Dinesh Harijan, a human rights journalist at Radio Jagaran, asked me to write a story about visiting his village.
His family lives in a poor, rural community where severe social exclusion and discrimination are commonplace. As we headed out to his village, Dinesh explained to me that village districts are structured in such a way that higher castes live near the village center where the amenities are and span outward in descending caste-based order. Upon hearing this, I was reminded of Dante’s Inferno where those who have committed slight crimes live in the upper more comfortable circles of hell. The circles spiral downward in descending order according to the severity of the crime committed and those in the lowest circle face the most severe conditions in the afterlife. The crucial difference is that caste is not based on any scales of righteousness or morality. It is based on birth and birth alone. People cannot change the card that is dealt them; born a Dalit, a Brahmin, a Chetri, or a Janjati, one remains so for life.
Dalit people, considered to be untouchable according to the caste-based system, live farthest away from the center, and therefore are farthest away from water taps, telephones, health centers, schools, and roads. Families live in single mud and thatch rooms. There is no electricity or running water. Outhouses are luxuries that most families in this area cannot afford to have. Temperatures average more than 40 degrees celsius during the summer months and monsoon rains wash away the gravel roads that connect remote areas to village district centers.
Within the caste system, there are also hierarchical divisions within each caste. Traditionally, caste groups designated the type of work that people within the caste would be required to perform. Dinesh’s family are Harijan Dalits, considered to be the lowest group within the Dalit caste. Historically, Harijans worked in animal hides and leather preparation. Although this system of labour designation is largely outdated in Nepal, the remnants of this system still exist. Harijan Dalits are among the poorest, least educated, and most severely marginalized people in Nepal.
This is not yet a story about visiting Dinesh’s family. It is difficult to write about poverty and discrimination in a way that gives due weight and respect to those who suffer from inequity without sensationalizing hardship. One of the most difficult things about writing of such experiences is overcoming the feeling of guilt that accompanies the knowledge that my life has always been and will likely always be more comfortable than theirs. Suffice it to say that I was annoyed at myself for noticing the discomfort I experienced as a result of the heat, rain and mud we walked though to get to the village. I was overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of Dinesh’s family – his father speaking to me using the English phrases Dinesh has taught him and patiently waiting for me to fumble through a few Nepali ones, his mother insisting on preparing chia and traditional sweets, the entire family humouring my requests to take photographs. I was impressed that all of the children in the family were given opportunities for higher level education and that Dinesh’s father, the village health worker, is a local expert in female reproductive health. I was surprised that the landscape, defined by flooded rice paddies dotted with the brightly coloured textiles of women harvesting, was extraordinarily beautiful to see once the rain had stopped.
Posted By Heather Gilberds
Posted Jul 24th, 2008