SPEAKING FREELY Elitism and the Jodphur blues
By Samir Nazareth
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The more than 1 billion people who now identify themselves as Indians have the British to thank for this identification. It was only after the British got the sub-continent under their thumb that its people were forced to see themselves as one.
Until then, the people had identified themselves by the various kingdoms they lived in and swore allegiance to the kings who ruled them. A king's fortunes and realm waxed and waned according to their ambition, greed, governing skill, military power
and the weakness of their neighbors. Thus some kingdoms extended to what is now Afghanistan while others existed because of treaties with other powerful kingdoms.
There was a very identifiable social structure, which in most cases was designated by the situation to which one was born to. This caste system, which some today argue was a form of division of labor much before Henry Ford thought of it, was insidious because this form of discrimination did not allow anyone to cross over to another caste, and so it perpetuated generational victimization and subjugation.
The king was top dog though he came from the warrior class, which was below the brahmins or priests. This problem was circumvented by identifying the royal lineage with the sun or to other forms of divinity. The priests, though of the highest caste served the king as advisers on religious, philosophical, political and other issues,in society they were the go-between the gods and the common person and so ensured that they themselves were well cared for.
Below them were the warriors, the business class and finally serfs of various kinds. Each knew the other's social status not only by the wealth and power displayed but also by the names one had and the place of residence. This impermeable stratification was a fact of life in the times of monarchy; it ensured the acceptance of a ruling class, the unquestioned servility of others, and a stable workforce plying their family vocation.
In 1947, when India became a democratic country, the 565 princely states and their rulers who still existed because of British expediency acceded to the new Independent nation. One would have imagined that this social stratification, which fed off and was fed by the monarchy, would disappear.
It hasn't, and this social differentiation is still the norm in India though it has morphed to keep up with the times.
The reason for the blues
Jodhpur, a town in the desert state of Rajasthan in India, is known for the blue that coats its houses - that is why it is also known by the nom de plume "Blue City". The town got me and my friend down on arrival. It wasn't that I don't like this color or associate it with being down in the dumps. I, just like the others - be it Pink Floyd who used blue in Wish you were here, or Irvine Berlin in his classic Blue Skies from the play Betsy - associate this color with a warm openness accessible to all.
Our hotel was chosen for its proximity to the ancient Meharangarh fort, most recently in the news for it being a back drop to Dark Knight Rises. On reaching our hotel, we realized that it was meant for foreign backpackers.
The rooms did not reflect the ancient splendor of the maharajahs even though the asking price of a 1,000 rupees had suggested so. What spoilt it for us was when the owner, a lovely lady who was the elected representative of the hotel association there said that we were the first Indian nationals to stay in her rooms.
Her going off the beaten track in our instance could be put down to the email communications in English, which painted a rather white and foreign picture of us to her. She did not let out her rooms to people of her color - ie those of her country - nor did she serve them in her restaurant. She explained her actions as stemming from the Indians' disrespectful behavior towards her staff, a common form of class and economic chauvinism. This was further exacerbated by their complaints at the tardy food service and their unquenchable desire to get a good bargain.
We were shocked at this blatant discrimination. We also found it hilarious that she assumed our mentality would be at the genteel levels of those of the backpackers - later we proved that it wasn't by demanding a discount on the rooms.
It takes two hands to clap
What was interesting was that the owner had built her successful business on the frugality of the backpackers. Her austere rooms kept their prices down, but she squeezed the foreigners in terms of food prices. The backpackers on the other hand were taking advantage of her desire to make her hotel tangibly and intangibly attractive to them by staying for long periods in her restaurant with a soft drink marked way higher than its retail price.
So it was a win-win for the Indian owner and backpackers. The regular Indian tourist does not travel like this. She wants a little more than just a spartan room. She does not want to pay exorbitant prices for vague food in a restaurant with a few tables, where service is based on the principle of extreme unobtrusiveness harboring on near delinquency and where the servers are chatty. She is not moved by the incredible view provided by the restaurant which she cannot enjoy because she does not have the luxury of time to "soak" in the city in this manner.
In such circumstances, the landlady's circumspection vis-a-vis Indian tourists would be valid to an extent. But to not have any Indian tourist staying in her hotel in the 10 years of its existence, and shooing away potential Indian diners, was a form of business eugenics, pure practical tradecraft.
The fall-out of such discrimination was that it trickled down to the foreign guests staying there, I came to realize that, for them, the presence of any native could only mean that the native was working at the hotel. An American wanting to order food and finding me sitting in the empty restaurant soaking in the view naturally asked me whether I worked at the restaurant. He later told me that he was a professor at a university in New York.
Jodhpur - a mix of the old and new
The town of Jodhpur basks under the shadow of the solidity and benevolence of the Meharangarh fort and its present owner whose forefathers ruled the region of Marwar. From the hotel, one can sometimes see a fine layer of smog forming a light shroud over the town. The auto-rickshaws, whose shape brings to mind the camel, the narrow dirty and crowded streets of the old part of town form a minuscule part of the kaleidoscope that also includes examples of modernity like the bar/restaurant "On the Rocks" with its confused interiors and male clients at the bar.
At respectable distance from this hustle and bustle stands the Umaid Bhavan palace, a gargantuan structure built in the early 20th century by the then king to provide employment to the people of this region during a famine. It was the residence of the king before India's independence but now the descendants live in a portion of the 347 rooms and have given part of the palace to a many starred luxury hotel chain.
