Draupadi is my favourite woman
In a meticulously researched story, Greta Rana paints a fascinating picture of the life of Jung Bahadur Rana, who founded the Rana dynasty that ruled Nepal for 104 years, told through the many strong women in his life, who have remained hitherto uncelebrated. The author tells us why Hidden Women is a tale relevant to all modern society
The book is full of metaphors, like the one about how all men know to do is plough while women have to tend to it thereafter. Given that these events took place in the past, how difficult or easy was it to do that?
While I was working in hill and mountain areas in the ’70s, I came across a lot of earthy ‘women’s’ sayings and songs, which used such metaphors. Some of them are extremely bawdy. When I first came to Nepal on July 4, 1971 it was barely a literate nation and this hadn’t changed much by the millennium. Oral traditions still thrived, so I used this particular metaphor, which you still hear in the hills, particularly in very patriarchal areas where men play cards once the ploughing is over while the women carry out all other agricultural work.
History and mythology are rich with references to the sacrifices women must make for honour and genealogy, and the social and economic baggage they are forced to carry. The story of Kadam and the Rana dynasty seems to be no different. Could you comment on that?
Yes, it’s all too true — it’s the male genius that has convinced women that they are doing it for honour, but whose honour? The honour of the male line, which doesn’t even make sense, biologically. Worldwide, there are so many taboos, all of which probably took root after we no longer lived in caves. In pre-history it seems to have been the belief that the spirit of a dead ancestor entered the womb of a mature female — maybe we even got notions of reincarnation from that. You see depictions like this in the cave drawings in Lascaux, a complex of caves in France famous for Paleolithic cave paintings.
Once man entered the herding era and observed the sequence of mating and pregnancy among the herds, I suppose they decided it was time to keep women under wraps and defend their sacred seed. It’s bizarre when you think much of human history and women’s subjection is based on that. It’s men who are a danger — women are impregnated once in nine months whereas men can be, heedlessly, much more productive, as it is in their nature to be in many respects. They proliferate everything and the number of cars sinking the planet and guzzling gas is testimony to this. I suppose that’s why psychiatrists are forever looking for phallic symbols in male behaviour.
A recurring theme of birth and death — beginning from Kadam’s role as a wet nurse, to the end of her previous life as a son-bearing machine, to the death of Rana — pervades the book. Tell us a little about that.
These are the two critical events we don’t control. They are divinely decreed, if you like. In Northern European traditions, as a child, I was struck by the significance my elders gave to birth. They remarked on every event surrounding it — the gestures of the newborn, the attitude of the parents, how swiftly the baby cried, and so on. In history and myth, having a good death was very much a recurring theme.
When I came to Nepal from Canada, of course, these were the points of comparison between my own culture and that of Nepal. Kadam’s role is one that is common among Nepali women. Ironically, even in the 21st century, women who don’t have sons are pitied, even abused. This is downright stupid since it is men who determine the sex of a child and in all societies the old adage that ‘a son is a son until he gets a wife, a daughter’s a daughter for the rest of her life’ is prevalent in some form or another. So the beginning and the end are divinely decreed and we make much of them because we don’t understand them. You find this the world over, no matter the religious faith. It’s primeval and it ties us to the earth in some way.
Why did you choose Kadam’s story as the principal one?
I chose Kadam’s story because a significant event in my life gave me an epiphany — that it is those who serve dynasties who perpetuate the aura of the ruling clans rather than the clan members themselves. Watch the Seven Samurai (1954), you find it at work there — the fellow who longs to be a samurai but who is not of the warrior clan instils respect and obedience into the villagers more than the sumurais themselves. It’s even the ‘satellite’ people, household and administrative staff, who perpetuate honorific language forms that refer to (in South Asia) the Persian or Dari verb forms and words for daily activities or items. Usually these are mixtures of Urdu and Dari-remnants I suppose of the Moghul empire.
In the course of your research, were there any inspiring stories and exploits of women that could not be included in the book?
There were women who obstinately refused to marry and others who regretted that they didn’t or that their families had gone broke and not found them grooms. In the latter instances they found grooms for themselves, not in the same social stratum, and it was courageous of them to do so and brave the ridicule and eventually overcome it. Some eloped, others withstood beatings to a certain point and then tricked their husbands into being locked up. Yet others secreted away pocket money to be able to hire someone to teach them to read and write (in English too). One dressed up as a boy and ran away, helped by her mother, to school in nearby India.
The events here may belong to a dynasty far removed from the concerns of the modern day Indian, yet, like most historical events, they contain universal themes, concerns and social issues.
I think it’s relevant to all societies, even more so as the world descends into a kind of chaos. We live in a time of political correctness and yet there is so much corruption and graft. Are our societies today any different from the one in Nepal in Jung’s time? How far have we really come? Look at how we are marshalled and colonised in the name of development and how we are slowly killing off the planet and the people on it. Yet, women, in all instances are the ‘last colony’, and to not recognise our common bond above caste, creed and colour is one of the tragedies of this planet. What could possibly put all this destruction into reversal? I suppose I would like to dream that there is someone out there amoral enough to pull us all into line and then turn that same discipline on himself/herself. By amoral, of course, I mean without weighing too many pros and cons and acting on some kind of dynamic impetus. It’s the pros and cons that have led to indecision — look at Syria — worrying where the oil will come from and what Iran might do has led to the slaughter of so many children. Aren’t their lives worth more than gallons of petrol? Like Doris Lessing, I tend to think there must be something evil somewhere that wants all this blood.
Comment on the feminism in the book, expressed mainly through Kadam’s character, her ruminations and interactions with other people.
I know men think women are ‘quaint’ when they make pro-women statements. Why should women not be pro women? Men forever ‘stroke’ other men, particularly powerful ones. Societies have been distorted in their views and attitudes towards women for a long time. Good women are weak and obedient, bad women treacherous and of course, strong women are not admired much. The capacity to suffer and tolerate is mistakenly labelled as strength in women. We ought to look at ourselves and our societies more closely. My favourite woman is Draupadi because, whether she existed or not, someone gave her the guts to say that she would not wash her hair again until she washed it in Dushashan’s blood. That’s keeping woman’s honour, not a husband’s. She spoke for herself.