Love (and money) conquer caste

Although caste is still powerful in Dharavi, it is gradually giving way to the money god. Teenage boys insist that good jobs—government jobs especially—are now more important, both for snagging good partners and for asserting control over marriage decisions. One of the boys, an orphan, has a girlfriend and wants to marry her. Her parents object to his caste, but he reckons he can wear down their objections by finishing his education and getting a better job.

Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Shiv Nadar University, says that caste is crumbling as India urbanises. Nearly a third of Indians now live in cities or towns, while villages are tied increasingly to urban economies. The village bosses who enforce caste rules have less power than they did. Some north Indian village elders have chosen to relax the rules anyway, because so many single men are in search of wives—a consequence of sex-selective abortions. Caste is now less an institution than a mess of prejudices about the superiority of one’s own group.

Popular culture is driving change too. In parts of Dharavi the greatest hazard for a pedestrian is not the open sewer beneath your feet but the tangle of wires around your head. Many of these wires carry cable-television signals. They transmit soap operas and movies which often depict the struggle between love and tradition. Though these seem stuffy to the upper middle classes, they can be a revelation to the poor. Nayreen Daruwalla of SNEHA, a Mumbai charity, has heard women complain that their husbands do not sing to them, as men do in Bollywood films.

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