Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal / Edition 1

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Invitations to Love provides a close examination of the dramatic shift away from arranged marriage and capture marriage toward elopement in the village of Junigau, Nepal. Laura M. Ahearn shows that young Nepalese people are applying their newly acquired literacy skills to love-letter writing, fostering a transition that involves not only a shift in marriage rituals, but also a change in how villagers conceive of their own ability to act and attribute responsibility for events. These developments have potential ramifications that extend far beyond the realm of marriage and well past the Himalayas.

The love-letter correspondences examined by Ahearn also provide a deeper understanding of the social effects of literacy. While the acquisition of literary skills may open up new opportunities for some individuals, such skills can also impose new constraints, expectations, and disappointments. The increase in female literacy rates in Junigau in the 1990s made possible the emergence of new courtship practices and facilitated self-initiated marriages, but it also reinforced certain gender ideologies and undercut some avenues to social power, especially for women.
Scholars, and students in such fields as anthropology, women's studies, linguistics, development studies, and South Asian studies will find this book ethnographically rich and theoretically insightful.
Laura M. Ahearn is Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Rutgers University.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472067848
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 11/5/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 312
  • Sales rank: 1,114,502
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal

By Laura M. Ahearn

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2001 Laura M. Ahearn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472067842

chapter one

Invitations to Love

Sarita, I'm helpless, and I have to make friends of a notebook and pen in order to place this helplessness before you. Love is the sort of thing that anyone can feel--even a great man of the world like Hitler loved Eva, they say. And Napoleon, who with bravery conquered the "world," united it, and took it forward, was astounded when he saw one particular widow. Certainly, history's pages are colored with accounts of such individuals who love each other. In which case, 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 love is "life success." I'm offering you an invitation to love.

In June 1992, Bir Bahadur, a twenty-one-year-old man who at the time often sported flashy jeans, a gold chain, and a winning smile, wrote these words in his first love letter to Sarita, whose long, black hair, fashionable Punjabi outfits, and demure giggles had caught his eye. Sarita, a twenty-one-year-old woman from the Magar village of Junigau, and Bir Bahadur, who was from another Magar village in western Palpa District, were both studying at the college campus in Tansen, the district center. They had met only once very briefly two months earlier when he had sought her out to deliver a message about some books she wanted to borrow from a relative. That one brief encounter, however, was enough to prompt each of them to inquire about the other's family, personal qualities, and marriageability. Two months later, Bir Bahadur sent his "invitation to love," and when Sarita replied a complex, tumultuous courtship ensued.

Courtships such as this one involving love letters became possible for the first time in the early 1990s as a result of increasing female literacy rates in the village. Since it was still not considered appropriate for young men and women to date or spend time alone together (though many managed to do so occasionally despite close parental supervision), love letters provided them with a way to keep in touch with their sweethearts. Love letters such as Bir Bahadur's not only kept young people in touch with one another, however; they also prolonged courtships, enabling the participants to get to know each other better. Moreover, the mere sending and receiving of love letters marked someone as a particular kind of person--a "developed" (bika¯s¯?) as opposed to a "backward" (pichhya¯d¯?) individual, someone who was capable of creating a particular kind of companionate marriage with a "life friend." Together, the two would try to create a future made brighter by love and "life success."

Although Sarita and Bir Bahadur were among the first young people in their villages to court through love letters, they were not by any means the first to experience romantic love. Indeed, expressions of romantic love in Junigau can be found in old folk songs, poems, and stories, not to mention in villagers' narratives of elopements that occurred decades ago. And yet Bir Bahadur and Sarita's courtship differed in many respects from those of their parents' generation. The few older Magars in Junigau who eloped rather than taking part in arranged or capture marriages carried on extremely brief courtships, often eloping the day after meeting someone at a songfest or wedding. While these few elopements were frequently triggered by romantic love, and while romantic love sometimes developed between spouses who had had arranged or capture marriages, most Junigau courtships that took place in the 1990s differed significantly from those that occurred in previous decades with regard to the way romantic love was conceptualized.

