Jun 232008
 

By virtue of their backgrounds, many of the poor and dispossessed in any society lack the knowledge to get things done in society. Poverty, as Bordieu and many other social scientists have pointed out, is not just a lack of materials, it is a lack of tools for manipulating society, of knowledge of ‘how things work’
I was reminded once again recently that I am still very new to this country. Checking my bank balance, I found it shockingly lower than I had thought; into the bank I traipsed, my heart sinking. I hate going into the bank.

An hour later, in fact, the problem was resolved. I had written my account number incorrectly on some paying in slips, and the (large) cheques had not been credited to my account. But it was a fraught hour. I sat, stood, enquired, waited; my shoulders hunched, my stomach tense. I had no idea what was happening; if my money would be found; if I had the correct documents; whether I had thrown the correct documents away. I had, as it happened; but the nice ladies in the private ladies section at the back of the bank (to which men are regularly also sent when their requests become difficult) dealt with that too.

In fact, they were pleasant and got the job done, but my instinct was to be suspicious and snappy — upon leaving I felt the need to apologise for my rudeness. It’s simply that I always expect employees in such places to be stuck to bureaucracy with chemical-binding permanence, and to countenance no deviation from the recognised procedures. And since I am a deviation from the recognised procedures, being a foreigner with no NIC card, this is mostly a source of extreme stress and frustration.

And being a foreigner, of course, I don’t understand my role as a customer. On this occasion, after I had signed various documents and returned to my default sitting and waiting, there seemed to be an impasse. My champion in the pink and green dupatta had turned to another customer and was stamping cheques while talking to him. Several minutes passed. Previous experience at the bank had taught me that employees like to deal with several customers at once, so I was patient.

Several more minutes passed. I began to feel distinctly ignored. Eventually I interrupted the conversation going on at the other end of the table to ask ‘if there was anything else I needed to do,’ a polite English way of saying, ‘what the hell is going on?’ “No no,” she replied airily, “we will take care of it.”

Several minutes of much-interrupted questioning later, it emerged that I had been free to leave for the last fifteen minutes. Why did nobody tell me this?!

It’s not, of course, that such things as dealing with banks are any more intractable in Pakistan then anywhere else (well, maybe slightly…). It’s just that I was hitting the old and common factor which blights the experience of anyone ‘out of place’, whether foreigner, social outcast, or simple social misfit: I don’t ‘know the place’.

An anthropologist whose book on returning refugees in Eritrea I once read used this exact formulation to conceptualise their experience: in these simple words lie such a myriad of strains and tensions that it is hard if you haven’t experienced the feeling to realise just how debilitating it can be. The experience of being a refugee must go far beyond the material aspects of loss of family and familiarity, possessions and lands.

The same could even be said of those people of lower caste whom I talked about last week. By virtue of their backgrounds, many of the poor and dispossessed in any society lack the knowledge to get things done in society. Poverty, as Bordieu and many other social scientists have pointed out, is not just a lack of materials, it is a lack of tools for manipulating society, of knowledge of ‘how things work’.

In this light I would like to mention some responses I had to last week’s column. First of all, my thanks to a friend of Mukhtaran Mai for pointing out some errors: the man concerned was her brother, not her uncle, and his ‘elopement’ with a high caste woman was in fact no more than ‘a walk together’.

Finally, I would like to quote the very pertinent comments of a reader from the USA, whose letter highlights the wide-ranging impacts of today’s constantly morphing caste permutations:

“While it is well documented that Muslims (and Jews, Christians and Sikhs) of the subcontinent adopted the caste system of the Hindus in clear violation of their egalitarian theology, it should not be overlooked that long before their contacts with Hindu India, both Jews and Muslims had their own version of the caste system. Muslims divided themselves between and among Quraish, Syeds and what not, and Jews divided themselves between and among Cohens, Levis and Yisarealis. No doubt Hindu India strengthened the stratification among the Muslims, for example between the Ashrafs and the Ajlafs. With each new century, and with every expansion of industrialisation, now comes a new caste mutant. A century ago a Kashmiri lohar could marry only one from the lohar subcaste. Today I am amused to see a physician demanding to marry another physician, or a computer scientist another such scientist. Ms Rolfe, you are right: caste is here to stay. More viciously than ever. And the temples and the mosques in USA are abetting this trend.”

The writer is a staff member at The Friday Times

Source; daily Times, 23/6/2008

 

 Posted by at 8:06 am

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