White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender, and Body in North India / Edition 1

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This rich ethnography explores beliefs and practices surrounding aging in a rural Bengali village. Sarah Lamb focuses on how villagers' visions of aging are tied to the making and unmaking of gendered selves and social relations over a lifetime. Lamb uses a focus on age as a means not only to open up new ways of thinking about South Asian social life, but also to contribute to contemporary theories of gender, the body, and culture, which have been hampered, the book argues, by a static focus on youth.

Lamb's own experiences in the village are an integral part of her book and ably convey the cultural particularities of rural Bengali life and Bengali notions of modernity.
In exploring ideals of family life and the intricate interrelationships between and within generations, she enables us to understand how people in the village construct, and deconstruct, their lives. At the same time her study extends beyond
India to contemporary attitudes about aging in the United States. This accessible and engaging book is about deeply human issues and will appeal not only to specialists in South Asian culture, but to anyone interested in families, aging, gender, religion, and the body.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520220010
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 6/22/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 323
  • Sales rank: 1,360,235
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Sarah Lamb is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University.

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Read an Excerpt

White Saris and Sweet Mangoes

Aging, Gender, and Body in North India

By Sarah Lamb


Copyright © 2000 the Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-93526-6




I arrived in Mangaldihi quite by chance. I had landed in India at the end of December 1988, anxious to begin research. I had thought I would focus on a rural community or village, where it might be easier for me to get to know a wider variety of people, since villagers would tend to be less enclosed than city dwellers within the walls of their own homes and workplaces. Several restless weeks slipped by in Calcutta and then in the sophisticated university town of Santiniketan while I sought suggestions about a specific location. To most of the Bengali city and town people I met, villages (gram) were distant, almost foreign places that elicited nostalgia. Ancestral connections might lie there or the roots of one's identity (Calcutta schoolchildren reportedly had to compose an annual essay on "My Village"). But many times I was told that I could not possibly live in one. I could perhaps visit a village on a bicycle, but if I were to live there—I would certainly get sick, perhaps even die, and definitely suffer. I finally met a few people who still had family or ancestral homes in villages that they visited regularly. One of these was Manik Banerji, who worked as a schoolteacher near Santiniketan and whose mother's brother lived in a large village called Mangaldihi about thirty kilometers away.

The relationship with a mother's brother (mama) is a very special one for Bengalis, full of pampering and sweetness. One can ask one's mother's brother for almost anything, and he is expected to indulge the request. So when Manik Ranerji wrote a letter of introduction for me to his mother's brother in Mangaldihi asking this man to help me out in any way he could, Manik Banerji assured me (with a glint in his eye) that his mama would surely oblige. He gave me directions to the village and house: a crowded bus ride to the town of Parui and then a long cycle rickshaw ride past rice fields and small villages to the sizable village of Mangaldihi, where I could not miss his uncle's three-story brick home, the largest house in the village. And sure enough, the mother's brother, Dulal Mukherjee, generously agreed to let me live in his compound, on the second floor of his family's old and little-used mud house, above a dark and little-used doctor's office, where my landlord kept a store of various medicines.

And so I was introduced to Mangaldihi, where I was to become caught up in what I would later learn to call the "net of maya," or web of attachments, affections, jealousies, and love that in Bengalis' eyes make up social relations. It began on my first night in Mangaldihi when a young woman from the neighborhood, Hena, came to sleep with me and be my companion. Or perhaps it began earlier that day, when I visited Mangaldihi briefly, accepted a glass of sugar water (sarbat) in Dulal Mukherjee's home, and agreed to live in his neighborhood. Bengalis regard maya as being formed through the everyday activities of sharing food, touching, sleeping in the same bed, having sexual relations, exchanging words, and living in the same home, in the same neighborhood, or on the same village soil. These attachments link people (family, friends, neighbors), as well as people and the places, animals, and objects that make up their worlds. And once bonds of maya are formed, Bengalis often say, they are very difficult to loosen.

I learned this first through my relationship with Hena, the person with whom I developed the most intimate ties. My landlord and neighbors decided that I should have a companion to sleep with at night and to show me around, so they sent me an unmarried young woman in her early twenties from a poor Brahman family in the neighborhood. At once a younger sister and companion, she soon became a research assistant, a confidante, and a dear friend. After a few weeks went by, however, I decided that I needed to have at least a little time and space to myself (separation being valued by Americans), and I suggested to Hena that she let me sleep alone at night, that I needed the time to study and was not afraid of the village ghosts. Hena burst out weeping, "You're trying to 'cut' (kata) the maya! How will I live without you? I won't be able to bear it." So she remained my daily and nightly companion, as we cooked together and shared food, my single pillow, and confidences.

