Dil Das was a poor farmer-an untouchable-living near Mussoorie,
a colonial hill station in the Himalayas. As a boy he became
acquainted with a number of American missionary children attending
a boarding school in town and, over the years, developed close
friendships with them and, eventually, with their sons. The basis
for these friendships was a common passion for hunting. This
passion and the friendships it made possible came to dominate Dil
When Joseph S. Alter, one of the boys who had hunted with Dil Das,
became an adult and a scholar, he set out to write the life history
of Dil Das as a way of exploring Garhwali peasant culture. But
Alter found his friend uninterested in talking about traditional
ethnographic subjects, such as community life, family, or work.
Instead, Dil Das spoke almost exclusively about hunting with his
American friends-telling endless tales about friendship and hunting
that seemed to have nothing to do with peasant culture.
When Dil Das died in 1986, Alter put the project away. Years later,
he began rereading Dil Das's stories, this time from a completely
new perspective. Instead of looking for information about peasant
culture, he was able to see that Dil Das was talking against
culture. From this viewpoint Dil Das's narrative made sense for
precisely those reasons that had earlier seemed to render it
useless-his apparent indifference toward details of everyday life,
his obsession with hunting, and, above all, his celebration of
To a degree in fact, but most significantly in Dil Das's memory,
hunting served to merge his and the missionary boys' identities
and, thereby, to supersede and render irrelevant all differences of
class, caste, and nationality. For Dil Das the intimate experience
of hunting together radically decentered the prevailing structure
of power and enabled him to redefine himself outside the framework
of normal social classification.
Thus, Knowing Dil Das is not about peasant culture but
about the limits of culture and history. And it is about the moral
ambiguity of writing and living in a field of power where, despite
intimacy, self and other are unequal.
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