India's Caste System in Silicon Valley : Rough Translation How does India's caste system play out in the hiring practices of Silicon Valley? And what happens when dominant caste people in the U.S. grapple with their own inherited privilege for the first time?
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How To Be An Anti-Casteist

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How To Be An Anti-Casteist

How To Be An Anti-Casteist

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GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner.

When Sam Cornelius (ph) first arrived to the United States in the mid-'90s, he was surprised by how welcoming people were.

SAM CORNELIUS: The people were so encouraging. You know, hey. We are going to this swimming classes. Do you want to join us? - and things like that.

WARNER: They'd ask him questions about his home country, India. But even more surprising was the questions they did not ask. For instance, they did not try to know what his caste was or even what caste is.

And how did that feel for you, like, putting aside caste?

CORNELIUS: That is really great feeling, you know, that - yes, now everything I will be judged by exactly what I deserve (ph).

WARNER: Sam is from the Dalit caste, formerly known as untouchables. And you may know this already, but the caste system in South Asia goes back thousands of years. It's based on an ancient division of labor and also purity. So there is a caste for priests. That's the Brahmins. But there's also a caste for the warriors, the caste for merchants, another caste for manual laborers. Dalits were the sewer cleaners, the garbage collectors. And in India, growing up, Sam was always reminded of his association with the unclean. He saw it in the way the teachers treated him at school and the jokes people made about caste. And he always wondered what kind of person he might be if he did not have a label at all, if he was just Sam, no caste attached. And it seemed like he'd finally found that person, that new Sam, in the United States.

CORNELIUS: I was doing so many activities and feeling so confident and feeling that my real potential is coming out.

WARNER: After that first trip to the United States, he took another one and another after that, always here as a company employee on a work visa, never a citizen. And as more South Asians came to work in tech jobs, he had more Indian coworkers and managers. And he noticed they were trying to suss out his caste.

CORNELIUS: There is famous spot on the back. Usually, Brahmins wear white around their shoulders.

WARNER: They patted his shoulders to see if he was wearing a white thread that only Brahmins wear.

CORNELIUS: So with you not even knowing, they will try to pat your shoulder and try to see - the finding this thread.

WARNER: Was he a Brahmin like them?

CORNELIUS: In other ways, they will call you for a swim, you know? Hey. Let's go for a swim - because everybody takes their shirt off. And all they know who are wearing threads, who are not.

WARNER: Years ago, these invitations to go swimming with American friends and neighbors were a sign of acceptance. But now the same invitations for his fellow Indians felt like a trap to out him as a Dalit. And the consequences of being outed - well, that is what our episode is about because some people think that naming people's caste is the way forward to a fair world, while Sam is so afraid he'll be sacked and sent back to India for speaking out.

CORNELIUS: Yes, for this interview...

WARNER: He's decided, if he's going to speak out publicly on this topic, he's adopting a pseudonym.

CORNELIUS: ...I am Sam Cornelius. Of course, that is my alias.

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. I'm Gregory Warner. Our series School of Scandal looks at people breaking unspoken codes of conduct to try to change the status quo. The code in this story - it is an ancient hierarchy that we usually associate with India...

MAYA KAMBLE: I had an Indian manager.

WARNER: ...But which has been imported to workplaces in the United States.

KAMBLE: He knew what my caste was. So he wanted to dominate me as much as possible and...

WARNER: Might the national conversation that we're having in the U.S. about race and privilege...

ANIL DASH: I am as privileged as it gets.

WARNER: ...Help illuminate caste and its impact here...

DASH: How do people who think they're being good do something harmful? - because I've been one.

WARNER: ...Or do the ways that America sees race and ethnicity make discrimination by caste even harder to talk about?

CORNELIUS: I just don't have the language.

WARNER: ROUGH TRANSLATION - back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We are back with ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR, and I'm Gregory Warner. We started talking about caste with Lauren Frayer...

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hello, this is Lauren.

WARNER: ...NPR's India correspondent, who started thinking about caste and race in part because of an initiative at NPR to track the diversity of our sources. This is something we all now do, including this podcast. We will note how many women we're putting on the air, how many people of color and other demographic stats.

