Trapped in Silicon Valley’s Hidden Caste System


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 of kids playing cricket groups, to a squat concrete building where his father rented a modest office with his friends, all anti-caste. 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.

Siddhant’s father made him a deal. If Siddhant finished high school with first honors, he could have the watch. A year later, Siddhant came home brandishing his report card from the Maharashtra board of education: He’d done it. While his father, beaming, scanned the results, Siddhant grabbed the watch off a shelf and adjusted the strap to his wrist.

Siddhant has worn the watch nearly every day since—while riding his bike 12 miles to college, while earning his first paycheck as an engineer, while getting married. When he flew across the Atlantic to start a tech career in the Bay Area, he wore it. It was on his wrist when he was interviewed for, and landed, the job that convinced him he might finally escape the orbital pull of India and his family’s multigenerational poverty: as a software engineer at Facebookwith an offer package that totaled almost $450,000.

In Silicon Valley, it’s a routine for people from India to land high-paying jobs; they make up a full quarter of the technical workforce. Yet those successes have, almost exclusively, come from historically privileged castes. Seven decades after India legally abolished “untouchability,” many Dalits still contend with enormous setbacks—hate crimes, poverty, limited economic opportunity.



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