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Knowing Dil Das

Knowing Dil Das: Stories of a Himalayan Hunter

Joseph S. Alter
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Knowing Dil Das
    Book Description:

    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 Das's life. 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 friendship. 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0475-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. Part I. Bal Kand / The Book of Childhood

    • Chapter 1 Dil Das–Enslaved Heart
      (pp. 3-9)

      Dil Das was a poor, low-caste, Himalayan peasant who defined himself, heroically, as a hunter of animals, and as a close friend of the missionary children he hunted with. I knew Dil Das progressively well from the time I was about ten as the son of American missionaries working in North India, until his death in 1986 when I was twenty-nine and he was about sixty.

      Our families go way back, as they say—almost three generations. My grandparents and parents knew Dil Das and his father as dudwallas: men who delivered milk to our community. I knew Dil Das...

    • Chapter 2 Woodstock School: Protestants, Peasants, and Ethics
      (pp. 10-27)

      “School had just reopened, and all of the children had come back up to Mussoorie from the plains where they had been for the winter holidays. Back then there were many sahibs* who came hunting in our jungle, but Ray Smith was different. He was a hunter; a real hunter.”

      “In those days I was young and did not know very much. As I have told you, [Ernie] Campbell was my guru. When I went hunting, it was with his gun, his ammunition, and his planning. I didn’t even know which gun was which. I would just go and pick...

    • Chapter 3 A Tiger’s Tale
      (pp. 28-34)

      There was an old glass-doored bookcase which, at one time, sat on the stairway landing between the first and second floor of our house in Mussoorie. This is around the time when I was fifteen or so; after we had returned to Landour from a year’s furlough in Princeton, after Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and my teacher cried; after I failed fourth grade and, with one giant step for mankind, the eagle landed. It is during the time when my father was principal of Woodstock (1968–1978) and we, as a family, were living in the cottage below...

  5. Part II. Aranya Kand / The Forest Book

    • Chapter 4 Coapman’s Fall
      (pp. 37-66)

      It was late July 1982, and no time to be hunting, but I had set out from my house in the old cantonment at the edge of town for Pathreni, Dil Das’s village, some five kilometers away. Dil Das and I had made arrangements two days earlier to meet at dawn, to be joined later by John Coapman, a local adventurer and businessman, and the night before I had loaded up twenty rounds of ammunition and cleaned my father’s 30/06 Springfield rifle in preparation for the hunt.

      Many years ago, before we sold most of them—a single shot .22,...

    • Chapter 5 Hearts of Darkness
      (pp. 67-82)

      “At that time Coapman—John sahib—was in Delhi with the Coca-Cola Company. Harper was with him. It was November and Campbell was in the Punjab. Where was it now? At Amritsar, I think. At least that is where his elder brother was. What was his name? Ah! I have forgotten! Oh no . . . yes . . . Lauri. That is right, Lauri Campbell.”

      “Anyway, Coapman invited me to come to Delhi. So I went. Early one morning we went duck hunting to a place called Samphla. It was early in the morning and the fog was very...

    • Chapter 6 Land Masters: Purebred History
      (pp. 83-86)

      Dil Das and I had gone over to the garden behind Coapman’s empty house to cut some roses that he wanted to send back up with me to give to my parents at Oakville. It had been many years since the bushes had been pruned, and the flowers seemed to have gone wild, growing big and floppy, having lost all refined qualities except for the richness of their scent. It was here as we cut hybrid roses that Dil Das told me the story of his encounter with the prime minister of Pakistan. He was serious, of course. And for...

  6. Part III. Shram Kand / The Book of Labor

    • Chapter 7 Dairying: An Untold Story
      (pp. 89-115)

      I distinctly remember once while in junior high school earnestly telling my father as we walked along the Tehri road, which ran above our house near the school, that I wanted to take pictures of the dudwallas we met along the way so that I could show them to people in the United States. I also distinctly remember that both the milkmen and those to whom their pictures would be shown could be totally anonymous; their identities did not matter. I had this idea in my head that it was somehow important for people “back home” to understand how people...

    • Chapter 8 Slippage: Out of Work, Through Hunting
      (pp. 116-134)

      “In the hills it is this way: if one does not work, does not graze the cattle, then nothing gets done. When there is only one person alone it is very difficult. I worked. I grazed the cattle and did other work, and slowly I grew up. When I was older, I would walk to Woodstock School where we delivered milk. This was during the time of Mr. Parker. I would carry the load for my father. I worked and worked. On the way home through Jabbarkhet I would stop and pick up supplies. Then I would go and say...

    • Chapter 9 The Terms of Friendship
      (pp. 135-140)

      Daya Ram, a relatively well-to-do Brahmin friend and neighbor, invited Dil Das into his home for a cup of tea. Dil Das chose not to go in, but accepted the gesture of friendship on the neutral ground between two chans, his own and that of the pandits. He also chose to remember the event and recount it as a noteworthy episode in a ghost story, just as he remembered his high-caste neighbor’s words of reassurance after the flood: “He told us to sit and make ourselves comfortable. He knew that our buffaloes had been washed away, and kept saying that...

  7. Part IV. Uttarkhand / Himalaya

    • Chapter 10 The Heart of the Matter
      (pp. 143-164)

      “Are we not men? I mean, I ask you. This ‘jat, pat’ business, this business of caste, is all an artificial construction.”

      “In reality there are only two jats: male and female. It is really a question of what is made different: this, that, and the other thing. Otherwise everything is all just a human construction, nothing more than that.”

      “You see, if I make shoes, I become a mochi [cobbler], and that is OK. But what people don’t understand is that making shoes is a skilled trade. If you make somebody into a chamar [leather worker], into an untouchable,...

    • Chapter 11 A Hybrid History of Encounter
      (pp. 165-176)

      As a primary mode of anthropological writing, ethnography has come increasingly under attack. For all its value as a means by which to challenge the pretense of Western civilization, it is a problematic genre that has tended to essentialize truth. The difficulty is, in essence, a question of representation. How can one convey the meaningfulness of difference without reifying the nature of that difference? In addressing this question my own perspective on Dil Das’s life has been oriented most clearly by the work of Paul Rabinow, Vincent Crapanzano, and others who have taken a critical, reflexive, interpretive approach to the...

  8. Glossary
    (pp. 177-184)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 185-186)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 187-188)
  11. Index
    (pp. 189-193)