We were on our way home and had climbed multiple hills upstream from the basin of Tamor. I must have been 8 at that time. I was with my sister who was a year older than me and we were on an errand. It was a hot afternoon and I was really thirsty. The snow-fed Tamor which from the high hills looked like a thin but prominent blue trail winding down the valley, with a distinct hum, was too far to drink from.
After reaching a flat land on the hilltop with few thatched roofed houses, we stopped at a house and asked for water. A woman came out with an Ankhora in her hand but the older man sitting outside interjected. He asked a couple of questions and apologetically explained to me and my sister that no one in that village would be able to give us water because we were Brahmins.
We had ascended many hills upstream from the Tamor basin on our way home. I was maybe eight years old at the time. I was on an errand with my sister, who was a year older than me. It was a steamy afternoon, and I was parched. The snow-fed Tamor, which appeared as a thin but conspicuous blue trail meandering down the valley with a distinct hum from the high slopes, was too far away to drink from.
We stopped at a cottage and asked for water after reaching a level land on the summit with a few thatched roofed houses. An older man sitting outside interjected as a woman came out holding an Ankhora. He asked me and my sister a few questions before apologizing and explaining that because we were Brahmins, no one in that hamlet would be able to provide us water.
This was my first encounter with caste as a barrier to even quenching a thirst. We were enrolled in an elementary school near my village, and we were already aware of the many castes. The brutal reality of caste had not dawned on me since we were on a remote hilltop—Bardanda of Dhankuta. We had no choice but to keep walking, dehydrated, because there was no running water or a pond nearby. We were about an hour away from the next village, which was ours. I couldn’t believe the Khani Gaun possessed water, but it was useless in quenching the thirst of two small children who were “Brahmins” by accident of birth.
I may appear to be the victim in this situation, but I now realize that I was the culprit. I committed a crime by poking fun at Khani Gaun’s centuries of caste-based humiliation and injustice. I had unconsciously reminded them that they are deemed lowly, the “untouchables,” and presumably at the bottom of the rung since my forebears had constructed and imposed such conventions on them. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who dehumanized and invalidated my neighbouring village’s entire population. I imagine that other thirsty visitors passing through Khani Gaun would have treated them the same manner, or by questioning their caste and refusing their water. Can you imagine the toll it takes on a generation who is taught again and over that they are unimportant or lowly at every turn? I’m afraid I can’t.
What is your caste?
Hajur kun Jaatko Hunu Huncha? What caste do you belong to?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions, and it is frequently brought up at the start of any discourse, particularly by those of the so-called upper caste. It was always a simple question for me as a kid. It became more difficult as I realized that answering that question meant adhering to the hierarchy’s rules. After I recognized that I was the problem of the solution I was looking for, the same question became more complex. Early on, I noticed how in every interaction, the hierarchy was sought and established. But it was the belief of everyone around us who practiced casteism. The invisible wall of casteism had the writing on it. In practice, no one dared to contradict that, no matter how parched you were! We didn’t have the mental capacity to put things into context at the time. So we did what everyone else did: we conformed and swallowed the nonsense of casteism. This was a question that could not be avoided. Castesim was erecting a structure with this authorization to collect personal information. “It is like a corporation that strives to preserve itself at all costs,” Isabel Wilkerson says in her book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents. On the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy, caste is the providing or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, the benefit of the doubt, and human compassion to someone.” In her book, she dissects racism, natzism, and casteism, drawing analogies that pretty much explain our condition.
A year later, when my family relocated to Kathmandu—away from Bardanda, away from Brahmanism, or so I thought—I had a lucky reprieve from the probing question. I’m sure I didn’t discriminate intentionally in Kathmandu, like other school-aged youngsters. I had many acquaintances who came from various castes, classes, and religions. That was a rare opportunity for me. It assisted me in broadening my horizons and confronting my prejudices. However, the probing question remained, albeit in a different form. ‘Can you tell me your last name?’ Anyone would inquire. And it was possibly because of this that I had no ‘Dalit’ buddies. Partly because I was intuitively drawn to individuals with whom I had been socialized. Or maybe it was because the school where I went didn’t have many students from the “bottom rung,” as I recall. I’m guessing it had something to do with access to wealth and class in order to enter Vanasthali. I can now see casteism infiltrating all social, cultural, political, and private and public structures. Then things became murky.
Overall, I found Kathmandu residents to be more accepting. At the very least, they didn’t question Ke jaatka hau (“to whose caste do you belong”) directly. But I suppose the Brahmanism was already ingrained in me. Even statements from professors, family members, and seniors like bahun ko chora bhara (‘you are a son of a Brahmin’) were enough to inflate the caste ego that I had received by accident of birth. So, did I actually get it out alive? No, I didn’t do it. Here is Wilkerson’s comment, as well as my response: “No one is immune to its tentacles, no one is immune to exposure to its message that one group of people is intrinsically wiser, more capable, and more deserving than another. Every single one of us has had the program implanted in our minds. And we follow the script we’re given, high or low, without intervention or reprogramming.”
