“To be a Brahmin in India was to acknowledge (if one dared) both your great privilege as keepers of sacred knowledge across generations, and your incredible complicity in the social violence that is the Indian caste system.”

There’s an old saying in India. “If you move across oceans, you lose all caste.”  The dictum is meant to be a presage, a warning to those who seek the riches and adventures of outside worlds and once there, lose their foothold in society, or when returning home, find themselves a stranger in a stranger’s land.

Cross the dark waters and lose all varṇa—lose all indication of status, wealth, social rank, prestige, privilege, and power. Lose the language of home, lose its logic, lose the understanding of supremacy and subordination, lose the sense of right action, lose wrong thought.

When my father moved to the United States in 1973 as a young graduate from engineering school and then married my mother in 1976 and brought her back to New York with him (thus, abruptly halting her graduate studies and what might have been a prosperous career in academia), I like to think, in some sort of unconscious, subversive, maybe even self-destructive way, what my parents were fleeing was not war or communism or difficult financial circumstances or a democracy trying to grow through the stinging shards of post-colonialism, but what they subconsciously were escaping was caste.

To be a Brahmin in India was to acknowledge (if one dared) both your great privilege as keepers of sacred knowledge (as conveyers of grammar, astronomy, mathematics, statecraft, social mores, philosophy, and theories of art and human behavior) across generations, and your incredible complicity in the social violence that is the Indian caste system. The first acknowledgement celebrated high culture and the triumph of Brahmanism across millennia in the face of challenges from Buddhism, Jainism, Cārvāka materialism, and Bhaktism (all of which sought to dismantle caste), and in the face of Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, and Judaism (which offered South Asians alternative models to achieve enlightenment). The second asked Brahmins to interrogate what was behind their lofty, aspirational, and supposedly innocuous ideal of “knowledge is power.”

This is an excerpt from American Caste by Rita Banerjee. It premieres on August 15.


Rita Banerjee is the Director of the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Executive Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop. She’s the author of several books including CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing (C&R Press, 2018), the poetry collection Echo in Four Beats (FLP,  2018), which was nominated for the 2019 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize at the Academy of American Poets, the novella “A Night with Kali” in Approaching Footsteps (SPR, 2016), and the poetry chapbook Cracklers at Night (FLP, 2010). She is the co-writer of Burning Down the Louvre (2021), a documentary film about race, intimacy, and tribalism in the United States and in France. She received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and her MFA from the University of Washington, and her work appears in PANK,  Nat. Brut., Poets & Writers, Academy of American Poets, Los Angeles Review of Books, Vermont Public Radio, Electric Literature, The Nervous Breakdown, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a memoir and manifesto on how young women of color keep their cool against social, sexual, and economic pressure.

Featured image: Aashish R Gautam (Unsplash)