Dating Like a Savarna
Caste is not just a secret language of aesthetics; it is also the code to classify bodies as legitimate or illegitimate.
Every month, Prof. Ravikant Kisana (aka Buffalo Intellectual) brings you field notes from Savarna culture.
“‘Haven’t you ever fantasized about plucking muscular cycle-rickshaw puller boys from the road, taking them home, making them brush their teeth and bathe, and using them as sex toys? … [L]eching at the working classes is a Thakur thing, clearly.’”
This excerpt from Anuja Chauhan’s sequel to the very successful Those Pricey Thakur Girls (2013), which shows the Thakur sisters casually discussing their lust for working-class bodies, is not only a display of blatant casteist objectification but also underlines the very real boundary that exists between the castes when it comes to sex and dating.
However, to most “upper caste” or Savarna elites from big Indian metropolises, any conversation about caste will only cue mental images of atrocities or grimy rural politics. It simply does not occur to them that caste mediates everything, including all their social conditioning and, as a consequence, whom they love and desire.
The many ways in which caste intersects with modern dating is still vastly underexplored and ignored within contemporary discourse.
Today, dating apps are digital neighborhoods, where the quality is supposedly “falling” because everyone is lonely and the internet is cheap. Filtering profiles thus becomes a priority for those with the privilege to gatekeep. “Can’t waste time on everybody. It’s not just exhausting, it’s unsafe,” a female Savarna friend said to me once. Indeed, many Savarna women will use the space on their profiles to post the obligatory “grammar nazi” or “if u type lik dis, then swipe left” to signal to that unless you have had the privilege of intergenerational literacy and a lifetime of English-medium schooling, you are not desired. This is meant directly and indirectly to filter out folks who do not possess “social polish” and, in a vast number of cases, aligns perfectly with caste boundaries. This is because English sophistry in most of India works as the unofficial social filter to maintain caste–class segregation.
One of the most hallmark features of Savarna culture is its distinctive sameness, which is exemplified in the world of online dating.
A certain aesthetic language and cultural sensibility have come to be positioned as markers of taste and refinement – to the exclusion of people who don’t or can’t adhere. It’s unrecognizable as particularly Savarna culture because of its ubiquity: whether it be the lanky boy with a head full of curly hair who busks at Church Street in Bangalore, the spoken poetess who is perennially in a bindi and a saree handed down from her grandmother (which she never fails to mention), or the Djembe-carrying shayar sahab who runs his own drum circle in Pune and quotes Juan Elia in Urdu (because Faiz is too mainstream after the CAA/NRC protests) – it’s an aspirational aesthetic. One that draws heavily from US popular culture and White, Western social imaginations and that, through unspoken codes, belongs exclusively to Savarnas.
These archetypes gather on the servers of Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder, where romance, belonging, sex, and intimacy are all wrapped up in the neoliberal technocratic promise of an app that can deliver it all – especially if you pay the extra money for a premium upgrade. But in a caste-segregated society, technology is no match for what a thousand generations of social conditioning have normalized.
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Mastery of the English language, access to American pop culture trends and, through it, access to American political wokeness and (Korean subcultures), sports’ team loyalties rooted in Western public history– all require a prerequisite cultural capital that usually has at its source English-medium, private (preferably international) schooling along with intergenerational wealth and literacy. Without these, it is very difficult to acquire this secret language of upward social mobility.
This English-filtering, becomes a tool of social ostracization (bordering on bullying) and is often the first line of attack and tool for excluding non-elite folks from elite social spaces. But language is not the only social barrier. Even if SC/ST/OBC people master English enough to blend in, they come to painfully realize that the Savarna dating landscape is a much more complex bubble. It is an art curation of cultural capital accrued over a life of intergenerational privilege.
From being part of the fandom of the most basic milk-toast American TV and Netflix-curated shows of the season, the obligatory pictures with musical instruments, the men flaunting their bike trip to Ladakh, and the women on the beach with a goblets of wine pics, OOTD takes to the intellectual discursives about Joe Rogan, Elon Musk, or AoC, these reference points may seem universal in Savarna elitedom. However, for a vast majority of Dalit and Bahujan folks, it acts as a secret and exclusionary language of caste and privilege, coded in the amalgamated aesthetics of language, pop culture, fashion, tourism, and consumerism. A secret language that most Dalit and Bahujan folks are excluded from.
