The first wedding was in England, at an 18th-century country house, set in an estate of some hundreds of acres of parkland and farms. No, I hadn’t been invited there by that dignified nobleman the Duke of Omnium. Many such places now run from a spreadsheet, restored and rented out by the day for middle-class weddings, anniversary dos, and corporate gigs.
Driving there on a fine afternoon in the early autumn, we slipped from the motorway onto smaller roads, thence to narrow country lanes. After a wrong turn, unable to reverse on the narrow path, we went on till we reached a village – five or six white, half-timbered houses around a village green. There was no one in sight. A dark, bronze-tinted obelisk rose in the middle of the green, perhaps ten feet tall, crowded with the names of that locality's dead from the two world wars.
Turning back, we found our destination, a two-story, red-brick Georgian house, connected on one side to a series of secondary buildings and barns. These buildings, I later saw, formed three sides of a rectangle, the whole set in a complex of lawns and gardens. On the fourth, open, side, the lawns connected to a park, beyond which, in the middle distance, was a pasture with cattle, then farms, the whole framed with a dark border of woods.
This place was built in the middle of the 18th-century, a time of agricultural improvements and mildly increasing prosperity, at least for landowners. Of the country gentry who flourished in this sort of place around that time, J.H. Plumb says in his 1956 biography of Sir Robert Walpole that, while there were among them drunkards, gamblers, and spendthrifts, as there were in the rest of society high and low, often:
“these small squires were men of culture and learning…Their libraries, like Sir Pury Cust’s, or Walpole’s father’s, contained the classics – Homer, Thucydides, Plutarch, Livy, Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Ovid, Lucretius, Pliny; plenty of history;…some French books, perhaps,…a book or two on architecture; a great number of law books; a little poetry, Spenser and Milton, occasionally Dryden; a shelf of sermons and theology; a few pursued the new rationalism, and purchased Bacon, Hobbes and Locke…
“They were passionately devoted to architecture and knew something of painting; most of them spent more time and money than they could afford on their gardens and trees. They studied intelligently the new forms of husbandry and made their own modest experiments. There were mindless ones amongst them who thought of nothing but horses, hounds and gun: others were equally obsessed by their pursuit of learning; but most combined a little of both, happy with a good day’s hunting in the crisp autumn air but just as content to spend a raw day indoors by the huge log fire in the panelled library…”
These were later reflections, obviously. At the time, we parked the car, joined our side of the wedding party, and strolled through the gardens to the folly. A small ornamental building resembling a Roman temple stood at one end of an oval-shaped pool, around the two longer sides of which were rows of chairs for the guests. Thick shrubs, hedges, and tall overarching trees surrounded this space, designed to resemble a grove hidden in the woods, where antique gods and goddesses might descend to mingle among men and women, for the amusement of the squire and his family.
People being what they are, the guests sorted themselves along the two sides of the pool to be near their kin and friends. The flowery-hatted English contingent clustered mostly on the left, the Indian party largely on the right. Such Roman deities as still lingered hereabouts were likely entranced by the curious sight of the Indian ladies in their elegant, lusciously colored saris - saffron orange, rich maroon, angelic violet.
For yes, it was an interracial marriage, the groom of English stock, the bride of Indian. The two were young professionals who had met at university. They had made their own wedding plans, including this rural location, with, I would guess, the forceful young bride having the final say on most things. It was a simple civil marriage. There were, thankfully, no ‘personalized marriage vows.’ A bearded musician strummed a guitar tastefully, off to one side on the podium of the mock-Roman temple.
Was this then a scene from a new multicultural England? I wondered about that, after the ceremony, as the flowery hats and the saris mingled and sipped champagne on the lawn, in the last evening sunlight. Or was it perhaps just the opposite, one data point in the renewal of a single English nation?
At one level – following the political scientist Azar Gat – a nation is an ethnos, “a population of shared kinship (real or perceived) and culture.” Of this sense of shared kinship, Gat says that “It is the notion of extended family which is typical of an ethnos and ethnicity, and this notion often, but not always, includes common descent. In many cases there is a strong sense based on tradition that the ethnos was originally made up of separate groups that came together and amalgamated into one.” And what is more important to extended families than marriage? The inescapable in-laws!
