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Autonomy  •  19 October 2021  •  Non-Fiction

Story from the Margin

By Pragya Paneru
Content Warning: Colonisation

I wonder where my roots are‭.‬

The clothes I wear

the books I read

tell the stories of alien land‭.‬

They say my village is desolate‭,‬

my traditions are outmoded‭.‬

I bend my head with gratitude‭ ‬

to the light when lit‭,‬

to the land I tread‭,‬

and the rivers that rinse‭.‬

I worship

the sun‭, ‬planets‭, ‬mountains‭, ‬animals and rocks‭.‬

But they laugh at my reverence‭.‬

Thus‭, ‬I wonder

Where my roots are‭. ‬

Being a Brahmin from Indo-Aryan communities, I belong to a structurally privileged group. However, being a woman from the Far Western Corner of Nepal, I stand on the brink of that privilege. This land, enriched by the majestic aboriginal tribal culture reminds me to explore my roots and makes me wonder how far our generations have moved away from our cultural heritage. In the following sections, I attempt to retrieve and recollect some of my cultural memories.

My Traditional Clothes

I am from a patch of land that survived direct colonialism but could not withstand globalisation or modernisation. This clicked when I was trying to categorise the clothes of the represented characters from Nepalese textbooks into local or Western types. It was difficult for me to imagine our traditional attire. With some exceptions, most of the clothing in the textbook images were frocks, trousers, T-shirts, pants, and skirts. As the words suggest, they were all Western. I also grew up wearing these and I remember people judged one another based on how they dressed. The more Western their clothes looked, the more modern, advanced and influential that person is regarded. But, this realisation came to me only when I became an adult; even in my 20s, I was judgmental of the dresses of villagers because I grew up in a time when anything traditional was regarded as old and outdated. Now, I regret not appreciating my local costumes and judging my fellow people from remote villages.

My Language 

In my own land, my mother tongue has lost its gleam within our academia, workplaces, and society. Although there are more than 100 regional and ethnic languages in our country, Nepali language is the official language in Nepal. Besides Nepali, English literature and language are regarded as esteemed subjects in universities, whereas their Nepali Counterparts have lost their former lustre. When I was in university it was the English department where most of the students enrolled. In schools, students are encouraged to use English and if they do not comply, they are punished, insulted, and made to pay fines just for using the Nepali language. People are judged on their local language accents. Contrastingly, the more one is fluent in English, the more prominent and sophisticated that person is regarded.

As the Nepali language is institutionally privileged, this has burdened non-Nepali speakers to learn Nepali language for communication in different institutional settings. It also has a negative effect on the academic outcomes of the school-going children from families of non-Nepali backgrounds, as the Nepali language is a mandatory subject within the school education. Even though the government has the provision of providing basic education in local languages, due to lack of resources this is not implemented.

In my case, I find it difficult to speak and understand my regional language because I was raised far from my native village. In my young age, I developed an inferior attitude toward my regional languages and did not want to be associated with remote and traditional villages. I deliberately did not speak or learn my regional language, nor did I feel I should appreciate my language and culture. Rather, I felt proud to be able to speak the standard Nepali language. Looking at the demand of time, my parents sent me to English medium private schools and I was expected to choose English Literature, which was one of the most esteemed courses in academia. I do not regret graduating in English literature, however, my pejorative attitude toward my local culture and language makes me feel uprooted. I feel guilty about being a teacher who appreciated the students for speaking English fluently and criticised them for using their own language. Looking back, I have realised we are misleading our generations. In my opinion, learning a second language is great but discriminating one language from the other and associating high social status and knowledge attainment with a particular language is unfair.

Our Gurukul Education

I have heard a Sanskrit saying about the tasks required of people in certain age groups. It says 7-25 years is the age range for education attainment. This proves that there used to be a unique educational system. We can see the mention of this system in our mythology and literature, where pupils used to leave home to their master’s place to learn literacy and skills. Pupils used to give their guru 'Dakshina', that is, offerings to gurus at the end of their learning phase. There is no trace of this system in my culture anymore. It was partly due to the fault in the system itself, as education attainment and access were limited to the so-called high-caste group of people and their communities. Also, partly due to the global waves of the flourishing Western schooling system. Western powers and developments gained popularity and became a standard to measure our civilisation. We learned to look to the West, follow them, and aspire to look more sophisticated and civilised rather than reflecting upon the self and mending the cracks in our own culture. As a result, our languages, cultural roots, and lifestyle lost their value in our eyes.

