Within their arranged marriages and strictly defined domestic roles, Nepali women find both joy and sorrow.
Eyes sparkling, tawny skin glowing against her salmon pink kameez, Chandika reveals the secret of her marriage. "You know," she says, indicating her 22-carat, jewel-encrusted pendant--a wedding gift from her husband--and an equally splendid gold wedding band, "you probably think these are important signs of my marriage, but that is not so. I could put them away, never wear them again, and it would not matter. What does matter are the betel nuts." From under the counter she draws out an unprepossessing brown cardboard box with a cellophane window. Inside are nestled perfectly matching oval betel nuts. Each nut bears a distinctive symbol, hand-painted in white and gold on a black background. There are ten in all, each one standing for some attribute of a good marriage.
"Nepali women are shy," she elaborates, "so this is a way for them to talk." When a woman is unhappy in her marriage, she slips a nut under her husband's pillow. "It doesn't matter which," she continues (although this does not seem likely). She waits to see if he'll get the picture, maybe a few weeks, maybe a month. "Nepali women are also patient," she explains; it will usually take a long time to place all the nuts under a spouse's pillow. Should it come to that, the night on which she slips him the last nut is the last night of their marriage: She has declared her intention to leave him. Until recently, there has been no civil registry of marriage, only the witness and sanction of the community, and thus no registered divorce either. This time-honored Hindu method has served in its stead. Chandika still has a full box of nuts.
Talking to Chandika and dozens of other women of the Newari, a Tibetic language group, I catch a glimpse of what it is like to grow up a woman in the ancient city of Bhaktapur in central Nepal. Ritual and tradition mark them, for better or worse, as Hindu women in a profoundly Hindu city, binding them to each other and to their days.
Husbands and wives
As the sun sinks behind the verdant hills of the Kathmandu Valley, its golden light glances from the temple roofs of Bhaktapur. In the growing penumbra, people begin to filter down narrow brick roads and into the ample square of the Nyatapola Temple. Women linger to gossip, children play tag, and men, sitting cross-legged on the temple portico, pick up their dholaks (drums) and cymbals and begin a hypnotic chant. Here and there the lights of candles flicker.
* A Nepali carver
Ruled by the Malla kings from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Bhaktapur reached its height in the fifteenth century under the influence of Hari Singh and Yaksa Malla. Both men were considered reincarnations of Vishnu and, thus, semisacred. They would establish the kingdom's social structure and set its religious tone.
Hari Singh, father of the Newari, organized his people in thars, clans that lived and worked together. Vocations and their resulting social position were hereditary. A Pradham was a priest and commanded respect; a Bada was a butcher and an outcaste. Their children would inherit their lot in life. Singh's successor, Yaksa Malla, was a religious man and a builder. Under his rule, temples soared and Bhaktapur became a sacred city, one in which both caste and Hindu cult permeated public and private lives. Though changed, much of that world prevails today.
"I was born a Hindu, worship God, and follow the rules," says Mohan Keshari Prajapati, a serene mother of two. She and her husband, hereditary potter Hari Sunder Prajapati, live and work where he was born, in a house in Bhaktapur's potters' district. But these words could have been spoken by Monika Dhaubhadel, an MBA graduate from Kathmandu University. Monika and her fianc€ Deepak Kayasta, like Mohan and Hari, will share professions. They will live in Deepak's father's house. Though of disparate economic means and widely separated by caste, these women have much in common.
Laughing, Monika and her friend Kokila reminisce about growing up in their fathers' homes. Both their mothers invariably gave the best food to their fathers, then to the boys; the cifa, the leftovers, were up for "attack," as Kokila puts it, by the rest. A husband merits such worship, these women explained with no apparent irony. He is, after all, god's surrogate in the home. They talk about helping their mothers in the kitchen from the age of five or six while their brothers were allowed to play; and how they looked after younger siblings while their brothers were reading. Monika confesses she actually hadn't--until recently--thought of what she did as work but rather just part of living. For Kokila, now a teacher, there had been and remain questions.
From man to woman, generation to generation, caste to caste, there are barriers. Few women are frank with their husbands, whom they often hardly know.
