13 MIN READ
In Nepal, not everyone has had equal access to education. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Rana regime allowed only a few children from elite families to attend school. Even after the end of Rana rule in 1951, the opening of schools around the country did not mean that every child could study and learn. Far from it. Poverty and remoteness kept many away from schools. Restrictive gender norms blocked yet others. Another significant barrier was caste.
As Dor Bahadur Bista has argued, conservative caste thinking pervaded Nepal’s schools, the very institution looked to to bring modernity and progress. One particularly pernicious idea was that some castes were academically capable and others not. “Only certain castes,” Sarita Pariyar writes in this powerful essay, “were expected to read and write.”
Many people accepted this idea as only natural. Sarita rejects it, arguing that after denying people the benefits of schools, it’s not right to deride those same people as intellectually incapable. Exposing the fallacies of such self-fulfilling logic, she shows the barriers to opportunity many faced in her home village of Basamadi by the Rapti River in Makwanpur district. “Stories about what one group can or cannot do,” she notes, “carry tremendous power.”
Sarita writes movingly about what motivated her in her writing journey, despite the odds. She wrote long letters to friends, “every word full of love.” She poured her thoughts into her diary, the blank pages in her journal becoming a place to dream. Writing became a “reliable friend,” she says. Along the way, a number of people, particularly Dalit women, such as her Jethi Bhauju, inspired her with stories of hardship and hope. These “invisible women” became her “heroes.” Sarita found meaning in “writing about ordinary women’s life stories, their agony, struggles, conflicts, negotiations, hopes, and dreams.”
She ends her essay with a few words of advice to herself as a 16-year-old.
Sarita Pariyar is a writer, activist, and founding convener of the international Darnal Award for Social Justice. She writes and speaks on caste and social justice issues in and outside of Nepal. Sarita serves as a board member at Samata Foundation, Nepal Madhesh Foundation, Accountability Lab, and is an advisor to ActionAid Nepal. Her articles include ‘The media’s portrayal of Dalits is incomplete: Narratives of Dalits as just being victims of caste hierarchy ignores many stories of resistance’ in The Kathmandu Post, March 12, 2020; ‘Ain’t We Women: Multiple marginalisations of Dalit women in Nepal’, in Online Khabar, November 14, 2020; and ‘The old weight of caste’ in The Record, December 10, 2018.
Writing Journeys appears each Wednesday. Read Shradha Ghale on “self-doubt”, Kunda Dixit on “craft”, Niranjan Kunwar on “discipline”, Kesang Tseten on “discovery”, Sujeev Shakya on “originality”, Kalpana Jha on “belonging”, Janak Raj Sapkota on “curiosities”, Dipak Gyawali on “magic”, Manjushree Thapa on “revision”, Chandrakishore on “storytelling”, Sanjay Upadhya on “tight” writing”, and Amish Raj Mulmi on “perseverance”. In one article, I discuss “four skills”, in another I discuss “blaming the system”.
Next Week: Robertson, Less is More
I grew up in Basamadi village, Makawanpur district, in the inner Tarai in the early 1990s. It sits below beautiful green hills, near the Rapti river. Basamadi is named after a nearby Shiva temple, Basaha Mahadeva. We lived right on Nepal’s major East-West Highway. The highway was like our front yard. I grew up in a concrete house with electricity. We had a toilet made out of a jute sack and dry corn cobs.
My neighborhood had majority Tamangs, with Brahmins and Newars. Tamang girls worked as farmers, domestic workers, and in the [Indian] circus. Many girls married at an early age; some were trafficked to India. Boys worked as construction workers, truck conductors, and other low-paying jobs. Tamangs were hard-working, straightforward, and humble people. However, because of their language, culture, lifestyles, and lack of education, they were often ridiculed, not only by 'high-born' castes but sometimes even by Dalits. Dalits and Tamangs were called uneducated, unclean, and uncivilized.
As a Dalit girl, I learned to ask questions at an early age. I grew up observing what I can and cannot touch. Who I can look at and who I must avoid. We were told not to touch water pots, including the 'high born' people if they were carrying a pot filled with water. People would curse Dalits for polluting 'high born' castes, saying that the gods would become angry. They would often whisper and refer to us as ‘phori jaat’ (dirty caste). There were many unspoken rules.
To be friends or not with different castes was complex. On the one hand, the 'high born' caste would discourage their children from being friends with Tamangs and Dalits. On the other, my family would warn me and my siblings not to befriend Tamangs. They believed that if we did not focus on our studies and if we made friends with Tamangs, we too would likely be sold in India.
In Basamadi, only certain castes were expected to read and write. People would say Chtteri Bahun ka bacchaharu bhayepo padchan; Bhote, Kami Damai ka baccha kaha padchan (Chettri Bahun children study; why would Tamang and Kami Damai children study?). Whenever my family members would get upset at us, especially for not focusing on studies, they would make derogatory statements against Tamang and Dalit kids. They would question Tamang and Dalit intelligence. As a child, I believed such stereotypes because there were very few Tamang and Dalit students in my class.
