Community identity doesn’t preclude belonging
— by PRASHANT JHA
|This is not a saga of victimhood. To think of it in those terms would be an inaccurate representation of my life. I was born into an upper-class Kathmandu family. My parents are well ensconced in the capital’s professional and social circuit. I went to good schools here, moved to India for higher education, got a job in Delhi with a Nepal-based magazine, and have rarely been made to feel like an outsider, at least publicly.But things are never quite that simple. My forefathers on both sides are from Bihar, where we still have deep family links. My paternal grandfather settled in Rajbiraj, became a Nepali citizen six decades ago, and made the great leap to Kathmandu as it was getting out of the Rana rut in the 50s. I speak a mix of Hindi, English, and Maithili at home, in that order. My spoken Nepali is heavily interspersed with English and Hindi words. Reading the national language is a struggle and I don’t plan to attempt writing in it anytime soon.
Language is a more substantive marker of distinction than we often acknowledge. In school, anticipating the move to India for further education, I opted for Hindi over Nepali. In class six, the significance of that hit home. While eating lunch, a friend said, in a mix of seriousness and jest, “You are a dhoti”. When I discovered that the term—definitely derogatory—was associated with madhesis, who in turn were equated with Indians, I tried hard to run away from my identity. I hung around with Kathmandu kids, called the other Indians in school ‘dhoti’, and rationalised studying Hindi by saying it was what my parents wanted.
But I couldn’t run too far. The differences were too many: we went vegetarian during Dushera as Kathmandu feasted on meat; we didn’t do tika; Tihar was the one-day Diwali for me. My father, short and on the darker side, made it a point to wear kurta-pyjama. It was a dress I took to later and that, with the accented Nepali and the surname, often provoked the remark that we don’t look Nepali.
Telling people constantly that you are indeed a Nepali citizen is not pleasant.
It’s taken me time to come to terms with my identity. My liberal education and understanding of how the homogenising tendency works in society, and a sense of security, no doubt helped by the present political discourse of inclusiveness, allows me to be candid about my background. It gives me the confidence to give the brush off to those who question my ‘Nepaliness’. In the last few years, I have reported occasionally on Nepal politics, which also gives me an added sense of citizenship and belonging.
My story is not representative. My family migrated from south of the border, while others’ ancestors have been in the tarai for centuries. I was comfortable in English, the language of power, and moved out, which together allowed me to escape the handicap of not being Nepali enough for the self-appointed guardians of nationalism in the Valley. Besides some taunts and subtle insinuations, I was never deprived of opportunity. But spare a thought for the person who speaks only Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri or, at best, Hindi, who lives, in the tarai, with the stigma of not ‘being Nepali’, has cultural practices distinct from the mid-hill mainstream, does not have access to the power structure, has memories of being mercilessly exploited through history, and whose identity brings discrimination and deprivation even today. Don’t blame them for being alienated from the system.
Understand the anger. Empathise with the bitterness.
A few weeks ago, a columnist in these pages, in a style reminiscent of national integration Panchayat textbooks, carped against the ‘divisiveness’ sparked by politicians, and asserted that he was a ‘Nepali first’. Whatever that means. How about creating conditions for those down south to have the comfort of saying that?
Prashant Jha is the Delhi-based assistant editor of Himal Southasian.
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