The festival, its audience and discrimination
We had gone to enjoy the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) held in Jodhpur. Its a three-day festival that is not only an international stage for Rajasthani folk artists but also draws international performers - Manu Chau was one of the performers this time.
Events go on through the day and well into early next morning. Things begin to get lively in the evenings.
The audience at the RIFF in the evening consisted of old and young members of Marwar's feudal system, local residents and tourists of all hues. Young princelings being groomed for their future roles in society walked around the festival - with a sense of entitlement passed down the generations - looking dandy in their simple but expensive clothes eyeing women of different shades.
Modern in their communication, these to the manor born would suddenly engage in recidivist behavior on seeing others older to them or of higher station - they would make the motion of touching the seniors' feet. Some of the young blue-bloods had man-fridays, walking respectfully a few paces behind them, holding their drinks and other goodies as they stalked the festival area.
It was difficult to ignore the liveried turban-wearing helper carrying a tray with water and a tiny spittoon, following a few paces behind the "Maharaja" Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur - who would have been king if the circumstances were different - as he went to check on the various facilities.
People would touch his feet or bow with arms folded as he walked. This continued when he sat too - but those who did it then seemed to be of a paler stock of blue-blood because they would then sit in the next row or a few chairs away from him in the front row. One would imagine their choice of seat was a reflection of their distance from the erstwhile royal family in the feudal structure.
The seating arrangements varied depending on the venue and the size of audience. As most of the events were in the fort, seating was on the floor. For the bigger events, held in the open grounds of the fort, chairs were laid out facing the stage. The organizers had arranged special seats for Singh. Keeping in mind his lineage and those of others, the front row of chairs in the bigger event were reserved for him and others who belonged to different levels of royal hierarchy.
Interestingly, though there were no "Reserved" signs to indicate that these seats were meant for the privileged, no one sat on these chairs. However, on one occasion, a group of Indians went up and sat in the reserved row with only an aisle separating them from Singh, who was sitting in the same row but on other side of the aisle.
On noticing the social intruders, he leant across the narrow aisle to tell them something that one could imagine was that they were in the wrong social set. They did not seem to hear or understand; then another person from the second row sitting directly behind them told them to get up and leave - and they did so with alacrity.
Singh beckoned to a turbaned helper and silently castigated him for not keeping that row empty. After some time, a group of young foreigners, clearly not of royal stock, went up and sat in the front row. The person in the second row did nothing, while the king reached across the aisle and told them something - but they remained in their seats.
Is discrimination a necessity?
To any Indian of common stock, royalty would have to do with being blue-blooded and not with the color of one's skin. Indians realize that skin is easily whitened with creams sold by one of India's Bollywood icons, Shah Rukh Khan, and other dream merchants. There is no way to buy oneself into a blue-blooded lineage. So why were these foreigners allowed to keep their seats?
There is no doubt that the royal heritage of Rajasthan is being used as its "unique selling point" to draw tourists with a range of spending capacity. The rich tourists pay through the nose to get a taste of the lavish and resplendent lifestyle (many would ascribe the word decadent to it) of the erstwhile maharajahs. The common Indian tourist gets a peep into the excesses, splendor and tradition of the people who ruled this region, something which they only study in school or hear about.
But does marketing a heritage also need that the archaic feudal system to perpetuate and impact the lives of those around it? One can argue that because of centuries of living under a monarchy this system is deeply embedded in the ethos of the region and its people, so it would take generations for its effects to wear off. A natural question would then be - where does Indian democracy stand in all this?
Though many Indians decry dynastic politics, no one seems to be against the continuing hold that dynasties of erstwhile royalty have on their former fiefdoms, nor is there concern over the continuing rigid social structure that lives off this and has tremendous influence in these regions. Even though royal titles have been abolished, brochures for RIFF had "HHM Gaj Singh II, Maharaja of Marwar" printed on the front page, introducing him as a patron of the festival along with "Sir Mick Jagger".
There is no doubt he is doing a lot to preserve the heritage of Jodhpur and even Rajasthan, and must be a good man and therefore well respected and held in high esteem. It would be fair to assume that he and other people would agree that this respect should be more to do with what he is doing for the benefit of society today and not for being born with a golden spoon in his mouth, which he had no control over.
This respect can be shown in ways that acknowledge India's constitution and laws and not through an archaic system that marks a man according to his lineage.
It seems that for India to grow up as a democracy there is need to be mature enough to choose what was good from the past and to then carry it into the future. There is need to question the maintenance of a discriminative system, no matter how informal today, that existed to ensure the subservience of others and the continuation of the hereditary privilege that few enjoyed. More importantly, Indians as a nation have to have the courage to desist from this display of subservience that goes as a socially recognized and accepted form of respect.
While Jodhpur uses its royal past to market itself using modern methods, a part of the population continues to live in that past, standing on the shoulders of their forefathers and creating a bubble of blue-blooded elitism and entitlement.
If there has been any social progress, then it has to do with how this classification is now used by lesser mortals, creating a new form of privilege adjudicated by people such as the proprietor of our hotel that has to do with attitudes and color of one's skin. In fact, this lady's business model is no different from that of a king bestowing privilege on commoners. It would seem that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Samir Nazareth is a Delhi-based commentator. He is the author of the forthcoming travelogue 1,400 Bananas, 76 Towns and 1 Million People