Differentiation of sex roles begins in earnest when the girls are between five and seven with the celebration of Ihi, a mock marriage uniting them with Vishnu, the Creator. This symbolic union, a departure from the Hindu custom of India, has a pragmatic goal: It was Yaksa Malla's way of remediating the barbaric practice of sutee--an act once common among Indian Hindus--in which the wife is obliged to immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Monika explains what she sees as the issue: If a woman is married to a god, she can never be a widow and must never fulfill this duty. Of course, Ihi is a two-edged sword, since it reinforces the idea that women must depend on men and that their place is in the home.
Home is an important school for Hindu women. At her mother's side, Monika learned the myriad details that make her household Hindu. Women must not wear leather shoes in the kitchen or compromise its purity by entering during menstruation. They must value elders--especially males--and children, especially boys. Women are taught to suppress their anger as well.
Monika's mother made it clear that women belonged inside the home, men outside. She taught Monika how to pray in the puja kotha, a sacred room redolent of pungent incense, where women go each morning to light candles, make offerings to the gods, and pray.
Of the women I meet, about 70 percent married by arrangement. All claim they feel equally positive about arranged marriages and love matches (an English term, significantly). One, however, asserts that a love match puts the bride at a disadvantage if things go badly in her husband's home, a sort of "told you so" attitude prevailing. Chandika, who is Monika's older sister, tells me she had been unhappy with her parents' first two choices but could not overtly reject the candidates. She could, however, avoid commitment and did so by offering the fiction she was not yet ready to marry, wanting first to complete her studies. The third attempt to find a match worked: A half hour with the prospective husband convinced her they thought and felt alike. And, she admits, he was handsome. She has been married ten years now and tells me her marriage is solid.
Chandika's story underlines certain communication problems. From man to woman, generation to generation, caste to caste, there are barriers. Shy is a word Monika uses with frequency; her sister was too shy to talk directly to her parents. And few women are frank with their husbands, whom they often hardly know. Devices such as the betel nut must be used to get around this problem.
Although--or perhaps because--Hindu families grow up close together, communication is guarded: sometimes choreographed, sometimes suppressed. The preparation by a girl's family--and the lack thereof--for the arrival of menarche is exemplary.
A Hindu woman's reproductive ability has traditionally given meaning to her life. The sage Vivekenanda commented in the mid-1800s that a Western woman is a wife, but a Hindu woman is first and foremost a mother, sacred conduit for the rarest and most precious of rebirths, a human one. It is not too surprising, then, that the biological process that indicates fertility or its decline--and brings the sense of shame or grace that accompanies them--should be taboo. Clearly, in the close quarters of an extended family, no child could be unaware of the household women's monthly cycle, if only because of physical evidence, strictures (purdah), and ritual bathing that apply. Yet all but one of the women with whom I talk claim to have arrived at puberty ignorant about the biological process taking place. Thus, Monika admits, her first period occasioned a certain "embarrassment," which was somewhat mitigated by the excitement of celebration on this occasion of a second symbolic marriage, one that would mark her a woman.
* A young girl looks after her sibling.
She and her friends responded in different ways to the strictures this rite of passage entailed. For Anika, Monika's restless younger sister, the twelve days of obligatory confinement in a sunless room were painful. Monika disliked being forbidden to enter the kitchen but liked having to eat alone. Kokila, on the other hand, stressed the fun of staying in her room where she ate especially prepared food, received her girlfriends, and did no work.
A woman in her condition, Monika's grandmother cautioned, is inauspicious. If, for example, her brother and father were to go out after casting eyes on her during her period, they might just have an accident. And that accident would be her fault. Kokila now calls that belief anahvishwas, blind belief or superstition, and Monika agrees but, as she puts it, "Women are getting very clever": They are happy to absent themselves from the daily round and family politics to retreat once a month for the duration of their period.
All the women accept the "logic" of going to live in their husband's family home. He is the family's future, their support, their connection with the outside world. A woman, on the other hand, is not a good investment.
