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The Colored Fountain: Racism in the United States, Casteism in India

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

(October 11, 2023 update: A new Indian edition of the book has just been published by Aleph under the title Three Countries, Three Lives: A Doctor's Story.)

I recently read an excellent memoir, And the Twain Shall Meet by Lindy Rajan Cartner. Lindy is an Indian doctor who was born in Burma and raised and educated in India before moving to the United Kingdom, where she eventually settled down. The book is one of the best memoirs I've ever read, but I'm not going to review it now. Instead, I'll focus on just one anecdote from the book, and connect it to related anecdotes I read in another book (a biography of a famous Indian scientist). The bridge between these two books will illustrate similarities in the social realities of the United States and India.

In the mid-1950s, Lindy studied medicine in the famous Christian Medical College at Vellore. The Professor of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology was Dr. Asirvatham, a dark-skinned Tamil. He was a charismatic person, a brilliant lecturer who enlivened his lectures with personal anecdotes. Every student made it a point to attend his classes. Lindy gives the following anecdote as her personal favorite. Prof. Asirvatham had joined up for a sabbatical at a "famous university in Carolina" (North or South? She doesn't say, but my guess is South). On the first day, he saw two water fountains, one of which was labeled "COLORED". Perplexed, he asked a passing student about the colored fountain: perhaps this fountain served orange juice or some other fruit juice?

The student replied: "Don't you know? It's for people like yourself who are colored. You have black skin. You are not to drink from the other fountain." Furious, Dr. Asirvatham rushed to meet the head of his department, who politely explained that the notice was meant for blacks (he actually said "Negros"), not for Indians. He advised Dr. Asirvatham to wear a turban so that whites would know that he was an Indian. They would not mind an Indian drinking from the non-colored fountain. The good doctor did not yield: he did not wear a turban, and he drank from both fountains. Nobody objected. Perhaps he was fortunate this was a university campus; outside, would he have been lynched for his temerity?

I'm a little surprised that Dr. Asirvatham seemed blissfully ignorant about racism in the United States although those were the dark days before global cable television, leave alone the Internet. Indians had limited information about the West. Hardly anyone in India had access to Western newspapers and magazines. Also, what about the head of the department's suggestion that Dr. Asirvatham wear a turban? I nearly burst out laughing on reading that. Was the head of the department blessed with the wisdom of Solomon? Is it true that blacks alone were subject to racism and not other colored races such as Indians? No! The head of the department was clearly a quick thinker; he had pulled a rabbit out of his hat.

Source: Flipkart

Let us now turn to Chandra: A Biography by Kameshwar Wali, a splendid biography of the famous astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Chandra had first-hand experience of racism while living in the United Kingdom. Once, by mistake he arrived at the wrong gate of his place of residence, and the person in charge there did not know him. "Eh, Blackie, you just wait until I come!", he was told. He had to wait outside for nearly an hour before the man condescended to come out and open the gate. Chandra had another curious brush with racism of sorts at the Turkish border in 1934, when he was returning to the United Kingdom after visiting Russia. He was mistaken for an Armenian because "Subrahmanyan" ended with the Armenian-sounding "yan"! The confusion was sorted out only after three days.

We join the action in 1936, when Chandra and his wife Lalitha moved to the United States from the United Kingdom. Chandra joined the University of Chicago as a research associate on the invitation of Hutchins, the president of the university. From an interview that Hutchins gave much later (in the 1960s), it emerged that a bigwig in the university had opposed Chandra's appointment "because he was an Indian, and black." Also, the then dean of the university, Gale, had not wanted Chandra to lecture on the main campus of the university (Chandra was at the Yerkes Observatory, which was run by the university). Again, Hutchins had to put his foot down to enable Chandra to lecture there.

Unlike Dr. Asirvatham, Chandra had known about racism in U.S. society before taking up the job in Yerkes. His uncle was the Nobel laureate and physicist, C.V. Raman. Now, Raman had visited America in the 1920s and been humiliated because he was colored. He was unable to find hotel accommodation in Boston; the taxi driver had to take him to a hotel outside city limits that was run by a Japanese couple. Raman had also told Chandra what happened at a Cornell University guesthouse: when the maid saw him at the breakfast table, she dropped her tray in shock and left the room.

Chandra and Lalitha too had to experience similar incidents in the United States. Once, in New York, the hotel they had booked in advance could not find any record of the reservation when they turned up at the hotel. Nor did a near-by hotel allow them in. Poor Chandra had to call an astronomer in New York, who arranged accommodation for them at a university hotel. Lalitha's reaction to incidents like these is illuminating: "... Then I used to say to myself: Look honestly, look at the way the Brahmins in India treat the untouchables. Why should I think we are any superior to the Americans in the way they treat black people?"

Lalitha confronts the ugly truth: a homegrown system of segregation has flourished in India for thousands of years, a system that allowed a minority (the upper castes) to relegate the majority (the lower castes) to the outer margins of society, the cycle of oppression being perpetuated ad nauseam generation after generation. Although Lindy's book has more examples of racism than casteism, it has a fascinating description of living in Madras in a neighborhood where her family was the only non-Brahmin family. Her grandfather, a newly retired wealthy doctor, for some reason chose to settle down in this area after returning from Rangoon. Although he was respected in the locality because he was a wealthy doctor (in fact, the only street in the area was named after him), "every single Brahmin in that street felt superior to us, by virtue of birth." An extreme manifestation of casteism is untouchability, which despite legal strictures against it, persists in India.

