrymple, who has been chronicling life in India for 20 years as a travel writer and historian, sets out here to show us the deeply religious rural population. One of Dalrymple's strengths is his refusal to render judgment, but when it comes to the question of caste, he throws in the towel. In a section about a sacred dance form called theyyam, he tells us that the performers who take on the aspect of the gods are "the shunned and insulted Dalits." When the performers remove their costumes, he tells us, they're no longer treated like gods but, once again, like untouchables: "In the presence of persons of the upper castes," he writes, "Dalits are still expected to bow their heads and stand at a respectful distance."

Although Adiga's gutsy portrayal of the ugly inner lobes of modern-day Indian life won him great acclaim, for the most part the image of a caste-ridden society still goes against the popular narrative of a booming India. But these three books show us an India still committed to its religious traditions, even as it surges ahead to join the globalized world.

Miranda Kennedy is an editor for Morning Edition and the author of Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India.

Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman.

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