Not only did courtships leading to elopements look different in the 1990s; there were also many more of them in Junigau than there had been in earlier time periods. The number of elopements rose steadily in the village during the last decades of the twentieth century, whereas the number of arranged and capture marriages declined. More and more emphasis was placed on obtaining the woman's "consent" (manjur) to the marriage. What this consent looked like in various types of marriage; how brides, grooms, and others felt about it; and how this consent affected villagers' notions of action and responsibility will be explored in the chapters that follow. In the case of the love letter correspondences that will be analyzed in depth later in the book, consent becomes a key trope as the young men attempt to persuade their sweethearts to consent to their proposals of marriage. According to Junigau gender ideologies that remained dominant through the 1990s, men had the power to initiate actions or make suggestions, while women could only consent or object to them. As is always the case, however, actual behavior was considerably more complex than this simple dichotomy.

There is a common Nepali saying in Junigau: bha¯v¯file lekheko, chha¯la¯le chhekeko--"It is written by fate but covered by skin." This adage reflects a belief not only among the Magars who populate Junigau but also among many other South Asian ethnic groups and castes that at birth a person's fate is written underneath the skin of the forehead, making it impossible to ascertain what will happen. According to this view, fate is responsible for events that befall the individual, for it is fate, or, in a different translation, God or the gods, that has the power to write. Two other common sayings in Junigau are corollaries of this: dekheko ma¯trai hunna, lekheko hunu parchha--"It is not enough just to see something; it must also be written [i.e., fated]"--and bhaneko ma¯trai hunna, lekheko hunu parchha--"It is not enough just to say something; it must also be written [i.e., fated]." Given these connections between fate and the written word, it becomes important to ask what happens when villagers in an incipiently literate community such as Junigau acquire the power to write and the power to read what others write. How do conceptions of agency, gender, fate, and development shape and reflect new literacy practices? What new "structures of feeling" emerge with these practices?

In this ethnography, I investigate how villagers have applied their literacy skills to the new courtship practice of love letter writing in Junigau. I discuss the implications of the emergence of love letter correspondences for social relations in Nepal and trace out the broader ramifications for conceptions of agency (which I define as the culturally constrained capacity to act), literacy, gender, love, and social change. The central argument of this ethnography is that a close examination of marriage practices and love letters in Junigau reveals the micro-processes of social transformation as it is occurring. I contend that the transition under way in Junigau involves not only a shift away from arranged and capture marriage toward elopement facilitated by love letters but also a change in how villagers conceive of their own ability to act and how they attribute responsibility for events--developments with potential ramifications that extend far beyond the realm of marriage and well past the Himalayas.

In addition to offering us valuable insights into the rapidly changing marriage practices in this one community, these love letter correspondences also provide us with a deeper understanding of the social effects of literacy. While the acquisition of literacy skills may open up new opportunities for some individuals, such skills can also impose new constraints, expectations, and disappointments. As will become apparent in the chapters that follow, the increase in female literacy rates in Junigau in the 1990s made possible the emergence of new courtship practices and facilitated self-initiated marriages, but it also reinforced certain gender ideologies and undercut some avenues to social power, especially for women. Thus, this study reminds us that literacy is not a neutral, unidimensional technology but rather a set of lived experiences that will differ from community to community.

In order to enable the reader to assess in a more informed manner the following account of these complex, ongoing social transformations occurring in Junigau, I present in detail the cultural contexts surrounding love letter writing in the village. In particular, I analyze (1) the culturally specific means by which villagers experience and express romantic love; (2) the ways in which Junigau residents themselves conceive of their own actions, how they attribute responsibility for events, and how they accord romantic love the power to enable them to achieve "life success"; and (3) how villagers' ideas about their own personhood have been changing as a result of Western-influenced development discourse, which has saturated everything in the village from school textbooks to village council meetings, radio programs, and love letters.7 Development projects, many of which have been in existence for half a century or more in Nepal, carry with them not only new agricultural, educational, or social practices; they also disseminate new ways of speaking, thinking, being, and behaving. I leave the study of particular development programs, policies, and practices to other scholars; instead, I focus in this work on the cultural life of ideas surrounding development in one particular Nepali village in one particular time period. Talk about development is ubiquitous in Nepal. As Stacy Pigg notes, "The salience of development in Nepali national society cannot be overemphasized: the idea of development grips the social imagination at the same time its institutional forms are shaping the society itself" (1996:172). This ethnography demonstrates how this "idea of development" is taken up, changed, or challenged by Junigau residents, who thereby create what Arjun Appadurai has called "alternative, interactive modernities" (1996:65), many of which are evident in the language of the love letters as well as in the actions of the letter writers.