FRAYER: I see my company trying to better represent America with the voices we put on the air. And I'm looking at my own sourcing, and I get too much credit. Every voice I bring to the airwaves from India is a person of color. Check the box, you know? That's diversity from my boss's point of view. But I'm looking at different types of diversity in India and thinking caste. You see it in India when it comes to arranged marriages, you know, dating apps. You see it in real estate. I mean, there are subtle ways in which landlords choose tenants and signal to tenants that certain castes are welcome or not welcome.

WARNER: There's no uncontroversial way to talk about caste, and even the words we use are fraught. So you're going to hear people in this story talk about upper caste and lower caste. We're going to try to avoid those hierarchies and say dominant caste and oppressed caste.

FRAYER: Oppression is a strong term, but it definitely applies here. This is oppression that's gone back centuries. It was really amplified by the British. So British colonists came in and gave Brahmins more privileges, elevated them and exploited this power differential between the Brahmins and other castes. And so when Indians won their independence in 1947, they wrote a constitution that acknowledges that oppression and lays out bold measures to try to fix it - affirmative action programs to place Dalits in government jobs, to place Dalits in top universities. And all of that exists in India still today.

But despite all of this, Dalits in India face so much violence - disproportionate violence. Dalit women are raped more than women of other castes. Dalit men get lynched for falling in love with a dominant-caste woman.

WARNER: Lauren knew she wanted to find out people's caste to make sure she was hearing from a variety of voices, including people who don't always get access to speak. But this brought a new problem. How actually do you find out someone's caste?

CORNELIUS: So that is a good question. How does one person know your caste, right? It is not like you have a color which gives away your identity.

WARNER: Sam Cornelius says sometimes it's easy. You just read someone's caste by their surname.

CORNELIUS: Some have names you cannot hide.

WARNER: And how about your real surname? Is it easy to hide?

CORNELIUS: Yeah. My real surname doesn't give away my caste easily. OK? That is why, immediately, when I tell the surname, they will ask me - oh, where do you come from? You know, which part of that state you come from? They had to ask a follow-up question.

FRAYER: If you can't tell by surname, you can ask about someone's neighborhood.

CORNELIUS: I also try to be clear. I come from Hyderabad. So I tell, oh, I am from Hyderabad.

FRAYER: It's a city of 9 million people, and all castes are there.

CORNELIUS: So that's where the people are not satisfied if you give a city name. So what they do is - no, no, no. I'm not talking about what city you come from. Where do originally your parents - which region or district they came from?

WARNER: Sam keeps dodging the real question.

CORNELIUS: My parents used to stay in Bombay. OK? So I tell them, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually, before that, my father used to work in the railway, so he was in Delhi (laughter).

WARNER: You just keep naming cities.

CORNELIUS: Yeah, naming cities because that is the facts, also. Then they'll understand that I am playing around, too. They give up.

FRAYER: Sam doesn't want to reveal his caste because most of his Indian co-workers are from dominant castes. In fact, the overwhelming majority of South Asians in America are from dominant castes. They're often the ones with the resources and access to get here.

CORNELIUS: The other question usually people ask is - oh, are you vegetarian? - because Brahmins are vegetarians. Even if you say, well, yes, I am a vegetarian, if you are an Indian asking an Indian to find out a caste, you would say, are you vegetarian by birth or by choice? OK.

WARNER: And the tricky thing about this is that a co-worker could be overhearing this entire conversation and still have no clue what they're really talking about.

CORNELIUS: Yeah, yeah. They will nod. Even the people who are very active about race - they know race discrimination and all, they might have not heard about caste at all.

FRAYER: One person who has written about this hidden code is Suraj Yengde. He's a scholar at Harvard, and he wrote a book called "Caste Matters."

SURAJ YENGDE: I am a grandchild of a former landless laborer and someone who has to clean toilet into the houses of the dominant-caste people. So I am a Dalit. I'm a Dalit Indian. And when I come to, of course, America, I am a person of color.