“The Romans, for example, had strong traditions that they originated from Latin and Sabine groups which joined together at the founding of Rome. Initially speaking different Italic languages, they fused almost without a trace, including the adoption of the Latin language by the Sabines. This tradition of mixed origin helped to legitimize Rome’s policy of incorporating many of the conquered into its citizen body, which went hand in hand with cultural Latinization and common identity formation. Similarly, the English have a strong perception of descending from both the Anglo-Saxons and Normans…
The key to the fusion of a shared ethnic identity, even in the absence of a belief in common descent, is extensive intermarriage among the founding groups and the adoption of a common culture. Over time these processes both turn the populations in question into self-perceived kin or a “community of blood” and make them scarcely distinguishable from one another. Note that the very notion of the ethnos as a family implies individuals and groups joining together in “blood” and loyalty through marriage ties (and even adoption). Generations of anthropologists, from Claude Lévi-Strauss on, have stressed that in-laws are everywhere considered as kin.” (Azar Gat. 2012. Nations - The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism.)
In the United Kingdom, nearly one in nine couples are now ethnically mixed, according to the 2011 Census. In the United States, “One-in-six U.S. newlyweds (17%) were married to a person of a different race or ethnicity in 2015, a more than fivefold increase from 3% in 1967. Among all married people in 2015 (not just those who recently wed), 10% are now intermarried,” according to Pew Research. Intermarriage is one of the main reasons, says Pew, that there is a big fall over time in the proportion of people of Hispanic ancestry who self-identify as Hispanics. Over the generations, they become ‘just plain Americans.’
As to the cultural assimilation of immigrants, one had only to look around at our surroundings. In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn,’ his essay on English national culture, George Orwell picks out the love of flowers, gardens, and, by extension, the countryside, as a distinctive trait of the English. Roger Scruton says in a recent essay: “Although most of us live in cities, we retain the idea of the countryside as the place where we really belong, the place to which we will one day return, to take up the tranquil rhythms from which we were sundered by the modern turmoil. That is why…the British imagination finds itself naturally at home in Hogwarts, as imagined by J. K. Rowling.” To this trait, curious in a population that underwent industrialization earlier than, and has lived largely in cities longer than any other, one could add the continued, slightly absurd prestige and glamor in the national culture of the landed aristocracy and the country gentry. Think ‘Downton Abbey,’ or the allure of the country house as a favorite setting for the English novel.
This affinity of the English for the countryside can be overdone, and is by now a cultural cliché. My point, though, is that not in a million years would it cross the minds of first-generation Indian immigrants to marry at an 18th-century country house deep in the folds of rural Barsetshire, amidst mock-Roman follies and fat black and white cattle grazing in the middle distance. And yet, only one generation later, here we were.
At the dinner that night there were at my table one jolly Australian and two, more subdued, English couples, one from near Hastings, on the south coast, the other from Cheshire. Though strangers, everyone felt obliged to make conversation, and soon, after a glass or two of wine, there was talk and laughter aplenty. There was around the table a briefly shared kinship, more drunkenly perceived than real, of course, but still...I did not see the significance of this shared effort to be friendly among strangers till later.
The second, a wedding reception, was in India, at a high-rise, ‘5-star’ hotel in the densely crowded mid-town of an enormous mega-city. Our taxi deposited us at some complex lower level of the hotel, whence we passed through vacant halls of expensive, heavy marble to an elevator that shot us up to a brightly lit, windowless, banquet hall somewhere deep inside the trunk of the skyscraper.
A chubby man in his early forties wearing an expensive silk suit, the proud, beaming father of the groom met us at the entrance, took me by the hand and led us into the already crowded hall. Coming from an unpretentious lower-middle-class family, our host had taken a big risk as a young man and gone into trade, instead of seeking modest security as a clerk or manager. Now after twenty years he was a prosperous trader of machinery in both home and foreign markets. Many of the other guests at the reception were of this same class of canny, hard-driving mid-level bourgeois, the numerous NCO corps in the country’s industrialization.