I have divided this ethnography into three parts. The first, "Arrivals, Introductions, and Theoretical Frameworks," consists of three chapters, including this one. In the remainder of this chapter, I describe who the Magars are as an ethnic group and provide a brief overview of some of the recent changes in Junigau social life, especially those involving gender relations and literacy. In chapter 2, "Juggling Roles: Daughter, Development Worker, and Anthropologist," I situate myself in Junigau by describing how I came to live there, how the villagers positioned me within their social world, and how over time I became disillusioned with my initial role as a development worker. The chapter concludes with a discussion of my research methods and some thoughts on the challenges of translation. In chapter 3, "Key Concepts and Their Application," I define five "keywords" that are central to the theoretical concepts of this study and explain how a "practice theory of meaning constraint" can help us narrow the range of possible interpretations that people (villagers, ethnographers, readers of ethnographies) might take away from an event. I conclude the chapter by citing three examples of "literate agency" designed to illustrate how the theoretical concepts I have introduced can be applied in an illuminating way to the ethnographic and linguistic data I present.

The second part of the book is entitled, "Transformations in Gender and Marriage" and contains chapters 4, 5, and 6. In chapter 4, "Gender and Marriage over Time in Junigau," I introduce the reader to Junigau's gender ideologies and recent trends in marriage practices in the village, drawing upon the results of a survey I conducted. In chapter 5, "Narratives of Marriage," I supplement these quantitative figures with qualitative data in the form of villagers' narratives of their arranged marriages, capture marriages, and elopements. In chapter 6, "Meeting by Way of a Letter: Shila Devi and Vajra Ba-hadur's Courtship," I present the first of two case studies involving love letter correspondences, this one between two Junigau residents I call Vajra Bahadur and Shila Devi. I follow them through their courtship, drawing on letters, narratives, and events at which I was present in order to provide as multidimensional a picture of their courtship as possible.

The final section, entitled "Love, Literacy, and Development," consists of the final four chapters of the book. In chapter 7, "Developing Love: Sources of Development Discourse in Nepali Love Letters," I examine what love meant to young Junigau residents in the 1990s and then analyze the textbooks, magazines, and novels that constitute some of the main sources of the development discourse found in Junigau love letters. All of these texts contain messages, both explicit and implicit, about agency, nationalism, development, and personhood that villagers are absorbing, resisting, and reconfiguring. In chapter 8,"The Practices of Reading and Writing," I place these texts in their social contexts, discussing how literacy practices in the village have changed over the years and exploring some of the settings in which reading and writing take place in Junigau and Tansen. In chapter 9, "Wearing the Flower One Likes: Sarita and Bir Ba-hadur's Courtship," I present the second of two case studies, picking up the story of Sarita and Bir Bahadur with which this book began and drawing on as many different kinds of linguistic and cultural data as possible in order to facilitate an understanding of their courtship. In the final chapter, "Love, Literacy, and Agency in Transition," I explore the ways in which Junigau residents are transforming their understandings of agency, causality, and personhood and suggest how these changing notions have both shaped and reflected new structures of feeling and social relations in the village, especially regarding literacy and marriage. I also argue that development is much more than a set of economic programs; it is a set of ideas about how to think and act. In the case of Junigau, development programs, and the ideas accompanying them, have not necessarily led to better lives for village residents, especially women. Finally, I emphasize the importance of examining actual literacy practices in particular societies at particular historical moments in order to guard against simplistic overgeneralizations about the allegedly universal results of literacy.

Mary Louise Pratt (1986:31-32) points out that many ethnographies open with the trope of arrival, and my ethnography, in this sense at least, is no different. To begin with, then, I invite the reader to accompany me as I arrive in Junigau in December 1982 for the first time as a young, enthusiastic, and naive Peace Corps volunteer.