FRAYER: These are two identities that help him see things that other people don't see. For example, Suraj points out this video that came out last fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

MINDY KALING: OK. So what we're going to cook today...

KAMALA HARRIS: OK.

KALING: ...Is an Indian recipe...

HARRIS: Yes.

KALING: ...Because you are Indian.

HARRIS: Yeah. Yes, yes.

WARNER: This is a video filmed in the kitchen of the actor and writer Mindy Kaling on this day when Senator Kamala Harris has stopped by to cook.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

KALING: So we are both Indian.

HARRIS: Yes.

KALING: But actually, we're both South Indian.

HARRIS: Yes.

WARNER: Kamala Harris has a Jamaican father and a mother from Chennai in southern India.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

HARRIS: You look like the entire one-half of my family.

KALING: OK. Thank you.

HARRIS: You do. You do.

KALING: I've been telling people we're related already, so this is perfect.

HARRIS: Yeah (laughter).

KALING: It's basically true.

WARNER: Kamala's mother was a Brahmin, the priestly caste, who, according to tradition, they don't eat meat.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

HARRIS: So South Indians, it's vegetarian. It's all vegetarian.

KALING: Yes. Obviously, no meat.

FRAYER: Lots of Indian Americans loved this video. They gushed about it on Twitter. It reminded them, they said, of their own families, of their own immigration stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

HARRIS: Just don't call me Auntie (laughter).

KALING: OK. I won't call you Auntie.

FRAYER: But you could watch this and think that Mindy and Kamala are speaking for all South Indians, that everyone there is a vegetarian...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

KALING: Even the dog would eat...

HARRIS: No, no, no. Right.

KALING: ...Rice and yogurt.

HARRIS: Rice and yogurt. Oh, yeah.

FRAYER: ...When, actually, they're talking about a minority. Most Indians eat meat.

YENGDE: So when I saw that, I clearly saw, you know, that is not my food.

FRAYER: What Suraj saw in this nine-minute cooking video was two dominant-caste people flaunting their caste privilege...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

KALING: OK. Senator Harris, I say this with respect - you're kind of a show-off.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

FRAYER: ...And being really chummy about it.

YENGDE: You know, Kamala, I know - I got you. Kamala says to Mindy, Mindy, I got you - and I think with a certain kind of affinity.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

KALING: OK. What can't she do?

FRAYER: I mean, maybe she just has fond memories of the food she ate with her grandparents, right? She's a second-generation immigrant. I mean, she could sort of be oblivious to the signaling that you're describing.

YENGDE: No, you're right. But what you miss is cuisine is the place where caste boundaries are drawn. Kitchens are of the place where Dalits are not allowed to enter. Kitchen is a place where purity of consumption is maintained. Even a menstruating woman is not allowed. This is a strict caste space.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

KALING: Hi (laughter).

FRAYER: There's this other moment of the video that Suraj points out.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

HARRIS: This is your father?

KALING: This is my dad, Avu.

HARRIS: Hi, Uncle.

FRAYER: Mindy Kaling's dad shows up. And Kamala, without being asked where she's from, drops the name of a neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

HARRIS: My grandparents lived in Besant Nagar.

FRAYER: It's a wealthy area of Chennai - very elite. A lot of Brahmins live there. And Mindy's dad says his family also lives there.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

AVU CHOKALINGHAM: My family lives there.

FRAYER: Suraj reads this as part of the code they use to signal status.

WARNER: We don't know how Kamala Harris and Mindy Kaling consider their own caste privilege. We did invite them to explore this with us. But Kamala Harris' press secretary declined to comment on the record, and Mindy Kaling did not respond to our email.

Suraj tells us he does wish he could talk to more people about what he sees in this video.

YENGDE: I just can't wrap my head around. Probably, I am being too senile about it.

WARNER: Suraj is 32. He's not senile. But he has often felt crazy for pointing out this code and even seeing this thing that many people in the U.S. just don't see. Meanwhile, Sam Cornelius, the guy who gets asked by his Indian co-workers what village his parents are from, he's learned to stay silent and dodge these caste questions.