Not surprisingly, there is little formal or informal sex education--except in its most rudimentary birds and bees sense. Knowledge of birth control is sketchy, and abortion is illegal, though available at a risk. Many women approach marriage, whether arranged or a love match, ignorant about sex. Mothers and sisters keep mum. Friends whisper bits and pieces, the blind leading the blind. One woman who had managed to survive a year without getting pregnant assured Monika that coitus interruptus was an effective prophylactic. At twenty-seven, Monika does not feel she can walk into a bookstore for crucial information. When I get her a primer, she quickly fashions a cover from newsprint to disguise its contents. She reads it surreptitiously at her family's jewelry store when business is slow.
Not all brides arrive at their wedding day virginal, however. Despite these young women's protestations of ignorance and purity, it is hard to believe that they have no idea about sex, at least in its "how to" form. They live in a country where bookstores sell the Kama Sutra and graphic images of explicit sexual conduct adorn temple friezes. My informal survey of young men and women between eighteen and thirty suggests that probably some 40 percent of males and 20 percent of women have premarital sex, figures that demographer Veena Singh says may be low. What the women don't do is admit to their practices. Most lack a mastery of birth control methods or an understanding of venereal diseases. A culture cannot treat what it denies exists.
New roles and old institutions
Reservations arise about marriages when they cross caste lines. Suna, a street sweeper, married up. Her husband, a civil servant, was subsequently shunned at work. He has taken to drinking, making her life a misery. Worse yet, the couple has transgressed in that Suna has--for practical reasons--elected to stay at her mother's house rather than go to live with her husband's family who live outside Bhaktapur, where there is no work for her. The wives of her brothers abuse her because they resent the space that she and her two girls occupy, a paltry corner, a landing rather than a room in their congested, three-story slum dwelling.
All the women accept the "logic" of going to live in their husband's family home. It is, Monika claims, one of the reasons a son is traditionally valued over a daughter: He is the family's future, their support, their connection with the outside world. A woman, on the other hand, is not a good investment. She is paraya dhan, someone else's wealth. She will work for her husband's family. Her world is within four walls, and she does not need to be--indeed should not be--sophisticated. He needs education; she does not.
* A sacrifice is performed at one of the city's 300 annual festivals.
Times are changing in this regard, however. Monika says, "Women can do everything now," and conjectures that this is one reason that contemporary women prefer female children. A woman's value increases as she becomes educated and moves into the outside world. She brings in cash to help support the husband's family and helps in the house as well. Unfortunately, many of these newly liberated women still trail the invisible cord that ties them to the kitchen. After a day of work at the office, Monika tells me, her married friends must "go home very, very quickly and very quickly prepare everything." Meanwhile pati parmeshwar (a godlike husband) reads the paper.
After marrying Deepak, Monika will go to live with her in-laws even though her father's ample home is presently half empty: All but one of her siblings are sisters, and they have married. She worries a bit about relations with her mother-in-law but is convinced that her mother-in-law will reciprocate her good behavior. "Behave" is a common part of Monika's lexicon, too. She confides a little shamefacedly a desire to live apart with Deepak, but she will hold out for at least seven years in deference to her fiancˇ's desire to stay at his mother's house. As Chandika says, "Nepali women are very patient."
The women with whom I talk speak well of their mothers-in-law. How could they not and survive? And in fairness, many surely feel not that they have lost their mother but that they have gained another. The institution that is the mother-in-law has a reputation for a reason, however. Her only role model is her own mother-in-law, Monika explains, and she typically is intent upon defending her position within a rigidly hierarchical family structure. Having suffered abuse, the mother-in-law metes it out. A rueful expression crosses Monika's usually placid face as she elaborates upon the perspective of her mother-in-law: To her, Monika will be welcome as another set of helping hands, someone to work in the family shop. She is acutely aware, however, that Monika's arrival marks a shift in property, dispossessing Deepak's sisters, for his inheritance will now go not to them but to Monika. Her mother-in-law, Monika adds, may also fear her son's newfound intimacy. If he is infected by the phunga ki, the pillow insect, the son she has shamelessly coddled since birth could shift his dependence and affection to Monika.