Arrival in Junigau

While I had not chosen Nepal for my Peace Corps service, I did choose Junigau as a post, sight unseen, because it was a village populated by Magars, a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group reputed to be friendly, easygoing, and not as strict as higher-caste groups about certain Hindu concepts such as pollution (or so the post report said). In fact, so attractive did living among Magars seem that I ended up having to fiip a coin with another volunteer for the privilege of living in Junigau.

Surprised and delighted that I had won the coin toss, I set off for Junigau on foot from Tansen, the thriving bazaar and district center of Palpa District, and arrived in Junigau after what should have been an easy morning's walk but ended up being an arduous, full-day trek because I got lost. I remember feeling extreme embarrassment at my sweaty, bedraggled, pink-faced appearance when I met the headmaster of the school in which I was to teach. The headmaster and other village elders (all male) had rejoiced when they received a cable a week or two earlier notifying them that their request for a Peace Corps teacher had been granted, but all had assumed that the volunteer would be a man, not a woman. When I showed up all by myself and was evidently not only female but young and unmarried, I caused the village elders great consternation. How could they place a twenty-year-old unmarried woman alone in the house they had set aside for a male volunteer? Certainly, their responsibilities to protect me (and my reputation) precluded such an arrangement. As I learned many years later during my anthropological fieldwork, the protection of a daughter's reputation and the preservation of their virginity are duties that parents take extremely seriously in Junigau, and when I showed up in the village the elders took it upon themselves to act in loco parentis.

I still have a vivid memory of sitting in the school's office by a window with a glorious view of the Himalayas. My sweat dried in the cool December air as a dozen or so men discussed my fate in a dialect of Nepali that bore little resemblance to the language I had just spent three months intensively learning. Every once in a while I would try to interject and make clear my preference for a house, or at least a room, of my own. Only later did I come to realize the logistical difficulties involved in this request. In the early 1980s, most Magar houses in Junigau consisted of one main room downstairs and sometimes an attic for storing grain upstairs. Family members cooked, worked, ate, and slept either in the main room or out on the veranda. Providing me with my own room was therefore extremely difficult. As inappropriate as the village elders considered it to place me alone in a house, however, they also realized I would need some space of my own. Eventually, the elders decided to place me in a tiny hut adjacent to the main house of a family that lived only a minute or two from the school. The location offered not only proximity to where I would be teaching but relative peace and quiet, since the family at the time consisted of a mother and father, a son, a daughter, and a new daughter-in-law. With the son away in the Nepali Army, the four members of the family who remained constituted a household considerably smaller than average in Junigau.

When the headmaster and village elders took me there to show me where I would live, we arrived in the courtyard accompanied by every child in the neighborhood to find Bhauju, the new, sixteen-year-old daughter-in-law of the family, busily cleaning out the debris and firewood that had been stored in the hut. I learned my first lesson about the lowly status of daughters-in-law when the assembled crowd roared in laughter after I used the honorific form of "you" (tapa˜?) to ask Bhauju her name. I later discovered that my audience considered my question humorous not only because they deemed the honorific too respectful for a woman of Bhauju's status but because asking the name of almost anyone, especially a new daughter-in-law, was unheard of in a village like Junigau, where virtually all people (including myself) were addressed using kinship terms. Over the years, Bhauju has taught me many, many other lessons and has become one of my closest friends. When I think back to how sad and shy she was as a new bride and compare that demeanor to her present one of considerable self-confidence almost twenty years later, I am also reminded of how a Nepali woman's role and status evolve over her lifetime.

On that first day, just after I arrived in the courtyard of my new home, a short, wiry woman of about fifty came over to me and began gesturing enthusiastically, grabbing my arm painfully, and speaking loudly in a dialect utterly unintelligible to me. Nowadays whenever Didi and I reminisce about our first meeting we never fail to chuckle over how crazy she seemed to me and how dumb I seemed to her on that first day. Didi also boasts (with a great deal of truth) to anyone who will listen that she was the one who taught me everything I know. At the time, however, I was not sure I wanted to live two or three years with people who not only seemed crazy but who would undoubtedly take it upon themselves to keep me company and "protect" my reputation. Fortunately, within a month I had grown close enough to the women of the family to rule out any other living arrangement, and, indeed, I have lived with the same family every time I have returned to Junigau since 1982, for a total of about six years' residence.