And then something happened that would have Suraj and Sam and a lot of people in America talking with surprising candor about caste.

FRAYER: So earlier this summer, a lawsuit was filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on behalf of an engineer at Cisco Systems. That's one of the largest makers of computer networking equipment; they've got offices around the world. They also hire a lot of Indians on H-1B visas to come to the U.S.

WARNER: And, like a lot of tech companies now, they have some teams that are all Indian employees. This lawsuit focuses on a team like that at Cisco's headquarters in San Jose, Calif.

FRAYER: An engineer on that team alleges that two of his supervisors, who are from dominant castes, discriminated against him because they knew he was from an oppressed caste.

WARNER: And what's his name, by the way?

FRAYER: We don't know his name. In the lawsuit, he is listed as John Doe. So John Doe, the alleged victim, says that when he confronted his superiors about this, he faced retaliation. And his superiors isolated him from colleagues, gave him assignments that were impossible to complete in the time given - so basically tried to push John Doe out of the company.

So what does he do? What are you told to do when you suspect you're a victim of discrimination? You go to your HR department, and that's what he does in November 2016.

WARNER: And this is where things get interesting. And again, what we know here is just completely according to the lawsuit. Cisco has not commented publicly on the details of this case. There's been no trial. There are no witness statements made public. But according to the lawsuit, John Doe's case is handled by a Cisco HR rep named Brenda Davis. And Davis investigates.

FRAYER: She gets a confession from one of John Doe's supervisors. This guy went to university with John Doe back in India 20 years ago, and now the supervisor tells the whole work team John Doe's caste.

WARNER: Allegedly, the supervisor confesses to revealing information that outed the engineer as a Dalit. Now Brenda Davis has to decide if this is discrimination. We've asked to talk with her or with someone else from Cisco's HR department. They did not make anyone available. What is public is Cisco's anti-discrimination policy.

FRAYER: Decisions are made without regard to gender, race, color, citizenship, religion, age, physical or mental ability, medical condition - this is the employee manual I'm reading - genetic information, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, national origin, ancestry - but not caste.

WARNER: No. Maybe caste discrimination could fall under the term of ancestry, but Cisco's HR department did not read it that way. They closed the investigation - no discrimination here.

FRAYER: But then the engineer goes to the state of California, and the state argues that this was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin.

WARNER: And the state of California or, rather, specifically the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing takes up the case, and they say U.S. laws against discrimination do apply to caste. And even though this case is in its early stages - it may take years to resolve and settle - but just the fact that this lawsuit is out there and that there might be some American legal response to casteism, it's made a lot more people in the U.S. speak out...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THENMOZHI SOUNDARARAJAN: OK. Let's go ahead...

WARNER: ...About caste.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening for those that are joining us in India.

WARNER: So this is a virtual town hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: ...This town hall on caste in tech.

WARNER: Thenmozhi Soundararajan, who goes by the Twitter handle @dalitdiva, runs a human rights organization called Equality Labs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: After the Cisco case, Equality Labs got close to 300 similar complaints from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, Amazon, Dell, Twitter, Uber...

WARNER: Hundreds of complaints about caste discrimination in the workplace...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: ...Netflix, Salesforce, Lyft, Zoom, Dropbox and Quora.

WARNER: And she says none of these people went to HR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: Not a single person because of the H-1B.

WARNER: H-1B visas - so if you lose your job, you have to leave the States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOUNDARARAJAN: It's not just about losing your work; it's losing your status. One out of 2 Dalit respondents in our survey said they live in fear of being outed because...

WARNER: There are other Dalits who speak in this town hall. But they speak anonymously, behind blackened screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMBLE: I had an Indian manager.

WARNER: Here's an IT worker who goes by the name Maya Kamble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMBLE: He knew what my caste was, so he wanted to dominate me as much as possible. And one day, he asked me not to touch a new tool because I was ill-fated. It was a direct reference to me being from an untouchable background, and I could just remember how my ancestors were supposed to not touch things just because they were considered bad luck and even their shadow was considered bad luck.

