Isaac Chotiner interviews Sujatha Gidla, author of the new book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, in Slate.
Can you explain why someone’s caste in India is so hard to hide? I think a common American response could be, why do you tell people what your caste is?
Oh, caste is a village social institution. The village social institution persisted for a very long time, and it still does because 80 percent of Indians still live in villages. In villages, castes are very distinct by their occupation, for one thing, and second where they live. Each caste has its own colony. That is where they live. All castes don’t live together mingled. Each has separate colonies.
Because of that, everybody knows who you are and also because of what job you do. When it comes to cities, people who came from villages, they still carry those, “Oh, you are such and such person’s relative,” this and that, so they would know. Apart from that, the way you dress, your surname, what you eat, what gods you’re worshiping, and whether you can wear jewelry or not and how you cut your hair. All of these things show your caste. And because the system is 3,000 years old, even if it scientifically does not have a genetic imprint, it has something very close to it. People’s body language—the way they carry themselves—shows what caste they are.