Crumbs of Culture from The World’s Table

courtesy of NGA

People from various cultures and backgrounds have always held a fascination for me. I marvel at the obvious differences from one culture to the next  and yet, at the same time, I am struck by the universality of underlying themes like love, family and social acceptance. It boggles my mind how a random factor like geography can play such a vital role in a person’s upbringing, circumstance and outlook on life. Thus, what may be considered acceptable in one society might be taboo in another. Arranged marriages might be the norm in China but would be considered unacceptable in the Western world. Guinea pigs are a prized delicacy in Peru but serving them up for dinner here might be considered animal cruelty, even abuse. People in the Christian world wear their hair up, down, and any which way they want, but in Muslim extremist communities, the display of a woman’s hair in public is considered scandalous and can be punishable. Here in the US, most women shave, thread and wax unwanted facial and body hair. The terms Bikini and Brazilian wax are part of their vocabulary. (If you are wondering what a Brazilian wax is, it’s when hair in the bikini zone is removed by pulling it out from the root with a resin wax, effectively removing hair from the front extending all the way to the rectal area. To put it another way, it removes hair from way down where the sun don’t shine!) All these measures to achieve a state of hairlessness would be incomprehensible in traditional Korean culture. To them, a luxuriant bush is a woman’s pride and glory. Women with little or no pubic hair are considered downright unattractive. The Korean term for a bald eagle is even considered an insult. (Unfortunately for my Korean friends, they told me the word one time and I have never forgotten it. When I want to shock them, I just whisper it into their ears. Their reaction is priceless!)

There are also a number of traditions in some places that may seem outlandish to us but are sacred to the people  who believe in them fervently and wholeheartedly. Take for instance the belief in a Kumari, or child goddess, in Nepal and Kathmandu. People in these countries believe that their goddess comes back to them reincarnated in the form of a child. Each cycle, the people chose a Kumari among eligible girls from an upper caste. Her reign starts when she is around four years of age until she reaches puberty. Potential candidates go through a rigorous selection process. Once selected, the Kumari is removed from her family and made to live in the temple where she is waited on hand and foot, her every whim and caprice catered to. She is revered as a goddess. Throngs of people, even kings, line up to pay homage to her. She is transported from place to place in a palaquin, because she is considered so sacred that her feet must never touch the ground. A Kumari is not even sent to school, because she is considered omniscient, or all- knowing. The problem is, this life of luxury and ease comes to a screeching halt when she has her first period. At that point, she is no longer considered pure enough to be a goddess and another one is chosen to take her place. The cycle starts anew. She is then returned to her family where she is expected to pick up where she left off more than a decade ago. When once she was treated like royalty, she is now expected to resume life as a commoner without any transition whatsoever. This can be pretty traumatic for anybody, especially for someone in her teens. Because of this, human rights activist groups have denounced it, alleging that this is another form of child abuse. The people who practice this protest that this is part of their religious tradition. They contend that outsiders do not have a right to pass judgement on them. Obviously, where you stand on this issue will be greatly influenced by how you were brought up.

Circumcision is another practice that can vary from one culture to another. Male circumcision in the US is not that big a deal, but in the Philippines, it is widely practiced for cultural and hygienic reasons. In fact, to call someone “pisot” (Bisaya for uncircumcised) is to insult him. Some tribes in Africa take it a notch higher. For them, to be uncircumcised means that someone is filthy and unsuitable for marriage. Harsh? Yes, but even harsher because they circumcise, not the male, but the female in their tribe. Ouch. (Warning: The details that follow are definitely not for the faint of heart.)

FGC or Female Genital Cutting, as it is called, vary in degrees from tribe to tribe. Basically, the inner and outer labia, or lips of the vagina, as well as the clitoris, are removed. This is usually done by an elder female with no medical background, with the use of a sharpened stone, knife or razor. The skin is sewn back tightly, leaving just a small opening for urination and menstruation. Reportedly, this enhances the pleasure of the man during sex. Conversely, this means that sex is a very painful and unpleasurable experience for the woman. This will hopefully ensure that she stays faithful to her husband and not be tempted to have sexual liasons with other men. Talk about double standards!

I have seen this kind of mutilation in a handful of women in the hospital. Believe me, it is not a pretty sight. Aside from the fact that these women derive no physical pleasure from sex, most of them find the mere act of urination painful. Currently, there is a movement in place seeking to outlaw the practice. In fact, a supermodel who herself was a victim of FGC is passionately speaking against it, with the aim to educate people, especially the mothers in these tribes, who continue to follow tradition and take their daughters to be circumcised in this brutal fashion. For the record, there is also a group of people who contend that circumcision is an act of mutilation regardless of whether it is done on men or women.

