18 May, 2010

Purity and Danger

Kathmandu Post, May 16, 2010

Mary Douglas was a social anthropologist who came up with an interesting insight into human culture. In her book “Purity and Danger,” Mary Douglas looks at the idea of dirt. What is dirt in one culture may not be in another, she says. Dirt, therefore, is anything that a given society considers out of place. Ideas of pollution, she says, is contextual — it depends upon the society one is living in. One cannot therefore understand dirt without understanding the social history of a place and the people.

Recently there has been a surge of interest in the usage of the phrases “sukila mukila” (clean and well-laundered) and “mailo dhailo” (unwashed and ragged) after its usage in a well-publicised moment by chairman Prachanda. I missed the moment, but in recountings I’ve heard intellectuals, writers, and artists of the Kathmandu Valley were described as clean, whereas the protesters who arrived from the villagers were described as unwashed and dirty. Apparently the sentence was used in an unguarded moment, and to express a sense of disappointment in the urban-rural divide felt during the protest.

Now undoubtedly there is some logic to this argument — the people of Kathmandu surely, despite water shortages, have a lot more access to bathing and laundering facilities than many protesters who braved the cold and wet to sleep on the streets. And anybody who’s camped out for a few days (let alone 8) knows that body odours accumulate very quickly in the absence of a shower or a bath. And in terms of worn-out clothes: even those city dwellers who grew up in the 1970s, like me, remember that clothes were not that affordable, or easy to replace, even a few decades ago. It is only with the influx of cheap Chinese readymade garments five or six years ago that clothing has been easily available in Kathmandu.

But there seems to be a larger argument here: one that seems intent on following the logic of a rural-urban divide, and one which sees the rural as the locus of the outside, while the city is seen as the symbol of the inner circle, inhabited by clean and possibly unfeeling people whereas the dirty and possibly more moral people beat down the city walls.

The boundaries of dirt, says Douglas, is also a symbol of a boundary — one which keeps people in or out of ritual and sacred space. Now the Maoists are very fond of these ideas of boundaries — the city, after all, has to be encircled by the countryside, which is seen to be a separate space, and taken over in a symbolic takeover, according to Mao Tse Tung’s classic strategy as outlined in the Red Book. The question is: Is the city as inviolate and as separate as the dichotomy would have us believe? Is the rural world really so far away? Or is the line between the city and the country blurring more and more as Kathmandu, that once impermeable city, has accepted and welcomed millions of new residents within the last ten years? Hasn’t Kathmandu become a melting pot where fully one third of the current residents are new residents from rural areas who have arrived here in the aftermath of the civil conflict? Hasn’t the civil conflict, in fact, ironically, acted to break down the city’s walls and merge the countryside with the city already? Isn’t it a done deal?

Even for those who have lived in the city for a long time, historical memories of “the village”, and of small towns far away from Kathmandu, and of dirt and poverty, are never far away. Although my own family claims a history that stretches back 600 years in the valley, yet we still remember that my mother’s side of the family came from Gorkha, and my paternal great-grandmother came from the beautiful valley of Nalang in Dhading. Nepali families tend to be large, and inevitably there are family members who are poorer than the rest. Thanks to the patriarchal culture of inheritance, many of my great-aunts struggled with poverty throughout their lives — and as children we inherit these memories of poverty that beset our dearest and most loved ones as our own.

My most classic family tale of dirt comes from my maternal great-grandmother. She was a young woman when she was hit with diarrhoea, that now familiar nemesis. The remedy at that time was not to give water — a broken pot, the logic went, would only leak if you put water into it. A logic that incidentally is responsible for the high numbers of dehydration and deaths in the Mid-Western region even now. She survived because she went into the toilet and drank the water there. No doubt in Nepali context the drinking of toilet water would be considered the dirtiest thing possible — but if she hadn’t breached that boundary she wouldn’t have lived, and I wouldn’t have been born to write this tale.

Children pick up on ideas of inside and outside, dirt and cleanliness, purity and impurity, very quickly. In one recent family gathering, a little relative of mine announced he didn’t like one part of his family because they “stank.” It was interesting for me to see how quickly class consciousness arises in the very young, and how important it is to keep breaking down those dichotomies between those who belong, and those who don’t.

There were, sadly, city people who turned up their noses at the protesters who came to the city. One micro-conductor jeered as he saw the crowds: “These folks have come to clean the streets of Kathmandu!” What surprised me was how quickly he’d taken on the role of the city-dweller, and how quickly he used that as a weapon against people who no doubt came from a background similar to his own. But there were also many urban and hip city people who went to support the protesters, and expressed compassion and empathy. These folks, they said, are not that different from us. Their struggle mirrors our own. We are part of this historical struggle.

The key, it seems, is to break down the boundaries — so that idea of dirt and cleanliness, urban and rural, the periphery and the centre, vanish completely. The key, it seems, is to keep engaging until we all find common ground.

(Sushma Joshi has a MA in cultural anthropology from the New School for Social Research, New York)


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