A caste, from the Portuguese word casta, meaning race, is a group of people sharing racial characteristics; in India the term is applied to the smallest endogamous groups existing within the general population.
There are thousands and thousands of castes and subcastes in India, as many as thirty thousand by some estimates, which would make it very difficult for a resident of Bombay to identify, without asking, the specific caste of a fellow citizen.
Traditionally, however, Indian castes have been grouped into four varnas, or classes, which is what most people mean when they talk about castes. In addition to the four varnas there is an outcaste group, whose members are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The varna to which an individual belongs can be deduced from such things as that person’s mode of dress, his trade, and his religious practices.
The four classes are the Brahmans (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors or barons), the Vaisyas (merchants), and the Sudras (laborers). The outcastes are called the Harijans, or “children of god,” Mohandas Gandhi’s name for the group once known as “untouchables.”
According to ancient custom, the various jobs, dietary habits, and living conditions of each caste cause its members to become ritually unclean in varying degrees, with the highest caste, the Brahmans, remaining most pure, and the outcastes, the Harijans, being the most impure. For this reason, it was considered defiling to mix with people of lower social standing.
The caste system has been relaxed in modern times, and since 1947, when India gained independence, discrimination against “untouchables” has been illegal. These reforms are especially strong in great urban centers like Bombay, where it would be impossible for residents to completely avoid intercaste contact. Even so, the caste system continues to exert a strong social and political influence in India.
In modern, industrial Bombay, recognizing what caste another person belongs to is basically a matter of cultural literacy: each person advertises his social position by his name, the clothes he wears, the job he performs, and the food he eats.
A Brahman, for example, will likely adhere to a strict vegetarian diet for religious reasons. A member of one of the lower classes will be less particular about what he eats. A Harijan will probably eat whatever food he can obtain, regardless of its ritual impurity.
Some distinctions run along fairly universal class lines: a person who lives on the streets or in a slum is apt to belong to a lowly caste, while a person who resides in an elegant apartment in one of Bombay’s exclusive neighborhoods probably belongs to a favored caste.
Clothing tells a similar story. The quality, material, and style of a person’s clothing, whether traditional or Westernized, says something about his social standing. There are hundreds of clues, and a native of Bombay would be proficient at reading them.
This situation is much the same in any culture. In the United States, for example, the name Rockefeller carries a certain cachet. If you were to meet a man by that name, and he happened to be getting out of a limousine wearing a very expensive-looking suit and top coat, you might assume a thing or two about his background.
The great difference between Indian castes and American classes is that the Indian system permits only very limited social mobility.
In Bombay, members of different castes by necessity mingle during the course of a day, but they rarely become involved permanently. Marriage especially is governed by social taboos. While the sons and daughters of American Rockefellers might meet and marry daughters and sons of less socially prominent families, that is not likely to happen in India.
In India, a caste near the bottom of the social ladder might advance itself by adopting the customs of the caste above it. After a few generations, it would become almost indistinguishable from the higher caste, but there is no real upward movement of individuals.