Growing up in India with a marked sense of caste identity, I found group difference to be a complex weave of practices and beliefs pertaining to a certain texture of life; it was in my experience irreducible to one’s physical appearance. This is not to say that appearance plays no role in India. A glance at “matrimonial advertisements” in any Indian newspaper will demonstrate the ubiquity of physical ideals that include attributes such as being “fair”-skinned or tall. But in this thoroughly heterogeneous society (where the truth can never be told because anything is possible), the physical ideal functions as a form of preference, as an aesthetic choice, without the ontological and legal significance it has acquired in the West. Even in the more racially selfconscious north of India, where the colonialist interpellation of the elite by a so-called Aryan heritage produces those familiar symptoms of denial that Frantz Fanon (1952:141-54) has analyzed in the context of Martinique, physical attributes do not seem so definitive, so determining of one’s destiny or one’s subjectivity. The size of one’s nose, the degree of pigmentation, or the texture of one’s hair, is not considered to be an index of ability, character or culture. Differences are marked rather by economic status, but even more by one’s last name and regional and linguistic affiliations, the latter being indices of religion, caste, and what is known as “community.” It is this seemingly trivial point, the indifference to “biological” difference, that radically distinguishes caste thinking, which can cut across religions, from race thinking. This distinction has not been adequately marked or theorized given the popular and simplistic absorption of caste (or jati) within the fourfold varna scheme, particularly since varna is often translated (from the Satapatha Brahmana [Srinivas 1962:63-4]) as color, and thereby subsumed within race. The controversial translation of scripture notwithstanding,1 caste difference is always marked by cultural accoutrements such as clothing, dialect, and one’s name, but rarely, if ever, by bodily marks. Let me clarify once and for all that I am not valorizing caste, nor idealizing India as an egalitarian society. I only want to stress that in a wholly racialized society such as the US, Europe, or the Caribbean, appearance or physical attributes have come to be more starkly
vested, more consequential than anything else such as family, wealth, culture, education or personal achievement. The investment in bodies may differ, and their meanings and ordering may vary according to each society, but the fundamental significance of physical attributes remains constant. It was to explain and understand this seeming irrationality at the heart of rational modern cultures (and within Western postcolonial societies) that I undertook to explore the fundamental questions that inform this book: how and why do we read certain marks of the body as privileged sites of racial meaning? How did we come to organize difference along arbitrarily chosen physical characteristics, thereby generating group formations and identifications? Why some marks like hair, skin and bone, and not others? How is it that when society organizes itself-its system of rewards and punishments, inclusions and exclusions-around appearance, appearance begins to exceed the constructs of a simple narcissism, to the point that it is always the neighbor’s appearance that one is concerned with over and above one’s own?