As I sit here without power in my hotel in Pushkar, Rajasthan, a dust storm blows outside my window. The desert wind howls ferociously with all of its might. Regardless of social position, the storm sends all in its path running for shelter. The natural disaster reminds me of the chaos in Nepal that is not so distant from where I sit now. Nature does not discriminate in the way society does. That is to say, with both the dust storm and the Nepali earthquakes, all in the area of impact are affected. But the extent of the damage is often determined by social structure. In Pushkar, my thick hotel walls seal out the particles of sand flying at high speed. Down the street, locals are not as fortunate as their carts of fruit and hot chapati flip over. In Nepal, the earthquakes damaged older buildings rather severely — those which house the poorest and least politically powerful. Caste then becomes a defining element in the recovery process of Kathmandu and surrounding areas.
In light of the horrific natural disaster, our spring term class becomes particularly relevant. Professors Lubin and Silwal guided our class through research and literature on the current political and economic state of Nepal. More recently, we discussed affirmative action policies and their potential for remedying inequities caused by the caste system. Like most other countries, Nepal faces under-representation of minority groups — most notably the lower castes, women, and non-Hindus — in the political sphere. Reasons for under-representation are diverse. One of interest is the stigmatization of lower castes, a direct result from the lesser purity associated with them. Because lower castes are considered “impure” to some degree, upper castes have traditionally refused to associate with them, either by dining or marriage, in order to retain their purity. A side effect of this discrimination is an internalized understanding of impurity. That is, the lower castes in Nepal may guard the caste system’s boundaries to the same extent as the more advantaged castes. This past week, I saw an example of this as a musician of a lower caste refused to dine with me and my traveling partners. It wasn’t until I realized there was a Brahmin joining us that I understood why the musician refused.
Though the musician seemed content with his decision, the implications of such a decision are far greater than just one dinner. How are minority groups going to be accepted and feel accepted into political and social bodies filled with upper castes? That is where reservation systems, or affirmative action, may help. Such a system ensures representation of oppressed groups in political office and other institutions, such as universities. Reservation systems are often critiqued for a variety of problems. For example, often the most advantaged within a disadvantaged group is able to access reserved seats. Yet despite their possible problems, reservation systems provide a place in society for those identifying with a particular group to voice their concerns. Systems will, over time, naturalize lower castes and other disadvantaged groups in positions of power, so that they may influence policy to alleviate the inequities their group faces. In the case of the Nepalese earthquakes, such a system would allow lower castes living in the dilapidated villages outside of Kathmandu to have a voice in the restructuring process. Though it is hard to tell whether Nepal will implement reservations, issues of caste discrimination and under-representation are of concern, suggesting a more egalitarian future in on the way.
I wake slowly. My eyes blink, resisting the sunlight that streams through my windows. The social network addict in me reaches instinctively for my phone that is lost beneath the covers. Clicking to unlock the screen, I am greeted with text messages and calls from friends. Alarm bells sound as I read the over the concerned words, “Where are you?” and “I’m so sorry. Please tell me you haven’t left yet.” A CNN alert confirms what my professor’s emails say: this morning, there was an earthquake in Nepal and the Spring Term trip has been postponed. My mind runs through a list of expletives as I start to process what this means, laughing out loud unintentionally as I think of how preposterous this is. How could an earthquake hit Nepal the morning of my departure? I cringe at my own selfishness as I look at the pictures of utter terror and debris, a national crisis unfolding on my phone’s screen. My mother walks in as I talk on the phone to my roommate and classmate, Sierra. Our minds scramble as we tackle questions without answers: what would happen to our class?
At that time, we had no idea of how bad the earthquake was. I eagerly packed my bag, thinking our travels would proceed within the week or so. Lexington was just a mere pit stop in our journey to Kathmandu. Yet as the death toll increased and aftershocks took further lives and resources, it became apparent the trip was officially off. The course was to be taught in Lexington. Though our entire class, students and professors included, were indescribably disappointed, we understood the gravity of the situation. Grateful for our own safety and the safety of our Nepalese peers’ families, we began our class and our transition back into Lexington. Our professors worked swiftly and professionally to revamp the syllabus. Guest lecturers and small field trips now bring some of the vibrancy of Nepal to us. For example, Professor Melissa Kerin of the Art History Department at W&L gave us a presentation about the Kathmandu-based Buddhist nuns that we would have visited; her pictures capture the beautiful sand mandalas they create. Further pictures on PowerPoint and descriptions from assigned readings allude to the beautiful Hindu temple in D.C. that we will visit on May 16th. Following an hour in the classroom each day, we spend time outside. Professor Lubin of the Religion Department and Professor Silwal of the Economics Department pick our brains about the readings of the day. Slowly, but surely, we began to dive into the complicated caste system, a world filled with identity politics, economics, and religious tradition.