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.
This was the first experience I had on how caste became a barrier to even quench a thirst. We were enrolled at an elementary school near my village and had already understood that there were different castes. But since we were on a secluded hilltop—Bardanda of Dhankuta—the harsh reality of caste had not dawned on me. Having no running water or a pond nearby, we literally did not have any other option but to keep walking, parched. The next village was probably an hour up and that was ours. I could not believe that the Khani Gaun had water but it was not any good to quench the thirst of two little kids who by the accident of birth were “Brahmins.”
I may sound like a victim here, but I now know that I was a perpetrator. I perpetrated a crime of poking at the century old humiliation and injustice that Khani Gaun had undergone on the basis of caste. I had reminded them, though unknowingly, one more time, that they are considered lowly, the “untouchables”, and supposedly at the very end of the rung because my forefathers had built such norms and forced on them. And I am sure I was not the only perpetrator that in a way nullified and dehumanized my neighboring village in its entirety. Other thirsty travelers traveling through Khani Gaun, I assume, would have made them feel insignificant the same way or by asking about their caste and rejecting their water. Can you imagine the toll it takes on a generation that gets told again and again that they are lowly or insignificant every step of the way? I can’t.
What caste are you?
Babu ke Jaatko Parnu Bho? What caste do you belong to?
This is one of the most asked questions that still gets pulled into the beginning of any conversation, especially by the people holding the so-called higher caste. As a kid, it was always an easy question for me. It started being difficult as I understood how answering that question was about playing by the rules of hierarchy. The same question started being more difficult after I realized that I was the very problem of the solution I was seeking. I started seeing early on how the hierarchy was sought and established in every conversation. But that’s what everyone around us who followed casteism believed. The casteism had the writing on the invisible wall. No one dared to go against that in practice, no matter how parched you were! Our little head had no power to put that in perspective then. So we did what others did—complied and took in the junk of casteism. There was no escape from this question. Castesim with this license to solicit personal information was setting a structure down. Isabel Wilkerson in her book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents writes: “It is like a corporation that seeks to sustain itself at all costs…Caste is the granting or withholding of respect status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” She dissects the racism, Natzism and casteism and draws the parallels in her book which pretty much explains our predicament.
After two decades, I and my friends are trying to locate the only “Dalit” friend we had in college. We finally have seen his point.
A year after that, I luckily had an escape from the probing question, when my family moved to Kathmandu—away from Bardanda, away from Brahmanism, or so I thought. In Kathmandu, like other school aged kids, I presume I did not consciously discriminate. I was friend with many kids who were from different castes, classes and religions. I was fortunate to have that experience. It helped me broaden my horizon and confront my biases. But the probing question was still there in a different form. ‘What’s your last name?’ Anyone would ask. And probably because of that, I had no friends who were ‘Dalits’. Partly because I was unconsciously gravitating towards those who I was trained to be with. Or probably because the school that I went to, I now recall, did not have many kids from the ‘last rung.’ That definitely had to do with access to wealth and class to enter into Vanasthali, I now presume. I can see the whole casteism lurking into social, cultural, political, and all the private and government structures now. Then, things were unclear.
Overall, I found that the people of Kathmandu were more tolerant. They at least did not directly ask Ke jaatka hau (“which caste do you belong”)? But I guess the Brahmanism in me was already installed. Even the assertion like bahun ko chora bhara (‘you are a son of a Brahmin’) from teachers, family members and elders was enough to inflate that caste ego that I had inherited by an accident of birth. So did I really escape? No, I did not. Wilkerson’s statement here is my answer too: “No one escapes its tentacles, no one escapes exposure to its message that one set of people is presumed to be inherently smarter, more capable, and more deserving than other groups deemed lower. The program has been installed into the subconscious of every one of us. And, high or low, without intervention, or reprogramming, we act on the script we are handed.”
It is easy for me to accept now that though I may not have been consciously biased, I was overloaded with unconscious biases and an arrogance of being at the top rung of the so-called caste system. Because no one in my school ran an experiment like “Blue vs Brown Eyes,” like the one run by Jane Elliot, a third grade school teacher in the United States, on the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, to save her kids from the grip of racism, I remained infected. Yes, I already had the virus, and the antivirus was not even sought because no one took it as the virus. It was part of me and mutated without my knowledge. No one told us that little packages of information on worthiness or worthlessness are registered by kids even in elementary school that can make or break them. No one told us that hierarchy is formed in the minds. And no one told us about the implicit biases that we all carry. No one taught us about the prejudices that we float on. No one!
