While I was in India earlier this summer, I heard a journalist make an interesting comment about the omnipresent role that religion plays these days in that amazing, growing, almost exploding country. The comment went like this: "Of course, there is no caste system in modern India -- but it affects everything that goes on here."
So the caste system does not exist, but it's everywhere and in many ways as much a factor in public life as ever. That's the reality.
I thought about statement that while reading an A1 feature story in the Washington Post that ran under this double-decker headline:
Life After 'Slumdog' Full of Promise -- and Skeletons
As Film's Salim Moves On, India's Underbelly Still Haunts Co-Star
Then, while thinking about that statement on caste, religion and life in India, I thought of the famous quotation that is usually attributed to sociologist Peter Berger. Here's the heart of the matter: If India is the most religious nation in the world and Sweden the least religious, then the United States of America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.
Now, this Post article is about the post-Oscar stories of the young Slumdog stars and their struggles to survive and thrive. This is gripping stuff, what is going on with these young people -- Azhar Mohammed Ismaill and Rubina Ali -- whose faces are known to millions of people around the world.
Do read it all. Please. Here is a sample, including the summary paragraph:
Azhar's real-life journey -- and those of the other child stars in "Slumdog," including his elfin co-star Rubina Ali, 9 -- has been a roller coaster of personal tragedy and red-carpet glamour. In many ways, they are experiencing at warp speed the masala of euphoria and turmoil that India's vast poor feel as they emerge from the iron bonds of caste and class to an era of genuine social mobility. ...
Unlike Azhar, Rubina has not seen her fortunes improve much since the movie in which she plays the young ragpicker Latika. She filmed a soda commercial with Nicole Kidman and collaborated with an Indian journalist to write her autobiography this year.
But her family's shack was demolished by city municipal workers and later rebuilt in the same spot, next to an open sewer and piles of garbage. She remains in the slums because her father, despite Boyle's offers for a new home, isn't sure he wants to leave. He also was caught in an undercover sting by a British newspaper where he allegedly agreed to sell her for adoption to a wealthy Dubai family for the equivalent of $290,000; he denies the allegation.
The focus in this story is on the children and their lives -- as it should be.
The secondary focus -- as it should be -- is on the rapid changes that are sweeping through modern India, as the earthquake of globalization is shattering the cultural concrete of "feudal village roles," as this story puts it.
Yet. Yet. Yet. I remember the journalists in India saying that everything in the culture is about religion, which means that it is almost impossible to talk about these religious realities. They are too big, too powerful to mention. We are talking about the air that India breathes.
Of course, the Post feature mentions caste, but never defines the term or places it in its Hindu context (or explains how the caste system affects Christians and Muslims, as well). Does the average American reader truly understand the origins of the complicated maze that is the caste system in India?
And what about these children? What about the tensions between Hinduism and Islam?
In other words, how is the reality that we call globalization clashing with religious traditions in India? These cultural realites play no role in the dramatic stories of these children? Really? The silence in the story is, yes, rather haunting.
How did we end up with this ghost?
If India is the most religious nation in the world, then it's possible that many journalists are simply too Swedish (it's a metaphor, remember) to "get" this story? Or is it accurate to say that the forces that shape the slums of India now faith-free? Is it possible to talk about issues of class and caste in modern India in completely secular terms?