The people in the Mukherjee household and neighborhood also protested vehemently when, after about six months, I attempted to move into a larger, more comfortable home to prepare for my husband's arrival. My neighbors and my landlord's family would not have me moving into what was technically a different neighborhood, although the house was literally only a stone's throw away: "How can you just cut the maya like that and move? You'll become an 'other person' (parer lok)." And I was deluged with milk, fish, sweets, visits, and pleas to persuade me and strengthen our bonds, so that I could not leave.

From the very beginning of my stay in Mangaldihi up until the end, I heard a continual refrain-even after just one shared cup of tea, or a brief conversation on the roadside-"Oh, it is so sad that you have come, for you will have to leave again. How will we cut this maya when you leave? Maya cannot be cut." And one day Sankar, a well-educated young Brahman man from Mangaldihi, sat down next to me on the bus as I was on my way to shop at the market in a nearby town and said: "There is one 'tragedy' [he used the English word] about your coming here. That is that you will have to leave. You must be hearing a lot about this. Bengalis hate separations. They feel so much maya for everything. You know maya? Once there is a relationship (samparka), they want to keep it strong (sakta). They want everyone to be together always." People would also chide me, "You've just come here to cause maya to grow and then go away."

Human relationships for Mangaldihians involved not only bonds of maya, attachment or affection, but also himsa, jealousy. On one of my first expeditions to Mangaldihi 1 sat behind a Muslim rickshaw driver pedaling along the narrow ~ a v e dro ad past fallow winter rice fields. As he gazed at the landscape he said to me, "Birbhum lthe district Mangaldihi lies in] is the best place in the world. Everyone here knows each other and everyone loves each other." His words made me feel exceedingly lucky to have happened on such a place: I looked around, with the winter sun warm on my face and arms, and admired the gentle hills undulating into the distance. Now his statement seems even more striking, because it was the only one of its kind that I heard. Much Inore frequently, I heard about and experienced the pervasive himsa in the region's villages. People would tell me, "Bengalis are a very jealous people (bangalira khub himsute jat)." And the people of Mangaldihi thought that they were even more jealous than other Bengalis.

I certainly experienced jealousy in Mangaldihi, which seeped into almost everything I and other people did—as people (especially women) bickered and argued about who gave more tea, rice, sugar, snacks, money, fish, land, photos, saris (on loan), attention, and so on to whom; who was favored, who was not; who was loved most, who was not. I often wondered to myself, near despair, if they could be right about the general disposition of Mangaldihians; and if so, why had I chosen this village? But it takes a certain amount of intimacy to be involved in such struggles, and so I finally realized that the intense jealousies I often encountered were due in part to my privileged position. Being in some ways one of their own people (nijer lok), I was inevitably embroiled in the tangles (jat) of jealousy and wants and givings and receivings and affection and love that Bengali relationships entail.

By the end of my stay in Mangaldihi, the people of the village had indeed finally begun to view me as one of them—for they worried less about their pain and tugs of maya than about mine. People would say with compassion, again and again over the weeks before my departure, "We have maya for only one person—you—who will leave and cause us pain. But how much more pain will you suffer! For you have maya for all of us, and will have to leave all of us." They viewed me as in the center of a "net" (jal) of maya, holding multiple strands that I had gathered during my eighteen months there-bonds of affection and attachment for all of the people of the village, and also for all of my things: the household items I had collected and lived with over a year and a half, my saris, my conch shell bangles (a sign of a married woman), my taste for Bengali food (how was I going to get by without eating alu posta, potatoes with poppy seed paste, a regional favorite?), the village deities, the village land. How would I be able to cut the maya for all of these people, places, and objects and leave?

I came to view the ways people reacted to and interpreted my relatively brief and inconsequential stay in Mangaldihi as an avenue toward understanding how Bengalis think about and experience the forming and loosening of social-substantial relations in their own daily lives. Indeed, I found my coming and going to be particularly relevant for understanding practices and attitudes that surround aging and dying. For if the people I knew felt that it would be so exceedingly difficult for a person like me to leave Mangaldihi after residing there for only a number of months, what happens when a person who has lived for years and years with a family, in a village, on a piece of land, with all of his or her possessions, has to take leave of them all and die? Over and over again, this was a worry I heard expressed by older people, and by younger people contemplating their own future.