WARNER: She'd never expected to feel that shadow over her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: For some people, this is a moment of speaking out about something that they've stayed silent about for too long. But for lots of other South Asian employees at these very same companies - remember, mostly dominant-caste themselves - they don't see any problem. Suraj told us, this is why he feels senile for even bringing up caste privilege in the United States.

YENGDE: I just don't have the language. I just don't know how to say without sounding I'm playing the victim card.

WARNER: Because he sees this bias that dominant-caste people mostly don't see...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DASH: Because it is fully possible to grow up within caste-privileged communities in America and not have visibility into the issues that people face as a result of caste in this country because they are erased.

WARNER: One of the last to speak at this virtual town hall on caste in tech is a Brahmin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DASH: I am as privileged as it gets, whether it is caste or gender or all the other aspects there. So I'm grateful to even get the chance to speak in these conversations.

FRAYER: Anil Dash is a tech CEO and writer who has been talking and tweeting about caste discrimination in the workplace even before this lawsuit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DASH: I can't emphasize this enough. Even the most powerful caste-privileged people in the industry who are of any South Asian descent still see themselves as completely precarious in a white-dominated tech industry, myself included. They still see themselves as they're the ones backed into a corner - they're vulnerable. So the idea that they are also replicating incredible harm, it is a leap. It has not occurred to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: After the break, what happens when someone does suddenly confront their caste privilege and then has to figure out what to do about that. How do you leave caste behind - and should you? That's when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner, today with NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer. In the first half of this story, we heard mostly from Dalit or oppressed-caste voices. But we're going to switch gears for a moment and just look at how this conversation looks from the other end of the caste hierarchy.

FRAYER: Mauktik Kulkarni never thought much about his own privilege - not in his childhood in India, not in the nearly two decades he's spent in the United States - until this spring...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AMY COOPER: Sir, I'm asking you to stop recording me (unintelligible).

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Please don't come close to me.

FRAYER: ...When he saw a video that millions of people saw. You probably saw.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

C COOPER: Please call the cops.

FRAYER: It's this video of a white woman, Amy Cooper, in New York's Central Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

A COOPER: There is an African American...

FRAYER: She calls the cops on an African American birdwatcher who had asked her to leash her dog.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

A COOPER: I'm being threatened by a man in the Ramble. Please send the cops immediately.

MAUKTIK KULKARNI: She called 911 because, instinctively, she knew that the game is rigged...

FRAYER: Mauktik watched this with a jolt of recognition.

M KULKARNI: ...That if the cops show up, they're not going to believe him.

FRAYER: He saw himself in this scene.

M KULKARNI: I just knew that this is me.

FRAYER: Except that Mauktik, a person of color, he didn't see himself in the birdwatcher being threatened - he saw himself in the white woman who was calling the cops. He was Amy Cooper.

M KULKARNI: And that sense of entitlement just took me back to my childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: He remembered being a child in India in his grandparents' kitchen.

M KULKARNI: With my grandmom - she was a freedom fighter, a social activist in her own right. But she wouldn't allow some of the maids that we had to enter the kitchen. They had their own utensils for their water and tea that used to be served.

FRAYER: And he remembered the questions his grandfather would ask him when he came home from school.

M KULKARNI: Questions about, who are you hanging out with in school? And you know, what do his parents do, and what is their last name? In hindsight, that was my first encounter, if you will, of caste.

FRAYER: He didn't realize until much later that, in some ways, his grandfather was teaching him a code.

M KULKARNI: And I realized that this is just wrong and I need to do something about it.

FRAYER: So what are you going to do about it? (Laughter).

M KULKARNI: Well, I - the first thing I did was write that article.

WARNER: Mauktik writes an article for an Indian publication called Scroll questioning whether he's a kind of white supremacist of a different color. It's because of that article that Lauren first found him. But Mauktik knew he needed to do more.