It’s easy for me to admit now that, while I wasn’t consciously biased, I was weighed down by unconscious biases and the arrogance of being at the pinnacle of the so-called caste system. I remained infected because no one in my school conducted an experiment like “Blue vs Brown Eyes,” which was conducted by Jane Elliot, a third-grade school teacher in the United States, on the day after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968, to save her children from the grasp of racism. Yes, I already had the infection, and no antivirus was needed because no one recognized it as such. It was a part of me that had mutated without my permission. No one warned us that even in elementary school, children register small bits of information on worthiness or worthlessness that can make or destroy them. No one taught us that mental hierarchy is built. And no one alerted us about our collective implicit biases. No one ever taught us about the prejudices that we carry around with us. Nobody!
We are all prejudiced in some way
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin Deangelo The extent of prejudices we inherit and spread is concisely captured. “All humans have prejudices; we cannot avoid it,” she writes. If I am aware of the existence of a social group, I would have learned about it through the culture around me. This knowledge aids my understanding of the group in terms of my cultural context. People who claim they are not prejudiced show a fundamental lack of self-awareness.”
Everything Bardanda taught me was therefore poisoned by casteism. Stereotypes contaminated the personal moral structure I created in Kathmandu. I wish I had learned this when I was in college, namely grade 12. When a close friend of mine who identified as a Dalit intimated that I was prejudiced as well, I would not have dismissed it as nonsense. I imagined myself as a progressive figure who could dine, drink, and have fun with a Dalit. Did you catch a glimpse of my hubris in that statement? When I was 18, I was precisely like that. He was accusing me of being a casteist, and I couldn’t believe it. I, like the majority of progressives, was unaware that I had been infected. And it’s likely that I injured him the most—implicitly or explicitly—because I was with him more than the others. My personal development was stifled because I believed I was already awake—an anti-casteist in my own mind—and that I didn’t need to change. As a result, no antivirus was installed because the system failed to detect the malware.
Now I’m aware of my weaknesses. I’m quite aware that I’m still developing. I speak up against my friends’ and family’s implicit prejudices. And believe me when I say it isn’t easy. I’ve ticked off a number of my “own” people. The majority of them dismiss me and continue to hold their prejudices. Some people realize the importance of antivirus software and begin looking for it. But, whenever I feel like I’ve come a long way and have arrived, I recall the college talk. I take a look around, which reminds me that I’ve only just begun walking. Because even in the United States, the odds are stacked against me. I’m surrounded largely by Brahmins. To me, the data speaks loudly. The information has always been available.
My husband is a Brahmin. Actually, I married a Brahmin after falling in love with her. My brother did follow in my footsteps and followed the Brahmin code of behavior. My sister, with whom I discussed Khani Gaun extensively before writing this poem, married a Brahmin as well. As a result, we are all bound by the code of casteism in some fashion. In my entire life, I’ve only made a few Dalit friends. I almost feel as if I don’t know how to make friends with those on the “lower rungs” of the social ladder. My unconscious biases engrained in my speech most likely scare them away. Or, most likely, they don’t want to deal with me, or any Brahmins like me. No one wants to be re-victimized, after all. Because I examined it, I was able to see the foundation of my denial. As a result, after two decades, my friends and I are still looking for the one ‘Dalit’ acquaintance we had in college. Because we’ve finally realized what he’s trying to say. I feel like a White racist who is attempting to prove that he is not a racist by displaying the sole Black person with whom he is friends. For that reason, I almost feel compelled not to seek him out. Because I’m well aware that even my apologies will force him to reconsider the harm I and my casteism caused him. I’m not sure if I’m really ready to tackle my history. However, the past continues to poke its head into my present.
It is a ‘capital’ offence
When the story of Rupa Sunar’s prejudice made the rounds in Kathmandu, I couldn’t help but think about Khani Gaun. I had the impression that the woman with the veil over her head, holding an Ankhora, was challenging me to drink from it once more. Rupa Sunar’s observation that the shadow of casteism follows her even in the capital is a common occurrence that we have failed to address. Khani Gaun is still rejected in Kathmandu, she has stated. Kathmandu is naked because it has failed to view Dalits with the same eyes that it sees the so-called upper castes. The new regulations barring caste-based discrimination have yet to be implemented in the capital. The lessons learned by Brown Eyes and Blue Eyes have not been taught in the capital. Bardanda and Khani Gaun have been kept apart by the capital power system.
I had hoped that by now, some sort of integration would have occurred. I had hoped that Kathmandu had ceased asking about caste. After all, the rent payment may be made without the last names, right? But, in actuality, Kathmandu is mired in the past. It forbids renting a room based on caste, but yet manages to receive a ride home in a taxpayer-funded SUV, mocking the exact law it imposed. Casteism had long infiltrated Nepal’s systems, particularly in Kathmandu. But what I didn’t realize was that, even with the restoration of democracy and the establishment of Nepal as a federal republic, Kathmandu had kept the virus untreated. Allow that to soak in for a moment. The question isn’t when we’ll be able to correct this error, but rather when we’ll be able to do it. The real question is when Kathmandu will admit that it has been afflicted by the caste-based discriminatory virus. Is it time to remove the tainted lenses and replace them with new ones that change our explicit and implicit biases so that we can look at the infection with fresh eyes? What is our common predicament? What is our caste?