Wednesday, October 7, 2009

We’re Brahmins! : The transnational transactions of caste capital

There is a certain segment of readers of this column who believe that it deals too much with caste. For the sake of those readers, I was hoping that my time away from Goa, and in Goa’s former metropole would allow us both to get away from the terrible ‘C’ word. Unfortunately, this was not to be. In a bid to be friendly, a student from one of Portugal’s more ancient universities, told me of a classmate who was also Goan. “He always reminds us that he is a Brahmin” this acquaintance told me with a grin. I rolled my eyes thinking, “Here we go again!”

If we imagine life to be a board-game, then the claims that we make in this game are not mere talk. These claims are in fact strategies, or counters for us to get higher in the game, or retain the position that we have. Flashing the right card at the right time can win us a particular round of the game. Thus we often flash our upper-caste belongings when there is need, through the way we speak, the way we look, our names, etc. This country, as almost any honest person will acknowledge, works along brahmanical lines.

Very often in a game, we are left with counters that seem to have no value. In such a case, we would need to transform the counter into something of greater value. The board-game of life seems to provide such options in certain cases. It is for this reason that Goan Catholics from the upper castes very often flash their belonging to Brahmin or Kshatriya categories when forging their careers or trying to make an impression in the former British-India. What they do is to transcend the peculiarity of being Catholic Brahmin or Chardo and find equivalence by casting their identity along pan-Indian lines.

But Portugal is not India, and while it may help to proclaim one’s upper caste status in India; what purpose does it serve in European Portugal? Proceeding purely on logic, it should serve only to make an oddity of oneself, sticking out like a sore thumb. And yet this student claims, we are told, this status constantly!

Trying to make sense of this puzzle, my mind flew back to a conversation I had had 2 years ago. Referring to Narana Coissoro, a significant Portuguese, a man of Goan descet; the lady I was in conversation with said “Ah Narana Coissoro! He’s a noble isn’t he? A Brahman from Goa”.

Speaking with a Portuguese anthropologist who studies Goa, I confirmed what I was beginning to suspect, the early Portuguese understanding of the Brahmin in Goa was to find equivalence for them in European aristrocracy and nobility. This reading was made possible through the fact that the Brahmin caste in the area around Goa was already in the early 1500’s a dominant caste group with substantial land holding. For the late medieval/ early modern European, control over the land translated into the fact of nobility.

Clearly then the counter of ‘brahmin’ that our friend keeps throwing about is not without some value even in Portugal. ‘Brahmin’ is used to signify social distinction, the fact of being a ‘noble’, a cut above the rest, of being special. Portugal’s long relationship with Goa has clearly then established certain rules in the game, rules that are understood particularly well by the elites there, through which counters in Goa, can be translated and made sense of in Portugal, allowing one to play the game with higher stakes there.

Having made sense of this situation, we can now begin to understand why the claims of expat Indians in non-metropolitan parts of the US make no sense to Anglo-Saxon residents of the US. ‘White’ friends from the US invariably indicate that their Indian friends never fail to point out that they are Brahmin, and confess that they have no idea what it means to be Brahmin. The counter that these upper-caste Indians are seeking to parade before to the others does not have any value without the shared historical bonds, and without out the value of the counter having been acknowledged by the larger collective of elites of the US. Ofcourse it does not stop these expats from continuing to claim their distinctive status back home, and it is possible that as India’s star as a potential ‘super-power’ continues to rise, there will emerge a way for this counter to make some sense in dispersed communities in the US too. The situation in Goa was markedly different though, the Brahmin (across religion) was for a long time a collaborator with the colonial power (indeed, this is a common understanding of the Brahmin in Portugal – the section of people with who they had intimate relations). This equation, specifically located in both time and space, allowed for the counter to continue to have significance in the Luso-Indian world.

An ancient coping mechanism when being in the realm of the unfamiliar is to domesticate it by comparing it to the familiar. The tables were turned on me when the unpleasantly familiar turned up rather innocuously in a Lisbon conversation. But perhaps the experience showed me more than the transnational character of caste, which operates as social capital. This episode also showed us how these two societies for all their differences, may in fact be joined in many more places that we often imagine.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, October 7th 2009)

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