Decades of half-hearted reservation implementation has nonetheless, against all odds, created a very small class of SC/ST/OBC youth who have had a similar quality of education and exposure to pop culture as most urban elite Savarnas. Although these micro-communities also end up in the dragnet of dating apps – because there is no caste-based filter on the apps yet (something that is sure to come as more Dalit and Bahujans get on it) – their experiences on these apps are still different. Ultimately, speaking the same pop culture language and smooth English gets you only so far and no further.
I remember a few years ago, a close friend had matched with a Brahmin girl. Their conversation had organic chemistry and she decided to come to his place. The first thing she noticed upon entering his flat was a portrait of Babasaheb near the doorway. “Ey, why do you have this? Bhimtas have this in their homes” was her immediate reaction. He froze at the slur but somehow managed to tell her that she was correct about why the picture was there. It then dawned upon the girl that he was not Savarna. She exploded with anger and accused him of trying to “trick” her into a relationship, of not being fully “honest.” As she poured her derision and fury upon him, he stood there silently, with his head hung and burning with a shame familiar to all marginalized caste folks. Traditional patriarchal power tropes in reverse, she threatened that she would call her brothers and they would come to beat him up. He begged for her forgiveness. She softened and then patronizingly counseled him to not try and dupe Brahmin girls like this. He agreed cringing inside, but hoping to avoid any further untoward scene. She made him book her an Uber to take her home. He stayed off dating apps for years after that out of internalized trauma that he did not dare unpack.
Another girl, herself a Savarna, recalled how when she was hooking up with a Brahmin boy, he would insist that she brushed her teeth before they kissed because she ate meat. The infiltration of caste indoctrinations within physical intimacy is extremely under-researched and not understood well. Akhil Kang’s mischievously titled piece, “Brahmin Men Who Love to Eat A**,” was perhaps one of the first anthropological pieces that looked at queer intimacy for Savarna people from a caste lens. It brought up interesting insights on caste and the notions of “dirty” and “clean” in the context of sex. Brahmin gay men reported they would not be open to rimming gay men from Kurla (in the hyper gentrified city of Mumbai, Kurla represents a non-Savarna space).
Another person Kang interviewed spoke about how sex with “non-Brahmins” was more “freeing.” However, what led to that sense of freedom was unfortunately not explored. The answer perhaps lies in how Shudras in Brahminical texts are dehumanised and sexual conduct with them is heavily regulated by threats of extreme torture and punishment. Such cultural debasement also creates the preconditions for seeing people from marginalized backgrounds as mere bodies that do not deserve the same norms of dignity, consent, and comfort extended to others.
All of Savarna culture is similarly built upon the epistemic foundation of Brahminism, which is a hierarchy constructed upon the everyday politics of exclusion and purity. This hierarchy is anchored around the construct of caste-based endogamy, explained Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis & Development.” Enforcing endogamy keeps caste bloodlines “pure” and protected from the “social pollution” that comes through mingling with other castes. Thus, this creates an anthropology of everyday behavior built not for intermingling or cultural exchange but rather preserving social status quo and maintaining structural order. This is the hallmark of all Brahminic social formations and gets neatly replicated in online dating as well.
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Savarna podcaster, BeerBiceps aka Ranveer Allahbadia, recently went viral for a clip from his show where he talks about saving up his semen by not masturbating in order to retain his vitality. While such ideas do not have any scientific validity, within Brahminical cultures, there is a repetitive obsession with semen and masculine virility. It is not uncommon to have some family uncle or teacher within Savarna circles repeating such theories. This glorification of Savarna semen, seen beside the degrading ideas about oppressed caste bodies in the context of caste purity and pollution norms offers a hint as to why sexual intimacies in modern India still knowingly as well as unwittingly follow caste patterns.
Sulekha*, a second-generation learner from an SC family, was pursuing her MBA in an elite college when she broke up with her Khatri boyfriend who had been cheating on her. She soon became close with another classmate, a Brahmin woman who had been the boy’s ex and who had also been cheated upon as well. The two women bonded over their mutual dislike of their ex-partner and shared laughs deconstructing his habits and behaviors. It was mutually cathartic, Sulekha would later admit. However, the camaraderie broke suddenly one day when the girls were discussing sexual intimacy and Sulekha pointed out her discomfort at the ex’s constant demands for blowjobs. She also recalled how, although they had both enjoyed dirty talking, she was taken aback and uncomfortable when he once asked her to “swallow his merit,” alluding to his caste superiority. To Sulekha, this had seemed immediately casteist. Her new friend, however, jumped to the defense of her ex and said she had had no such experiences. She maintained that he had always been very gentle with her and that he was not casteist. “I can vouch for it,” she asserted.
