BY Priyan Rajapaksa 

The sexist and divisive Indian caste system originated in Hinduism. Its ancient texts make mention of the Brahmins (scholars and priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and nobles), Vaisyas (farmers, merchants and artisans) and Shudras (labourers or service providers); and although they do not mention a separate ‘untouchable’ caste, it does exist.

I leave Auckland bound for Colombo as a Kiwi without a caste tag and on an equal social footing with any other citizen. New Zealanders are an irreverent lot without a formal social order.

My journey to Colombo is lengthy – I transit through as many as six airports and a dozen queues. Waiting for boarding passes, emigration lines, emplaning and deplaning means that I have time to ponder.

So was the caste system originally built on wealth and institutionalised as a religion, then revived through subtle marketing and positive action? Was I being made a Shudra and relegated?

Enter the airport through the casteless door and proceed to the airline check-in. And here, the process of segregation begins.

There are separate first and business class check-in counters, each with their piece of worn red carpet. The new Brahmins and Kshatriyas saunter to the counter, and are spirited away.

The men are in that most constrictive of Western attire (wearing jackets) while the ladies wear more layers of makeup than commoners to hide fine lines and crow’s feet (alas, they’re still visible). I don’t see them for a while as many strut off to first or business class lounges marked as ‘exclusive,’ ‘premium’ etc.

And the name of one lounge is paradoxical – The Marco Polo. That worthy travelled on board a camel, which was not a comfortable way to go! He must have been massaging his bottom every night and cursing his father for choosing ‘the ship of the desert.’ It hurt so much that he returned by sea.

Meanwhile, in the premium lounges the seats are more comfortable, refreshments are provided and announcements made in appropriately hushed tones. We the Vaisyas and Shudras stand in line 10 times longer than those of the upper classes. Sitting on straight-backed chairs, we purchase our refreshments from vending machines.

Over the last few years, the lackeys (those traitorous Shudras but aspiring Brahmins) who run the airlines have come up with new ideas to please their masters. More and more space is added for the upper castes.

A new class called ‘premium economy’ has materialised for those who have US$ 100 more than I do but are too poor to travel business class. It reminds me of the term ‘poor whites’ from Gone With The Wind who were essentially white skinned but considered only a tad above the African-Americans who worked as slaves.

As aircraft are neither made of rubber nor inflatable, space for these poor whites has been taken from us Shudras. At the current rate of compression, some bright Shudra will come up with the idea of a ‘no bags’ policy for Shudras, pressurise the hold and put us there – like the slaves who were transported to the US to ‘make America great.’ They are very easy to feed and care for – a couple of buckets for toilets and food can be lowered through a hatch.

Having starved for three days, I’m fantasising about bingeing on the gourmet airline meals displayed on TV. My reverie is shattered when a lady with a crackling voice (not unlike a mullah calling the faithful to prayer) announces that my flight is ready for boarding.

Suddenly, the lost elite reappear as if they’re on a magic carpet. ‘Brahmins and Kshatriyas to the right please, and Vaisyas and Shudras to the left’ – the announcement is unambiguous. The privileged do not have to queue. Brahmins and Kshatriyas may board at their leisure. Evidently, their time on Earth is more valuable than ours.

We commoners cannot be trusted to board in an orderly fashion so we’re herded by row numbers. At the entrance for the lower classes, a few attendants stand guard to prevent me from turning left and entering the holy of holies – a.k.a. the first class cabin. Risking a glance, I espy cylindrical flutes containing a bubbling yellow urine coloured drink.

All boarded, we’re one human race for 30 minutes or so… until takeoff. But no sooner do we get to cruising altitude, and closer to Mounts Olympus and Kailash where the Greek and Hindu gods hang out, the holy ones are purified by separating our unclean souls from theirs with curtains.

We fly segregated until it’s time for the aeroplane to descend… and then the curtains are parted and we’re permitted to observe our superiors.

We land. Presumably the Brahmins and Kshatriyas exit early – I do not see them until we reach the immigration counters.

Sanity prevails and we’re one human race again. The scribes haven’t devised a way to arrange priority immigration gates – not yet.

I leave the plane late and meet the Dalits or ‘untouchables’ who board through the servants’ entrance to clean the aircraft. Chatting to a fellow sinner on this journey through samsara, we both wish fervently to be reborn as Brahmins. ‘Om!’