The Magar Village of Junigau

To reach Junigau from Kathmandu in the early 1980s, it used to be necessary to spend two days on several different buses before arriving in Tansen, the district center of Palpa District in western Nepal. By the late 1990s, however, it became possible to take a direct bus from Kathmandu to Tansen, arriving in about ten hours. From Tansen, Junigau is approximately half a day's walk, depending on the weight of one's load, the length of one's legs, and the strength of one's cardiovascular system. Quick walkers with no loads to carry can make it in under two hours, but the fastest I have ever done it is in about three hours. A tractor road to Junigau has been planned for years, but as of this writing it has yet to be completed. One therefore must arrive in Junigau on foot.

On clear days, the views from Junigau northward toward the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas are spectacular. Junigau's location a thousand or so feet above the Kali Gandaki river valley allows for even more breathtaking views--and cool breezes in the warm months. Despite the relative proximity of a river, however, village households do not have running water. Indeed, water is so scarce that it is rationed carefully, the few village taps being unlocked for only a couple of hours each day. Electricity has been sporadically available in Junigau since 1996, but the supply is barely enough to enable families to put a few light bulbs in their houses.

Partly because of the dim interiors of Junigau mud and stone homes and partly because people's daily activities often take them out to the fields, social life in Junigau takes place outdoors to a large extent--on verandas, in the sitting places (chaupa¯r¯fi) under large trees, at the water tap, or in one of the public buildings in the middle of the village. These include: several school buildings; a temple to Kali, a Hindu goddess; a building for village meetings; a health post; a youth club building; and a half dozen tea shops that sell cigarettes, matches, soap, alcohol, and sometimes tea. It is indicative of the rapid pace of social change in the village that none of these buildings existed in 1982 except for the temple and the main school building.

Comprising four of the nine wards of a Village Development Committee (formerly called a pancha¯yat), Junigau is spread out along the side of a ridge at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. Although the four wards of Junigau are in some sense arbitrary political divisions, for the most part they conform to existing social divisions among the patrilines in the village. Ward boundaries are used to determine not only political representation but everything from volleyball teams to wedding guest lists. In the 1990s, Junigau had a population of approximately 1,250 people, almost all of whom were from the Tibeto-Burman ethnic group known as Magars. While villagers uniformly claim that no Ma-gars are higher or lower than any other Magars in any of the four wards, there are nonetheless important distinctions made among subclans (thar) as to appropriate marriage alliances. There are also differences in wealth, status, gender, and age that set Junigau residents apart from one another. As tightly knit and multiply related through kinship as the villagers are, therefore, the village is not without its internal divisions. Moreover, it is a challenge to determine the boundaries of the village, for they extend as far as its residents' marital and economic ties--that is, to distant villages in Nepal and India and to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, the Middle East, and Great Britain.

I conducted most of my research in Junigau's central ward, where the school and tea shops are located. I knew many of the ward's 320 residents from my years living and teaching there while in the Peace Corps, and it seemed advisable to make the most of these earlier contacts. I therefore came to know this ward the best, since I surveyed it twice myself and elicited narratives of marriage and love letters from its residents. Throughout my research, however, I made attempts to branch out to the other wards, attending weddings and visiting friends there. I also had Harkha Bahadur Thapa and Gun Bahadur Thapa, my Junigau research assistants, collect survey information on marriage practices from two other wards. Thus, I can say with relative certainty that the observations contained in this ethnography apply equally to all four wards of Junigau.

