As we grow older, many of our childhood memories are found through only foggy recollection. Few stay crystal clear. One such memory that I have somehow managed to cling on to is of a really short conversation I had with my father, as a six year old. I remember asking him, “What is our religion?” To which he replied, gently but nonchalantly, “We are Hindu”. I asked back, “What about our king?” He smiled, “He is Hindu too” and made his way to office after patting me on the back. My curiosity was satisfied. In that instant, the thought of the king and my family belonging to the same religion also left me overjoyed. I felt like we were part of a close-knit “Hindu family”. With my chest puffed out and chin raised high, I remember having the urge to smugly declare the association to my neighborhood friends.
It used to be a different kind of morning. It was pure bliss to wake up to the smell of sunlight that sneaked into the bedroom through the windowpane and rest gently next to you. As the radio played the Dashain tune, a very familiar voice would announce in Radio Nepal, ‘sampurna Nepali haru ko ek maatra mahaan chaad, Bada Dashain!’ (The one and only greatest festival of all Nepalis, Bada Dashain!). The announcement would herald the beginning of a weeklong celebration. Dashain was therefore a place and time when I imagined all of us to be alike: binging, gorging, and being merry all the time. However, the king for me was a distant entity occupying the highest echelon of power. But when my father told me that he was a Hindu, the distance was overcome to a certain extent. There was a sense of closeness with the king, and a feeling of empowerment because of the association.
IS IT A TRULY NATIONAL FESTIVAL?
To assume that identity is a rigid category is to suggest human beings can only be understood as one entity by over-emphasizing physical and phenotypic signifiers.
Benedict Anderson authored the concept of ‘imagined community’ in a book with the same title. He speaks of the nation as ‘imagined’ because “the members of the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. With the rise of ‘print capitalism’, as in newspapers and novels, collective act of reading about ‘us’ became a basis for imagining the national community as one homogenous entity: we are all alike. In reflection, that fleeting joy was perhaps a result of a ‘regulatory myth’ that Dashain was: a myth that in my mind, like in many other minds, created an imagined community of a close-knit happy Hindu family in festive spirits, made more possible through radio announcements and such like.
Years later, my father intimated that he was only looking for a comfortable reply when he told me what he told me. He explained by taking me back to his visits to foreign countries as a public employee where he had the freedom to declare that he had no religious affiliation. Boxes in official papers allowed him to make choices. He would openly debate with his friends about non-religion over patio beers.
In Nepal it was different. There was no place for resisting. Doing so in public would draw uncomfortable attention from the local Panchayat state. National census survey did not leave one with much choice of religion. Therefore, being Hindu, for many, was more about inhabiting an imagined national identity that the monarchial state subjugated the people to, who in turn complied, without subverting or resisting, because the subjugation was conducted with such subtlety that one would feel obliged to consent to it—like the way I would nod to the familiar Dashain voice while dancing to the tune ringing at the background. That is how my self-understanding took shape, in rather rigid terms, in relation to the state, the king, and in relation to being Hindu, which, for me, more than anything else, was about enacting a celebratory identity that embodied festive spirit. And I was not alone in inhabiting that identity.
Dashain, for some population groups, was a regulatory myth with a religious face that over time became a cultural norm. For the feudal state, back in the day, it served the purpose of containing diverse populations into a governable category; history suggests. Organic and academic historians of Kirat identity (Rai, Limbu, Yakkha, Sunuwar), which also include Bhramins and Chhetris, conclude that Dashain is not a Kirat festival. Shree Teen Janga Bahadur issued a dictum to ‘celebrate’ Dashain, indicates history, to the aathpariya Kirat indigenous nationalities of Dhankuta. When Ridama and Ramlihang, the aathpariya leaders, rebelled against the dictum, they were murdered. Shree Teen’s army then circled rest of the population who were violently made to perform the shenanigan: falling animals, stuffing bellies, and putting Tika.
The finding led several Kirat organizations to declare Tika Bahiskaar (boycotting Dashain tika) after the first Jana Andolan in 1990. For many Kirat families, not celebrating Dashain anymore has therefore been a way of asserting a different identity by taking a detour of the history, and excavating from it the oppressive ways in which the festival was imposed by the state on nations within the Nepali state. From thereon, it has been about symbolically correcting that history in defiance of the unjust state.
IDENTITY: FLUID AND RIGID
To assume that identity is a rigid and stable category is to suggest that human beings can only be understood as one entity by over-emphasizing the importance of physical and phenotypic signifiers such as language, dress, color of skin, hair texture and so on. It is to ignore and dismiss the ways in which we are able to reshape our understanding of self in relation to the social field we are part of, either through active deployment of political agency, or as a result of evolving social structures owing to historic-political events that introduce new discourse and ideas to influence common sense. Likewise, to foreground fluidity of identity, a la champions of anti-ethnic-federalism, is to overlook the rigidity (‘caste’ in this case) ascribed to one’s identity, which subjugates one in many oppressive ways. It is to be blind to how as identity evolves gradually over time, it is also frozen in particular moments and is made rigid, when regulatory myth of religion and culture rear their twinned heads to privilege some, while penalizing others. The violent politics of religion led by the World Hindu Federation in complicity with the state currently unfolding in Nepal that has ‘submerged questions’ around a Dalit artist’s identity serves as a case in point (see Erisa Suwal, The Kathmandu Post, September 28).
Some things change. It has been over a decade now that many Limbu families stopped celebrating Dashain. The definition of ‘self’ has evolved in relation to the history and cultural politics surrounding the festival and its relational co-constituents: the state and society. And the king has long since wilted and withered. Some things remain the same. Like the sunlight that gently inundated the Dashain mornings and made them special, still retains its charm. I still wake up to it with a spring in my step. It always feels good.