Insight into India’s Caste System: A Reading List

A listicle to help learn and unlearn about one of India’s biggest social evils, from the perspective of the oppressed.

Nayomi Dave, Writer


The caste system is one of the most prominent and intrinsic aspects of India’s social features. However, in its manifestation, it has always been a problematic and unfair system of social hierarchy and oppression. Despite the nature of this system, it is still very much prevalent in society to this day. Small acts stemming from prejudice based on caste still occur in seemingly modern and progressive households as well.


Each time we insist on our house-help sleeping in the kitchen or on the floor, using a separate glass to drink water or separate utensils to eat in - we are normalising caste-based discrimination at home.


One would expect that with time, civility would overtake religious beliefs and prejudice, but even in 2020, that is not the case.


In fact, according to data released in 2019 by the National Crime Records Bureau, crimes against Dalits have gone up 7% since the previous year.


So the question that arises is – what can we do to improve the situation of casteism in our country, or even in our immediate environment? The first step would naturally be to gain awareness and knowledge about the caste system in India, especially from the Dalit/Bahujan community to learn their lived experiences from their own perspectives rather from those of the perpetrators.


Most Indian high school students read surface level, one paragraph mentions of the caste hierarchy. You’re probably aware that there are four ancient and unchanging castes in India ranging from Brahmins at the top, through Kshatriyas and Vaishyas in the middle, to Shudras at the bottom, with a fifth group of so-called Untouchables or Dalits. In terms of awareness about the atrocities faced, we read a few headlines about crimes against the SC on social media or in the newspaper, and that’s all.


However, there is a lot more you need to learn about the caste system in India to truly understand it and raise awareness about the same. The following reading list, comprises basic light reading to intense research findings and takes you on a journey of understanding India’s caste system and its impacts in detail.


1. A Gardener In The Wasteland - Srividya Natarajan

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This is a graphic novel weaving the story of Savitribai Phule and her struggles amidst the caste system. The story uses Wasteland as a metaphor for casteism in India. As the story moves forward, we are made aware of how the concept of casteism and its depiction in the Vedas has turned into a wasteland due to its manipulation by Brahmins. ‘Gardeners’ in this case are those who uproot weeds responsible for ruining the idea of the caste system.


2. Untouchable - Mulk Raj Anand

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Untouchable narrates a day in the life of Bakha, a sweeper and latrine-cleaner born into a scheduled caste family and deemed untouchable due to the same. Despite being a rather smart, self-confident and attractive individual, he was denied opportunities at multiple levels. In the form of a fictional story, this book revolves around the argument for eradicating the caste system.


3. The Boy Who Asked Why - Sowmya Rajendran

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This book walks us through the life of Babasaheb Ambedkar who as the name suggests – would raise a lot of questions pertaining to the prejudice he had been facing. “Why do I have to sit separately in a corner of the classroom?” “Why can't I drink water from the tap like other children?” “Why do the teachers never touch my books?”

Through the medium of illustration, this telling raises awareness in one’s mind about the caste-based discrimination in India, hopefully leading to them asking some of their own whys.


4. Gulamgiri – Jyotiba Phule

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Published in 1873, this book is considered to be the earliest and one of the most famous works of critique against the caste system in India. It talks about the inherited slavery from generations to generations of lower caste families, hence aptly titled Gulamgiri, which is a Hindi translation of the word slavery. In this piece, Jyotiba Phule gives the readers an insight into the Racial Theory of Caste which revolves around the idea of a superior foreign race invading the land and making its indigenous people lowly inferior races. In this case, the invaders are intended to be the Brahmins. Phule accepts this theory but upturns its logic to say that in this case, the invaders were actually immoral and corrupt rather than superior in all aspects.


5. Growing Up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography – Vasant Moon

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This is the story of Vasant Moon’s life. It depicts his early days in his neighbourhood where there was hunger, deprivation and normalisation of petty crimes. It talks about his schooling and his community. It also talks primarily of how the factor of caste seeps into all these aspects of his life. This book is described by many as a short course on what it means to be a Dalit, in the words of a Dalit.

Nayomi is a second-year chemistry student. She aspires to become a researcher in the field of cognitive science and pharmaceutics and is extremely passionate about reading and writing. Her Instagram handle is @nayo.nnaise.

Email: nayomi.dave@gmail.com

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nayomi-dave/