From the communes of Jhok

In rural Sindh, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

As a second-generation immigrant from an Urdu-speaking family based in Karachi, I thought that we had left our caste shackles behind when we left rural Bihar, first for Calcutta and Dhaka and then Karachi. I also mistakenly believed that caste was an issue only among Hindus. Rural Sindh proved me wrong, though, where the first question that one typically gets asked is about one's caste – the answer to which can immediately define your social, political, economic and even spiritual standing.

The first few times I was asked about my caste, I was perplexed. Then I decided to try an experiment. At one house in a village near Mirpur Bathoro, in Thatta district a few hours' drive northeast of Karachi, one of the children had proudly announced that he knew Urdu, and was thus promptly put to work as a translator between myself and the women of the household. 'Ask her about her caste,' said one of the matriarchs in her 50s. 'I'm a Bheel,' I lied, and my response was promptly relayed to the rest of the room. The children looked on, their mouths little O's of shock, while some of the women gasped audibly. Bheels are scheduled-caste Hindus, while my hosts were Muslims. The difference was so real that it felt a living, breathing creature, which had suddenly sucked the warmth out of the room.

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Himal Southasian