Sulekha would later wonder how the Brahmin girl could have vouched for his caste-inclusive credentials and also whether her sexual experiences with the boy had been mediated by her Brahmin background. And, most disturbingly, had her friend chosen caste solidarity over feminist bonding? These questions left Sulekha confused, she wants to ‘stay away from savarna boys’ for now as she unpacks what he underwent. But Sulekha’s story makes one wonder about the Brahmin gay man’s comment about sex with non-Brahmins being more freeing.” Is it truly freeing and, if so, for whom and why? Is it because Savarnas feel more entitled to take liberties with non-Savarna bodies?
It is difficult to estimate exactly how common such interactions are, especially since they don’t always occur in such explicit ways. But it is clear that the boundaries of modern dating are mediated by caste norms within romantic and sexual behaviors. Savarna men sit atop that ladder and wield such incredible social power and virtual sanction from social scrutiny that even Savarna women are not entirely spared. A Baniya friend of mine told me she had decided to only match with White men as a dating-app strategy. “They are just more decent and at least know how to talk to girls,” she said. Although these preferences may initially seem like they lie outside the bounds of the caste system, a deeper look reveals how they mirror and perpetuate the very paradigms they appear to shun.
As globalization provides increasing opportunities for Savarnas to emigrate abroad for higher studies and career pursuits, interracial couplings are forming along caste lines too. It is still extremely rare for Savarna women to date a black or Arab man abroad, but couplings with white partners is more frequent and is a ‘power move’ of sorts in a world of social media curations.
Anvita* who studies in an Indian elite private liberal education university without reservations (so the student body is almost entirely elite Savarnas) noted that the boys in her college had largely ignored the first black girl who had come as an exchange student. “Whenever we get white girls, these boys are all over them in a cringe manner. They are always offering to show them the city and stuff like that. Haven’t seen anything like that now.” We see shades of this in Kang’s aforementioned paper where one Brahmin respondent mentions that they would “rim” a White twink but not a buff Black man. The country has been known for its historical preference for the light-skinned, with the matrimonial section of virtually every Indian newspaper being full of calls for “fair-skinned” matches. While there is no racial homogeneity in India, lighter skin is usually also considered a marker for “upper caste.”
As more research emerges from intersections of caste and race, especially in the context of overseas populations, a pattern seems to be emerging wherein we see Savarna-interests aligning with White conservative agenda at the cost of racially oppressed minorities. This point is also underlined by the elevation of Savarna-descent Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman in the UK and with the rise of people like Vivek Ramaswamy, Tulsi Gabbard, Nikki Haley in the US.
Caste is not just a secret language of aesthetics; it is also the code to classify bodies as legitimate or illegitimate. The latter are to be consumed only as commodities or, better yet, avoided altogether. Several of my friends from Dalit and Bahujan communities have reported that romance with Savarnas on college campuses, especially in public universities, was not unheard of. But it rarely ever culminated in a long-term relationship or settling down. “Family differences” or similar euphemisms for caste incompatibility are offered as reasons. “They always move on, we remain broken,” concludes Swaroop*, whose ex-partner, a Savarna woman has since married a family-compatible Savarna man while he still remains single. On being asked if he thinks she is happy. “Let her find out what it is like to be with an ‘upper caste’ man, that freedom and expression she had asserted for– best of luck trying that with a dominating conservative ‘upper caste’ family.”
From a Savarna-feminist perspective, this sounds like the rant of a possessive ex-lover, but from a Dalit and Bahujan perspective, this is the lament of a broken people who have always been cast aside.
“Hindu society is like a tower, each floor of which is allotted to one caste. The point worth remembering is that this tower has no staircase and therefore there is no way of climbing up or down from one floor to another. The floor on which one is born is also the floor on which one dies.” ~ Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, in the inaugural issue of The Mooknayak published on 31 January 1920.
A hundred years later, the cartographies of romance in a caste-segregated society have landed along the predicted trajectories of reductive and compartmentalized “love.” Like parts stranded on different floors of a building that no apps can connect us to.
Ravikant Kisana is a professor of Cultural Studies and his research looks at the intersections of caste with structures of privilege and popular culture. He tweets/Instagrams as 'Buffalo Intellectual,' focussing on critically scrutinizing Savarna systems of cultural hegemony. His podcast, 'Mind Your Buffalo' is available for streaming on all platforms.