This fascination with culture translates to my love for foreign cinema as well. I don’t mean the song-and-dance routine of Bollywood movies or the sappy tear-jerkers of some Asian movies. ( I must confess, though, that I have a soft spot for Kung Fu films, no matter how cheesy, a throwback from watching them with my Kuya when I was younger.) I make no claims of being a serious foreign film aficionado nor am I a walking almanac of classics and award-winning heavyweights. I am simply someone who appreciates foreign films for the way  they thumb their noses at formula scripts and Hollywood endings. Besides, they open a vista to a different world where oftentimes truth is much stranger than fiction.Thus I appreciate how Chinese stories can showcase how extraordinary ordinary people can be. I  love British films for their clipped dialogue, restrained acting and dry sense of humour. French films are delightful with their twisted endings and artsy flair. Japanese film makers are notorious for their insanely far-fetched and imaginative plots. I guess you could say that anything quirky and unusual is quite alright by me. (That goes for indie films as well.)

In the light of this confession of my passion for foreign films, let me share with you a movie that left me emotionally unhinged when I first watched it.  It is a film by Deepa Mehta entitled “Water.”  It tackles the plight of widows in the 1940’s. This was a time when India was struggling between old traditions and a new way of thinking introduced by Gandhi. At this point in Indian history, widows were social outcasts abandoned by their own families and society as a whole, their very presence considered bad luck. A movement seeking to change this way of thinking and secure more rights for these women was underway in the more progressive cities, but it had not yet trickled down to the rural areas.

 The film in question was banned in India, its set vandalized and an effigy of the director burned in the streets. The director was forced to reshoot in Pakistan with a cast that was comprised mostly of actors that did not even speak Hindi. This film sparked an outcry among political extremists who have been calling  for a revival of social values and ancient religious practices. To understand the film better, let me give you a little background. In India, as in some cultures, daughters are considered a burden, even bad luck. To have a daughter spells more hardship for an already struggling family, as they have to give up precious cattle and what meager possessions they have for her dowry to ensure marriage to a suitable young man. Also, once married, she is considered a property of the husband, and to a large extent, her mother-in-law, where she lives the rest of her life in abject servitude to them. It is no wonder then that in the countryside, female infanticide is high where baby girls are left to die in fields or made to suck on poison instead of milk. In the cities where technology can tell the baby’s sex in utero, abortion of female fetuses is not unusual. In this setting was born the practice of child brides. Girls as young as 5 years old are married off to much older men (think in their 40’s and 50’s and yes, even 60’s!) This dispenses with the problem of dowries and has the added bonus of eliminating one mouth to feed in the bride’s household. If you find this barbaric, let me tell you the options left to these girls once their dear old husbands have departed…

courtesy of white shadows

According to their scriptures, widows in India have three unenviable options to choose from. The first is to marry her late husband’s younger brother (if he will have her), thereby continuing her life sentence under the guise of matrimony.

The second is considered the honorable thing to do: jump into the fire, literally. This custom, called Sati, or widow burning, has been outlawed but is still practiced in some remote areas. In some sects in India, a woman’s worth was tied to her husband.  A widow was considered an encumbrance whose very presence was ungodly. She could only redeem herself by committing Sati. With her husband dead, the devoted wife was expected to jump into the pyre (a burning pile of wood) to join him. This was supposed to be voluntary, a final act of supreme devotion and sacrifice. Understandably, a lot of women were not so keen on the idea. Unfortunately, since widows were not allowed to remarry or work, she was considered a strain on a family’s finances, so a lot of relatives have been reported to push many an unwilling widow into the pyre. If she managed to escape death by fire, she might meet it under the hands of the husband’s relatives who might beat her to death. If she still manages to escape, she will be driven away from her village. Recognizable by her shaved head and white sari, she will spend the rest of her life as an outcast, begging on the streets, or living  in a house for widows. Either way you looked at it, her prospects were pretty dire.

