Described as flat, dusty, crowded and hot in the Lonely Planet, the town of Butwal provides much in the way of pleasant surprises. Although Butwal is part of Nepal’s terai (plains) region, it is in fact surrounded in three directions by low hills, and the plains on which it sits are heavily wooded and green. It is hot, but certainly bearable, and the wide streets and small-town feel easily distinguish it from the crowded atmosphere of Kathmandu.
In Butwal I have met up with Heather Gilberds, another AP Peace Fellow who is working here with Radio Jagaran, a community radio station targeting the dalit (untouchable caste) community and their issues. In just one afternoon I have already been impressed by the exceptionally kind and welcoming dispositions of the Radio Jagaran staff. Harmin—a tall, skinny man with a bright smile—devoted most of his afternoon to making sure both Heather and I were adjusting well to Butwal (she has been here only a week). He gave me a tour of the radio station, introducing me to everyone from the guard on the ground floor to the young and enthusiastic news announcers preparing for the live news reading. From the roof he pointed out all the good hiking routes from town and showed me the transmitter room, where the radio transmitter connects to the satellite tower and reaches out to a 50 km listening area, presided over a by a somewhat haphazard shrine to Vishnu propped against the wall in a corner of the dusty room.
A small parade of curious young radio folk came in to greet me, the most enthusiastic of whom was Dinesh. Small, skinny, and overwhelmingly polite, Dinesh burst into the room where Heather and I sat in a shower of grins and “Namaste”s. He seated himself next to me on the couch and folded his hands shyly into his knees. “I have been waiting for you to arrive. Heather, she told me you were coming and I have been asking ‘When is your friend arrive?’” His genuineness positively overflows from his small frame.
Dinesh tells me that he announces the international news and works for the human rights radio program at Radio Jagaran. In the latter capacity, he explores the nuances and manifestations of local caste discrimination, including the difference between treatment of dalits in the terai areas and the treatment of dalits in the nearby hills. Asked to elaborate on those differences, Dinesh suddenly becomes serious. “Here in the terai there is so so so so much of discrimination,” he says, straining his muscles with emphasis.
“Actually I myself am a terai dalit.” Dinesh tells us his own story of discrimination—the time he and his younger brother, boarders in youth hostel, were kicked out of their room when their landlord discovered that they were dalit. It was a monsoon day with heavy rain, and Dinesh came home to find that their room had been emptied and all of their belongings had been thrown in a heap in the rain. Their landlord told them never to set foot on his property again, and none of the other boarders came to help or defend him. “This time I was so much crying,” he says, as suggestions of those same tears start to form in his eyes afresh.
I try to suggest that Dinesh is lucky that he has the opportunity to now work with Radio Jagaran—to make a difference on an issue that is so important to him and to reach out to the community (dalit and non-dalit) to educate them about the persistent ills of discrimination. But it comes out all wrong. “I am not lucky,” he says, with glassy eyes. So I try again. “You should be proud, then, that you are working so hard for social change.” In quiet agreement he drops his head.
When Dinesh raises his eyes again they are dry and he is smiling; he quickly changes the subject, carrying on with the small talk we had initiated before. Eventually he stands up to excuse himself to prepare for the news hour. In a shower of waves and more smiles, he retreats. As he leaves he walks backward, bending forward slightly and making himself smaller in a gesture of humility. I cannot help but note that Dinesh is the only one I have seen who has done this, and that his exit is in the fashion of India’s harijan (untouchable caste) community. Centuries ago—in a tradition that is still carried out in some particularly stubborn contemporary communities—harijans were taught to walk backwards with a broom in hand, so that they might constantly erase their footsteps in the dirt and thereby eliminate all evidence of their spiritually polluted existence. Whether it is some remnant of this tradition that has made its way to Nepal and informed Dinesh’s behavior, I cannot be sure. But his politeness and his eagerness to please cannot be separated from his experiences as a young dalit in the terai. I have to wonder whether Dinesh is an example of the case that caste discrimination is pervasive and often internalized, changing even something as subtle as way that a progressive and energetic young man like Dinesh retreats from a room.
Other visitors come to say hello, and after some time I am finally introduced to Deepa, who runs the women’s show at Radio Jagaran and who is hopefully to be my partner over the next week. Over tea with the station manager, Deepa is given permission to work with me to produce a short radio feature about uterine prolapse. She is incredibly agreeable and consents to all of my requests for her time in the field, translation skills, contacts, and a spot on her radio show. Though it will be a challenge to seek out women who are willing to talk about their experiences of uterine prolapse openly (and for a radio audience), it is clear that I have fallen in with an appropriately energetic and willing crowd for the task. I am hopeful about the possibilities for the next week.
Posted By Libby Abbott
Posted Jul 12th, 2008