Ramblings of a 'thimaha" who belongs neither here nor there
My identity has been of much interest to strangers for the better part of my life. It ranges from fairly innocent observation like ‘your face looks like something else, but your surname suggests something else why is that?’ to something like ‘in our village a ‘mixcut’ person like you would neither be accepted to father’s home nor be welcomed to mother’s side’ to a much sinister allegation I encountered in a recent job interview like ‘are you sure you are not Bahun, because there are Bahuns who pretend to be indigenous to claim gains and facilities’. While none of these statements have really scarred me, they always leave me a bit annoyed. However, more often than not, I am claimed as their own by both Bahun and Gharti communities as their own due to which I have a soft spot for both communities. But my experiences are my own and that comes from being an inter-caste person; my identity comes from both the caste but is separate from either of the caste. And even as common inter-caste people are in the Nepali society, our existence is neither acknowledged by the general society nor by the legal framework.
In Nepali society, a child of the inter-caste marriage is often termed as ‘thimaha’ which loosely translates as ‘hybrid’ or ‘of different sects’. Nevertheless, following the dictates of patriarchy, the essence of hybridity is lost as the s/he will take on the father’s surname. The offspring becomes a member of the father’s community even though in many cases, as in my own experience, see the major influence of the mother’s community’s culture in that child’s everyday life. I do not claim inter-caste child or his/her experience is homogenous but, in many cases, the child is considered impure especially when a ‘high caste man’ marries a ‘low caste woman’ and may even be ousted. Likewise, the child might also not have a very amicable ‘mamaghar‘ or have it after much contention. Whilst these incidents are loosening their severity (thank humanity!!) in any case, the experiences of the child will not be comparable to the experience of say a ‘purebred’. And whatever might the surname imply, these experiences of ‘thimaha’ will also shape their place in the wider society for better or for worse. Hence, I am most comfortable being called an inter-caste and do not claim alliance with any of my parent’s castes. Strictly speaking for me, while I come from both, I am neither and I wish to be acknowledged as such and wish the legal framework would also support that.
The legal arrangements and even the better part of society assume (or rather pretend) that the caste system is linear and homogenous and tries to reinforce the myth of purity of caste. Anthropologists have long questioned the supposed immobility and homogeneity of the caste system. The expansion of some caste like Chettri community due to caste mobility, the existence of the same surname ( eg. Gharti) in more than one community, the diversity in the physical appearance of people in the same caste, evidence of adaptation of caste to geographical and economical needs and a general common sense in Nepali society, all speak volume on the myth of caste purity and flexibility of caste system. But the defenders of caste and racial purity on either side are hell-bent on proclaiming caste as a homogenous, immobile inflexible practice which the legal arrangement in Nepal vouches for.
In Nepali society offspring of inter-caste marriage are often derogatorily termed ‘khacchar‘ or mule. Mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey but is sterile and cannot produce the next generation of mules. I often find it an apt comparison to how the Nepali society or the legal framework sees an inter-caste person. Under Nepali norms and the ensuing legal arrangements, we are forced to take the father’s caste or on rare occasions, the mother’s caste. In either case, we are taking an identity that is not fully ours. Our identity that is engendered from both but is something completely different from both castes is lost. We cannot enter the next generation with a unique identity and thus our identity remains sterile and lost, much like the mule’s.
I happily believe that my ‘tribe’ is expanding and that my tribe is a necessary solution to the centuries of segregation, marginalization and oppression. And it is not like we are the product of ‘modernity’ or ‘new Nepal’ we have always existed throughout history, even under state-led sanctions like Muluki Ain. And as our number is growing rather, becoming more visible, so is the growing discontent with the state’s classification of Bahun, Chettri, Adivasi Janajati, Dalit, Madhesi, and others and the associated ‘facilities.’ The discontent is real. It has invited many arguments stating a person from a privileged background from \ a minority community has claimed so and so ‘favour’ or that a ’high caste’ woman has claimed something on the ground of being married to a person from a reserved quota for a minority community. I think if the rules of the game are flawed there is no point in blaming the players; if the legal framework does not recognize heterogeneity, it will favour the privileged.
So, what can be done? I don’t know. However, I do believe uncomfortable conversations need to start. As the times are changing you cannot continue to ignore my tribe. We are forcing you to think, to wake up to challenges that have always existed but are now growing to a level that has the potential to redefine Nepali society. We are here and we are the pea in the princess’s mattress. We are the inconvenient truth that everyone sees yet turns a blind eye to. And if Nepal truly wants to embrace the principle of inclusion, it has to acknowledge heterogeneity including but not limited to the practice of inter-caste marriages and their offspring, socio-political privilege, and economic and geographical advantage. How? Well, let’s talk about it…….
PhD | Sitapaila-4, Kathmandu Nepal
Isha Gharti, PhD is an avid researcher with a keen interest in the study of social movement, democracy, political parties, human rights and religious extremism. She is an art and culture enthusiast and also advocates for mental and spiritual health and well-being.