Before Mysore Narasimhachar Srinivas (1916-1999), it was popularly believed that there was no way of upward mobility in the phenomenally rigid Hindu caste system. Backing his hypothesis with meticulous observations and rigorous analyses, Srinivas claimed that a slow but perceptible process in India allowed “low” Hindu castes, tribal and other peripheral groups to change their customs, rituals, ideologies and ways of life in the direction of high—the so-called “twice-born”—Varnas. The perceptive Kannadiga termed the process ‘Sanskritization’ in the early 1950s. He also came up with catchphrases that encapsulate complex processes of society and politics, such as ‘Brahmanization’ and ‘vote bank.’
Insight, observes Srinivas insightfully, comes from micro experiences; but perspectives require the scale of macro studies. In an age when scholars from poor countries were expected to get into coalfields called countryside and mine data for their masters, which academics from the West would then use for theorization, he dabbled in inspection as well as reflection without hesitation and never feared from offering sweeping generalizations. Nuances are for scholars; generalities are essential to reach general readers.
Based on his early works, Srinivas delivered his Ravindranath Tagore Memorial Lectures at the University of California, Berkley in 1962-1963. He went on to refine the text of lectures over several stints abroad, which then came out in a book form in 1966 and was titled “Social Change in Modern India.” The compilation of essays has since been published several times and is considered an introductory classic in social studies.
Chandra Shekhar Karki/The Week File Photo
Last week, a girl in Kathmandu was reading the thin volume in the school bus when a student many years her junior sneered aloud: “Dhotile lekhya kitappani padne ho?” The contempt inherent in the sentence is impossible to translate, but it roughly means, “Does anybody read a book written by a dhoti?” The dictionary meaning of dhoti is a loincloth worn by male Hindus. In Nepal, the scornful term often stands for Indians in general, but also for Nepal’s Madheshis.
The girl with the book in the school bus happened to be a dhoti, of Madheshi stock. She tried to dismiss the encounter as the ignorance of a seventh grader. After all, nobody expects trophy kids of pretentious parents attending boutique schools to know about masters of sociology, philosophy or political science. From early childhood, these precocious tycoons are groomed as custodians of family fortunes.
However, she was disturbed enough to narrate the incident during load-shedding hours of the evening when middleclass families are forced to ditch the television and talk to each other. Her bafflement was genuine, “Papa, who puts so much poison in the psyche of such young ones?” Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to that question. It is just the way the dominant section of the Nepali bourgeoisie thinks. Most learn to hide their prejudices as they grow in age and experience, but few manage to overcome it totally.
George P. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. His ideas about mind and metaphors seek to explain why people think the way they think. He had joined issues in the past with renowned scholars such as Noam Chomsky of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Steven Pinker of Harvard. In some interpretations, Lakoff proposes that 98 percent of “thinking” is done unconsciously and dealt rationally only later, if at all. The rest two percent probably consists of immediate impressions or intentions.
The dhoti metaphor is loaded with meanings. Contrary to the dictionary description of the term, the flowing garb is considered effeminate in the hills and mountains where the word is a synonym of cotton sari. Ergo, wearers of dhoti are unwarlike. Unlike tight-fitting suruwals or modern pants that can be worn without wash for several days, dhoti requires frequent cleaning and is a hassle to hold while walking along undulating terrains. That makes dhoti-wearers clumsy and finicky at the same time.
Dhoti is also closely associated with Hinduism, something that must have miffed indigenous people who were either coerced or lured into the religion by the propagators of Asali Hindoosthana in the wake of the Gorkhali conquest. Gorkhali priests were too powerful to be antagonized. Their garb became the butt of ridicule. By association, ordinary dhoti-wearers perhaps became easy target of resentment that people had for the priests of their Hindu conquerors.
Then there is also the psychology of geography hypothesis, which holds that people living at a height tend to look down—literally and figuratively—upon those who inhabit the lowlands. Life in the plains is perceived to be easy, and inhabitants of lowlands are considered to be soft and unworthy of respect.
Once upon a time in the United States of America, it is said that Yankees truly believed that ‘a man from south will have shit in his shoes.’ Part of the perception arose from the fact that unlike highland farmers and gentleman factors of New England and other northern states, southerners often worked in turning fallow fields fertile with the help of all kinds of manure. However, north is also always up in the map pinned on the wall. That could be the reason Punjabis once considered themselves superior to Madrasis, and Assamese continue to look down upon Bengalis.
Nature is not all natural; nurture plays a significant role in determining impulses and influencing the character of a person. Here again, ‘dhoti-loathing’ is built into the very structure of Nepali polity and society. Seeds of chauvinism and xenophobia go back to the Gorkhali conquests, but it began to grow phenomenally from the time of Chandra Shamsher. Gorkhali bigotry has ever since been an integral part of the myths, literature, arts and education system of Nepal.
Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan ‘Agyey’ (1911-1987) asks a serpent in the stanza of a Hindi poem: “Hey snake! You never learnt to be civilized/ Never acquired the taste to live in a town/ should I ask a question—(will you reply?)/ Then where did you learn to bite—how so much venom was acquired?”
Poison is the byproduct of incestuous society and closed politics. The Shahs and Ranas—and courtiers attached to the various camps of both families—hated each other so much that they had to find a common symbol to vent their venom. Dhotis proved to be a handy goblin that their imperial masters from across the Seven Seas readily approved of.
The education system institutionalized during the Panchayat era continues to reproduce stereotypes. Book burning is a sin, but unless a symbolic Mahendramala is consigned to ritual flames, at least two generations of non-Gorkhalis of the country traumatized by forced codes of ‘unification’ can’t experience cathartic cleansing of their system. Knocking former monarchs and royal balladeers of the past off their pedestals were abhorrent but necessary correctives. Reading the Bard, recent researches have shown, makes one intelligent. Whether it also breeds anti-Semitism or anti-Islamism perhaps requires further studies. Anecdotal evidences from Nepal can offer some clues as to where parochialism has been seen to grow in direct proportion to a person’s immersion in Gorkhali arts, culture and literature.
Education or awareness is then not the right treatment for such deep-rooted prejudices against dhotis. Rhetoric, and that too of ‘in your face’ variety of Matrika Prasad Yadav, can help ameliorate the silent suffering of urbanized dhotis who are otherwise too cultured to counter offensive barbs of sly bigots.
After the 1960s, aidocrats cruising around in humongous SUVs have been an integral part of the landscapes in the countryside and the mindscapes in metropolises of the world who control the lot of the poor in developing countries. Dhoti remains a dhoti for these new nawabs who live in former Rana palaces and invariably hobnob only with the entrenched elites. Despite the hullabaloo in the popular press, the ‘i’-word of the identity variety has almost disappeared from the development, poverty eradication, natural disasters, environment or gender justice discourses of resident and parachutist experts alike. Recently, an impeccable activist of child rights from abroad was heard complaining to a fellow entrepreneur of the local NGO industry about the ‘dhotis’—mostly politicos—who had begun to frequent places such as Dhulikhel, Godavari and even Pokhara that were previously pristine haunts of proper ‘seminarists.’
Ultimately, battles against deeply rooted prejudices will have to be fought in the arena of politics. About that, thinkers as diverse as Srinivas, Lakoff and Agyey are almost in agreement. Reason enough for foreign dhotis to back domestic dhotis to the hilt? But then, the considerations of diplomacy are perhaps different from the contours of politics.
The writer is one of the widely read political analysts in Nepal.