Kumari Lama (Nepal) is a critic, essayist and teacher, writing both in English and Nepali. She has published a collection of essays, titled Ujyalo Andhakar.
MIGRATION AND CASTE POLITICS
Movement and flow lie at the core of human existence. We move from one place to another for better life, to grab opportunity, and also for safety and security. However, some people get compelled to migrate because of their caste and social status. Amidst notorious hindu caste system, the so-called lower castes turn complete outcaste. Many of them migrate to the towns from villages where people get less time to think about castes. Existing caste value has turn so harsh to dalits (untouchable) that they get forced to move to unknown places like Ravjibhai’s family in Mavji Maheswari’s short story “Safe Distance”. In South Asian region migration is also a part of cultural politics. Nevertheless, there is no certainty that the new places will welcome them with open heart. After all, caste value has been implanted in people’s mind since long: it casts its spell everywhere.
Whenever I recall my past, I find myself too hesitant and nervous being in town among strangers. Eventhough I do not belong to lower caste, I was intimidated then by the completely new place and people. I was away from my close relatives and comfort zone. Hereon, I can relate my confusion and uneasiness with the characters Maheswari’s “Safe Distance”. He projects the reality of our society where people are treated on the basis of their caste. Dalit Ravjibhai’s family has migrated to new locality with loads of uncertainty and confusion in their heart since caste system has created boundaries between the so-called upper caste brahmins and the lower caste dalits. He was not sure about their acceptance in brahmin’s neighborhood. The reception and rejection of human bodies get connected to power as well as cultural politics. Maheshwari’s story presents bitter reality of caste barrier, which still presents not only in the villages but also in the so-called civilized cities.
Cities look prosperous, generous, and welcoming to everyone. It looks as if the city dwellers do not bother about caste, status, and social hierarchy. Primarily people opt for city life to escape from socio-cultural rigidity. Ravjibhai’s family was migrated to the nearby town a decade back hoping to live prestigious and respecful life. However, angst and isolation overpower each and every migrated family. It always takes time to get accustomed with new environment, neighborhood, and as a whole new way of life. Even after spending decades, we may turn unimportant to our neighbors in metropolis. They can exhibit their class and caste attitude at the right time. Ravjibhai faces dominating attitude of hindu neighbors in his daughter’s marriage ceremony.
We need excess supports from relatives and neighbours for important social functions like marriage. If you are in a new place away from your relatives, it obviously turns stressful. Ravjibhai is in doubt whether his neighbor will be co-operative enough for his daughter’s big ceremony or not? His family is the only Dalit among the Brahmins in that area. He didn’t have his own relatives in the new surrounding. Uncertainty and dilemma overpower him. Narrator exposes his mind, “Ravjibhai was standing, with his hand in his pocket, and looking around. There was, of course, the fatigue that had accumulated over so many days” (162). It is not only the pressure of arrangements that has caused tiredness on Ravjibhai: it has grown high due to the caste group he belongs. His neighbour Vyasbhai is a conservative Brahmin: he always hesitates of mix up with them. Mostly the lower caste people are looked down upon by hindu society. Caste mentality turns really dangerous as it sticks to our mind that we cannot get rid of easily. Dalit writer Sujatha Gidla expresses the bitter reality about caste. She says, “You cannot tell about your life. It would reveal your caste. Because your life is your caste. Your caste is your life” (2). Hindu society treats people on the basis of their caste that determines their class and their life too.
Everybody in the society helped Ravjibhai at the very day of his daughter’s marriage. He was so overwhelmed by the continuous support of his hindu neighbor, Vyasbhai. Strange happiness started playing in his heart and all his pain was put to rest (164). However, his happiness didn’t remain longer: it turns to be just a transient emotion, which transforms to immense pain when his son reveals about Vyashbhai’s attitude. He was so shocked when his son says, “Pappa, all your people came but your dear Vyas kaka’s family didn’t eat!” (169). Ravjibhai was enthralled and shocked when his son unfolds the truth. The fence of caste becomes so tall that their generous looking Brahmin neighbor could not step over. Kind and helpful Vyasbhai’s family shows deeply rooted caste mentality at the time of need. It shows a cultural boundary that many people cannot cross through.