Magars as an Ethnic Group

The Magars of Junigau, like many other Magars in Palpa District and elsewhere in Nepal, do not speak the Magar language except for isolated words found most notably in kinship terminology. For all but some women who marry into Junigau from distant Magar-speaking villages, the first language of Junigau residents is a dialect of Nepali. Like many other peoples throughout the Indian subcontinent, the Magars of Junigau have become Hinduized, fitting themselves into the Hindu caste system about three-quarters of the way down the hierarchy, well below high-caste Brahmans and Chhetris but above untouchable castes such as tailors and blacksmiths. Junigau residents also observe most Hindu holidays and hold strong Hindu beliefs about pollution and gender relations. This process of Hinduization must have occurred long ago, for even among the oldest living villagers no one recalls Junigau residents ever having spoken anything but Nepali or having practiced any religion other than Hinduism. Nevertheless, Junigau Magars retain an identity and many cultural practices that distinguish them from their neighbors of other castes or ethnic groups. Even the ways in which they observe certain Hindu festivals, such as Tij, differ from the customs of Brahmans, Chhetris, or untouchables (cf. Ahearn 1998).

Like all subaltern groups, Magars have a complicated history and ethnic identity. No one is certain exactly when Magars arrived in what is now Nepal, or even where their place of origin was, but most scholars agree that it was somewhere north of the Himalayas, probably northeast of Tibet. Numbering approximately 1.3 million in the 1991 Nepali census, Magars comprise over 7 percent of the population--a figure some Magar politicians consider an underestimate by perhaps half. Magars reside all over Nepal, but their settlements are concentrated in the middle and western parts of the country. Far from homogeneous as a group, Magars have been divided by John Hitchcock into two broad subgroups, the southern and the northern Magars, representing, Hitchcock claims, two waves of migration from the north (1966:4). Although both groups call themselves Magars, the languages they speak are not mutually intelligible. Gary Shepherd conducted a linguistic survey and discovered "at least five different groups who spoke different languages, yet each claimed they were the Magars" (1982:11). Shepherd suggests that as successive waves of immigrants arrived those who settled near them might have taken on the Magar name.

Most Magars in Junigau told me they had no idea when their ancestors settled there or what their origins had been. Members of one subclan in Junigau, however, described how three of their ancestors were high-caste, sacred-thread-wearing Thakuris who gave up their high status when hunger forced them to accept food prepared by people of lower castes. The three brothers then reportedly threw their sacred threads into the holy Kali Gandaki River just below Junigau and became Magars.

Despite the uncertainty as to the origin of Magars, all scholars agree that they must have arrived centuries ago. Kamal Adhikary concludes that since Ma-gars must have come from their place of origin by way of Tibet and since they show no traces of Buddhism in their religious activities, they most likely arrived in Nepal before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the seventh century c.e. (1993:11). Once Nepal had become a nation and was in the process of attempting to incorporate the many peoples within its borders under one main law, the Muluki Ain, in 1854, Magars were inserted into the Hindu caste hierarchy as "water-acceptable, non-enslavable alcohol drinkers" (Hofer 1979). This meant that higher castes could accept water but not food from them and, unlike other Tibeto-Burman groups, they could not be enslaved. Their alcohol drinking, however, relegated them to a relatively low placement in the hierarchy.

In the current political climate in Nepal, questions of ethnic origin, identity, and religion are far from academic. Magar politicians and historians such as Gore Bahadur Khapangi and M. S. Thapa claim that Magars used to be Buddhist before other groups arrived from the south and imposed their Hinduism on them (Ahearn 2001b; Thapa 1993). In a political speech in Junigau in early 1993, Khapangi urged villagers to cast off Hinduism and return to their "Buddhist roots," thereby also overturning their social, religious, and economic oppression at the hands of high-caste Brahmans and Chhetris. Although Khapangi disagrees with Adhikary's contention that Magars were most likely never Buddhist, both Khapangi's observations and my own echo Adhikary's conclusions regarding the continuation of economic hardship for most Magars: "In sum, the social structure of domination and subordination that enchained the Magars for a long time has to some extent been dismantled, but there has been very little change in their actual standard of living" (1993:39). Magars are still discriminated against and are at a disadvantage in most social and economic arenas in Nepal. These broad political, historical, religious, and economic concerns have direct relevance when one is seeking to understand the day-to-day actions of Junigau residents.

Magars as Nepali Citizens

The Magars are only one of dozens of different ethnic, linguistic, religious, and caste groups in Nepal. Although Nepal is a relatively small country of about 23 million people in a mountainous land roughly the size and shape of Tennessee, it has received a disproportionate amount of attention from anthropologists. While Nepal was never formally colonized by any country, its close proximity to India (which borders Nepal on three sides) has led to a significant amount of influence from that country, both while it was a British colony and subsequently. This colonial and postcolonial influence can be seen in Junigau as men join the Indian and British Gurkha regiments, as villagers walk into Tansen, the district center, to see Hindi films, and as Indians increasingly travel up into the hills of Nepal to peddle goods.

