Status. The all-consuming force that drives humans in the modern age. Imbued with symbols that are attached to it…that others peer at with analytical looks. And…deeply complicated with caste factors, if you live in rural India.
One conversation with Panna, my domestic backbone, was very revelatory as a first step to understand the nuanced status of her world. When her daughter was getting married, I innocently enquired if she had given the invitation card to the shop owner from where all the wedding groceries were being purchased. She answered with a clear “no”, which did surprise me. She further said, “They don’t invite us and we don’t invite them.” Again, a concept to be understood.
On reflection, I asked if it had anything to do with “caste”. Without further explanation, she just mumbled, “We belong to different castes.”
The shop owner belongs to an upper caste family. Panna not so. It is a simple social dynamic, quite acceptable as a norm to Panna. Times have changed. Now, there is exposure to television, WhatsApp and YouTube, with stories about equality and justice. It has seeped into the consciousness of the rural populace. Causing a clash between what has been and what societal dynamics are turning into…irrespective of caste.
Hema (name changed) is a domestic worker with a strong personality. She has an unabashed tendency to speak her mind and take on the world. Her early widowhood has contributed to making this characteristic a survival mechanism. Rightfully so, since she lives in a community entrenched in caste and deep-rooted patriarchal values, steeped in religious and societal norms. She is vulnerable and makes sure no one can exploit that.
One day, Hema barged into my house bursting with agitation. That day it was only a very quick salutary greeting, unlike her usual long-winding enquiry about health, family, etc. It was clear she couldn’t wait to get to the point that was the cutting edge of her day.
Hema had run into Kishen (name changed), a local all-rounder in electricity and plumbing. In a short period, he was turning into a full scale house construction contractor. Depending on perception, local people put it down to hard work, devious means, smart “business practice”, constant networking. I have been warned about him but he has always been helpful to me. So, it is difficult to judge. It is clear his increased income and growing wealth are becoming a sore point. Even for his mother, who complains why he needs to run after money and what he is going to do with it.
Kishen also belongs to an upper caste.
Be that as it may. Hema has had a long-standing association with Kishen, who has done various odd jobs for her house. They have shared meals and gossip in a spirit of bonhomie. All that changed in one day.
When Hema met Kishen on the road, she spoke about Kishen’s inadequately done task in a house she works in. Kishen got into a rage. It is quite possible that Hema’s choice of words or her tone was inappropriate. For me it is all hearsay. As everything is in rural areas…leading to much speculation, spiraling of misinformation and unfounded doubts.
In his rage, Kishen sharply responded to Hema. Putting her in her place was an inadvertent part of it. He, allegedly, said, “Who are you to tell me anything? Stick to your level. Do you know who you are and who I am?” Well, words to that effect is what I can presume from what Hema told me.
Hema was in a fit. “Can you imagine he is talking about level? Level?!?!” What amazed me was that a rural woman, who cannot speak English, actually understood the meaning of the word Level, with all its nuances.
I tried to cool Hema down but she would have none of it. There was something brewing in her head. I understood only a couple of days later.
It was pay day and Hema had received her salary. She had a job to do and she did it. I met her later. She owed Kishen money. He had willingly and without much ado lent money for Hema’s daughter’s wedding. In the interim period, he had put no pressure about the return (Hema’s words). Now Hema was faced with a battle for her dignity and self-respect. She did not want to be under an obligation at the price of “Level”. She used her entire salary to pay him up.
“Now, I have nothing to do with him. Suck him and his level! I have paid him back and will never have anything to do with him.”
Experience tells me otherwise. Tomorrow, when times are hard or situations are complex, Hema will turn to Kishen…again. He has the moolah and she doesn’t. Then her lower financial status will dictate her circumstance. In that moment, her lower caste status will be on the back burner. She will again be at Kishen’s mercy, looking for assistance. And he will help. In a gesture of his superior financial status…and befitting the reputation (justified or otherwise!) of a benign upper caste man.
That is how it works. It will not stop Kishen from playing the Level card again. Nor will it stem Hema’s anger then. Life goes on in rural India…on terms they have defined for themselves…and only they can understand and deal with.

Neelima Mathur is an India-based Executive Producer, Researcher, Writer, Mentor and Trainer for documentary and NGO films. She is also Festival Director of the Lakeside Doc Festival.