The third option is for her to live in an ashram, or Widow’s House. This is the backdrop of the film in question. In the ashram, she is supposed to live out the rest of her life in atonement of her sins, which was believed to have caused the death of her husband in the first place. The movie begins as we follow the journey of a little girl named Chuyia. Chuyia is an eight-year old girl who suddenly finds herself a widow after her much older husband dies. All she had remembered about her wedding day was that she was dressed in pretty colors and got to eat all the sweets she wanted. Barely having grasped the meaning of matrimony, now she has to deal with widowhood and its implications in her country. Her bangles get broken (widows are denied any luxury), her colorful sari changed for a white one (widows are denied any color) and her hair shaved off  (widows should not be vain). According to her tradition and religion, since her husband was the reason for her existence, with him gone, she is now considered half-dead. Ergo, there is no more need for sensations. Hence, like most widows, she is now forbidden to eat sweet, spicy or fried foods. Since there is no need for luxuries, she is deprived of her bangles and her colorful saris. Since there is also no need for feelings, normal activities like laughing, dancing or singing are now frowned upon. She is dumped at the House of Widows, never to see her family again, where she is expected to live a life of celibacy, solitude and self-denial. All at the ripe old age of eight!

When Chuyia first enters the ashram, the reality of the situation has not yet sunk in. She kept telling the other women that she did not belong there, that someday her mother was going to come and get her. The other women cannot even muster pity for her or find the courage to tell her the truth. The hollowness and bleakness of their lives leave no room for emotions. Like shadowy ghosts,  they huddle around in the dark corners of the ashram, bereft of dreams and feelings.

This is Chuyia’s world now, but her spirit is not easily broken. In child-like defiance, she challenges the others, especially Shakuntala, a devout widow, to rethink what everybody has just blindly and unquestioningly accepted all this time. She continues to play, sing and dance like a normal kid, much to the consternation of the other widows. When one of the widows chides her that she shouldn’t have any more feelings because she is now half-dead, she retorts that her feelings come from that part of her that is still half-alive.  One time, she shocks the other widows by daring to ask where the house for the “male widows” is located. Of course, there is no such thing. Widowers were free to remarry at any time and were still accepted in society. There was none of the stigma that was attached to widows like her.

Of the widows in this particular house, three are pivotal in our story. Madhumati is the self-appointed head of the widows who orders everyone around. Shakuntala is the widow whose unquestioning acceptance of her fate is deeply rooted in her religious beliefs. She sees the injustice around her but keeps her silence due to her faith. Kalyani is the young, beautiful widow who befriends Chuyia.

Even among these oppressed beings, an unspoken hierarchy still exists. Madhumati obviously rules the roost and has the final say on everything. Shakuntala is respected by the other widows but since she basically keeps to herself, she does not weild any clout. Chuyia is the young upstart who hasn’t quite settled into the normal routine yet. The rest are content to be the nameless and faceless majority. As for Kalyani, she is a different story…

Kalyani is a beautiful widow who lives apart from the rest, living in slightly better quarters. Unlike the others, she is allowed to grow her hair long and is even allowed to keep a pet dog. We soon find out the reason for her slightly privileged existence. Back in those times, begging was the only acceptable option left for widows. This was obviously not enough to sustain them. In order to preserve the purity of the rest yet at the same time support the household, the better-looking widows in some ashrams were forced into prostitution. In this case, Kalyani is the one pimped by Madhumati to support the household . 

When Chuyia first meets Kalyani, she wonders out loud if Kalyani is an angel, for indeed, that’s how she must have seemed to the little girl. Unlike the other widows who were emotionally dead, Kalyani still retained a lot of her youthful spirit and charm. Thus the two kindred spirits strike a friendship that made life in the ashram a little more bearable.

One fateful day, the two were giving the puppy a bath when it slips from their grasp and runs out into the street. Chuyia chases after it and runs into a handsome young man named Narayan. Having been educated in the progressive atmosphere of the big city, he is quite liberal and broad-minded in his outlook.  He supports Gandhi’s views regarding the need to change oppressive laws in the nation, including that concerning widows’ right to remarry. Narayan and Shakuntala are introduced to each other through Chuyia’s chance encounter with the former. Unlike most people who avoided widows like the plague, Narayan is not afraid to talk to her. Struck by her beauty, he tries to befriend Kalyani who was wary at first. Eventually, he manages to win her over and they fall in love. Narayan declares his intentions to marry her. Though skeptical at first, Kalyani finally gives in. Giddy with the prospect of happiness, Kulyani tells Chuyia about the upcoming nuptials but cautions her against telling anybody. Chuyia promises to keep mum but accidentally spills the secret to Madhumati. When Mahudmati finds out about Kalyani’s marriage plans, she is livid. This would not only condemn them to be reincarnated as jackals  in their next seven lives, it would also mean more financial hardship once their source of income was gone. In her anger, Madhumati chops off  Kulyani’s hair to make her look less attractive and locks her inside her room. She warns the other widows to stay away from Kalyani. The romance is seemingly nipped in the bud.

