Friday, September 21, 2012

The Many Aspects of Teej

Kanchi and I had just finished putting on our red saris when a neighbor woman began yelling for Kanchi from the road. The rapid-fire Nepali was incomprehensible to me, but Kanchi spit some phrases back, told me to “Jaum! Jaum! [Go! Go!]” and grabbed a handful of rupees as we sprinted out the door.  Down at the bazaar, we joined a group of women from the community, all dressed in red saris and gold jewelry. Many of the recently married girls had returned to their maternal home to celebrate Teej, a Hindu women’s festival, with their mothers and sisters.

“Where are we going?” I asked Kanchi.

“To Koteshwar [an area of town]; we’ll go there and come right back.”

“Why?” I was rather perplexed: there was no major temple in Koteshwar; weren’t they going to do puja [worship] to Shiva on behalf of their husbands, as the holiday dictated?

She said something about the jhagada [fight] and going to the person it concerned. There had been a disturbance in the village that morning, which Kanchi had just described to me as “jhagada.” I assumed fist-fight and didn’t think about it again. But now it looked like the women of the community were going to show up somewhere and give a person their two cents about whatever the fight had been about—dressed in their red and gold finery not less. They would make a firey sight.  

A few minutes later, the women piled into a bus—young, old, married, unmarried, a few widows, and not a few young boys coming with their mothers—and we made our way to Koteshwar, a large transportation hub on the edge of Kathmandu.

When the bus stopped in front of the Koteshwar police post, my stomach flipped. The women all piled out of the bus and into the police station. I was swept along with the crowd, and steered in specific directions by Kanchi. Soon, the women were yelling various phrases at the police chief standing on the porch, and began to push inward towards the police station office door. I stayed in the back of the crowd, trying to get out of the thick of the movement of people.

As I was unable to understand her answers to my many questions, Kanchi directed me to some of her female relatives who could explain the situation to me in English. “Last night, a woman’s husband beat her,” one young woman explained, “the husband and father-in-law are inside [the jail].” She asked Kanchi, in Nepali, who I was. Kanchi explained that I was the doctor’s daughter, who had diagnosed her son’s disease; as a close family friend, I was here celebrate Teej. “We’re her daughters,” the young woman described her relationship, and the women with whom she was standing, to Kanchi. I assumed she meant nieces, or the wives of Kanchi’s nephews, as Ashok was her only son. “You look very nice in that red sari,” she smiled at me.

Turning the conversation back to the issue at hand, I asked Kanchi why we were here. “Samajko laagi! [for the community!]” was her reply, and looked at me like it should all make sense now. The crowd continued to shout incomprehensible Nepali phrases in unison at the police chief and other officers gathered on the porch.

The crowd was not only made up of women—a number of men had shown up as well. “These are men from [our village]” Kanchi told me, “and from the woman’s maithi [maternal home/village]. We’re all here to support her [sahayog dine ko laagi].” It appeared that it was the woman’s word against those of her in-laws, and the community was there to vouch for the woman. The sea of women in red and gold—many of them in their wedding saris, and all their gold jewelry designating them as married women—made a bright contrast to the overcast day and dreary, muddied police station yard. Raising fists in the air, shouting phrases together, and pushing in on the police, these women made an intimidating force.

There were a few journalists and television reporters present. I did my best to stay out of the cameras’ eyes as they interviewed the woman who had been beaten. The women had all pushed her to the front of the camera, and handed her a bottle of water to drink—all the women present were sitting a complete fast that day; by drinking water, this woman was breaking her fast, and doing her husband a disfavor.

While all that was going on, various women of the community recognized me and came over to talk—when did I get back in Nepal? How long would I be here for? How was my family? And I looked really nice in that red sari, by the way; it really became me.

A number of policemen in blue fatigues began gathering on the upper levels of the police station, watching the crowd and particularly honing in on me. Their relentless stares from behind a line of heavy black boots along the balcony edges made me feel small. I had my back to a TaTa truck used for transporting these police to various places around the city; inside various riot gear—padding, helmets, bamboo sticks—hung at the ready.