Our Anthropocentric Rituals

Most of the entities of nature, including biotic and abiotic are deified in our culture. We worship the Sun, planets, plants, animals, rivers, mountains, forests and rocks. According to our traditional beliefs, each natural space and resource is guarded by some kind of holy power. Therefore there are gods and goddesses of the forest, rivers, lakes, planets, plants, and animals. That is why we literally regard the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and other planets as gods. We also worship plants like pipal, banyan, banana, basil and animals like dogs, crows, cows, oxen, snakes, and elephants. The rivers and mountains are sacred as we believe that higher power resides in them. Our gods and goddesses use animals as their spiritual vehicles and those animals are revered. This concept of appreciating and paying respect to the biotic and abiotic elements symbolically was contributing to the care and perseverance of everything in life and the environment. However, as globalisation and capitalism grew, technology, wealth, and an urban lifestyle became prioritised. Our old way of living together with nature and animals with equal respect became obstructions to infrastructure and property development. Our religious message of compassion, love and care for all lives became outdated and cliché. Instead of exploring the significance of our rituals and lifestyle, we started branding our culture as uncivilised, unscientific, superstitious, and backward. We forgot that our science was life-centric, not technocentric. This feeling of inferiority associated with our traditions did not let us see the ecocentric view embedded in our lifestyle. Even though our occasional rituals desperately howl out the anti-anthropocentric message in our festivals and celebrations, our ears are blocked to hear that scream.

In my case, I follow our tradition of doing namaste (joining both hands to pay respect) to the source of light. I show love and respect toward animals and plants. Previously I used to feel awkward and used to do the rituals automatically rather than understanding their essence but these days I really appreciate such traditions.

World as a Family

We have a saying 'Vasudeva Kutumbakam' in one of our scriptures that means the whole world is a family. I have heard the word uncivilised to describe us. I have not asked why they use that word, but I can figure it out from my village experience. I know people in villages are still striving for only a simple life and some of them haven’t been in cities or used modern technology. I remember Kathmandu was just a dream for me until I went there for my master’s degree. I had to learn how to walk on a road shared by vehicles because the place where I was born did not have vehicles on the streets. My father used to take me and my brothers to a nearby hill to show trucks down the road which looked like matchboxes and we used to feel amazed looking at them from far. There have been developments in our villages since then, and I think most of them have seen vehicles by now. However, I could visualise how the locals have not experienced modern technologies and facilities. I could imagine them swarming around the newcomers, and the curious questions they would ask. People of my village don’t differentiate people as 'other' and they do not have any concept of boundaries. Our culture is based on community and commonality rather than individualism. This notion blurs the boundary between the self and others. Ingrained by the feeling of ‘world as a family’, they could touch you, would want to look at your things, shower you with thousands of questions, and stare at your white skin, modern clothing, gadgets, etc. Apart from this, I know they are not 'uncivilised.' They are simple people to whom the concepts of selfishness, concealment and apathy have not yet reached. The simple lifestyle of local villagers and muddy roads, adjusting among the insufficient resources and facilities, can look quite meagre to people from developed areas. I would recommend anyone from a developed or Western society to research the local culture before visiting such villages to avoid misunderstandings.

We Also Have Dark Sides

It is not that we are saints without any dark sides. We have caste hierarchies and subtly discriminative prejudices based on gender, religion, and economic status. We also have problems like corruption, bad leadership and crimes which are commonplace throughout humanity. Just like the rest of the world, we are striving towards betterment. 

Due to the influence of modernisation and globalization, we have neither Indo-Aryan nor Tibeto-Burman ways of life in our culture as almost all of our lifestyles have been influenced by the current trends. Due to the popularity of modern lifestyles, we study modern literature and contents in academia. Or, at best, our society is not as interested in exploring our own culture as much as Western culture. As a result, we are neither purely modern, nor traditional. We have long forgotten our history and the paths from where we came. Even though some reminiscence from rituals remind us of our unique roots, we have forgotten their essence. I think it is necessary that no culture should be judged as civilised or uncivilised. East or West, we should respect and appreciate all ways of life. The measure of societal development should be based on that culture’s contribution to the enhancement of lives and environment rather than economic prosperity. Our education and research areas should focus on the exploration of how significant traditional local cultures are so that the new generations can understand and appreciate them. Then, only one type of lifestyle or culture would not be put on a pedestal and people belonging to simpler lifestyles would finally recognise their own importance in this world.

How I am Practicing my Culture in Australia

Australia is very dear to me as it gave me exposure to a new world. It brought back my love for creative writing which was in hibernation for a few years with some mysterious reasons that I am still unaware of. Coming here, I also learnt to appreciate my culture. As Australia has become my home away from home for the last two years, I celebrate almost all the occasions that I used to celebrate in my home country. In my small balcony garden, I have planted a basil plant. Basil plant is regarded as a female mythical character who would marry one of the Hindu gods called Vishnu. So, we do have specific days of sowing the basil seed, planting the basil plant, and its marriage day. Those rituals remind me to pay respect to the plants, not only basil. Also, I celebrate the five days festival called Tihar (this is also called Diwali) that offers respect to the animals like dogs, oxen, cows and it is also called the festival of lights. I lit oil lamps in the evenings for three days on my stairs, windows, doors, during this festival. Australia has made me more aware of our cultural knowledge and simplistic organic lifestyles that are still practised in our rural villages. I would definitely do something for the perseverance of our cultural heritage when I return to Nepal.

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