Madhumati ‘s cruelty towards Kalyani opens the eyes of Shakuntala, the religious widow. It acts as the impetus for her to re-examine her religious and cultural beliefs. She realizes that it was wrong to just blindly accept the fate that society had chosen for them. Women, including widows, have as much right as everyone else to love and to live freely. In defiance of Madhumati’s orders, she sets Kalyani free. Kalyani is able to meet up with Narayan as originally planned.

Narayan takes Kalyani on a ferry ride acorss the river towards his parents’  house to introduce her. As they get closer, Kalyani realizes with dread that the house is very familiar. It is owned by one of her most frequent customers. She abruptly asks Narayan for his father’s name. When she finds out what it is, she demands to have the boat turned around. When questioned why, Kalyani does not respond, too ashamed to reveal to him the sordid secret of the ashram and the part she played in it. 

Narayan confronts his father who admits that he knows Kalyani intimately. His father is a Brahmin, a member of a high caste, and is held in great esteem by people in their town, so Narayan finds it even more inexcusable that he takes advantage of these poor widows while he preaches about moral integrity. Instead of being apologetic or shameful about his liasons, Narayan’s father justifies his behavior by saying that he was doing these women a favor, that these women should consider themselves blessed to have been touched by him. He then suggests to Narayan to keep Kalyani as a mistress on the side but marry a socially acceptable maiden instead. Narayan is enraged by his father’s hypocrisy and outrageous suggestion. He disowns his father and resolves to take Kalyani to the city where people would be more broad-minded and accepting . He goes to the ashram in search for her but she is not there. He searches all over until he finally finds her. Unable to see any happy and respectable ending to their love story, she had chosen to drown herself in the river. He clutches her lifeless form against his body while he weeps.

In the meantime, back in the ashram, Shakuntala finds out that Chuyia is being groomed to replace Kalyani. In fact, although she does not know it yet, she is on her way across the river to service some wealthy Brahmin. Shakuntala is too late to prevent this from happening so she waits helplessly by the shore for Chuyia’s return. When the child is finally brought back, she is obviously traumatized, her spirit broken. Shakuntala spends the whole night cradling Chuyia in her arms, agonizing over what to do. She realizes that turning a blind eye to all the wickednessness around her was just as bad as committing them. When she hears that Gandhi is at the train station speaking to the crowd and giving them his blessing, she takes Chuyia along with her, though still unsure of her next course of action. As the train carrying Gandhi leaves, Shakuntala runs along it, imploring people to save Chuyia by taking her along with them. She finds no takers. At the last minute, she spots Narayan on the train and thrusts the child towards him. While he holds on to her and they both watch her as the train pulls away, Shakuntala finds peace in the knowledge that, away from their place’s oppressive view and treatment of widows, Chuyia will at least have a chance at a new life. Her journey towards a brighter future has just begun.

As the movie ended, I thought about all the widows who had their dreams and lives cut short by the untimely demise of their husbands, all this sanctioned by their own society. If I were brought up in that way of thinking, would I really have the heart to abandon my mother once my father was gone? Would I not think something was wrong about giving up my eight-year old daughter to a fifty-year old guy to be his bride? Would I jump into the pyre or willingly spend the rest of my bald, mirthless existence in an ashram once my husband is gone? I may not be in a position to judge, but I hope that there will never come a time when the price of my silence and my acquiescence means the violation of everything I hold dear and sacred. After watching this movie, I realized how lucky I am in more ways than one. Life may not have dealt me a string of blackjacks, but at least I did not go bust with every hand. Life could have been much, much worse…

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 4skywalker
    Dec 17, 2010 @ 07:47:04

    What a powerful and moving piece!! I have heard of some stories about the mutilation of women’s bodies in Africa, but not about the treatment of Indian women. Now, I have even more appreciation of the ladies, and feel sorry for all the pain you go through. BRAVO, Ems! This one is for the books!!!



  2. emmblu
    Dec 18, 2010 @ 09:43:16

    Yes, it’s a man’s world, all right. He makes the rules and they are all to his advantage. He chooses from an array of young and old, he gets a a cow and some goats for marrying her, and when she dies, he gets to replace her. On the other hand, if he dies, she is supposed to willingly go bald , ugly and lonely instead of marrying the hottie across the street! I would have told these women : skip the funeral, skip town, lead a new life somewhere really far, and plead temporary or permanent amnesia, whichever is most convenient!



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