BADEN-WÜRTTEMBERG, Germany —It must be two decades ago, but the moment that made me acutely aware of the classism that persists in Indian classrooms remains clear as daylight. In my seventh-grade class in rural Tamil Nadu, our social studies teacher asked us to introduce ourselves. When it was my turn, I told him what my father did. He was a watchman in the Southern Railways.
A chowkidar, so to say.
“Watchman pulle ellam padikka vanduttanga,” I remember he said in Tamil, his voice tinged with disdain. “The children of watchmen have started to study these days.” I want to say I shrunk in shame but what happened at that moment was something deeper.
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To me it became instantly clear I couldn’t be honest about my dad’s profession anymore. Mild mannered and distinctly effete, I was already bullied enough for being a misfit even though I was a good student Now this too?
Later, when I attended a public school in rural Tamil Nadu, notorious for absent teachers and rowdy pupils, I remember class distinctions were stark. In the English medium division I was in, (in an otherwise regional language school), these distinctions were deepened by the classism usually associated with the learning of English language, and amplified by the fact that my English medium class was populated with kids from rich homes who couldn’t get admission in a private school because they weren’t bright enough.
“I considered for a moment, even hypothetically, would I ever call myself a chowkidar?”
Once I took a visiting friend to my father’s office on a weekend to bring him his lunch. This friend, who saw my father in his khaki uniform shorts, asked me: “Is that what your father wears to office?” There was no condescension in his tone, yet it was clear he saw something he didn’t expect to see.
From then on, I started faking my dad’s profession. In conversations with classmates, I gave him different roles - a railway station superintendent, a ticket collector, an office clerk - anything with a slightly better dignity of labor. It escalated into a running joke in my family. Everyone, including my easy-going father, a soft-spoken man who bore no grudge to my shame, made light of the fact that I lied about him but never dug deep enough to understand why. Perhaps by upgrading my father’s profession, I wanted to enhance my social class too. Perhaps by giving myself a different social class, I aimed to reach a better class when I grew up. Either way, this was my first lesson about how class defined our lives.
Eventually, as I left school, finished college and fled home to start working, the need to hark back on my father’s profession gradually vanished. I could tell people my father was in the railways and nobody would dig deeper. It felt like a relief, I’m not lying anymore, I’m just not volunteering more information, I told myself.
Cut to 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Main Bhi Chowkidar (I Too Am A Watchman) campaign dropped. Modi’s re-election slogan for the 2019 general elections is a throwback to the promise he made back in 2014 elections to act as a chowkidar, one that he seems to have spectacularly fumbled and selectively fulfilled. The rehashed chowkidar hashtag campaign was bornRahul Gandhi’s Chowkidar Chor Hai (The watchman is a thief) jibe. Even as I stay insulated in my secular liberal intellectual Twitter bubble, the trolls percolating through my timeline with abuse weren’t easy to ignore. Like houseflies attracted to fruits and feces alike, they seem to come in hordes, with their practiced nimble swiftness, spreading whatever venom is stuck on them, far and wide.
As the election circus reaches a crescendo and the hashtags and prefixes started appearing more regularly on my timeline, I realised the misappropriation of the word chowkidar began to grate on me. Like a punch to my gut, the image of my father dressed in his khaki-shorts uniform of those days, as if a cliched substitute to the symbolism of an underdog, started to bother me. I had buried it all so deep under the rather heavy carpet of my social and class consciousness but now I needed a liberation from my presumed shame of class. Besides what match are these card-carrying social media chowkidars to the solemn dignity of my self-effacing, lower middle-class father and the success of a stable family he managed to pull off with his limited resources?
I considered for a moment, even hypothetically, would I ever call myself a chowkidar?
After a decade in modest corporate jobs, I’m now a freelance journalist living in a first-world country, Germany, married to my same-sex partner, a banker. It’s fair to say my social class has been upgraded. But if it weren’t for the chowkidar in my life and his hard-earned financials – meagre as they were – that gave me good education and held me through my early years until I stood on my feet, I had no way of reaching where I did.
Same goes to the thousands of sons and daughters of other chowkidars, and those in marginalised professions like manual scavenging, who manage to accomplish impossible academic feats despite their crushing poverty. Only, none of them are on Twitter with a prefix identifier of their father’s profession.
Because what good will come out of a futile attention seeking exercise like that?
Reprehensible as it is, the shame induced by class resides deep within your being, embedded in an unseen corner, and reappears unbidden, when fresh wounds are made. Unfortunately, you can only address it if you’ve the privilege of a better class to fall back on.
Enraged by all this, I did what anybody with some social-media leverage would do. I composed a series of tweets that felt like coming out of the closet all over again and pinned it to my wall and refreshed the page a whole day, to see the reaction it’s getting.
The trolls came for me too, as they always did when their presumed pride is slightly bruised. One of them sang platitudes on how I completely misunderstood the campaign that they claimed was shattering class distinctions (If only). A few called me a moron and one told me that my education was wasted on me. (Yeah, no shit, bruh, I replied to that one). But not one of them, according to the responses I received, had known a real chowkidar in their lives. They only had the pompous agency to attach that prefix to show their political clout.
I’d be remiss to say I understood the vacuity of this enterprise only after my little tweet storm. I always knew, my tweet thread only offered me some validation.
In his eighties, my father is now ailing and slowly slipping away, though it bears mentioning that he didn’t fail to vote in the elections in Kerala a week ago. My mother, when I last spoke, told me he’s stopped reading newspapers. Maybe he already has enough pain to deal with that he doesn’t need to be additionally informed of the sheer ridiculousness of today’s politics. I don’t imagine he is aware of the Main Bhi Chowkidar campaign but if I were to burden him with that information, he’d know times have changed. He’d also perhaps understand a chowkidar prefix is not necessarily shattering class distinctions, in fact it denotes the exploitation of the underdog, a trope in use since mankind started practicing politics.
The pompousness of piggybacking on an underdog or his profession is still a privilege accorded to a certain few. Because the real underdog is often entirely left outside of the conversation.