Being, Becoming, Belonging: The Paradox of Identity and Mental Suffering among Nepal’s Dalits
To research and write about Nepal’s Dalits is an academic challenge and personal frustration. The project demands much in the way of getting one’s “voice” heard, a task that also confronts Dalit people themselves. While there might appear to be attention paid to the variety of Dalit causes, the causes, goals and associated traits and processes are more often put forth by more powerful people than Dalits themselves, leaving their opinions unheard, ignored, dismissed and misinterpreted. Why is it the case that in a time when transitions from old to new, local to global, and an ideology of hierarchy to one of equality, Dalits still struggle for clear recognition that they are not only unequal to others but that their inferior status is denied? It is not so important that these and a plethora of similar, related questions consume me. But it is important that they matter to Dalits at all levels and in all circumstances.
At a time when anthropologists and other social scientists are concerned with deep questions related to being or becoming a member of an identity group and understanding what it means to belong to one, these questions grow ever much more elusive when attempting to understand these mental/emotional processes for Dalits. Given their simultaneously amorphous and clear status – we debate about who exactly is a Dalit but (should) understand that a Dalit is clearly confronted with abject inferiority relative to others – Dalits find themselves in social, political and economic statuses that abound with paradox, which propels them toward a seemingly perpetual liminal status. As many a Dalit might say, “Ke garne, ta?”
The number of possible answers might be unwieldy but I begin with the somewhat scientific response that before we know what to do, we need to know what we are dealing with. The descriptive ethnography of past generations of anthropologists largely bypassed Nepal’s Dalits. So did any serious historical inquiry. Until recently, Dalits failed to register on the radar screens of political science, environmental science, medical science and so on. Historically lacking access to education meant that Dalits were also barred from the social, political and economic positions from which they could gain visibility.
In this paper, I trace some links between these ambivalences and the fluid historical and situational relationship between mental suffering and being of (also becoming and belonging to) Dalit identity. I further explore how disruptive processes, like earthquakes, affect that relationship by comparing the situation for Dalits in Lamjung to their High Caste and Gurung counterparts. I will draw on extensive qualitative and quantitative data collected from two NSF-funded projects stretching from 2012 to 2015, illustrating to some degree the changing nature of mental suffering and the social, political and economic cauldron of forces that aid in explaining mental health among Nepal’s Dalits.