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The new international caste system

By B S Prakash
January 11, 2012 19:53 IST
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'But where were the majority of my cousins from South Asia, the multitudes from Pakistan and Bangladesh and my own compatriots,' wonders B S Prakash.

'They were the service class: Cleaning, pouring, clearing, wiping, sweeping and getting rid of the rubbish.'
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

I was transiting through Dubai airport.

I had left Sao Paulo, the mega city in Brazil, some sixteen hours earlier from an airport comparable to the intercity bus stands in India -- full of chaos, confusion and in an utter state of decay.

Though weary, I was now looking with wondrous eyes at the glitz and glitter of DXB as Dubai airport is known. There was a long wait before the flight to Delhi and I settled down in the transit area taking in the sights, sounds and smells around me.

Now, Dubai airport is like no other and in my view is a true microcosm of the world as it has changed. Pass through Frankfurt or London and you will still see a preponderance of white faces, though small groups of Indians or Arabs or Africans also drift through depending on the terminals or the gates to their continents. Try to buy a cup of coffee and the Euro prices will bankrupt you, mirroring their high cost economies in dire straights.

Transit through Singapore or Hong Kong, other major hubs, and the super efficiency and prosperity of East Asia hits you. Sao Paulo is a major airport too, but is full of Latino glamour and alien tongues, against a backdrop of crumbling infrastructure, as I said.

The new ultra modern airport in Delhi is, of course, our pride and joy, but with over a billion of us, it is very 'Indian' indeed with a sprinkle of foreign faces lost in its acres of space. Confined to the transit area of Dubai airport, however, you feel that you could be anywhere, with large segments of humanity from all the five continents.

Every form of being, in every possible attire is traversing in front of you, in the myriad of escalators, towards the universal desire of 'duty free.'

Soon I began to see some patterns in the swirl of humanity around me: An international caste system at work.

I had begun to vaguely sense it in the Emirates flight that I had taken earlier. As we approached the UAE, the entertainment system had terminated the movies and had projected promotional short films about the marvels of Dubai: Its highest towers, man-made islands, seven-star hotels, giant shopping malls and skis in the deserts.

In all these advertisement films, the owners were the sheikhs with hooded eyes, trimmed beards and in their flowing golden robes. Sometimes eagles were perched on their forearms. This was the source of wealth, the seat of authority.

All the engineering and architectural features of the new marvels were explained, however, in smart and smooth British accents, by say the chief financial officer of Al Ahtani or the chief operating officer of Ittihad Enterprises, for instance. These were the men in silk suits and ties, in the super cooled offices, who spoke about how they had given reality to the 'vision' of the Sheikhs.

If sometimes the mega construction sites were also shown in the film, you could glimpse a helmeted work force of brown bodies, seen from a distance, but not heard.

Is stratification inherent to social formation or was it my Indian mind seeing stratification everywhere? I was not sure, but I started observing the phenomenon around me at the airport.

First, as the travelers flew in, the 'gatekeepers' were all Arabs. Naturally and logically. It is their country and theirs to control. The young officials to scrutinise your passport, to stamp it, to control the stampede of immigrants were all in abayas, the long flowing white gowns of the desert.

If once in a while they needed help to understand what a long suffering Haji from the subcontinent was saying, they summoned a Pakistani.

After the immigration, the transit crowd heads to the famed 'duty free' of the airport, arguably the world's best. This universe was dominated by the boys and girls from the Philippines, sleek, smiling and smart in their uniforms. They seemed to have near monopoly as shop assistants.

Was it their nature, nurture, appearance or aptitude which gave them an edge, I did not know. Perhaps having been colonised by the Americans and early familiarity with American English and Japanese gadgetry gave them this advantage as a sales-force. They spoke to each other in Tagalog, but in English to everyone else.

Scattered among this blue collar workforce were some white collared Indians or Pakistanis, taking stock of the inventory, analysing sales figures, their arithmetical ability creating a niche, an accounts department manned by them, a step away from the marketing.

But where were the majority of my cousins from South Asia, the multitudes from Pakistan and Bangladesh and my own compatriots? They were the service class: Cleaning, pouring, clearing, wiping, sweeping and getting rid of the rubbish.

They were larger in numbers, but many dressed in orange, a step below the blue, two steps below the white, a storey below suit and tie, and a universe below the abaya-golden robe.

But there were other Indian castes.

One was found mainly in the electronic stores in the duty-free. They had a cell-phone wedged to their ears and were generally lugging a laptop even as they looked at the iPad 2 or the new Cannon XLR.

They were talking to Mumbai or Bengaluru and were consulting other experts about the price on offer at Dubai and how it compared with New York or Singapore.

They were being treated deferentially by the Filipinos when they asked for '32GB, dual-process, without 3-G,' even as they took out their credit cards.

They represented the Indian IT brigade, many living abroad, seen in all international airports, marching to a power socket and to a different drum beat.

They belonged to a different caste from other diamond dripping Indian ladies who were heading straight to the famed gold outlets.

Once in a while, one of them speaking in Malayalam to ask his wife in Kochi about which perfume to buy quite literally ran into a person in an orange over-all, clearing the waste bin. Perhaps, the orange over-all clothed someone from Kottayam.

The common language that they shared seemed to create a nano-second flicker of recognition, but then their ways were separate...

To each his work, to each his dignity, to each his destiny.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at
You can read his columns here

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