I climb slowly to the top of the mountain ridge, legs heavy and aching with exhaustion. At this altitude, the tropical forest turns to pine. The sudden biting wind takes my breath away. In the far distance, the Himalayas sparkle with silvery snow.
It is 1986 and I have lived in rural Nepal for a year, without electricity, running water, or a phone. I am on my way back to the village of Bhingri, where I work as a Peace Corps volunteer. I am returning from a meeting with other volunteers in Kathmandu, a rare opportunity to speak English and eat chocolate cake and German brown bread. My job in Bhingri is to help rural women get loans for small projects. I run literacy classes, advocate for a budget for clean water from the U.S. government, and learn how to live in what seems like another century.
From Kathmandu, I take a night bus for 14 hours and then walk for two days. Before boarding the bus from Kathmandu, however, in a fit of self-indulgence, I collect a stash of treats: Anna Karenina and the Peace Corps Nepal Cookbook from the Peace Corps library, four bars of Cadbury chocolate, yeast to bake bread on my kerosene stove, and a jar of honey, diversions from the monotony of twice daily rice and lentils. I ignore the voice inside warning me that walking with such a heavy load for two days will slow me down.
I eye the chauthari at the top of the mountain, halfway to my destination, a seating area outlined by a set of stones invitingly placed under a giant peepal tree with welcome shade. I lay down my backpack under the tree, reach for my water bottle, and catch my breath. The acrid taste of iodized water makes me grimace. I look down to scratch my foot and cringe to see blood on my socks where leeches have fallen. The sight of blood makes me dizzy and faint, a squeamishness my doctor parents always found ridiculous.
There is only one place on the route where I can spend the night. I crane my head to look down into the valley for the tea stall where I will unroll my sleeping bag on the floor. My heart sinks. It is still several hours away, a small speck in the distance. With the sun about to set, there is no way I can arrive before dark. I feel foolish for letting my desire for chocolate and books outweigh common sense.
Down below, the Mardi Kola River weaves through the valley, rimmed by reddish brown earth on either side and layered with emerald green rice terraces that climb up onto the mountains. This section of Western Nepal is sparsely populated. Many of the men have migrated either to the Terai, the flat and searingly hot lowlands of Nepal that border India, or India. Working in either place as a laborer is easier than eking out a livelihood in this difficult terrain.
Just a few days’ walk to the east is the Nepal tourists know, the destination of trekking and Sherpas, where it is possible to show up at a Himalayan hut and have pancakes with maple syrup. Here in Western Nepal, the country tourists have never seen, a common greeting is, “Have you been to Nepal?” Eventually, I learn it means, “Have you been to Kathmandu?”
Most of the women I work with have never seen a paved road, running water, electricity, or a motorized vehicle. Most have never been to Kathmandu, which might as well be as distant as New York. If I need to contact someone at the Peace Corps office in Kathmandu, I write a letter and it arrives two weeks later. When I write to friends and family in the U.S., it is at least two and a half months between my letter and receiving the reply. The village women eye me closely on the day of the postman’s weekly delivery, ready to console me. Once, when there was nothing in my packet, I cried.
The sun is rapidly setting and, soon, the trail will be obscured by darkness. I pull out a bulky metal Chinese flashlight. All the farmers have returned to their huts and the trail ahead is deserted. The churning I feel inside is a growing panic that I might spend the night outside, perhaps with jackals or wolves.
Suddenly, I hear the muffled sound of laughter and jingling bangles. I strain to see four women coming up from the fields, wearing bright red blouses with red glass beads falling heavily around their necks. Scythes are tucked into the cloth around their waists. Their heads are bent down, with straps holding straw baskets on their backs filled with fodder and firewood. Their voices cascade over each other happily and the lilt in their voices tells me they are joking with each other, but I can’t make out what they are saying.
When they see me, one of them calls out “Didi – Where are you going? Are you lost?”
I explain that I am on my way to Bhingri, still 12 hours away. I pause self-consciously, embarrassed by the absurdity of making this journey alone after dark.
“Bichaari! You poor thing! Stay with us!” declares one of the women as she waves her hand for me to join them. “You can eat and rest.”
Her warmth is cheerful and melts the tension in my stomach. We walk together through a corn field across the side of a terraced area on the mountain. A barrage of questions tumbles forth: Where is your home? How can you be a foreigner and look like us? Are you married? Why not? How old are you? Can you read? Is it day or night now where you are from? If we dig into the earth will the other side be where you live? Say something in English!
And when they find out I have only one sister and no brother: Doesn’t your father have another wife who can give him sons?
We arrive at a wooden house larger and more prosperous looking than the mud huts typically seen in the mountains. A man stands at the front, holding a candle. When they see him, the women’s laughter abruptly freezes. The oldest one who had been walking alongside me says meekly, “We met her on the way and she needs a place to sleep tonight.”
