[WIRED] Trapped in Silicon Valley’s Hidden Caste System

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Indians from oppressed caste backgrounds are landing plum jobs in Silicon Valley.  But tech is no escape from the discrimination of their homeland. PHOTOGRAPH: ARSENII VASELENKO

SIDDHANT WAS 14 when he learned of the watch. His father, a low-wage worker on the Indian railway, was trying to save up for it, tucking away a few rupees when he could. Made of steel, the watch had in its dial a sketch of a portly man, his face framed by round glasses and his broad shoulders clad in a wide-lapelled jacket. It was his father’s hero, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the man most responsible for weakening the caste system’s grip on Indian society.

After school, Siddhant liked to ride his bike down the crowded streets of Nagpur, India, past groups of kids playing cricket, to a squat concrete building where his father rented a modest office with his friends, all anti-caste activists. Inside, he’d find the men sitting in plastic chairs, swapping tales of their exploits with Ambedkar, surrounded by posters of the man and newspapers spilling off bookshelves. As he sat listening, Siddhant couldn’t help but notice as one friend and then another and a third appeared at the office with the watch strapped to their wrists.

One day, Siddhant showed up on his bike and, to his immense surprise, saw on his father a different version of the watch. A gift from a big-shot friend, this one was comparatively luxe. Instead of the metal strap it had a leather band, and it was quartz, battery-powered rather than a windup. Siddhant couldn’t help but blurt out: “I want that watch!”

Siddhant, like his father, is a Dalit, a member of the most oppressed caste in South Asia’s birth-based hierarchy. Even among Dalits, their family was especially poor. Siddhant sometimes spent his evenings crouched near the firepit where his family cooked their food, repairing his torn rubber sandals with a hot iron rod that melted the straps back onto the sole. Seeing his father’s watch, something clicked: This was a symbol of everything he was after—to be an elite, educated Dalit, just like Ambedkar.

This story originally published on March 1, 2022, on WIRED. Read the rest of the story here or in the April print issue of the magazine.

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