An odd, momentary feeling of displacement came over me as I looked around the banquet hall – where am I? For, unlike the Indian ladies in England, in their traditional saris, here nearly all the women were dressed in full-length evening gowns, as if in some aristocratic ball or soiree out of Tolstoy. There had been a revolution in style, it seemed. I entertained myself by admiring the creativity of the city’s tailors, who had constructed the ladies’ long dresses in an astonishing variety of designs, all sorts of necklines, straps, sleeves, waists, embroideries, tiers, fancies, pleats, bodices, bustles, and bows.
There were other contrasts with the wedding scene in England a few months before. It would be unthinkable, I realized, for my host to have held the wedding in the countryside, where some 70% of India’s population lives. Your friends and relatives would think you eccentric, if not mad, and not only because of the exhausting four-hour car trip through traffic to get to the nearest real bit of countryside. True, you might still travel to your ‘ancestral village’ every few years to meet distant relations, but there is here not much of a romantic or socially prestigious cultural tradition attached to the countryside as there is in England. Such feelings as you might have would probably be ones of revulsion at the material and social backwardness of village life.
Was this then a scene from an emerging, modern India – urban, industrial, bourgeois and progressive? Both yes and no. It was not till later that I thought about another contrast between the two weddings. It was that, unlike my English experience, no one at the Indian wedding reception made much effort to talk with strangers. People stayed in their family groups and spoke only with people they already knew. To have tried to make conversation with the strangers diligently downing pakoras at your table would have been unthinkable – it would likely cause disquiet, perhaps offense and suspicion. “What’s this fellow after?” might be the thought that your unseemly, almost indecent, friendliness would occasion.
Is it too much to infer that these scenes of mutual indifference reflected, indirectly no doubt, the culture of an ancient caste society? Here is a population not so much of shared kinship in the manner described by Azar Gat, as, instead, a loose collection of thousands of kinship groups or jatis, segregated by strict (endogamous) rules against marriage outside the group, and by rules defining ritual pollution and purity, superiority and inferiority.
David Reich, head of Harvard’s Ancient DNA Lab, and author of the indispensable new 2018 book “Who We Are and How We Got Here – Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past” says that:
“People tend to think of India, with its more than 1.3 billion people, as having a tremendously large population, and indeed many Indians as well as foreigners see it this way. But genetically, this is an incorrect way to view the situation. The Han Chinese are truly a large population. They have been mixing freely for thousands of years. In contrast, there are few if any Indian groups that are demographically very large, and the degree of genetic differentiation among Indian jati groups living side by side in the same village is typically two to three times higher than the genetic differentiation between northern and southern Europeans. The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.”
The groom at this wedding was, in fact, marrying a young woman from his jati, although, these days, this need not have been the case. The urban upper and middle classes do not follow caste marriage rules all that strictly now. Wealth and education count for much. But caste is not nothing either. I cannot imagine my plump, beaming host reacting with anything other than iron opposition had his son wanted to marry, say, a ‘Dalit’ or ‘Untouchable’ caste girl, no matter how well educated. The lower down the social and economic scale, the more fierce the divides across kinship groups. Caste and jati are the vital units of political mobilization in furious, sometimes violent struggles over government jobs, college admissions, and other treasured resources.
Consider an article in the nationalist, center-right Indian magazine Swarajya on ‘Caste Wars’ in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The author, Aravindan Neelakandan, points to a rise of Tamil movies “glorifying [the] aggressive caste stands of non-Brahmin upper castes in the name of community honour…A recent film, Sundara Pandian, had scenes almost glorifying an honour execution of a boy who happened to fall in love with a girl of Devar caste.”
Coupled with the rise in casteist movies is “a steep increase in caste-rhetoric in public space. Each community has started claiming that they were the original rulers of Tamil Nadu – specifically the builders of imperial Chozha Empire.”
That’s a Tamil dynasty from the 3rd century BCE through the 13th century CE. It’s as if the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were still battling for control of England in the backstreets of Hastings, instead of having long since gotten sensibly married and fused into one English people. Youths from the Devar and Dalit communities clash and die every year at memorial ceremonies for two opposed politicians from the 1950s.
