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Love and literacy in Nepal studied by RPCV Laura Ahearn
Love and literacy in Nepal studied by RPCV Laura Ahearn
Love and literacy in Nepal
February 15, 2002
By Rochelle Runas
On June 1, 2001, in the small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, 10 members of the royal family were murdered. An official government investigation concluded that Crown Prince Dipendra shot himself to death with a machine gun after dealing the same fate to his parents, King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, his siblings and other family members.
According to widespread reports, the 29-year-old was in a drugged and drunken frenzy because his parents, who disapproved of his choice of a bride, allegedly wanted to arrange a marriage between their son and a "more suitable" woman.
Laura Ahearn found that as the Nepalese became more literate, they began to conduct their courtships through letter writing rather than relying on the more traditional arranged or capture marriages, in which couples meet on their wedding day
Photo/digital manipulation by Alan Goldsmith
Dipendra's ghastly crime shocked Nepal and the world. However, the marital dilemma that seems to have driven him to this desperate act is not uncommon among Nepalese, says Laura Ahearn, an assistant professor of anthropology on the New Brunswick campus and author of the new book "Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters and Social Change in Nepal" (University of Michigan Press).
For the past 20 years, Ahearn has been studying how young men and women in an ordinary Nepalese village enter into marriage, either by having the choice of a mate made for them or, more recently, by choosing their own marriage partner -- a trend that is turning ancient Nepalese tradition on its head. Her book, which examines how this trend is facilitated through love-letter writing, coincidentally went to press within a few days of the royal tragedy.
Marriage in Junigau
It was the early 1980s when Ahearn first arrived in Junigau, the fictional name she uses for a small farming village located 100 miles southwest of Kathmandu. A political philosophy major and Peace Corps volunteer eager to teach elementary reading, writing and math, Ahearn was unaware that a significant transformation in the villagers' marriage practices was starting to take place "right under my nose."
Marriage was traditionally seen as the joining of two families, and a suitable match was largely based on complicated kinship and caste relationships. For example, marriage between certain types of cousins was highly desirable, while marriage to the wrong type of cousin was frowned upon, Ahearn says. Marrying someone outside the Magar caste, who make up the bulk of the village residents, was considered scandalous.
In 1982, the majority of traditional marital unions were either arranged or capture marriages. In an arranged marriage, the parents of the young woman and/or man plan the match, including a lavish wedding feast to celebrate the union. In a capture marriage, the woman is kidnapped and immediately forced to participate in a wedding ceremony. Capture marriages were usually initiated by the groom because of a financial or other impediment to the union and sometimes, but not always, had the sanction of the families involved.
In both kinds of marriages, it was not uncommon for the couple to speak to each other for the first time on their wedding day. And whether planned or performed in haste, the ceremony always included the ritual anointing of the bride's hair with red powder by the groom to symbolize defloration and the inevitable consummation to follow.
Invitation to elope
It was only when Ahearn returned to Nepal in the late 1980s and again in the 1990s as a linguistic and cultural anthropologist that she discovered that elopements were gaining ground as a marriage option. Beginning in the early 1990s, evidence of this different kind of union was clandestinely circulating throughout the village in the form of love letters. Young men and women were applying their newly acquired literacy skills to woo a mate of their own choosing, resulting in an increase in elopements in the last decade and a dramatic shift away from arranged and capture marriages.
Already considered a family member and friend, Ahearn found that many of the eloped couples in Junigau were willing to show her the letters that served as their courtship in place of dating or otherwise spending time alone together, which was still considered inappropriate for young men and women.
Different from spoken and written Nepali, the letters are their own genre, Ahearn says. Stores in Kathmandu and Tansen, the district center that is a three-hour walk from the village, sell how-to books for writing romantic epistles, although no one in Junigau who was interviewed by Ahearn admitted to using one. Tips on what to say and what not to say are passed among friends, and English or Hindi expressions are used in an effort to impress.
The letters, says Ahearn, reflect larger changes within Nepalese society. These changes, many of which were influenced by Western practices, include the establishment of a democratic government in 1990, which encouraged the Nepalese to view themselves as individuals in the political sphere; the monetization of the Nepalese economy, which has resulted in the younger generation being less dependent on their elders for their livelihood; an increased emphasis on self-sufficiency, free choice and consumerism; and a sharp rise in levels of education. Many young villagers attend college in Tansen, where they frequent the cinema to see Hindi couples romance each other in the latest fashions.
The result is that the Nepalese began viewing themselves as more "modern" or "developed" and thus able to choose a "life friend" for a companionate marriage -- an idea reiterated in many of the letters. But instead of the romantic notion of love familiar to Americans, the Nepalese associate love with economic development, progress and being educated and modern, Ahearn says. Love to the Nepalese means "life success."
These changes, Ahearn cautions, can be beneficial, but they also bring with them a disruption to the established social order, of which the massacre of the royal family is one extreme example. Many wives, for instance, no longer wail piteously at their weddings or kneel to wash their husbands' feet each morning and then drink the wash water.
"Some villagers view these changes as highly desirable, while others consider them extremely troubling," Ahearn observes. "Older residents complain that young people are disrespecting elders and abandoning traditions.
"From the rural subsistence farmers to the royal family, the Nepalese are facing the same dramatic social transformations. One of my goals in writing this book," she continues, "was to call into question the unthinking assumption that development is good. There is much more to it than that. It is my hope that readers will walk away with a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in social change, not only in Nepal, but wherever and whenever it occurs."
The following is an excerpt of a letter written by 21-year-old Bir Bahadur to a woman of the same age he had met only once. After a year of courting through correspondence, the couple eloped:
Sarita, I'll let you know by a "short cut" what I want to say: Love is the union of two souls. The "main" meaning of loving is "life success." 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. I have tried on many occasions to offer you an invitation to love, but there was no good time. Sarita, from the day I first saw you I gave you a place in my heart. Finally, waiting for a long time and even until life's last, ultimate limit in hope of a letter etched by your physical body, I take leave with uncertainty.