We all are prejudiced
Robin Deangelo in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism succinctly captures the scope of prejudices we inherit and spread. She writes: “All humans have prejudices; we cannot avoid it. If I am aware that a social group exists, I would have gained that information from the society around me. This information helps me make sense of the group from my cultural framework. People who claim not to be prejudiced are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness.”
So, in essence, everything Bardanda taught me was tainted by casteism. The personal moral structure that I built in Kathmandu was tainted by stereotypes. I wish I had known this when I was in college— grade 12 to be exact. I would not have brushed it off as nonsense when a very close friend of mine who identified as a Dalit implied that I was discriminatory too. In my mind I was this progressive figure who could eat, drink and have fun with a Dalit. Did you read my arrogance engraved on that statement? I was exactly like that when I was 18. I could not believe that he was accusing me of being a casteist. I, like most progressive, failed to understand that I had been infected. And probably because I was with him more than the others, I harmed him the most—implicitly or even explicitly. My personal growth was stunted because I felt I was already woke—an anti-casteist in my own head, there was no need for me to change. Therefore, no antivirus was sought because the system did not identify the virus.
‘What caste do you belong to?’ This is one of the most asked questions that still gets pulled into the beginning of any conversation, especially by the people holding the so-called higher castes.
I recognize my flaws now. I am aware that I am still growing. I speak up against the implicit biases expressed by my friends and family. And believe me it is not easy. I have pissed a lot of my “very own” people. Most of them brush me off and carry on with their biases. Some see the point and look for antivirus. But whenever I feel like I have made some progress and now have reached there, I remember the college conversation. I look around me which reminds me that I have barely started walking. Because, even now in the US, the stats are against me. I am mostly surrounded by Brahmins. The data speaks clearly to me. The data has always been there.
I married a Brahmin. Actually, I should say I fell in love with a Brahmin and married her. My brother did follow the Brahmin code of conduct and followed in my footsteps. My sister, with whom I had an extensive conversation about Khani Gaun before writing this piece, married a Brahmin too. So, we all in a way are stuck with the code of casteism. I barely made a couple of Dalit friends in my whole life. I almost feel like I don’t know how to be friend with people from the so-called lower rungs of the ladder. I probably scare them away from my implicit biases ingrained in my speech. Or probably, they don’t want to deal with me or any Brahmins like me for that matter. After-all, no one wants to be Re-Victimized.
I now have seen the foundation of my denial because I have inspected it. And precisely because of that, after two decades, I and my friends are trying to locate the only ‘Dalit’ friend we had in college. Because we finally have seen his point. I really feel like a White racist who is trying to establish that he is not a racist by showing the only Black person he is friend with. I almost feel like I should not seek him out for that very reason. Because, I am aware that even my apology is going to force him to revisit the pain I and my casteism inflicted on him. I don’t even know if I am seriously ready to confront my past. But the past keeps on poking its head in my present.
When Kathmandu was abuzz with the news of discrimination on Rupa Sunar, I couldn’t help but think about Khani Gaun again. I almost felt like the woman with a veil over her head holding an Ankhora was again challenging me to drink from it. Rupa Sunar underscoring that the shadow of casteism is chasing her even in the capital is our common predicament that we have ignored to deal with. She has highlighted that Khani Gaun is still rejected in Kathmandu. Kathmandu is standing naked—it has failed to see Dalits with the same sets of eyes that see the so-called higher castes. The capital has failed to implement the new laws against caste-based discrimination. The capital has failed to teach the lessons learnt from Brown eyes and Blue Eyes. The capital power structure has chosen to keep Bardanda and Khani Gaun apart.
I was hoping some sense of integration would have happened by now. I was hoping that Kathmandu would have stopped soliciting caste. The payment of the rent, after all, can take place without the last names, right? But the reality is Kathmandu is still stuck in the past. It denies renting a room on the basis of caste and still manages to get a ride home in a people-funded SUV, insulting the very law in the books it enacted. Casteism had long seeped into the structures of Nepal, Kathmandu in this context. But what I did not know was, even after the reinstatement of democracy, even after Nepal becoming a federal republic, Kathmandu still has left the virus untreated. Let that sink in for a second. The question is not when we will be able to right this wrong. The question rather is: When is Kathmandu going to accept that it is infected by the virus of caste-based discrimination. If it is, is it ready to take off the tainted lenses and put on the new ones that adjust our explicit and implicit biases to take a fresh look at the virus? Our shared predicament? Our caste?
Mukesh Baral is Cofounder at Advocacy for Refugee and Immigrant Services for Empowerment (ARISE), a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts.