why undeserved, why unearnt?
one of the things that caught me by surprise and brought a wry smile to my face, was the fact that i could come up with more than 20 things for the list of undeserved, unearnt privileges of being well-off. it contrasts sharply with the mere 10 under the "upper caste" category!
being a brahmin is a relatively small issue in my urban, metropolitan world. i am more affected by the global caste system based on wealth, than by our traditional one based on ancestry.while the caste system of money is equally savage and brutal, i realise that im still privileged to be able to say that that is the main caste system that affects my life. because for so many people - dalits, the indigenous tribal groups - caste is a daily, life-threatening, livelihood- depriving, degrading reality still.
i, in my relatively well-to-do state, have no right to pass the judgement that traditional casteism has ended. very simply, because it has merely ended in my life. there are still many lives whose continuing suffering cannot be swept aside - their experiences are still valid and real and should not be denied.
i make this point so emphatically because it is this same sort of prosperous arrogance which prompts us to make several comfortable assumptions, like that sexism has ended. that discrimination against people of colour has ended, that violence against women isnt really such a problem any more.
so many of the things i listed as privileges actually seem so fundamental - after all that list was only about the right to live with dignity, with a sense of well-being. we all should have such lives. the point was not to go on a guilt trip.
why do i still call those privileges "undeserved" then?
the word "privilege" (in the context i used it in) is defined by the oed as:
• a special right, advantage, or immunity for a particular person or group.
somewhere, somebody is paying the price for my clean, decent, comfortable life. for my life of dignity. someone is living in such poverty that they are doomed to eating rats. in order for my city to be clean, for my health and welfare, there are people doing things like scavenging human excreta. [1, 2, 3]
there are so many such "someones" that their poverty has been institutionalised. the global and traditional caste systems combine to make them suffer in a way that almost baffles description. e m forster once remarked that a catalogue of horrors defeats its purpose. he was speaking of the holocaust. this particular catalogue of horrors is a way of life, and has been so for decades.
i worked briefly in a corporation school for girls. the children who came were mostly children of maidservants. many of them had dropped out of school at some time because their families need extra hands to work and bring home food. being girl children they were the first casualties. but they still had the courage to come back and try to learn - and it wasnt a romantic "Genius in Poverty" story either. it was a struggle on all fronts. the girls would commute by bus, rubbing shoulders with the occasional "english medium school" junta. listening wistfully to the fluent jabbering in english, wishing from their souls that they too could speak like that. for the younger ones, it was the pure thrill of being able to do something cool, for the older ones, it was the cliniching factor in getting a job. for heavens sake, a simple thing like well-shampooed hair was a Luxury to be longed for!
and after a childhood of unfulfilled wistful longing like that, they will be promoted to an adult life of continued deprivation. bonus: getting to see their children grow up in possibly worse circumstances.
what system of evaluation exists, according to which i "deserve" my life - and these people theirs? - none.
making that admission is a critical step forward. if i, as a privileged person deny that i am enjoying advantages that i havent earnt, or if i imply that somehow i have in some way earnt or merited these advantages, i am bullshitting myself to feel comfortable. and my persistent and cowardly denial is at the cost of several lives.
i am also lending my implicit or expressed support for the psuedo (not to mentioned absolutely ill-defined) standards that "elevate" me thus. i am ratifying the socio economic system which grinds other people down.