FRAYER: But there's no curriculum. You can join seminars these days to check your white privilege, and you can learn how to be an anti-racist. Right? Like, there are tools out there. But Mauktik can't find any tools that he can use to sort of figure out this caste privilege, this predicament that he's suddenly realized he's in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: He needed an expert, a guide. And he reaches right for the top.

FRAYER: He ends up crafting an email to one of the best known Dalit scholars out there - Suraj Yengde day at Harvard. And he tells Suraj that he wants to apologize on behalf of the Brahmin people for centuries of domination.

WARNER: Which felt like a pretty bold and privileged thing to say - but Suraj says he's actually gotten other calls like this from young Brahmins in the United States. And he always says the same thing.

YENGDE: I congratulate you as being a dominant caste to think that you want to fix this. And I think that's the first step.

WARNER: And then he tells them about the next step.

YENGDE: You got to be a cultural suicide bomber. You have to utilize your cultural privilege and blow that up by challenging all of the other people who are sitting there comfortably into the chairs without even questioning.

WARNER: If Mauktik wanted to fix things going forward, he had to take these ideas back to the places and to the people who first taught him this stuff.

FRAYER: So Mauktik, I don't want to put you on the spot. But like, you're talking about something that you wished - you wanted to ask your mom that. Could we just give her a ring?

M KULKARNI: Uh, I...

FRAYER: Mauktik eventually agrees.

It's +91...

M KULKARNI: Yeah.

FRAYER: We call his mom.

M KULKARNI: Hi. Mauktik (non-English language spoken).

SONAL VIVEKANANDA KULKARNI: Hello.

FRAYER: And they let me record. Mauktik has been trying to get his mother to acknowledge that he is no longer a Brahmin. It's this thing that he inherited from her and from all of her ancestors. He tells her...

M KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: ...He does not consider himself a Brahmin anymore.

M KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: He asks her...

M KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken, laughter).

FRAYER: ...How does she feel about that?

S KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: She says, "Mauktik, don't put me in trouble here."

S KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Does she feel proud to be Brahmin?

S KULKARNI: Yes. Yes. Yes, I am. I am proud (laughter).

FRAYER: Why?

S KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: She says, "Everyone takes pride in their caste. They don't leave their caste, so why should we?"

S KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "Everyone believes in this, Mauktik," she says.

S KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "It's just how things are."

WARNER: What Mauktik's mom says, it's not quite true. Actually, Dalits throughout history have tried to leave their caste by converting to a different religion or just changing their last name. Suraj Yengde says that that's only invisibilized the problem of caste. And now he says tech companies need to call attention to it. He says they should proactively hire more oppressed-caste workers.

YENGDE: And specificly, when you have a sizable number of Indian employees working with you, you cannot afford to have an ignorance on this matter.

FRAYER: So how could that work? Like, if Cisco calls you up and asks you to be a consultant - they want to diversify their Indian workforce - what do you tell them?

YENGDE: I will ask them to give me the list of names of their Indian American employees. And I will go through the list to identify what caste they belong to.

WARNER: Suraj spent his childhood in India hiding his Dalit caste. But to fix things, he's comfortable with people being outed.

FRAYER: There was this moment when Suraj was showing me the Mindy Kaling-Kamala Harris video...

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

KALING: OK. So what we're going to cook today...

HARRIS: OK.

KALING: ...Is an Indian recipe.

HARRIS: Yes.

FRAYER: ...And teaching me how to read this code.

It struck me as you and I were talking about this video - when we talked, you said Mindy Kaling - what's her real name?

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KAMALA HARRIS AND MINDY KALING COOK MASALA DOSA")

HARRIS: Right. Rice and yogurt. Oh, yeah.

KALING: Yeah, the dog would eat rice and yogurt.

HARRIS: Oh, yeah.

FRAYER: And you and I were sort of trying to discern her caste, right? And then Googling Mindy Kaling''s parents - and I feel like I got drawn into this dirty game of caste detection.

YENGDE: You did not. You were a responsible journalist.

FRAYER: I don't know. I mean, this is what people have done to you all your life.

YENGDE: No. But the point is we are not doing it to impose a viciousness on them.

