The large majority of the writers in attendance at the Nepal Literature Festival were from Kathmandu and were undoubtedly exalted to be away from the claustrophobic trappings of the capital city. Maybe it was the tranquil setting of damside Pokhara and the stark contrast it offered to the social, political and economic upheaval defining this particular time; the exchange on all aspects of literature was uninhibited and was by default extended to include the political and social realities of our country. The festival was undoubtedly a success because it offered a public space for important ideas that demanded internalisation and introspection. And to the festival’s credit, I have not been able stop thinking about the idea of privilege.
Last week, I read an opinion piece in The Kathmandu Post that argued that not all those belonging to a high caste are necessarily born into privilege. I am referring to this piece because this sentiment does not exist in isolation. It has been expressed by many in so many words.
The idea of privilege is an uncomfortable one. It is unsettling to many of us because if we begin to understand and accept our privilege then we are admitting to having had a headstart in life, probably at the expense of someone else, and this is in no way related to our personal abilities.
On the contrary, we have cheated, not intentionally or knowingly, but because we have been allowed to. We have been systematically enabled and encouraged to cheat by a system that has been created to favour some and ignore others. If we were called out on our false start and we had to get on our knees at the starting point again, albeit in an environment where all social, political and economic factors were maintained as a constant, our position in life and in society would more than likely not be what it is now.
At many points during the festival, literature was described as being a reflection of the society we live in. Some writers spoke of the utilitarian nature of literature, though I consider the pursuit of the aesthetic equally valuable. But, if literature is able to create cracks in the collective complacency of our society then it evolves into something else altogether. It becomes the pursuit of multiple truths as opposed to the depiction of one; when it succeeds in doing so, it holds the power to make us feel uncomfortable in our own skin, and it holds the power to lend a voice to those who have been sidelined by a popular lie.
Ahuti, a Dalit activist and a poet, is one of the few public intellectuals of Nepal who offers a subaltern view on the nature and formation of the Nepali nation-state. And through his writings, he forces us to reflect on the idea of privilege. His poems use the darkest brand of satire while juxtaposing the experiences of the oppressed against that of the privileged. They ask us difficult questions that logical reasoning fails to answer and his verses invoke an immediate reaction while leaving a permanent impression.
Ahuti was part of a discussion panel at the literary festival titled “Oppression by exclusion”, and the urgency with which it is necessary to really talk about this issue, repeatedly, on public platforms was underlined by Yug Pathak’s introduction. He chose to begin with a reading of Tuccha Jiwanko Mahan Gatha, a poem by Ahuti:
An epic tale of a lowly life
I am Juthey, a lowly, poor man of this world
I can never be great.
Ram Prasad Sharma
Oh my! Just look at him!
His grandfather had deeds to granted lands in seven villages,
while my father, through the chilly winter and the torrential rains,
like an ox, ploughed his life away in his fields.
But what a sacrificing man Ram Prasad Sharma was!
He gave up his land for others.
Of course his story shall be immortal.
But, I am not Ram Prasad Sharma.
I can never be great.
I hope this hastily translated excerpt offers some insight into the idea central to this poem. It is in many ways a dissection of privilege and the liberties that come with it. Those with privilege can afford to abandon it. Those with privilege can afford to discard it. But what about those who are excluded, oppressed and have never been granted any form of privilege? How can their experiences be included in mainstream discourse? How can their language be used in mainstream discourse? And how can their experiences be accepted as the truth without it being questioned by those with privilege?
Ahuti employs verse to unsettle those who have been privileged enough to be born into families like that of Ram Prasad Sharma. During the discussion, he spoke of the pervasive, and invasive assault on the marginalised identities of this country perpetuated by the legacy of the Shah and Rana regimes that codified and institutionalised structural discrimination. When a participant questioned the scope of the definition of a true Madhesi, in terms of an identity, Ahuti replied, “Those who were called Madhises before are the Madhesis of today.” This statement in itself challenges the limitations often posited to this identity by trying to define it by region, ethnicity or language. While Madhesi is a political identity, Ahuti adds another dimension to it. He recognises it as a social identity and compels us to question the repeated attempts made by the privileged to discount the personal experiences of those who have been discriminated against and are demanding their rightful stake in the modern history of the country, still in the making.
Accepting and understanding privilege is a very personal struggle. While it is easy to express our empathy in public towards those who have been wronged by our history, it is very difficult to admit our own guilt. The feeling of guilt itself is elusive to many with privilege because we allow our logic to tell ourselves that we personally did not benefit from the privilege extended to our caste; instead, our parents worked very hard to give us what we have today. Sure, both my parents worked really hard and I could never discount their struggles. But, Chakra Bahadur Tamang, our domestic help when we were growing up, worked twice as hard. And he is in Qatar today, working fourteen hours a day in the crippling heat to put his children through school.
So, what about his struggle? What about what he received in return for his hard work? This is where Ahuti’s poems come in. They include the experiences of people like Chakra Bahadur dai and lend them the voice that is at the centre of the narrative, and hold the power to shatter the illusions of those with privilege.
Now, let us compare Ahuti’s perspective to that of Rabindra Mishra, a renowned journalist and also a published poet. During the discussion “How can Nepal be developed”, Mishra revealed his vision for a prosperous Nepal that is essentially anchored by two virtues: honesty and integrity. Mishra’s vision is an example of the privileged vantage point. It negates the inclusion of those who are deprived of it. By putting all the focus on humanistic virtues, he ignores the contribution of those who have allowed people like himself to think beyond the urgency to survive, let alone survive with one’s respect and dignity intact.
So, while we contemplate the direction in which this country should go and what our contributions to its development should be, I would urge everyone to read writers like Ahuti. He may not speak of grandiose visions of prosperity but he speaks the truth that must inform these visions in order to make them inclusive and humble. And, the next time a high-caste individual speaks of not having any privilege I would ask her to reflect on some very simple questions – Has she ever been prohibited from entering someone’s house? Has she ever been prohibited from drawing water from a well? Has she ever been coerced into changing her surname to conceal her caste?
It would be extremely deceitful for us to think that privilege only manifests itself through our economic standing in our present circumstances. If we were to attribute a tangible value to dignity, just as we are used to attributing a tangible value to jobs or economic prosperity, how rich would a rich Dalit really be in this country of ours?