Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Community and the Subaltern

During our second week at 6th Mile, one of the boarders, James, invited me to go to his house in a nearby village. Now, I assumed that the term village was being used loosely, and that he was simply referring to a small cluster of houses alongside the same road that brings you to the Gandhi Ashram. As you all must know, I was quite wrong. As we trekked through the woods, I realized that we were actually walking along a road that was in the middle of being constructed. James tapped my shoulder (I had not glanced up in a while, for fear I might trip and tumble down the mountain) and pointed out some of the men and women working on the construction of the road. “That is my uncle, this one is my aunt,” it seemed that James was related in some way or another to the entire crew. He then informed me that each laborer receives 60 rupees a day for their backbreaking work. I was stunned. How was it possible to sustain oneself, let alone a family on such a wage? James, still smiling, simply dragged me along to the next precarious bamboo bridge so that we would make it back to school before sundown. My time with James made me think a lot about Chakrabarty’s article. What does it mean to belong to the subaltern? If a social group is completely ignored by greater society, what are the methods it must employ in order to cope with their neglect? One strategy quickly became obvious to me—the communities to which our students belonged were cohesive units. More specifically, they were kinship-based villages where nearly every member could be traced as a relative to someone else. What a wonderful way to empower a social group! Because the villages operated, in many ways, independent of the mainstream economy of the area, it had to find its own ways to ensure that every individual has a role. As a result, the outsider notices a certain form of communalism in the villages. If houses concentrate on the production of a certain crop, they can produce more. So, houses specialize, and when the time comes to enjoy the products of their labors, they share between households. I saw this as a way that communities can take what Chakrabarty shed such a negative light on and transform it into a way to create solidarity within a community. If the villagers in the area were discouraged about their exclusion from Indian history and society, it didn’t show on their faces. What did show was that the Nepali villagers were empowered—their identities strengthened—by their need to work together to self-sustain in the face of social, political and economic neglect. Humor also played a role in providing our students with motivation and excitement. I found that some students even joked about things that made me extremely uncomfortable—perhaps in doing so, it made them feel more at ease with difficult issues. One example of this is when two second grade girls came up to me and started inspecting my hands. After a good look, they turned to me and yelled, “You clean, me dirty!” Now, I don’t really know the way race is perceived in the Himalayas, but I felt like I was entering dangerous waters. I told them that I didn’t think they were right, that I thought that all of our hands were probably pretty dirty. But did I miss the point in trying to correct them? They hadn’t even asked me a question. Chakrabarty might say that their rather blunt comment was simply a strategy that they used to devalue the prejudiced views of the elite class. Perhaps he is correct. Or, maybe they were just having fun.

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