Others have written comprehensive accounts of Nepal's history, so I will only give a brief overview of those recent developments in Nepali politics and history that are most salient to this study. From the mid-1800s to the mid1900s, Nepal was ruled by a series of prime ministers from the Rana family who made the monarchs of the time into figureheads, kept the country closed to most outsiders, and prohibited all but the most elite, high-caste families from educating their children. When the monarchy regained control from the Ranas in the 1950s, a brief period of party democracy ensued before a "partyless democracy" was instituted in which people (both men and women) voted for members of local councils (pancha¯yats). Political parties were illegal during this pancha¯yat era.

When the People's Movement of 1990 reestablished party democracy in Nepal, it marked a significant change in the way many Nepalis conceived of themselves as political and personal actors. In the case of Junigau, while no one took part in the demonstrations in 1990, the mere fact that "democracy has arrived," as radios, teachers, and magazines continuously tell them, means that villagers are beginning to think and talk about the importance of individual actions and choices. Indeed, many villagers have defined democracy to me as the ability to act according to one's own wishes (a¯phno ichcha¯). Their conceptions of their own and others' agency--in both the political and personal realms--have begun to change, as people attribute responsibility for events more often to individuals rather than to fate. I believe it is no coincidence that elopements have skyrocketed in Junigau, as villagers are being inundated with political rhetoric and development discourse that emphasizes individual choice, "progress," and "success."

There is also an increased sense of nationalism among many Junigau residents since the 1990 revolution. While villagers have always been aware of their nationality and indeed consider their king to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, the advent of formal schooling and the growth of various kinds of literacy practices in the village have contributed to the development of a new awareness of themselves as citizens of Nepal.

In 1996, Maoist revolutionaries initiated an armed insurrection that has spread to many districts throughout Nepal, causing the deaths of over one thousand Maoists, police officers, and government officials (Kumar 2000). In Gorkha District, newly literate women have been joining the Maoist ranks in record numbers (Machanda 1999). As of this writing, however, Junigau remains unaffected by the Maoist insurgency; indeed, most villagers are unaware of its existence. Nevertheless, the popularity of the Maoist movement among newly literate women in Gorkha District and the novel courtship practice of love letter writing in Junigau represent two fascinating examples of the unexpected consequences of female literacy.

Changes in Junigau

I observed a number of changes in Junigau from 1982 to 2000 that point to ongoing, complex processes of social transformation. More and more villagers have been able to afford battery-operated radios and so have begun to listen to programs on "rural women's development," romantic songs from Hindi and Nepali movies, and serialized weekly soap operas. Even more influential are the Hindi and Nepali films themselves, which villagers view at the cinema hall in Tansen (cf. Dickey 1995). On many occasions, I have accompanied village


Excerpted from Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal by Laura M. Ahearn Copyright © 2001 by Laura M. Ahearn. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
A Note on Transliteration, Transcription, and Pronunciation
Pt. 1 Arrivals, Introductions, and Theoretical Frameworks
Ch. 1 Invitations to Love 3
Ch. 2 Juggling Roles: Daughter, Development Worker, and Anthropologist 27
Ch. 3 Key Concepts and Their Application 45
Pt. 2 Transformations in Gender and Marriage
Ch. 4 Gender and Marriage over Time in Junigau 67
Ch. 5 Narratives of Marriage 88
Ch. 6 Meeting by Way of a Letter: Shila Devi and Vajra Bahadur's Courtship 119
Pt. 3 Love, Literacy, and Development
Ch. 7 Developing Love: Sources of Development Discourse in Nepali Love Letters 149
Ch. 8 The Practices of Reading and Writing 191
Ch. 9 Wearing the Flower One Likes: Sarita and Bir Bahadur's Courtship 212
Ch. 10 Love, Literacy, and Agency in Transition 245
Notes 261
References 275
Index 287
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