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A touch of caste colours a Himalayan trek

Hierarchies exist everywhere. Not just in the playgrounds of humans. They’re just seemingly part of nature. Just ask the alpha-gorilla at my local doughnut shop. He’s got a thing or two to say about the last French crueller on the shelf. A very persuasive doctor of rhetoric, I might add, with effective exclamation marks drummed out by vigorous fist-thumping on his mighty chest.

This isn’t to say, on the various ladders all gorillas and humans alike will bump up against in their knuckle-dragging through life’s forest, that there isn’t some cooperation, too. There is. Just ask the brown-headed cowbirds who, having better things to do, lay their eggs in our laundry hamper. We happily raise their young for them. And what’s the quid pro quo? Well, simply put, we need the eggs if not the love. It’s the least we could do. After all, we’re all part of planet Earth’s larger family below or beyond or up in the trees, right?

Very classy on our part, you might say. And by you, I don’t mean Karl (Marx) of course. Or the other Carl (Linnaeus). I think Carl Philipp (second son of J.S. Bach) could be more appropriate. Even if he perhaps wasn’t as classy as us, he was undeniably classical.

And in India, while caste is certainly not classy, it is without doubt classical in its broadest sense. The symphonic sweep of cultural history, its space-time signatures of social stratification through its main varnas (categories): Brahmins (priests/scholars), Kshatriyas (soldiers/political leaders), Vaishyas (business merchants/artisans/agriculturalists), Shudras (laborers). And the accepted, if not acceptable, concerto-lists of sub-caste and all the complex counterpoints of specialized metier and skin tone therein.

You might say that, given the weight of all those lasting resonances, much of this repertoire has been baked in. So much so that, despite the heavy odds against breaking out of classical modes of being, the skin-lightening industry in India— with its face washes, its creams, its deodorants, even its vaginal whiteners—is purportedly valued at around 270 billion rupees ($4 billion). As with most things human, just like the imagination can be used for positive or negative purposes, so too with music. And we haven’t even begun to touch upon the untouchable.

Untouchability is quite beyond comprehension even, I would assume, to the most culturally sensitive of travelers. What can be more consoling and compassionate, more loving, than a touch? And for an entire group of people from birth to be seen not simply unworthy of that human consideration from others in other well-defined, exclusive groups but, worse, polluting of those others? And this is justified in terms of social stability, that is, knowing one’s place? The power hierarchy is clear. In its severest manifestations, it is said that an untouchable should be proscribed from even walking in the shadow of a Brahmin. As we all know, there are shadows, and then there are shadows.

Gandhi, a privileged Brahmin himself and defender of the Hindu-caste status quo, called them Harijan (children of god). Dr. Ambedkar, as a political leader and thinker, and a so-called untouchable himself, thought that that nice song, like many things, masked the reality of their exclusion, that the Dalits were just that– “broken,” “oppressed.” He believed in cooperation to get things done, but also knew confrontation was inevitable if you wanted to change a “sacred” score millennia old. Hierarchies do not die or erode or transform easily. As humans with some of our special skills engendered from our capacity to learn, adapt and innovate, we can sometimes, when committed, make a transition less painful. But often not. We can expect much, but we’re an unpredictable lot. Or so it seems in the heat of the moment. Given the overall record, however, maybe it’s actually better to say that we’re very predictable indeed. With his death in 1956, Dr. Ambedkar had to leave to others that struggle to change a system of exclusion. And it continues to this day.

Privileged Westerners– especially if they’re paying attention and also reading some history– can say much about hierarchies of oppression. Colonialism in India alone has filled libraries with its tomes. Perhaps, in part, that’s because its practices of exclusion have rivalled or surpassed domestic ones on the ground. Christianity itself, the dominant legitimizing ideology, while theoretically non-hierarchical for all believers, without question concerned itself with power in the more gritty, day-to-day world of Christians, but especially the excluded “unsaved” communities of non-believers. Just ask any pope, crusading prince, or father with a disturbingly flirtatious eyebrow.

Being excluded, as many of us know, doesn’t feel good, to put it mildly. But it’s probably still very fair to say that, on the bitter menu of hierarchies, there’s a hierarchy of exclusion as well. My not getting that last French crueller hurts, it does; even more when that domineering beast blows doughnut-dust in my face. But my so-called suffering isn’t on the same devastating level as the frontline doughnut-baker who can’t even aspire to manage or own the shop because of the “accident” of her birth.

The accident of my own birth has given me many advantages in the human-made world, if not in the way of exclusively leisured, country-club living, certainly in terms of opportunity. I’m grateful, as anyone of sound mind would be. While I may not be to blame for those given opportunities ensuing from the geo-social “accident” of my genesis, I’m certainly responsible for what I do or don’t do with them. But what about other accidents, especially in the context of living or traveling in another country like India where the opportunities for cultural challenge or clash are rife?

One of my most memorable occurred during a walking trek in the Great Himalayan National Park. Located in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, the park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It wasn’t when I was there. Preserving floral and faunal heritage is vital. Lest we forgot, we’re part of the faunal. Some of us, however, existing in a more vegetative state– just look at Mr. Trump –appear to be more floral. But dare I ask: are all aspects of our cultural heritages worthy of preservation?

