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RPCV Laura Ahearn says Arranged Marriage in Nepal Give Way to Courtship by Missive
RPCV Laura Ahearn says Arranged Marriage in Nepal Give Way to Courtship by Missive
In Nepal, Arranged Marriage Gives Way to Courtship by Missive
By ERICA GOODE
They are deeply felt and extravagantly phrased: "To my dear, my dearest, dearest love," a 22-year-old man writes to an 18-year-old woman, "from your lover who is always, always drowning in your love and remembrances, I send love and remembrances forever that, like a river, can never dry up and break."
"Life is an infinite circle," writes another man, 21. "I'm offering you an invitation to love. If you are capable of accepting it, then accept; otherwise, in this my time of suffering and life's last moment, please return this revealing letter."
Written in New York or Paris, such avowals of affection may be dismissed as adolescent passion, and stowed safely in a bottom dresser drawer. But in the small Nepalese village 100 miles southwest of Katmandu where these words were laboriously penned, a love letter is much more than just a love letter: It is a hand reaching out to grab the future, ready or not.
The letters exchanged between young village residents, often as a prelude to elopement, are reweaving the fabric of a centuries-old culture, gradually changing everything from kinship bonds to the basic definitions of love and matrimony, said Dr. Laura Ahearn, a University of South Carolina anthropologist who for the past 17 years has been studying marriage practices in the village. "They are fundamentally reshaping village life," Dr. Ahearn said.
Until recently, the majority of marital unions in "Junigau" -- a fictional name used by Dr. Ahearn, who wishes to protect the village from curious tourists -- were arranged by parents. Marriage traditionally has been seen as the joining of two families, and the suitability of a match has been decided largely on the basis of complicated kinship and caste relationships: Marriage between certain types of cousins, for example, is deemed highly desirable, while marriage to "the wrong type of cousin," is frowned upon, Dr. Ahearn said. Becoming espoused to someone from a caste below the Magars, who make up the bulk of village residents, is out of the question.
In arranged marriages, husband and wife sometimes speak for the first time on their wedding day. It is not uncommon for a bride to wail piteously throughout the marriage ceremony, and for the stunned groom to perform his part of the rituals -- including anointing the part in his bride's hair with red powder in a symbolic deflowering -- with grim resignation.
And the bride, who moves in with her husband's family, looks forward to an immediate decrease in status as the newest daughter-in-law -- a family position that by tradition lands her with the worst chores and the heaviest labor.
Traditionally, a wife also washes her husband's feet every morning and drinks the wash water -- though some women have stopped the practice.
In the past 15 years, the outside world has begun to make itself felt in this settlement of thatched-roof huts, nestled in a valley three hours' walk from Tansen, the district center. Electric lights came to Junigau in 1996; television sets and CD players will not be far behind.
And, as in other parts of Nepal, literacy, education and exposure to media like music and film are all on the increase: Many village young people, including women, attend college in Tansen, and even those not in college rarely miss an opportunity to see the Hindi romances at the cinema hall there.
At the same time, a growing number of young men are eschewing the subsistence farming, which has traditionally supported the village, in favor of careers with the British or Indian armies as Gurkha soldiers, jobs that take them away from Junigau for extended periods but also make them less financially dependent on their families.
The impact of such changes is inevitable, and nowhere is it felt more keenly than in the realms of love and marriage. Between 1963 and 1983, 73 percent of all first marriages in Junigau were arranged, with elopements accounting for only 15 percent, according to a survey conducted by Dr. Ahearn. But between 1983 and 1993, the number of elopements jumped to 35 percent of all first marriages and arranged marriages dropped to 54 percent. Since 1993, nine of 10 marriages have been elopements, Dr. Ahearn said. Villages in other parts of Nepal show similar increases in self-initiated unions.
Since dating is still taboo in the village, and meetings between young men and women are viewed as inappropriate, the courtship that precedes these self-initiated unions is often carried out in love letters. The correspondence is begun by the man, who prevails upon a messenger -- often a younger sibling or young relative who is sworn to secrecy -- to deliver a declaration of his undying love to the woman he has chosen.
Suitors put great effort into the crafting of these letters. "It's a distinctive genre," said Dr. Ahearn, "very different from spoken Nepali and from written Nepali." Stores in Tansen and Katmandu sell how-to books, although no one the anthropologist spoke to in Junigau admitted to having used one. Tips on what to say -- and what not to say -- are passed among friends.
Many young men sprinkle their letters with English or Hindi expressions, or with references to well-known figures, in an effort to impress. "Love is the sort of thing that anyone can feel -- even a great man of the world like Hitler loved Eva, they say," asserts one letter. "And Napoleon, who with bravery conquered the 'world,' united it, and took it forward, was astounded when he saw one particular widow."
Yet the ideal of romantic love expressed in most Junigau love letters differs substantially from the notion of romance familiar to most Americans, Dr. Ahearn said. Not only are the letters more serious from the start, but they view love as inextricably entwined with economic development, progress and appearing educated and modern. A suitor may explain to his beloved, for example, that their love equals "life success."
For a young woman, the path of romance is considerably more tricky than for the man who courts her. If she answers a suitor's letter, she is all but committed to marrying him, though he may be someone she does not know or knows only slightly. If the courtship becomes public knowledge and the woman does not marry her correspondent, she will be disgraced, her courtship life over. "There's a lot at stake for a young woman," Dr. Ahearn said.
Both lovers are likely to make attempts to check one another out, making furtive inquiries among acquaintances, or sending out feelers in the letters themselves, a collection of which Dr. Ahearn has studied. Without face-to-face contact, misunderstandings frequently occur: "Why did you beg forgiveness from me? What have we done wrong?" asks one young woman of her petitioner.
And trustworthiness and honesty are topics that recur repeatedly: "Let's neither of us engage in deceitful actions," writes one young man. "My true thoughts are none other than that."
If the correspondence goes well, a wedding plan is agreed upon. The couple elopes, and a brief ceremony is performed by a Brahmin priest at the house of the groom's family -- providing his parents accept the marriage. If the marriage goes against caste or kinship restrictions, the bride's parents may refuse to accept the couple, a father telling his daughter, "Don't come crying 'Daddy, Daddy' to me if something goes wrong," Dr. Ahearn said. But often, the bride's parents come to accept the union, inviting her back to their house for a feast, and allowing her to visit when she wishes.
Still, few members of Junigau's older generation applaud the practice of choosing a marriage partner out of love, and many long for the days when they had more control of their children. Elopement, they say, shows a lack of respect, and the marriages are often inappropriate -- playing havoc with traditional notions of kinship and caste.
Dr. Ahearn, too, said she believed that the decline in arranged marriages would ultimately end in "hierarchies flipped on their head, shaking the society to its core." In Junigau, after all, kinship not only determines marriage partners, but dictates who repairs the roof and who comes to family celebrations.
"Everything is connected in this village," she said.