I was in 4th grade the first time I heard the word “caste.” My family is Indian on my dad’s side, and American on my mom’s, and since I have lived in the U.S. all my life, the vernacular associated with my Indian side is pretty much non-existent. So, when my teachers asked me and two other Indian students to present on our culture, I got a little bit anxious. I couldn’t (still can’t) pronounce words in Hindi as my two classmates could. I didn’t (still don’t) go to India every summer. My mom is also white, so there was that too. Right before the presentation, one of the kids presenting pulled me and the other presenter aside, and began to whisper frantically: “Don’t talk about the caste system! Whatever you do, don’t talk about it. Got it?” I nodded mutely. I had absolutely no idea what the caste system was. I shrugged it off in that signature little-kid way, assuming it was something really obscure. However, in the presentation, the same kid who had urged me and my classmate to avoid the subject, spoke up, talking a mile a minute: “Oh and also there’s this thing called the caste system and my family are Brahmans that’s the highest one. But obviously it doesn’t matter because everyone is equal. Obviously.” The kid gulped. He had probably heard the same note of pride in his voice that I had. I could see the struggle between pride and recognition on my friend’s face. When I finally asked my mom what the caste system was, I thought that this incident said more about my classmate’s personality than the nature of the caste system, but as I learn more about castes here in Nepal, I’m starting to change my mind.
Although the caste system in Nepal has been abolished, I have still been asked about my caste. After being asked a few times, I started to get curious. If the caste system harms more people than it helps, why are people so desperate to hold onto it? I have heard the refrain “it is so embedded in society that it is impossible to really abolish” over and over. While this explanation is totally accurate, I think it is only half the story. The other half is human nature. Think about capitalist ideology, or racism. It works because there is (almost) always someone lower down on the ladder than you. However wrong, we are validated just a little bit. For example, in the U.S. there are countless marginalized groups. If all of said groups came together, they would have the political power. But they don’t. Instead we see marginalized groups turn against one another. Why? It is so much easier to fit into the system, taking our wins, however small, than risking our positions for no status at all. The other part of human nature at play here is our visceral need for organization and classification. When we meet someone for the first time, before we even realize it, we are drinking in everything about them, processing, and then organizing them into our minds. They fit like a puzzle piece that we have created, in a puzzle that we have also created. In other words: we decide who people are and how they fit into the world. Similarly, this need to orient the world around us applies to the Caste system too.
Take this same situation: you are meeting someone for the first time. Have you ever caught yourself making a judgment about someone else that also applies to you? If you have caught yourself, you are in the minority. Of course, any time we make a judgement about anyone else, we should stop to consider how it reflects on us. America, unsurprisingly, has a habit of hypocritical judgement. We don’t hesitate to reprimand other places and cultures for doing things that we ourselves also do. It’s not that these things aren’t wrong or shouldn’t be stopped, but rather we should also be transparent about our shortcomings. The caste system is a perfect example of this phenomenon. We denounce the caste system in Nepal and India, and yet we have our own, less official but equally effective, classification systems of our own. We claim that the “American Dream” overrides class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, yet we have only had one black president, no openly LGBTQ+, Jewish, Muslim, or female presidents. We learned in a History of Nepal lecture that a family called the Rana family ruled Nepal. Although they have since been thrown out officially, they still hold positions of power. This story sounds eerily similar to the ones we have heard about America and the Western world. Our caste system is no less pervasive than that of India or Nepal, so respectively, it should get no less attention.
A few weeks before I left for Nepal, I was sitting on a bench at school with my friend, the same one who talked about the caste system in our presentation way back in 4th grade. It was late spring and all the cherry blossom trees around campus had bloomed. I was hesitant to bring up a contentious topic on such a nice day, but I decided to take the opportunity. I asked him if he remembered our 4th grade presentation, and how he brought up the caste system. He replied that he most certainly did not. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I have no real way of knowing whether he told me the truth. Whether he actually forgot or only wanted to forget, the impact is the same. The caste system, in India, America, Nepal, or England, is a topic we would rather sweep under the rug.
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