So I was talking to a friend, a Guju bania who visits their “family temple” now and then. This person is from a very tight-knight community. We were talking about whether I am “upper caste,” and their point was that most of my ancestors were from the bhadrolok literate elites of Bengal. It seems I’m mostly Kayastha, with a recent Bengali Brahmin in the mix, and reputed Iranian (Pathan and Persian) ancestry on both sides a very long time ago.
But, as I thought through the issue and reflected, I realized why the appellation annoyed me. There is no community of people of Muslim background who are mostly Kayastha with some Brahmin and ashraf ancestry. Yes, there are Muslim cates groups, like Ismailis who are clearly from banias or literally Muslim Kayasths (though most now intermarry with other Muslims). But that’s not me or my family; we are from a well-off background, but our identity is that of generic Bengali Muslims. Our origins are upper caste, but caste is irrelevant to our social reality (class though, is).
This is worth a post because I think this is going to be the case with later generations of Indian Americans. Because of the class and caste backgrounds, Indian Americans descend from ancestors will tend to be upper caste and upper-middle class. But their identity will be a new one, unrelated to the solidities of the Indian subcontinent. In this way, Indian Americans may have upper-caste privilege, but caste as a social institution just doesn’t function as it does in the subcontinent. The privilege is carryover, not operational.
So when a lot of Lefty commentators accused me of defending upper caste people because I’m an “upper-caste Muslim” I didn’t even know what to say. That’s just not part of my identity, or that of my family, though in a heritage sense that’s true. In the near future young Indian Americans who are half-Khatri and 1/4th Iyer and 1/4th Reddy would be verbally abused as “upper caste” and be just as confused as to what that even means.