Around the age of eight or ten, I asked a Hindu priest what caste people were if they didn’t have a designated label, as in the case of Christians, Muslims, and all the people in other countries. He said that all those “others” would be “mlekshas.” In the old days, this term, derived from “malechh,” referred to those who don’t know Sanskrit or those who are unclean or unholy. That evening, I also learned that my parents, who were Brahmins, used the word for “anyone who is not a part of the Brahmanic relationship to the divine.” So I asked them this: “What if those ‘others’ say the same thing about us?” This time, instead of an answer, I got a straightforward order to shut up.
The above story makes many of us rather uncomfortable even today: as a society, we haven’t come out of those woods yet. The confusion like my parents’ about how to place ourselves on the world’s social map (understandable then), as well as the xenophobia and bigotry like that of the priest (not any more), are all alive and well today. We know that we are not the superior Brahmins, Hindus, etc., in the entire world as my parents would have it and as per the kind of warped thinking that the priest represented (and still does). We daily interact with people from and in the rest of the world, including our own friends/families, and it is time to get over the xenophobia that is built into where we see ourselves in the world.
Then there is the other dimension of the confusion. The mass exodus of Nepalis that was prompted by the near civil war and political fiascos of the past two decades has made Nepali (and, symbolically, Nepal) virtually a global community. And many seem confused about who are “our own” and who are not as a result, not to mention that the dispersal of Nepalese around the world also uncovers the many and ugly terms of othering the rest of the world that preceded and still accompanies this dispersal. In a striking case of othering based on nation and culture, I often hear Nepalis living abroad describing locals there in derogatory terms, even when it comes to individuals (such as teachers) they would refer to respectfully back home or if the person is Nepali by origin.
Nationalism (coupled with culture-based jingoism) remains a common frontier of bigotry in many parts o the world. When I first came to the US, I was shocked by the xenophobia on certain fronts here as well. Even those who were quickly disturbed by racism, discrimination, and even nonchalance toward injustice within their own national/cultural borders were not upset by exactly the same things when those problems occurred abroad, especially in the global peripheries.
What is worse, these good and sensitive individuals were not similarly worried when their own nation caused violence and injustice abroad, deliberately or not. Some found justifications, others argued that unequal geopolitical power and its consequences are inevitable, yet others refused to learn about issues out there altogether. They seemed to have parallel universes of justice and common sense for their own and the “others,” their version of “mlekshas.”
Distance does make any human less sensitive, but I started realizing how nation-based, exclusionary thinking can affect even people and societies that seem otherwise more sensitive and informed than we were about the rest of the world. Xenophobic worldview seems to cancel out the ability to apply the basic principle of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It corrupts the ability to imagine being on the receiving end of domination or injustice.
In a world like that, where common sense itself is shaped in exclusionary terms left and right (ours and others), what happens when our own become “other”? For instance, how do we view the new generation of “Nepalis” born around the world? What if “our own” seem to embrace the values of others or seem to impose others’ values upon our society and thinking? What about expatriates (“defectors,” who strike a tender nerve) on social media discussing local issues? I’ve seen people tell others to shut up because they “think” the latter are advocating for mlekshas’ value systems, ignoring the issues.
Certainly, it is easy for those of us who stay abroad to misunderstand the situation on the ground. But it is not necessary to silence us either; it should be oaky to participate in conversations and learn, to make mistakes while contributing something. We are more connected, and that creates opportunities (as well as needs) to participate and contribute. Alienating those who don’t have the same experiences doesn’t help anyone.
So, even in the globalized Nepali community, the condition still abounds where people can xenophobically attack anyone they don’t agree with by saying that the latter aren’t “one of us” or aren’t supporting “our cause”—without addressing who is “us” in the first place. Until it is convenient for the “us,” until the victim starts asking for their rights, they may look and sound nice and kind to everyone. It is when rights are demanded, injustices exposed, status quo challenged that they react with their true colors, dismissing underlying causes, evading complexities.
What were universal values of human dignity quickly become “Western” ideas, what were common sense conditions of democracy are suspended for the sake of fake narratives and absurd logic. False analogies start flying around, with emotional reactions thrown in for good measure. For instance, the fact that American Presidents have had to be Christians (an unfortunate destruction of the secularist principle of democracy in the US constitution) becomes a justification for constitutionally enshrining Hindutwa in Nepal. Mothers cannot be trusted as guardians for their own children because, well, mlekshas taking our sisters. “History” is whatever time frame one chooses to use, picking the most convenient (if not false) periods or facts. The very conversation about how the mainstream has been suppressing and oppressing minorities becomes a “radical” discourse that needs to be “toned down” or sanitized.
It is time that we got off the comfort zone of selective arguments: that zone is too often false and the arguments too often intellectually insensitive if not dishonest as well. Facing the uncomfortable will help us with issues like rights and dignity in the constitution being drafted, helping chart the course of the society for a long time. Doing so will help us think more about “them” than about “us.” The boundaries between the nation and the world have blurred greatly, and it is time to recognize consequent fluidities about who is “us” in relation to the world as well. This is a time to give. Similarly, issues like who we are in the global village can only be addressed if we define ourselves in relation to, and not in exclusion from or of, the rest of humanity.
It is time that we learned how to answer our children’s questions more thoughtfully and honestly: “Honey, that is a terrible word and we should stop using it.”