The women began to sit down in convenient places to gossip and socialize. The younger children who had come along with their mothers ran around the police yard, chasing each other and munching on chips or snack noodles, holding the colorful packages in their fists. Some of the more restless members of the group ran to the main road and threatened to enforce a chakka jam [traffic strike]. A few of the policemen put on riot gear and meandered to the street to make sure that didn’t happen. I rather suddenly noticed that there were no women police at the station. I also finally registered that none of the police were in the blue traffic uniforms either, but in the armed police fatigues.

“So why are we still here?” I asked Kanchi. “Oh, I don’t know; we’ll see,” was her reply. She began to discuss the situation on rapid village slang with the women sitting next to her. She obviously did not share my consternation, and was glad of the opportunity to socialize with relatives and neighbors and take a break from the manual labor daily required by her family's farm. I was seriously considering going back to the village, but for some reason, felt safer staying with Kanchi. I continued to sit on the porch next to her, and hopelessly follow the conversations around me.

Soon, a truckload of police in riot gear showed up. The police chief told the women that they had just come from a routine round. The police got out of the truck, but did not take their gear off—they began to just wander around the compound. A few struck up conversation with the women, who were glad to inform them why their community was at the police station.

We waited at the police station for four hours. Nobody seemed bored though; everyone but me had a rather festive attitude. The women began to make jokes about how they didn’t have the opportunity to make merry [raimailo garne] today—usually, they’d be doing puja at the temple, then singing and dancing as they sat out their fast. They would have fun the day after tomorrow, on rishi panchami, the final day of Teej. Kanchi was kept just as busy explaining who I was as she was gossiping about the current situation.

Suddenly, a police truck showed up and everyone became roused from their more relaxed positions to merge as a crowd again. Kanchi pulled me off the bench we had been sitting on, and pushed me off the porch. I turned around to see the police, in their riot gear, make a human barrier with themselves all along the open porch on which most of us had been sitting. The truck had apparently brought another family member; whether they were complicit in the beating or here to vouch for the woman, I wasn’t sure. The crowd began to shout again, but after a while, they seemed satisfied.

As quickly as we had arrived, we left. All the women piled back into the bus—which was waiting for us outside the station—and we made our way back to the village. As the women lamented the fact that they had not had opportunity to make merry as usually, the bus driver put on the latest Teej tunes, and the women standing in the bus aisle began to dance, as much as they could, in that crowded, moving bus. The women who were seated clapped and sang to the lyrics.

When we got home, I smothered Ashok—Kanchi’s son—with questions in English. What had I just been unknowingly complicit in?! He explained that the woman in question had been habitually abused by her in-laws; she had been beaten again last night and the husband and father in law had been taken to the Koteshwar jail. The whole village knew about the situation—they were neighbors after all—and they had gone to support her case. One of his female cousins then showed up to gossip more about the incident. After a while, I gave up trying to follow her rapid village slang, punctuated with hand motions, laughter and giggles, and hushed tones.

Kanchi and I eventually made it to the local mandir [temple], where Kanchi performed the required oblations to Shiva. Many of the women had gathered to sing and dance. There was a large speaker from which issued the latest Teej songs, ranging in genre from dohori git [song-duels], lok git [folk songs] to disco teej (which many of the younger school girls were excited about). Kanchi danced, and the younger girls eventually persuaded me to hand my camera to one of them so they could take pictures of me dancing.

While these are the more typical scenes of Teej—dancing and singing at the mandir while sitting out a complete fast on behalf of your husband’s wellbeing (and if you’re unmarried, then as part of requesting a good husband)—the movement at the police station was not exactly out of place either. Teej has become a platform for voicing women’s rights, especially in line with social justice. Most of the abuses women endure in Nepal come from the hands of family members, most commonly in-laws. Showing up to support a woman’s case against her husband and in-laws for beating her is now just as in line with the spirit of Teej as is taking time off from housework and labor to socialize, have fun with female friends and relatives, and pray to a deity on behalf of your husband or husband-to-be. I happened to experience both in one day.