A social order

A sugar cane vendor, Calcutta,

A sugar cane vendor, Calcutta,

Part 4 in a series, #returntoindia

Everyone in India seems to know his or her place, like they have radar that scans a room, searching for cues about where they fit in the social order. In every social situation there is a sense of what is proper based on elaborate hierarchies related to age, gender, class or caste.

As white-skinned westerners, we are oblivious to these things. The rules don’t apply, our (western) friend in Calcutta (Kolkata) tells us. Except when they do. At the business school Katie and I have dinner with the founder, a Free Methodist bishop, and there is a dance going on for which we don’t know the steps. Who sits where and in what order?

This is in the relatively caste-free environment of a Christian ministry—but even here hierarchy matters. Am I missing something? Should I sit down yet? I don’t know. But every one else does.

Everywhere these hierarchies persist. In the dinning room the students (not the American ones) wait until Katie and I are served. They refer to me as “Professor Wallis.” They stand up when I walk in the room. I have to confess I like this.

This deference is not rooted in colonial attitudes. It goes deeper than that. Although caste is officially illegal, it is alive and well. There are thousands of castes and subcastes, based on regional and religious subcultures. And where caste is invisible, vocational, economic and educational status is still critical.

I have to admit I enjoy my status.

But I don’t understand it.

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About wally metts

Wally Metts is the daysman. He is director of graduate studies in communication at Spring Arbor University and is a pastor at Countryside Bible Church in Jonesville, MI. The father of four adult children, he and his wife Katie raise barn cats and Christmas trees in Michigan. His grandchildren call him Santa.

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