The paper "The Continuing Practice of Untouchability in India: Patterns and Mitigating Factors" by Thorat and Joshi, published in 2018, paints an instructive picture of the practice in contemporary India. The paper has a map of the district-wise prevalence of untouchability in India. The map shows that the practice is most prevalent in the northern and central parts of India, and the incidence is relatively low in the southern, western (barring Gujarat), and eastern parts of the country. This is not surprising: the incidence of untouchability is inversely correlated with education, and southern India is better educated and more progressive than the rest of the country. Besides, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra witnessed vigorous anti-caste social reform movements that began early in the 20th century, which has had an effect in curbing the practice. The incidence of untouchability is highest among Brahmins, followed, rather surprisingly, by the OBCs, who are rather low down in the caste hierarchy.

It must be emphasized that there is perhaps no community in India that does not practice untouchability: even SCs and STs, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists practice it, though the incidence is much lower among them. As Thorat and Joshi say, 70% of their respondents did not indulge in untouchability, which is "an encouraging sign." Undoubtedly, much progress has been made on the casteism front in India, though naturally this is not good enough. Vigorous activism is needed to combat these social evils. As education spreads, the tentacles of religious orthodoxy will weaken. Racism too is not unknown in India, the victims mainly being those from the Northeast (their Mongol features mark them out) who work in major Indian cities and African students. (Updated on April 28, 2023: I have added Manoj Mitta's just-released Caste Pride: Battles for Equality in Hindu India to my hit list.)

Lindy's book has many examples of the racism she encountered both in India (in the residential Bangalore boarding school she studied in, where the students were mostly Britishers and Anglo-Indians) and in the United Kingdom, where she did her higher studies in medicine and settled down, but of these examples, the instance that shocked me most was the racism she encountered within her own family. Lindy had married a classmate who was senior to her in Vellore, an Anglo-Indian doctor (which explains the "Cartner" in her name). In London, there was a time when her mother-in-law (who looked like an Englishwoman) stayed with Lindy and her husband to look after their daughter while Lindy worked. Lindy noticed that her mother-in-law was cold towards her and her daughter, and Lindy indirectly learnt what the problem was: she and her daughter were dark-skinned Indians!

This prejudice flared up in an unexpected way when Lindy engaged a cleaning lady (a white woman) to take the household work off her mother-in-law's hands. Her mother-in-law did not seem happy about this, which mystified Lindy. After all, the cleaning lady had been engaged to help her mother-in-law. Later, Lindy learned from a sister-in-law that her mother-in-law was unhappy about the cleaning lady's appointment because she did not think an Indian (her own daughter-in-law!) should employ a white cleaning lady! Now, wrap your head around that if you can! I must add, however, that Lindy's mother-in-law had a change of heart later (after her son's death), and apologized for the way she had behaved during this period. And this must be said: despite the ugly racism she suffered in the United Kingdom, she also met many good white people, some of whom became lifelong friends; in fact, one later became her husband. It is also undeniable that overt racism has become less common in the West.

Updated on April 28, 2023: I now remember an example of untouchability within a family that shocked me when I first read it; it cut a little too close to the bone for comfort, as the family lived in the city I call home now. This family was the Cochin royal family. This is not the place to explain the social dynamics at work; instead read the article titled "The Paliath Achans of Cochin" on the blog of the well-known young historian Manu Pillai, from which the following sentences will suffice for our purposes:

Ravi Achan’s, however, is a fairly old building. The octogenarian’s mother came to this town as the wife of a prince. It did not mean that Achan or his mother became members of the royal family—in keeping with the matrilineal system, they belonged to his mother’s lineage, while his father stayed superior, including in caste. “I could touch him before his morning bath,” reports this one-time star of Kerala cricket. “Then between teatime and the evening bath there was another window.” The rest of the day, there was no question of laying hands on his twice-born father. And in all his life, Ravi Achan and the man who made him never once shared a meal.

Lindy's book is fascinating for many reasons: the simple but vibrant writing style, the many places where she lived and studied (Rangoon, Madras, Lucknow, Bangalore, Vellore, and the United Kingdom) and the interesting people she met (Lindy was the outgoing type), and the honesty with which she depicts her family members. They all come alive, warts and all, and her mother and grandfather, in particular, stand out as extraordinary human beings.

From the copyediting point of view (this is a copyediting blog, after all), Lindy mentions a small difference between UK English and Indian English that had completely escaped my attention all these years. "Jessie Aunty (in Indian languages, the name comes first, and even when we spoke in English, we often used this form) wore a white and gold silk sari, with a white net veil." This means that in UK English, for example, it would be "Aunty Jessie" and not "Jessie Aunty," a distinction that I had not noticed up to now though I must have come across it numerous times both in my reading and in my daily life.

To check this, I consulted a book I have reviewed earlier (see Indian and British English: A Handbook of Usage and Pronunciation: Indian and British English by Nilhani, Tongue, and Hosali). Did it have an entry on this? Indeed it had! The entry is "auntie," and the example given is "Priya Auntie has come." They say that "this word order occurs often in the speech of English-speaking children in India." They point out that in UK English, it would always be "Auntie Priya." They also point out that Auntie is used broadly in Indian English to refer to "any female adult, even if only an acquaintance of the parent." In UK English, "Auntie" is limited to "the parents' sisters and close women friends." Interesting!

(Updated on April 28, 2023: I think I've found the explanation for the above discrepancy in Wanderers, Kings, and Merchants by the linguist Peggy Mohan. Most of the languages of the Indian subcontinent use postpositions rather than prepositions; in English, it's the other way around. This would explain why the modifier "Auntie" appears after the noun in Indian English. Statutory warning: I'm no linguist!)

I'll let Lindy end this article:

One weekend I was wearing a sari and we were sitting on the pier at Southend [in England]. A middle-aged woman approached us. "Why have you come to my country?" she asked of me. "Because you came to mine", I said. She walked away.

PS: A friend of Henry who has been visiting recently insists on having the last word. Gambhir is a rather intimidating presence, and I'll let him have his say.


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