Now I understand. They are sisters-in-law living in a joint household. This man must be the one husband who has remained in Nepal. His brothers, their husbands, are working in India.
The man looks at me sharply.
“Tapaiko jat ke ho?”
My breath draws inward. No one has asked me this question so directly before, and with so much at stake.
“Jat” in Nepali can mean both caste and surname. In most of India and Nepal, last names are caste names. I am sure, however, that it is my caste he is after. “Lower” subordinate castes are supposed to eat on different plates and keep distance. I don’t want to support caste hierarchy, but I don’t want to sleep outside either.
My family is from South India, where the custom since the mid-20th century has been to obscure caste names. My last name is my father’s first name and in my work with landless and oppressed caste women, I keep my caste hidden. But now I must choose between defining myself by caste or risk being turned away.
“I am a volunteer from America. I don’t have a caste. And anyway, I don’t believe in caste,” I blurt out impulsively. I immediately regret how absurd it is to admonish this man while waiting for him to decide if I can stay the night. I cannot look the way I do and simply will myself out of the system. He asks if I eat meat. When I say no, I immediately realize I have fallen into his trap and unwittingly labeled myself a Brahmin. In Nepal, only Brahmins avoid meat.
My mind jumps back to being 11 years old in suburban Long Island. We had just moved into a new house. After years of moves propelled by restrictive immigration rules, we finally had some stability. My parents bought a separate freezer to put in the basement and signed up for monthly deliveries of steak, pork chops, hamburgers, chicken, and hot dogs. Sometimes, dinner was chicken curry; other times, it was meatloaf.
For years, I thought my parents’ departure from their vegetarian heritage was to assimilate into mainstream American culture. When I was 16, after seeing a documentary about caged chickens, I became a vegetarian. My parents were disappointed, seeing this choice as traditional and conservative. My mother would joke that I was a “born-again Hindu,” and my father, whose own mother had never tasted meat, chicken, or fish, would tell me it was not healthy to avoid meat.
My parents saw eating meat as part of American culture. When they each arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s, vegetarianism was unheard of and they prided themselves on being able to adapt, unlike their more traditional Indian friends. But at some unspoken level, their consumption of meat must have also been about caste. For a Tamil Brahmin, eating beef is a rejection of caste privilege and purity. Vegetarianism backed an orthodoxy they associated with the primitive past. While religion didn’t play a part in my decision to stop eating meat, were ideas about purity and pollution somehow ingrained into my subconscious? It is precisely because of the caste implications of vegetarianism that now, standing in front of my host, I have a place to sleep.
To assuage my guilt, I say, “I am technically Brahmin but don’t believe that some people are better than others.” My face flushes with shame as I put down my backpack, finally acceding to these rules so I can sleep on the mud verandah outside the house and eat from their plates. One of the women brings me a brass pitcher with water to wash my hands while I wait for the rice, lentils, and vegetables to cook.
The women disappear to the back to take care of the children, cooking, and chores. I bristle with anger about the caste question and my own complicity.
Neighbors start walking down to see me from mud huts on the mountainside, almost all men, as only they have the leisure to inspect a stranger at mealtime. They have more questions: How can you be from the U.S. if you look Indian? Shouldn’t you already be married at 22? How much money do you make? How can you be a foreigner if you speak Nepali?
I think of the last time I was questioned by a group of men. Before my trip to Kathmandu, my Nepalese counterpart, Chameli, and I had gone from Bhingri to the district center. The eight-hour uphill walk left us weary and when we arrived in the late afternoon, we requested a meeting with the District Officer to ask for the budget for the Women’s Development Program to be released. The funds for literacy classes, health training, and agricultural extension were frozen or, as the village women said more accurately, “the money was eaten” by these petty officials.
We sat down for tea with the head officers and as the sun set, men who worked in other district offices came to stare at me, the supposed American who looked Indian. They started drinking raksi, a Nepali rice vodka. The mood got uglier. I froze when I heard the District Head call me a slur for Indians in the plains: “Kali Madeshi” – Black Indian.
Chameli joined in, laughing as she pointed to her black briefcase, saying, “That’s what Veena looks like.” I had never much liked Chameli. She was often absent, taking frequent trips to the prosperous town she was from, and she made no attempt to hide her contempt for the village women. Now that contempt extended to me. My jaw clenched with anger.
I was both the persecuted and the privileged, taunted with a racial slur but also envied for being able to get on a plane and go to the U.S. when my temporary stay in Nepal was over. These elite Nepali officials would never dream of venting their jealousy, anger, and frustration with the white men who came to see them from the donor agencies, but I was familiar enough to allow them to assert their primacy in the one way they could: by color.
The Peace Corps did not support me. On my next trip to Kathmandu, I asked the Director of the Peace Corps to let these officials know I was just as American as the white volunteers. He laughed dismissively, saying, “You’re going to have to get used to it!” The clear message was that this was my problem. I wasn’t a “regular” American.