FRAYER: I'm just thinking about Brenda Davis in her HR office. Suddenly, she's got to investigate this invisible, complicated thing. I mean, she's got to now understand, well, is a Brahmin higher than a Shudra? OK, maybe. But what about these subcastes? I mean, there are hundreds of them. Poor Brenda Davis. (Laughter).

YENGDE: Yes and no. Brenda Davis, if he's in HR - a personal responsible running a huge corporate needs to be educated about this, needs to be informed about this.

WARNER: Suraj says that outing people's caste, it's not just about making a fair workplace or even a more equitable United States. The way he sees it, if Silicon Valley imported this problem from India, maybe Silicon Valley could help export a solution.

YENGDE: If a Facebook company here makes a policy on caste, they have to implement that in India and elsewhere. If they make any changes to that, their employees have to follow it. They have to because Indian employees are accountable to a valley in California. And that's how the rule of the business is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Suraj holds out the hope that activism in America might spark change in India, where caste has its source. But in a time of nationalism in India and around the world, there is also a backlash to this approach. There are those who do not want American companies calling the shots abroad. And we spoke to Dalits in India who see a sinister motive here. They say, why now this Western attention to Dalit suffering? They call it a form of imperialism, a power move as cynical as when the British colonists amplified caste divisions to control the Indian people. And so there's a distrust of any Westerners - Western journalists, Western tech workers - asking India to change.

M KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: On that phone call that Mauktik had with his mom, she says in some ways, she has changed.

S KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: She no longer uses separate utensils in the kitchen. She no longer minds if her son marries outside his caste.

FRAYER: Did she try to arrange a marriage for you within the Brahmin caste?

M KULKARNI: Yes.

S KULKARNI: Yes, I tried.

M KULKARNI: Yeah (laughter).

WARNER: But there are other moments in the call when, in a tender way, she completely dismisses him.

FRAYER: Does she think there's some American influence on you, being in America?

M KULKARNI: (Laughter).

S KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

M KULKARNI: (Laughter) She says yes.

S KULKARNI: (Non-English language spoken).

WARNER: How can Mauktik claim authority on how she should live her life in India when he's made a new life for himself so far from home?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Hey - just before you go, some of our favorite episodes of ROUGH TRANSLATION have come from listeners, and we want to hear and tell more of your stories. I'd love to know, do people ever speak to you like you're part of a group that you don't actually feel like you belong to? Or are you someone who checks off one set of boxes in America but identifies as something completely different overseas or in your own community? We'd love to hear your story. Write us an email or record a voice memo, and send it to roughtranslation@npr.org.

Today's show was produced by Derek Arthur and Jess Jiang. Our editor is Lu Olkowski. Our ROUGH TRANSITION team also includes Tina Antolini and Justine Yan. Nishant Dahiya is NPR's Asia editor.

Thanks also to Vauhini Vara, Sushmita Patak, Arnie Seipel, Robert Krulwich, Sandhya Dirks, Apoorva Mittal, Preeti Aroon and Sana Krasikov.

We spoke to others who did not appear in this episode like Guru Prakash, Raqib Hameed Naik and many others who wrote in or spoke to us about how caste has played out in their lives. Thank you to them. And a special thanks to Mauktik's mom, Sonal Vivekananda Kulkarni, who allowed us to interrupt her dinnertime in India with an unexpected phone call from her son and a couple of radio producers.

The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. NPR's international editor is Didi Schanche. Our supervising producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Sarah Knight did especially tireless work fact-checking this episode, mastering by Isaac Rodrigues. John Ellis composed music for our show, additional music from Blue Dot sessions.

I want to recommend a recent episode of Code Switch. It's called The Protests Heard 'Round the World. It's about the toppling of a statue of a slave trader in Bristol in the U.K., but it's also a very candid conversation with protesters and police commanders about how far you go to correct the sense of history. That's on Code Switch from NPR.

Of course, we always love to hear how you feel about the show with a rating and a review at Apple Podcasts. You can email us at roughtranslation@npr.org. We're on Twitter @roughly. I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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