Caste barrier obstructs the progressive path of dalits as it always makes them feel low. Critic Aahuti points existing caste mentality on people as one of the cruelest thing to “humiliate” people (65). Caste feeling is not only in the heart but also in our mind: we cannot throw deeply rooted caste psychology from us. Even the great leader Mahatma Ghandi was not being able to free him from the caste system. He replies one of the speeches of Dalit leader Bhim Rao Ambedkar questioning, “… how can somebody be Hindu who denies Caste and Barna?” Ghandi, one of the most respected leaders had definitely recognized the problems created by caste hierarchy in Hindu society. He was aware of the miserable condition of Dalits that was caused by caste or barna system. Nevertheless, he could not free himself from the fixed hindu mindset. Similarly, deep-rooted caste system has obstructed Vyasbhai’s family to take the feast in their Dalit neighbor’s house. Ravjibhai’s family suffers due to their caste even after migrating to the town.
Socio-cultural values shape human psyche that turns to be the guiding factors for their life. Strict hindu cultural value instigate generous Vyashbhai to reject the feast provided by his dalit neighbor. Such examples are rampant in hindu society. The so-called high caste people never eat anything touched and cooked by dalits. In such ceremonies dalits have to manage separate cook and kitchen to serve high caste guests. Discrimination on the basis of caste, color, gender and, physical apperance is legal issue in any democratic countries around the world. Nevertheless, the socio-cultural norms sometime turn stronger than law.
Mostly, our society carry double standard: it shows its fair face and stabs the vulnerable groups at their back. Caste system and the concept of touchability and untouchability do nothing more than unfolding the hypocrisy of our society. We are born with caste, which does not leave us whereever we fly. Exactly the same has happened to Ravjibhai’s family. They migrated to the new place but that did not give them the respectful life as they had expected. His neighbor Vyasbhai doesn’t seem to have caste attitude as his family turn really good and helpful towards dalit neighbor. However, he has always maintained a safe distance from them. He had never taken even a glass of water in Ravjibhai’s house. The strong caste mentality of Brahmin neighbor becomes vivid when they deny the feast. The rejection shows strong caste barrier, which still stands firm in the hindu society. People are separated from each other due to their caste. The division has created hierarchy among people, which is nothing more than the play of cultural power. Caste carries the cultural politics and the sole purpose of this system is to dominate dalits as untouchable.
The existing caste mentality highly affects the emotions of people. Dalits are tremendously hurt by the certain caste attitude of high caste neighbors. The protagonist Ravjibhai gets so shocked by the caste boundary created by generous Vyasbhai’s family. In the state of shock he looks at his neighbor’s house and sees the ‘ boundary wall’ (169). The wall stands not only for physical borderline, but also represents the caste mentality of Brahmins. Caste hierarchy always segregates certain bodies from each other. The higher caste wants to maintain their caste and class status like Vyasbhai’s family. Their staying in a certain distance carries the cultural politics of caste. Cultural power plays important role to marginalize and dominate dalits. Deeply rooted caste mentality and its outcomes are explicit in Maheswari’s “Safe Distance.” Dalit Ravjibhai cannot get free and fenceless society even he has migrated from village to the town.
The caste system of Hindu society carries vested cultural interest within it. It was established on the mere division of works. However, it didn’t remain only as the work division: the castes turned to be the class of the people. Higher caste Brahmin and Chettris got the higher position in the social hierarchy, whereas Dalits remained at the lowest level. Bhim Rao Ambedkar says, “Caste system is not only the division of work but it is the system where people are classed on the basis of their works.” (66). The classification of people has cultural politics to dominate and rule over the so-called lower class. The most important thing is, even after migrating to the towns, dalits get affected by their caste within hindu society.
We are voicing for the equality, freedom, justice, safety and security for everybody in the world; nonetheless, it has just turned to be an ideal thought. George Floyds are being killed on the busy road of Minneapolis due to their color; Nabaraj BKs are being murdered because of their caste in Nepal; and Ravjibhais are getting mistreatment because to their caste and social status. We are trying our best to get prosperous, prestigious, and boundryless society for all human beings; nevertheless, in the name of caste, clolor and gender our dreams have been thwarted continuously. People are obligated to leave their original places like Ravjibhai’s family. Caste-color mentality always chases and attacks them in front of law and authority. The vulnerable dalits and blacks could do nothing than suffer and accept the pain. Within caste system, dalits have not found the safe and fenceless places yet. Eventhough they get better places, somehow the caste issue enters into their life. When we witness the plights of dalits that makes us realize the atrocity of casteism. Dalits’ hope for equality, respect, and freedom turns vain as hindu society still carries the baggage of caste system. They become victim of cultural politics even after migrating to the town and metropolis.