Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Real Housewives of Sukhrwar: On Family and Female Experience

One of my Kathmandu housemates, between her work as a researcher and photographer/ videographer with an NGO that works in the hill regions of Nepal, has spent a lot of time in various Nepalese hill villages. She made the comment one day that, instead of a reality television show about wealthy women in New Jersey, a similar show about the lives of Nepali village women would be so much more stimulating. In her honor, I’ve put together the following confessionals based on actual events and experiences in and around Sukhrwar. I’ve changed names, the order of some events, and embellished these occurances, so these should be read primarily as fictional, not factual.

Friend’s Aama (mother): So my daughter left to visit friends in another district last Dashai (fall festival time), and then, when we tried to call her, her mobile was either switched off or busy! After a few days, we heard rumors that she had eloped! I went to all my friend’s houses asking them if they had heard from my daughter at all—I even asked our foreign bahini (younger sister) to call her, and even she couldn’t get through! Everyone was kind—they gave me jaar or raksi (home-brewed rice beer and distilled alcohol), they consoled me—but I had such a hard time giving tika to my niece on Vijaya Dashami, because she reminded me that my own daughter wasn’t here! Well finally, we heard from her, and yes, she did get married. Well, she said she was married, but we hadn’t thrown a bhoj (feast) for her, so we decided to do that, to let everyone know that we accepted this marriage. We decided to have it over Maghi. But then she called to ask if we could postpone it three more months! We couldn’t do that—until we had this bhoj, it was as if she wasn’t married, and we had already invited everyone! We told her she HAD to show up! She came so late—we had guests from eight or nine in the morning, and we fed them and gave them tika, and she finally arrived at seven in the evening with her husband and new mother and father-in-law. They came in a jeep from Kailali (three districts west of Dang). Well, we all—the whole extended family—gave them tika and money. My husband and I even performed samdi-melon*. But it was so sad when she left the next morning; she was crying really loudly and had to be carried into the jeep. It’s so sad when a daughter is taken from her family!

* where the in-laws exchange tika and gifts; a tradition in Tharu weddings.

Maili Chori (middle daughter): The foreign bahini (younger sister) was so shocked that Sumitra cried so loudly at her wedding. She thought that because Sumitra had chosen her own husband that she should be happy! She was shocked that all of Sumitra’s aunts also cried! I asked her if mothers ever cried at their daughters’ weddings in her country? She said yes, but it was tears of happiness! Imagine that, happiness! Ours cry because a daughter is being separated from her family! She will encounter so much dukha (pain and suffering) as a new bwari (daughter-in-law) at her new house! I cried a lot at my wedding, my brother’s wife cried a lot at hers—we all cried at our weddings! I mean, we didn’t know how we would be treated! The foreign bahini even said that, in her country, if the bride cried like Sumitra did, the wedding would stop! Well, I told her, there’s no stopping the wedding here, no matter how much a bride cries!

Visiting Ethnographer: Sumitra gave me conflicting messages at her wedding bhoj; in conversation at first she was like “you HAVE to find a husband QUICK!” and then went on to detail how she had such a bad feeling now that she was married, complained that she would have to live separate from her husband—she wasn’t going to just give up her teaching job in Kavre so she could go live with her husband in Kailali; it was so hard to find work in Nepal—and that she would now waste half her salary calling him on the phone, and commented that maybe she did badly by eloping. And after describing all their marriage dukha to me, all the women I talk to want to know when I’m getting married, and if my parents are looking for a husband for me or if I have to look for my own husband?

Chora [son]: So it’s nine in the morning and I’m eating my daal-bhaat [rice and lentils, the common, every-day Nepali food dish] out back, and making the warm mash for the goats over the fire, when kaka [paternal uncle] shows up drunk on the road. He’d drunk too much jaar at the wedding. He’s the husband of my paternal uncle’s wife’s sister. We just all call him “kaka.” Anyway, two of the village bhais [younger brothers] were trying to get him to calm down and come with them, but he started throwing mud clods at them. He also kept making motorbike sounds, like he was going somewhere. Anyway, he sees me eating and comments that wants to eat too. He disappears down the road, and the next thing I know, he’s coming in my front door! So I call the two village bhais, who come running, I push him out the front door and close it on him and he’s cursing me the entire time, and finally the bhais drag him down the road. What’s more, the fire can’t seem to stay lit this morning; I won’t be able to finish making this mash before I leave for the office. Shyam’s mom* will have to finish making it later.

*Men often refer to their wives as the mother of their eldest son.

Sumitra: I told our foreign bahini to help my didi (older sister)* with the face cream I got her. The instructions are in English, not Nepali, and my didi can’t read well anyway. My didi liked the face cream I use, but the shopkeeper said this one was better.

*Didi doesn’t always refer to one’s actual older sister; it can be any female relative or close friend’s sister. In this case, Sumitra is referring to woman I refer to as “bwari” in her confessionals.

Visiting Ethnographer: So this stuff that Sumitra got my didi is basically facial bleach. It says there’s no side effects and is perfectly safe, but still cautions the user to try a bit on their hand to see if their skin gets irritated. My didi said that she’s trying to get rid of some dark spots on her cheek, which resulted from a bout of acne she had when she was younger. 

Maili Chori: So we’ve all discussed this, and we’ve decided that it must be the hawa-pani [weather or environment] in her country that makes our foreign bahini so fair. Maybe if we went to her country we would come back all fair as well?

Bwari: So I noticed that my foreign bahini didn’t wear churra (glass bracelets), tikli (adhesive decorative sticker worn between the eyebrows), or sindur (red powder worn in the part of the hair), so I asked her: is she married? She said she wasn’t married. I asked her how people recognized a married woman in her country? She said that women—and men!—wear a gold ring on their left ring finger. That’s how they recognize a married person. Imagine being able to recognize if a man is married! Here, most men don’t even let on that they’re married…

Visiting Ethnographer: Sumitra told me quite pointedly that I needed to buy a new kurtha the other day. Well, she’s been seeing me wear the same four kurthas for over a year now, I guess they’re getting shabby?

Pahadi (non-Tharu) Bwari: So we’ve all discussed this, and we think that our foreign bahini (she’s actually my didi though—I’m twenty-three, she’s twenty-seven) must wear nicer clothes in her country. I mean, in movies people from her country wear nicer clothes. But I’ve only seen her wear jean-pants once.