Dogs and Caste

Ah the dogs of India. The street dogs,  Pi dogs or Pariah dogs. Tough, resilient survivors, scrawny, ribs sticking out, some so full of scabies and mange that, as a dog lover you would wish for them a short life, and they are everywhere. Some with a broken leg, that has healed in its own way, sticking out at a strange angle.  They are largely well tolerated and not aggressive but when they get together in packs, it is a bit scary as they bark at and chase people, rickshaws and cars. There is one who lives under my building, who sleeps on top of a car to assert his top dog position, one eye always open. Sometimes they are treated badly, stones thrown at them, and abuse shouted at them. Kids run away, most people wouldn’t touch a dog in India. Pariah derives from a Tamil word to refer to the lowest level of the traditional Indian caste system; in English, it is used to mean a social outcast.

At the other end of the scale, the whole pampered pooch scene is starting here for the aspiring middle classes. Shops carry collars, leads and bags of Winalot, no doggie clothes though yet thankfully. The yellow Labrador is the dog of choice, followed closely by the pug, thanks to a cute Vodafone ad that propelled the pug straight into munchkin star status. There is nowhere to walk these dogs, so at sunset you often see a servant from a wealthy family, unhappily holding a lead and taking the dog round the block for a breath of fresh air. It’s an urban phenomenon.

Sometimes you see a Pi dog and a kept dog eyeing each other up. They are rarely allowed to meet and greet though, just look at each other from afar. I wonder if they recognize that they have the same origins, are from the same species. I saw a puppy dance playfully and invitingly near a Pi dog, I don’t think the street dog knew what to do or had ever seen such behavior.

The analogy with Indian life is hard to miss.

The Dalits are making some progress thanks to laws which have made it illegal to discriminate against someone on grounds of caste . It’s more the mindset of generations of rigid social stratification that makes change harder, especially in rural areas.

In what has been called India’s “hidden apartheid”, entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. Representing about 15 percent of India’s population—or some 160 million people—the widely scattered Dalits endure near complete social isolation, humiliation, and discrimination based exclusively on their birth status. Even a Dalit’s shadow is believed to pollute the upper classes. They may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes, drink water from public wells, or visit the same temples as the higher castes. Dalit children are still often made to sit in the back of classrooms.

A recent newspaper story that marries medieval and modern India,  told of a newly wealthy man who had acquired a yellow Labrador puppy. One night, as the servant was walking the dog, a Dalit woman threw the dog a roti or piece of bread to eat as they passed by. Hearing this, the owner was so furious that his dog had eaten something prepared and touched by a Dalit woman, that he threw the dog out onto the street, and abandoned it to its fate.  It had become untouchable.

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