Libby Abbott

Libby Abbott (Center for Agro-Ecology and Development – CAED and Women's Reproductive Rights Program – WRRP): Libby lived and studied in North India for eight months as a college junior. She interned with a local NGO in Varanasi where she worked on reproductive health programs for girls living in slums. Libby also designed and conducted her own field research of a family planning service delivery model in a nearby rural district. After graduating from Brown University, Libby continued her work in public health in India as a research assistant on a tuberculosis treatment in Chennai, South India. Libby interned at The Advocacy Project in Washington before her fellowship.

Caste, community and values in today’s Nepal

22 Jul

In the style of most Nepali friendships, my friendships with Deepa and Nandu were almost immediate. I met Deepa through my work with Radio Jagaran in Butwal, and after only a few short hours of working together she invited me to have lunch at her house—a small room that she rents on the top floor of a co-worker’s home. Deepa’s roommate is Nandika (affectionately known as “Nandu”), and the two girls share everything, from the bed they sleep in to the cooking duties.

Deepa and Nandu, partners in crime, even share the same umbrella.

Over several days in Butwal I managed to find myself in their room quite frequently. Twice they attempted to teach me to cook (which means I sat in the doorway of their closet-sized kitchen and listened as Nandu reeled off lists of spices) and one afternoon I napped as they read through books and pamphlets about uterine prolapse. But mostly we just talked. Over many cups of chia (sometimes tea with lemon, sometimes with pepper) and in several languages (Nandu and I could only communicate in Hindi, while Deepa and I could only communicate English, and Nandu and Deepa usually recapped to each other in Nepali) we covered a great variety of topics, from the way that women in the US dress to the songs that Nepali women sing during festivals.

Deepa and I enjoying the dal-bat that Nandu has prepared for us.

Through these discussions (conducted informally as we all lay sprawled across various mats in the room), I was introduced to the complex overlap of caste, class and values in today’s Nepal. Together the girls present an interesting perspective on the negotiation of culture and identity in a rapidly changing society.
Deepa comes from the Dalit (untouchable) caste, and although she can tell you stories about neighbors in her village who won’t allow her into their kitchens (for fear that her very presence as a Dalit will pollute the space), her confidence and outgoing manner betray no internalized consequences of discrimination. She speaks excellent English and seems to be quite aware and accepting of the differences between western culture and Nepali culture. She has a collection of skinny jeans that would impress any fashion-conscious young western woman and only once in my week in Butwal did I catch her in a traditional salwaar-kamiz; even then she changed out of it before lunch. Deepa figures—although she says we can never be sure about these things—that she will have a love marriage, instead of a traditionally arranged one. She speaks about such matters openly and with little of the giggling and naiveté that usually accompanies similar conversations in Nepal.

Nandu—more frequently found in a salwaar-kamiz—is from the Janajati caste. When explaining to me what that meant, she told me that it meant she was one step above Dalit caste. She insisted that she would never have a love marriage, as this would lead her to be expelled from her family and her community. Her family, she gave as an example, would never allow her to marry a Dalit, though she lives with Deepa (a Dalit) and eats the food that Deepa cooks (which by the orthodox interpretation of the caste hierarchy would not be prohibited). Although Nandu comes from a higher caste than Deepa, her village was poorer and her education less comprehensive (thus explaining her very minimal English). At the age of 23 she expects that she will soon be married off to a Janajati boy of her parents choosing.

Nandu does most of the cooking in the house that she shares with Deepa (though she insists that Deepa often makes dinner), and it is not hard to imagine that in a few years she will be making some Nepali man very happy with her homecooked meals and regular rounds of chia. She is currently undergoing teacher training, though she makes no specific mention of plans to work after marriage. Deepa, on the other hand, intends to build a career in community radio. The way she sees it she will put in a few years of service with Radio Jagaran in order to give herself the opportunity to work her way up the ranks. Jagaran Media Center (the parent company of Radio Jagaran) will soon be opening two new stations in farther regions of Nepal, and she imagines that she will be offered a promotion and the chance to work in the new stations. Several years down the road she sees herself working for Jagaran Media Center in the Kathmandu office.

Together Deepa and Nandu present a fascinating image of young women, friendship, and tradition in modern Nepal—but it is one that begs many questions.

I don’t expect that I will leave Nepal after ten weeks with any sound answers to these questions, given the variety of communities, regions, and beliefs in this country and the rate at which change is taking place. I only hope that many years from now I will be able to sit with Deepa and Nandu over another cup of chia and learn how their lives have unfolded in this interplay of values of identities.

Posted By Libby Abbott

Posted Jul 22nd, 2008


  • rajan

    March 3, 2009


    hi i want to friend ship

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