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So Close Yet So Far: Being a Nepali in India

When I first moved to India to study at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University over 17 years ago, I was struck by the strange questions fellow students asked me. “Do you have microwaves or cars in Nepal”? “Have you climbed Mount Everest?” I often answered them in good humor, though irritated by their lack of basic knowledge about my country. “No, we cook by collecting wood and lighting a fire and use horses to commute.” “And yes, I have climbed it. My middle name, by the way, is Norgay!” The part of the reason behind the ignorance might be the lack of such education in school curriculums, even their limited exposure, or just generalizations. I was often left to deal with stereotypes regarding Nepalis and Nepal.

Frequently, I came across several advertisements on television and books by Indian authors typecasting Nepalis. The e-commerce portal Flipkart’s advertisement in 2016 that outraged the Nepali community in India did not fail to label Nepalis as security guards once more. Aravind Adiga and Kiran Desai, in their award-winning novels White Tiger and The Inheritance of Loss, have painted a negative stereotypical picture of Nepalis. In Adiga’s book, Nepali men have been relegated to being “slant-eyed” security guards and women to prostitutes who are “really good-looking: very light-skinned and with those Chinese eyes that just drive us Indian men mad”.

Interestingly, people often thought I was Indian, as I often heard Indians saying that I do not quite look like a Nepali. They assumed that all Nepalis looked the same, or had mongoloid features. One of the reasons for creating such a stereotypical image of Nepalis being their encounters with a large number of Nepalis working in India in the informal sector who had similar physical features. They would often mention some faithful domestic help or driver they had. They seem to have met very few of the educated Nepalis in white collar jobs, and even though they might have, this might have invariably been a small number. Besides, most of the Gorkha soldiers that they might have seen or heard about who join the Indian army belong to these ethnic groups from Nepal or Northeast India, having similar physical characteristics. And…oh yes… how can we forget Bollywood’s immortalization of the Nepali watchmen-Bahadur or Gorkha!

In more than a decade that I have lived in India, I often heard people saying Nepal and India are almost like one country, and they should become one. Or, is Nepal a part of India? It was difficult for me to answer them. Their lack of knowledge about Nepal and its history and their inherent prejudices against it bothered me, to say the least.

In a way, it is hard to blame them completely. Nepal and India can, for an outsider, seem so alike. Yet, they are in reality so different in terms of their culture, traditions, and religion. Both countries are multi-cultural, multi-ethnic societies with great linguistic and geographical diversity. Like India, Nepal is a melting pot of different people classified into major ethnic groups: the three distinct ones being the Indo-Nepalese, the Tibeto-Nepalese, and the indigenous Nepalese. Their migration seems to have led to a vertical distribution, with the first group inhabiting the more fertile lower hills, river valleys, and Tarai plains; the second group occupying the higher hills from the west to the east; while the third and much smaller group comprised of a number of tribal communities, such as the Tharus and the Dhimals of the Tarai plains. Some 123 different dialects are spoken as a mother tongue in Nepal. Although the Indo-Nepalese group migrated from India several hundred years ago at a much later stage than the other two groups, they have dominated the country in almost every sphere of life—numerically, socially, politically, and economically—for a very long time due to the advanced formal educational and technological systems they brought with them.

Another key difference between the two countries is Nepal’s unique religious eco-system. Although a majority of people identify themselves as Hindus (the country having a predominant Hindu population), they worship at Buddhists shrines, too. As anyone who has visited Kathmandu and seen its beautiful temples would know, both Hindus and Buddhists have lived in harmony, and the two religions have peacefully co-existed for thousands of years, creating a wonderful syncretic religious culture in Nepal. Since Gautam Buddha, who was born in what is now Lumbini in Nepal, is considered by the Hindus as a reincarnation of Vishnu, Hindus also worship him. There are shrines and temples in Nepal that are places of worship for Hindus as well as Buddhists, and deities which go by Hindu and Buddhist names. There are also some differences in the way some Hindu festivals are celebrated in the two countries.

My initial belief that being in a somewhat similar cultural milieu and understanding the Indian language would make it very easy for me to integrate proved largely inaccurate. Socialization was not easy when I was trying hard to find my feet and reinvent myself in a new city yet retain my connections to Nepal. Adapting and keeping your own cultural identity at the same time is a difficult juggling act. I needed to make that extra effort to make friends. However hard I tried to integrate onto the culture of this new country, the more impossible it seemed. I often felt like suddenly being lifted out of a warm and relaxed environment to face the harshness of a metropolis so overwhelmingly big. Other cities in India might have been easier to live in, but I cannot say the same for Delhi. At every corner, I faced aggression, haggling, frauds, and a sense of insecurity as a woman because of the unsafe environment and surroundings. Sometimes raising your voice often got you by in the city, something that would not work in Nepal.

I missed the familiar smells and sounds of Kathmandu and the festivity in the air during Dashain or Tihar celebrations. Far away from home, I had to celebrate each Nepali festival exactly how I had done in Nepal, or perhaps with even more fervor than I would have done at home. I was trying hard, knowingly or unknowingly, to retain my identity. I often missed my family, friends, and the warm and friendly people I encountered on the streets of Kathmandu every day. I yearned to get a view of the hills from my bedroom window or the snow-capped mountains I spotted when moving around in Kathmandu. And, of course, I craved for all the comfort foods like momos, thukpa, and a Nepali thali, which never tasted the same in a different country. Besides, I was clearly nostalgic for the good weather of moderate temperatures, compared to the extremities in heat and cold of Delhi summers and winters.

I was also frequently asked: “Oh you must know how to make momos, as you must be eating it every day.” I do politely explain that I do not know how to make them, and all Nepalis do not eat it every day. Some of us eat it only on special occasions, or order it at a restaurant when we go out. Again, like the other diversities, even the food habits of the various Nepali communities are entirely different. Since communities are spread over diverse topographies, they tend to eat what they have in abundance in their surroundings, while also naturally adopting their traditional food habits in urban settings, too. The world-famous Sherpas, an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Nepal known for their skills in mountaineering, brought with them their food habits even when they moved to the cities, and would easily remind you of the mountain connection.

Given all these stereotypes, it is not surprising that many Nepali workers in India do not admit to being from Nepal for fear of being mocked and considered “different”. I have run into many of them at takeaways and restaurants, as well as some working in the corporate sector. They usually say they are from the northeast states of India. Now, when people approach me, mistaking me for an Indian, I am not bothered. I have learnt to empathize rather than feel agitated. And, when they ask me if Nepal is in India, I just reply in a nonchalant manner: “It is not. It’s a really beautiful small country right near India, which you might want to go and visit and find out more for yourself.”

Anuja Upadhyay is a Nepali freelance writer, editor, and community development worker living in New Delhi.