The article in Swarajya continues:
“A pre-modern mythical legacy coupled with quest for modern political power led to the inevitable – constructing an enemy. That enemy is inter-caste marriage, particularly the marriage of the so-called upper caste girls with Dalit youths. Caste leaders started warning the parents of the girls to be wary of Dalit boys. A gigantic conspiracy was imagined. Digital social networks like Facebook pulsated with cartoons and photoshopped pictures mocking and attacking inter-caste marriages. Anti-inter-caste marriage conventions started happening. Dalit leaders retaliated with equally vehement rhetoric: ‘Yes we shall marry the so-called upper caste girls.’… Even as the anti-inter-caste mania spread, a Dalit boy and Vanniar girl married against the wishes of the girl’s parents. After some days the father of the girl committed suicide and in a well planned attack 300 Dalit houses were charred and all their valuables were looted.”
In summary then: in England, a rising share of interracial marriages bids fair over time to assimilate new ethnic groups into a single English nation. While in India, grass-roots movements use violence to stop inter-caste marriages, which are essential to consolidate an Indian ethnos – the shared kinship real or perceived, the sense of “we-ness” that is the indispensable support for nationhood.
As I wrote some months ago, there is a sense in which the fragmented, caste society of India might represent not the past but a possible dystopian future: "If Americans think of India at all, it is mostly along linear Marxian or modernization theory lines, as an underdeveloped country that, if it is lucky, will develop in the image of the United States. But what if it is India that is holding up an image of its future to America – the illiberal terminus of the identitarian, intersectional, ideologically multiculturalist, “race realist” road down which forces of both left and right appear to be pushing the United States?"
How did England and India reach such different outcomes? Perhaps I am ignorant of the relevant literature, but I don’t think I’ve seen a convincing explanation for how and why this extraordinary system evolved in India but not in Europe. Even the recent studies of ancient DNA can tell us only when the caste system arose, not why.
David Reich gives the example of “the Vysya of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a middle caste group of approximately five million people whose population bottleneck [descent from a few common ancestors] we could date (from the size of [DNA] segments shared between individuals of the same population) to between three thousand and two thousand years ago.” He elaborates on the astounding implications of this fact:
“The observation of such a strong population bottleneck among the ancestors of the Vysya was shocking. It meant that after the population bottleneck, the ancestors of the Vysya had maintained strict endogamy, allowing essentially no genetic mixing into their group for thousands of years. Even an average rate of influx into the Vysya of as little as 1 percent per generation would have erased the genetic signal of a population bottleneck. The ancestors of the Vysya did not live in geographic isolation. Instead, they lived cheek by jowl with other groups in a densely populated part of India. Despite proximity to other groups, the endogamy rules and group identity in the Vysya have been so strong that they maintained strict social isolation from their neighbors, and transmitted that culture of social isolation to each and every subsequent generation.”
I draw one other conclusion from David Reich’s remarkable book: the emergence of caste in India but not in Europe cannot be explained by racialist or genetically determinist theories. The reason is that the populations of Europe and India grew from three similar genetic building blocks: ancient hunter-gatherers, ‘first farmers’ from Anatolia and Iran, and Yamnaya (so-called “Aryan”) pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe.
The DNA results, says Reich, “reveal a remarkably parallel tale of the prehistories of two similarly sized subcontinents of Eurasia—Europe and India. In both regions, farmers migrating from the core region of the Near East after nine thousand years ago—in Europe from Anatolia, and in India from Iran—brought a transformative new technology [agriculture], and interbred with the previously established hunter-gatherer populations to form new mixed groups between nine thousand and four thousand years ago. Both subcontinents were then also affected by a second later major migration with an origin in the steppe, in which Yamnaya pastoralists speaking an Indo-European language mixed with the previously established farming population they encountered along the way, in Europe forming the peoples associated with the Corded Ware culture, and in India eventually forming the ANI [Ancestral North Indians]. These populations of mixed steppe and farmer ancestry then mixed with the previously established farmers of their respective regions, forming the gradients of mixture we see in both subcontinents today.”
Yet, sometime between three and two thousand years ago, something happened that caused the then-existing genetic mixture in India to crystallize and be carried forward to the present almost unchanged, in the jatis; while in Europe this did not happen, intermarriage and genetic mixing continued. But why? Until we have an answer, I take the Indian caste system as testimony to the contingency, the unpredictability, the indeterminacy of human history.