While studying development sociology at Cornell in my early twenties, I took a trip to see my Marathi family in India. I was pleasantly sipping tea with older relatives whom my father was making conversation with.
“One of Amod’s colleagues in his graduate program is Marathi,” he said. The family members nodded appreciatively and expressed their approval.
“And her name is Rukmini,” he added. The family nodded appreciatively again. “Ah! Rukmini! Very nice.”
Wanting to add to the conversation, I chimed in: “Yes, Rukmini Potdar.”
Suddenly the tone in the room took a dramatic shift. “Oh, Potdar,” one of them spat as they all rolled their eyes and shook their heads. I looked around in bewilderment – what was so wrong with being called Potdar? – but no further explanation came up. The conversation just moved on to different topics.
After we left, I turned to my father. “What happened there?” I asked him. Rukmini was a perfectly nice person and Potdar seemed to me a perfectly nice name. What did they have to object to?
“Well,” he said, “Rukmini is a nice old-fashioned Marathi name, so they appreciated that. But Potdar is a Bania name.”
I had stumbled into the world of modern Indian caste prejudice.Continue reading