We often keep having animated discussions on this aspect of Indian society -- caste, gender, religious bigotry and related hierarchy. We meaning Mo, Shashi, Anu and me for most times. Anu runs this group blog "Time and Us" (http://castory.wordpress.com/) where she has several others comment and write, and she also cross-posts blogs and articles of relevance that debate the topic. I happen to be one of the registered "commentators" of that blog but I usually have very little to write. But when we meet face to face, a slew of anecdotes and observations flow spontaneously. This is not because I have zero stories about the Dalit experience (I am not one and can't speak on behalf of others). But caste and gender divides are all pervasive in the Indian society much as you may try to deny it. So, I do have my own share of stories that pinpoint the experience of being a "non-Brahmin", often an effective blanket term dumped on an individual in several parts of India when it comes to maintaining the power structure, exercising status quo, according social acceptance, the degree of acceptance and ritualistic adherence (if one is a practising Hindu).
This is a story I shared recently with my friends about attending a rural wedding in a Brahmin family of Uttar Pradesh, in a village called Jagdishpur. I'll call this series -- for I hope to have some more -- Other India Stories.
We were invited by our Delhi neighbor, of last name Pandey, to their oldest son's wedding. The fellow -- I'll call him UP here, how significant! -- was Mo's childhood friend and the family treated Mo like their own son, although they were Brahmins and Mo's family Khatris (I have no clue what that caste is, perhaps something to do with being a martial clan, so don't ask me to explain ... these labels come up only during socio-religious events like marriages, festivals and idle chatter by folks who have nothing better to do). Anyway, so in that respect I was considered their "bahu" or daughter-in-law.
The journey from Delhi via Lucknow to Jagdishpur itself can constitute an interesting tale. But I'll try not to digress. That we were traveling to a place totally back of beyond, was evident hour by hour. When we reached, Jagdishpur stood like a canvas of green farm fields flanked by lofty brick-and-mortar houses with erratic electricity lighting up the quaint rural scenes later at night. I was told, the farm laborers lived quite a distance away, not in the vicinity of the rich Brahmin landowner. So I didn't see any other villager there.
Soon on reaching, I became a cat among the pigeons. Without even suspecting what commotion my statements would generate, I asked to join the baraat (groom's party that goes to the bride's house to marry the boy) the next evening.
"But women never accompany men in the baraat. Never," was the terse comment that followed from the senior-most Pandey (he never appeared to talk directly, so this sort of wafted from his chamber where mostly men were assembled).
Oh, I should have realized. Women and men never ate together in these households, women never walked side by side with their men (they followed them mutely), women never sat down to tea with the men to discuss sorrow, happiness and life in general. So now that I said it, what'll happen? Precisely that's the question the Pandey women asked themselves, a little scandalized by my audacity but also hopeful that they can finally, in the 21st century, attend a wedding in the girl's house by joining the traditional baraat. One of them, UP's cousin's wife, told me privately how this was absolutely the need of the hour, breaking down this silly rule. You bet!
From indirect sources again, Mo was requested to pump some good sense into my impatient foolhardy head. But only 'requested'. He was like a son to them, he couldn't be ordered as they would have ordered a peasant. So he did not prevail over me.
I was further blacklisted, a woman who did not heed her 'lord's' words. I'm told the Pandey household, the menfolk actually, got huddled into a conference. The older women were sort of terrified, but they smiled at me, those aunts and grandmas, trying to look normal.
Meanwhile, eager to savor fresh country air, I even went to the "khet" (farmland) with UP, his brother, a young girl of seven (not yet in the 'woman' category) and Mo. Going to the khet has a terrible connotation in rural India. Later on that.
Finally the verdict came.
Yes!! We'll all go as baraatis to the bride's house. They could not turn down the request of a 'daughter-in-law'. Suddenly all the younger women in the house looked bright like sunflowers. They busied themselves in choosing the right saris, ornaments and the mehendi to be done in time. I guess I managed to break a huge taboo, but back then, I was only interested in enjoying things as one should.
Now the second part.
While the men baraatis went in a van -- smoking, a few drinking and waving to the crowd when they reached the bride's house, our van was a silent one, with very dark tainted windows all rolled up. We could see people (mostly the poor, forsaken, low-caste villagers) standing by the roadside and gesturing and blessing, but we were advised not to open the windows or respond in any manner. This was a 'law-and-order' requirement, we were told. So be it. But we were there.
I'm told the bride's family too was faced with a major quandary about how to welcome a van full of errant women (one of them a city woman, the word got around), how to sneak them inside the wedding venue without the lowly subjects spotting us, and in general how to deal with any social stigma if one might arise out of this.
I'm so glad I was blissfully unaware of all goings-on.
Only that cousin's wife whispered to me later (seeing me half-sleepy through the elaborate wedding ceremony): "You asked to come here and revolutionized the family wedding! No one can stop us after this. Don't sleep now for God's sake!"
I ... revolutionized ... a wedding? I thought I almost ruined their family event. Seeing her and others happy made me feel good. But does it take an 'outsider' always to break rigid norms? Why can't they themselves do it?
"We are daughters, daughter-in-laws and women in a high-caste household. Our society will never allow us to change things," one said.
The only man, other than Mo (UP and his father maintained a diplomatic profile) who quietly praised the adventure was UP's sister's husband, a soft-spoken man who conducted things slightly differently than his enlightened counterparts. The others, especially the senior-most Pandey of Jagdishpur, never spoke to me directly, even after the episode. When we were taking their leave, I thought of acting traditional and doing a pranam to him, to which he said rather nicely, "Daughters don't touch feet. Be happy."
I said goodbye in English then. From daughter-in-law to daughter, I did make some progress!
Will be back later with more Other India anecdotes!
About FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA (Cedar Books, New Delhi); By Nabina Das
"Fittingly for a poet, Nabina’s novel also has a strong lyrical core. 'Footprints in the Bajra' takes the homely image of the millet field as its central metaphor. ... But the novel is less a thriller about guerrilla action than a subtly colored character study of a fascinating group of individuals who intersect at various points in their lives ..." -- DEBRA CASTILLO, author, editor and distinguished professor (Cornell University, April 17, 2010).