Even in death
Marriage entails costly celebrations. As British author Christopher Isherwood has said, "the Hindu code of hospitality"--and presumably ritual exchange--"can decide only in favor of [financial] ruin." Mohan's husband, like her a potter, felt compelled to give her a gold necklace on the occasion of their marriage. He had to return it after the wedding. Particularly pernicious is the custom of the bride's dowry. Rasila's parents borrowed money to meet the expectations of her fianc€'s family. They didn't like the idea, but her fianc€, whose mother had recently died, was in a hurry because their house was without a woman. And, as she explains, "men can't do anything." Chandika's parents gave her a "truckload full" of household goods. Why the orgy of giving? Chandika explains that it's about what the neighbors think, a sort of keeping up with the Kayastas.
Hindu women are destined to be mothers, and childbirth generally comes within a year of marriage. Most, especially those of lower caste and restricted economic circumstances, rely on a midwife for their births. Honoring their mothers' practices, they remain in isolation for ten days, the place of delivery being considered "impure." From a practical perspective, the proscription gives a rest period to the mother and serves to protect the newborn child until it has built its immunities. The motives for other practices are harder to fathom: the proscribing of many vegetables, for example, and the insistence on rising well before dawn to eat rice each day. Bathing practices vary, depending, in part, on access to water. Monika tells me her grandmother's generation didn't bathe for five months after giving birth!
With the birth of a child, the mother assumes a more secure position in the home of her husband. When her mother-in-law dies, she will take on the role of performing daily puja and running the household. If her husband predeceases her, however, her status is less sure and--although Nepal's Hindus treat widows with greater respect than do India's--she is bad luck. A popular phrase applied to a widow is telling: It is said of her dead husband that she has "eaten him up." Dressed henceforth in white, she is considered inauspicious.
Even death favors Hindu men over the women: While the first son lights his father's funeral pyre, it falls to the youngest son to light his mother's. Unless there is no male issue in the family, females do not attend the cremation at the funeral ghats by the river where the men burn the corpse. They commemorate both parents publicly in subsequent years at the Cow Festival.
From custom to superstition
Changes have been taking place in Bhaktapur, which is increasingly open to Western customs and ways of thinking.
Ritual practice no longer has the profound hold it once did. Many women could not name the protective goddess of their neighborhood; their mothers could have. Customs, especially those governing purity, once went unquestioned. Now they bear the label of superstition. People acknowledge the role of religion in the economy of the city, employing, as it does, tailors, chandlers, metalworkers, and other tradesmen. However many rely on the business of religion, some young businesswomen are beginning to grumble about time and money lost to the hundreds of annual festival days, and they are becoming increasingly vocal.
Moreover, women no longer feel compelled to have large families. Both rich and poor tell me that two children are ideal and claim indifference as to their gender. They speak of freeing themselves from household work and educating their children. Their daughters will surpass a presently dismal 30 percent literacy rate for Nepali women.
Thar once linked clan to vocation, supply to demand, sustaining itself by passing on skills from one generation to the next. But needs have changed, and a rigid system no longer satisfies those needs. Today, few women expect automatically to follow the role of their mother or the trade of their family's thar. Monika will honor her ancestors, provisioners to Malla kings, in being a merchant, but she will not work at her husband's side. Bending the rules a bit, she has rented her own shop, a strategy to avoid being under her mother-in-law's thumb, she sheepishly admits.
Politically isolated from the outside world until the 1950s, Bhaktapur is not changing at the rate of other Asian cities anxious to ride the supposed global economic tsunami. The education system and media help perpetuate the status quo. And though the growing middle class acknowledge the inequities and counterproductiveness of the caste system, they nonetheless espouse it. Very few of the women with whom I speak--and of these only the richest and the most abysmally poor--support cross-caste marriages. In such a union, as Monika puts it, "they wouldn't know what to think or how to behave."
The women of Bhaktapur continue to worship God. Before dawn each morning you can see them at the neighborhood shrines, brass trays aloft, lucent in their fluttering saris. If you listen closely to the gentle clinking of each bell, like silver spoons against a porcelain cup, you can imagine how it was in the time of their mothers ... and in their grandmothers', too.