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Contrarian on Caste


This is going to sound extremely callous. You will feel I am making a case for ignorance, chauvinism, intellectual withering, the caste system, and all sorts of other ills that the Enlightenment so successfully uprooted.

It started with Anthony Bourdain's suicide. I don't think I have even once watched an episode his show. If I wasn't looking at him mouthing the words on the screen when I heard them, I wouldn't recognize his voice from anyone else's.

By rights, I shouldn't care but I found myself caring in a small way. I didn't binge watch his shows or anything but I did read whatever posts Medium's algorithmic gods surfaced on the subject of his death.

If you wish to read one piece on his passing to better understand why he killed himself, I invite you to read this one titled The Pain of the Professional Guest by Oriana Schwindt. Who better to plausibly describe his descent into suicidal ideation than his fellow itinerant?

I found echoes of Oriana's sentiments in my own post on the subject.

Right around the time of Anthony's death, the CDC published findings that suicide rates are rising across the globe.

This made me wonder if I knew anyone in my circle of friends who had committed suicide. I recalled that the boyfriend of a fellow runner in Atlanta had killed himself in late 2016.

I did not know of anyone in my extended family and friends in India who had committed suicide. The cases I heard about in the papers were mostly suicides by students in the aftermath of poor exam results or farmers ending their lives faced with rising debt and poor economic prospects.

The method of death - suicide - was the same as Anthony's but these suicides came about from real world causes.

If suicides in India were running rife through society in general like it was in the United States, I would surely have heard of it through the grapevine.

This begs the question - why do Indians commit suicide at lower rates than Americans?

India - by which I mean the Indian subcontinent - has been continuously inhabited from roughly 3000 B.C. If the current American suicide rates continue, I doubt the country will be able to survive 5000 years like India has.

If India has survived for 5000 years, it means that it has not has a prolonged suicide epidemic like the one facing the United States.



India is a very fatalistic society. Every event, misfortune, stroke of good luck, or a serendipitous discovery is attributed to uparwala, literally "The Guy Upstairs".

This lack of agency makes for a very relaxed attitude towards personal and familial progress. If an Indian Ronald Reagan were to ask us if we were better off today than a few years ago, the pat answer would be that our present is in the hands of fate just like our past was.

They say that the view is best when you are leading but the captain of the ship is also the first to see the approaching iceberg.

What Obama said about the Presidency is equally applicable at the personal level -

A President is asked usually to decide when the choices before him are equally bad and no clarity is forthcoming. He is forced to make marginal calls on gut alone and the criticism he faces if the decision were proven wrong would make anyone quiver.

It would seem so that an individual doesn't make momentous decisions like a political leader would but their personal life is no less momentous to an individual than the world stage to an American President.

That ambiguity - of having to make decisions in the now and living with its consequences - is totally obviated by putting the decision in the hands of Uparwala and taking on the role of a puppet.


Compare the angst roiling the American Rust Belt - with dying industries, a heroin epidemic, spiraling suicide rates, and antipathy towards globalism - with any rural part of India.

The average caste villager in India has been exploited and ground down for generations. Yet, the "blow up everything" attitude of the American voter exemplified by Trump and Bernie Sanders has not surfaced in India.

We have the caste system to thank for that. At some point in our past, we simply gave up and accepted that our place was under the heel of the upper castes.

The alternative was to essentially kill ourselves - through the sort of nihilism exemplified by suicides and the opioid crisis - to get out from underneath those heels.

Not for a moment am I condoning the caste system and its exploitation. I am merely looking at caste system from a remove and saying that it ended up keeping Indians alive and fairly well functioning members of society.


My sister and mother both have a PhD in the sciences. On paper, they should be mostly rational because they have seen the benefits of the scientific method.

In reality, my sister is the most religious in my immediate family, willingly believing that a leaked sex tape of her guru has been doctored for political leverage despite forensic labs certifying that the tapes were genuine.

I see the same latent belief that science stops with mundane, daily life and a hidden hand guides their affairs at a more fundamental level in nearly everyone I speak with.

This religiosity is another strand on which people rely to give meaning to their life. This extra strand was presumably missing from people like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.

So what?

The Enlightenment made us rational. To paraphrase the poem Invictus, it made us masters of our own destiny and the captain of our own ships.

To me, it seems to have failed in providing the necessary framework for people to look at the abyss of being sentient life alone (in practical terms if not in truth) in the universe and not wanting to jump into the abyss.

We must acknowledge that religiosity and the resigned acceptance of hierarchy has saved lives though the lives saved are not as grand as those led by the likes of Bourdain.

Photo by Noelle Otto from Pexels

Contrarian on Caste
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