Many Tamangs and Dalits left school early not because they were lazy or incompetent, but because Nepal’s caste system favored the ‘high-born’, both institutionally and culturally. The caste system led higher caste kids to believe that reading and writing are in their blood, but Dalit and Janajati kids were made to believe that they could not study and had to do manual work. Stories about what one group can or cannot do carry tremendous power.
At school, we were taught that Nepal is sundar, shanta, bishal (beautiful, peaceful, and large), but the lived reality was the opposite for us Dalits. How can Nepal be sundar, shanta, and bishal, when some people are treated as untouchables? Contradictions like these spurred questions. How can people be pure and impure by birth? Why don't schools tell our stories? Who is going to tell our stories?
My writing life began by keeping an occasional daily journal as a teenager. Writing was my most reliable friend. I could touch and feel. I could talk. I could get mad. I could cry. I could tear it up. I could show my gigantic love. I could tell my secrets. Writing in my diary was safe and special for me. I could paint my dreams with words. I could dream of going beyond both family and social ‘dos and don'ts’. I used to feel that my diary listened to me without preaching. I could trust my diary.
I journaled my confusions, doubts, questions, and exhilaration but mostly sobering experiences. One day, while my father was cooking a water buffalo leg on a clay stove, Shyangtani Didi visited. She looked hungry and dog-tired. Without letting my father see, I offered her warm soup in a steel cup. But she said no, saying “Saru, manche le dekhla. Uta lera ja hoi. Bhok ta lageko cha, tara khanna" (Saru, people might see us. Take it away. I am hungry but I won’t have any.) I was surprised. I had many times seen her sharing homegrown vegetables, fruits, and much more with my Jethi Bhauju (eldest brother's wife). They were neighbors and very good friends trapped in a system. Such real-life incidents motivated my journaling.
I also expressed my ideas through writing letters to close friends. Writing letters was normal. Because I dearly loved my friends, I wrote every word full of love. My letters were not perfect. I misspelled words. I repeated myself. But I could see my feelings in black letters.
Apart from journaling and writing letters, I loved listening to Jethi Bhauju. Barely five feet tall, she was stocky. She had dark skin and a winning smile. She was a hard-working and generous woman. She often said, “When others eat, it smells good, but when I eat alone, it stinks.”
Because of Jethi Bhauju's wisdom and kindness, she was well-liked in the village. Of everyone in the family, she deserved to eat a big meal the most because she worked the hardest. After a hard day of working in the fields, collecting fodder and firewood, grazing cattle, milking the cow, a whiff of sweat and cow-dung would precede Bhauju's arrival. Before going to sleep, she would often make time to pick lice and tell me about her day.
Occasionally I would walk with her in the jungle, where she would sing songs about her hard life and yearnings. One of her songs says:
Wherever I go, a burden of worries
I find no place to set them to rest
To what place can the unlucky escape?
Let me find shelter on my younger brother’s porch
Her songs and stories left a deep imprint on me. She helped me see the beauty and power of stories.
As a teenager, listening to Jethi Bhauju fueled my passion for other women's stories. I began working with Dalit women. Their stories of poverty, sexual harassment and rape, witchcraft accusations, beatings, mistreatment in public and private spaces, and human trafficking overwhelmed me. So much to process and understand. Crying did not help, neither did complaining. I often felt helpless. But I kept going back: their stories awakened in me something for the rest of my life.
In high school, I got a surprising opportunity to write a weekly column titled ‘Dalit Reflection’ for a local newspaper, Hetauda Sandesh. It was a challenge and an opportunity for me. I was a self-taught writer but I was not nervous. All that mattered to me was seeing Dalit women’s life stories in black letters. I wanted the world to learn about ordinary women’s extraordinary lives. Those invisible women were my heroes.
I like writing about ordinary women’s life stories, their agony, struggles, conflicts, negotiations, hopes, and dreams. Writing heals wounds. In the process, I discover myself. Through their stories, I claim my own voice and dignity. It gives meaning and purpose to my life.
More recently, in my journey, many writers have inspired me. I loved the memoir of the great African American leader Malcolm X. I also like Parijat, Aahuti, Urmila Pawar, Shailaja Paik, bell hooks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Uma Chakravarti, Sonia Sotomayor, Michelle Alexander, BR Ambedkar, J Krishnamurti, Chinua Achebe, David Treuer, and John Berger. I began to understand that even for renowned authors, the writing journey has not been all milk and honey.
Writing has multiple meanings for me. I am inspired by Hannah Arendt, a German political theorist, who says “writing is understanding. Writing is an integral part of the process of understanding.” To me, writing is about expressing thoughts and emotions, knowing the self and the world. It is also about liberating myself. I do not have to make everyone happy. I can speak my heart and mind. One thing that I have control over in my life is writing. Nobody dictates. I can choose any direction that I like to go.
My writing journey continues.
Currently, I am learning to read and think critically and write simply. I am working on my reading and analyzing skills. I pay attention to how writers use words for what purpose. I remind myself what I read, why I read, and how I read because the purpose of reading has changed over my life.
If I could go back and give advice to 16-year-old Sarita, I would say, just read read read. Write write write. Challenge yourself. Push your limits. Just be yourself. Believe it or not, writers are made, not born.
Unfortunately, in Nepal, for far too long, too many people have believed that some castes were born to read and write, some were born to serve.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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