Hold that thought while I argue that all rivers are “holy.” Okay, more of an assertion than an argument. Rivers in India, however, flow or fall into a hierarchy of holiness. I’ve been to Varanasi and in Haridwar with summer yatris (pilgrims) for their divine dunk in the Ganga. Its confluence with the Yamuna is not too far away in Allahabad. I’ve also walked the banks of the Indus in Ladakh. The glacial Tirthan, while godly (or goddessly?) in many respects– I’ve been told the word actually means “sacred place”– does not rank high on the list, certainly not one of the holiest sapta sindhava (seven rivers). But a cleansing ritual in some pools formed by car-sized erratics near the banks of its charging waters is a good thing, perhaps more than one realizes.

I came here to visit friends and be immersed in the majestic beauty of part of India’s Himalaya with its peaks in this region ranging from 1500 to 6000 meters. And walking through forests of spruce, blue pine, deodhar (cedar) and fir, or through flowering meadows protected by the bulk of horse chestnuts or oak, the beauty is magnificently there. And for every shy snow leopard not seen, there is the bharal or blue sheep. For every endangered Western tragopan (a type of pheasant) missed, there are the white-capped, water redstarts puttering around streams.

For every hunted-out musk deer not smelled, there is the aroma of black-bear scat thankfully some distance from your tent. Add in things like the restorative sound textures of wind through the higher conifers or lower viburnum, juniper, and grasses, or the arresting colours of dwarf rhododendron or bell heather, or the ache from vistas on geologic titans with snow on their crowns and shoulders, or the rush of gem-like sparkle on the river’s surface when crossing some dodgy, makeshift bridge in morning sunlight. Add them in as you will, and the sum of their beauty will match or exceed their beautiful parts. But, as with life and death itself, or love and hate, or Cher and Sonny, beauty must also have its ugliness.

Mine arrived one evening around our camp fire. It was a perfect spot to settle into after a full day of walking. A clear sky above with the crush of stars reminding us of the contrast between their grandeur and our insignificance. A little chillier as night approached, but nothing a good fire couldn’t chase away. Some flat rocks commandeered as stools and chef tables were just right with a feeder stream not too distant for our water supply.

With four of us, three got down to the very serious work of dhal and chai prep. Shiva– the cousin of a friend of my friends and, as a local best familiar with the park, our guide –began to prepare the chapatis. It made sense. For all of us. Despite even my one friend’s experience– she having resided the longest in India– none of us could come close to Shiva’s efficient artistry with the dough and the flame.

But sometimes the dough falls apart. Accidents happen. And then what? Who gets burned?

I don’t claim any special powers for understanding many of the intricacies of interactions in Indian Hindu culture, let alone those occurring in humanity generally. It’s often tough. Or not. It’s certainly mystifying at times. Or not. It’s dismaying in moments, perhaps unleashing indignation. Or not. Especially to an outsider. And I think most Westerners who have lived in India know that they will always remain outsiders. Always a firangi (foreigner) even around the camp fire?

Everything had been fine for the first round of generous helpings of dhal from the communal pot. It felt good. There was connection with each other, with the cracking fire, and the rest of our alpine surroundings. Our laughter often reinforced that. Everyone had in some way contributed their labor to a simple meal that tasted like an outdoor feast in this wondrous natural setting. But wondrous things are fragile, aren’t they? From one second to the next, something can be lost. Forget your walk anywhere, let alone to the spring source of sacred waters. It’s as if you’d just stepped too far out into the roaring Tirthan River itself, and you’re swept away for good.

It appeared to be a trivial thing that changed everything. A ladle. Or rather my use of the ladle. My dreaded accident? When initiating second helpings of the delicious dhal, I apparently had touched the ladle to my bowl as well as to Shiva’s. Despite our preceding collective preparation of the dinner, this seemingly innocuous event had somehow tainted the meal or, at least, his meal and, as such, he could no longer eat. I, as a firangi, had been a source of pollution to the Brahmin.

Needless to say, at minimum, it was not a pleasant position to be put into. And it was only exacerbated by the excessively misplaced judgmental response of one of my friends. I’m a fairly weathered traveler driven out of curiosity, respect, and humility to do the required cultural homework, so to speak. But I also think that respect should demand a certain decent level of reciprocity. I don’t think that is asking too much. That said, I will never subscribe to the view that, in whatever the context, respect, in human behaviour or affairs, is necessarily worthy of all things. Acting as Shiva’s prosecutorial champion, my fellow-walker, given her troublingly scornful attitude and scolding words which characterized me as the “problem,” would obviously disagree.

Up until then, the river just continued being the river. It is what it is. Such power but such flexibility, too. But suddenly, the reassuring, steady sound of its monochrome music in the night seemed to turn plaintive, urging us all down for our needed cleansing. I can prepare the fire and the dhal, but one touch of my bowl to his, through a ladle no less, and a transference of my own, I guess, inherent toxicity occurs. One touch. But a very far reach. Accidental maybe, but way too waywardly noxious.

And not very classy at all. The arch-nemesis of Vishnu or the other Shiva or, for that matter, Superman would be jealous: they ain’t got nothin’ on my lethal powers.

D.B. Goman is a writer, traveler, educator and photographer. His poems, stories, and essays have been published in a variety of print and on-line journals including Ditch, Quarry, Eye Magazine, 2River View, Jones Av., Outside In Literary Travel Magazine, The Literary Bohemian, 2 Bridges Review, Travel Itch, and New Verse News. A collection of poems is awaiting a post-pandemic launch. Also, a YA novel (a nature adventure) will be forthcoming this year.

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