The fury I felt then is replaced here on the mountainside by the shame of cooptation. Now I belong, but not in the way I want. The men questioning me while dinner is being prepared have no malice against me. In fact, after a few minutes, they are bored and return to talking amongst themselves.
In a subsistence economy, there are no snacks, and the fragrance of the cumin-scented dal and the piquant smell of mustard oil suddenly remind me of how hungry I am. One of the women arrives with a steel plate laden with rice, creamy lentils, potatoes, and spinach with cumin and a pungent radish pickle. I sit on the floor and start eating, pulling out my spoon. The men eat with their hands on the other end of the veranda, staring at the spoon, with the women coming by every now and then to offer refills.
After we finish eating, a group of four men approach in the dark. They are from a neighboring village and can’t make it home. I hear them ask if they can stay the night and the same man who questioned me says, “Please stay.” With these men, the caste rules are clear. He gestures to the smooth earth outside the house. They keep distance and hand their plates to the women, signifying their status as being from a subordinate caste.
The women return from the kitchen with plates piled high with mounds of rice, dal, and vegetables. It can take two hours to make rice and lentils on a clay wood stove. Having so many unplanned guests probably means that those who cooked the food will go hungry. Yet the women repeatedly offer to refill the men’s plates and come to give them water.
Seeing the courtesy with which the men are treated confuses me. When I had been asked for my caste, I had bristled and pictured the hostility of the Jim Crow South. This co-existence is harder to understand. Caste seems to be a bureaucratic rule around which normal human interactions operate. The very idea of it is violating — that some humans are born defiled. Yet even “polluting” castes are offered a meal and shelter without expectation of payment.
I saw this counterintuitive cordiality years later between Black and white South Africans before apartheid ended. In both situations, the rules do the unpleasant job of separation and classification so that people can interact smoothly.
During my childhood, caste had been abstract, an ancient and irrelevant artifact. My father would speak with revulsion of how his grandmother would have the clothes washed again if an “untouchable” cast a shadow on the clothesline. His message was clear. We were not backward like that and would not maintain this unjust and barbaric system. I felt no connection to centuries of caste privilege and thought it was part of a long-gone world. Yet now I see there is no escape — I am in the system whether I like it or not, due to the way I look and my Hindu name. I feel shame and indignation to be confronted with my role in upholding the hierarchy.
When I leave the next morning, I thank my hosts and descend into the river valley until I reach Bhingri at dusk. I see now that I can choose to glide in and out of caste, and even in and out of being a Westerner, when it is convenient. Although they are small and dark-skinned like me, the women I work with do not have my freedom to shift.
When I had first arrived in Bhingri, I met the poorest women, Dalits (outcastes) and tribal Magars. The arcane rules of caste hung over the interactions, but I resolutely ignored them. “Higher” castes may share food and drink with “lower” castes, but the higher ranked castes are ritually polluted when they receive cooked food or water from those considered beneath them. When village leaders warned me to abide by the rules, I snapped, “I don’t believe in that!” as if I could erase centuries of caste oppression with a simple declaration.
My ignorance makes me wince now. I didn’t understand that it was the women, not I, who faced the consequences if there was a suspicion of the rules being violated. These women, who were gracious, welcoming, and kind, even if I caught them in the middle of their endless work, would hand me bunches of spinach or radishes from their home gardens after a loan meeting or literacy class. They never accepted money. What could I possibly do for them? I would hear them murmur to each other, “Poor Veenaji. She has to buy food and doesn’t have her own garden.”
I left Nepal in 1987 with a more complicated sense of myself and the realization that I could adjust how people saw me. I could even transform being ignored or invisible into an advantage. In the corridors of power, senior officials underestimated me, sometimes leading them to be less guarded with me than they would be otherwise. I would let them talk and then walk away to use their points for advocacy. On field visits in Chile, Zambia, or Honduras, I could establish rapport with villagers more easily than my World Bank colleagues because I looked totally unlike their idea of a powerful donor representative. I was quiet when I wanted to fade into the background and used my facility with words when I wanted to pull rank. Of course, it was also maddening to be passed over for promotions in NGOs that saw my white colleagues as more professional, but I carved out my own space.
I live in Costa Rica now, where I float in the cosseted space of “exotic foreigner.” Being Indian and speaking Spanish make me enough of a novelty that I can glide through spaces where Nicaraguans, Indigenous people, and resented North Americans do not feel as welcome.
When my 15-year-old daughter talks about social justice, I tell her it is easier to declare solidarity with the oppressed than it is to dismantle oppressive structures. Changing legal, social, and financial barriers is the real work of social justice and sometimes we don’t even know if we have succeeded.
That night in Nepal all those years ago was a reminder to me that I could choose privilege if it made my life easier — and that humbling truth is still with me.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: thomas williams/Flickr Creative Commons