Such concerns about maya and aging—the forming and loosening of emotional relations over a lifetime—speak also to Bengali notions of what it is to be a person. A principal theme in sociocultural studies of South Asia over the past several decades has been the investigation of South Asian notions of what a "person" or "self" is.

Several of these studies have focused on the fluid and open nature of persons in India. This insight was first voiced by McKim Marriott (1976), who with Ronald Inden (Marriott and Inden 1977) pointed to everyday Indian practices reflecting the assumption that persons have more or less open boundaries and may therefore affect one another's natures through transactions of food, services, words, bodily substances, and the like. Marriott and Inden, who described the Indian social and cultural world as one of particulate "flowing substances," suggested that Indians view persons in such a world as "composite" and hence "dividual" or divisible in nature. By contrast, Europeans and Americans view persons as relatively closed, contained and solid "individuals" (see also Marriott 1990).

E. Valentine Daniel (1984) similarly emphasized that among Tamils, all things are constituted of fluid substances. In perpetual flux, these substances have an inherent capacity to separate and mix with other substances. Thus it is possible—indeed, inevitable—for persons to establish intersubstantial relationships with other people (sexual partners, household and village members) and with the places (land, village, houses) in and with which they live. Such substantial mixings point to what Daniel has called "the cultural reality of the nonindividual person." They reveal the "fluidity of enclosures" in Tamil conceptual thought, whether those be the boundaries of a village, the walls of a house, or the skin of a person (1984:9, his italics).

Ronald Inden and Ralph Nicholas (1977) described similar personally transformative transactions among Bengalis, who to form kinship relations partly share and exchange their bodies by means of acts such as birth, marriage, sharing food, and living together (e.g., pp. 13, 17–18). Francis Zimmermann (1979, 1980) and Sudhir Kakar (1982:233–34), too, found notions of the fluid and substantially interpenetrative nature of persons, gods, places, and things in Ayurvedic texts and practices. Zimmermann in particular emphasized that the body in Ayurveda exists in a state of fluidity or snehatva. The body is composed of a network of channels and fluids, which flow not only within the body but also among persons and their environments (Zimmermann 1979).

In Mangaldihi, I first encountered a notion of persons as relatively open and unbounded as manifest in what is called "mutual touching" (chõyachuyi). The people I knew were concerned about whom and what they touched because touching involves a mutual transfer of substantial qualities from one person or thing to the next. Initially, I saw their concern most clearly in the management of "impurity" (asuddhata) in daily life. High-caste Hindus avoided touching low-caste Hindus; Hindus avoided touching Muslims or tribal Santals; people of all castes frequently avoided touching those who were in states of "impurity" because of recent activities (e.g., defecating, visiting a hospital, or handling a dead body); persons about to make a ritual offering to a deity avoided touching any other person at all. To be sure, people often touched one another in the course of their daily affairs. But when they did, each considered that substantial properties from the other had permeated his or her own body, and the person who was in the "higher" or more "pure" position would often feel it necessary to bathe to rid himor herself from the effects of the contact.

There are many forms of chõyachuyi. Touching can take the form of simple bodily contact, as when a person touches another's arm with her hand or brushes into another on a crowded bus. It also occurs when two people touch an object at the same time, such as when a person hands a pen or a photo or a cup of tea to someone else, or when two people sit on the same bench or mat at the same time. The objects in such cases conduct substantial qualities between the two people. Mangaldihi villagers told me that the only material that does not act as a conductor in this way is the earth (mati), including, as a kind of extension of the earth, the mud or cement floors of houses and courtyards. Thus, to avoid touching and the exchanges of substance that touching entails, people often refrained from handing objects to each other directly; instead, one placed an object on the ground for the other to pick up, or dropped an object into another's outstretched hands. People themselves, like objects, act as conveyors or conductors of contact—so that two people who touch another person at the same time also touch each other. Furthermore, unlike objects, people generally retain the effects of touch: if someone touches one person and then (without bathing) another, this second person is considered to have been touched as well by the first.

It took many confused days and awkward experiences for me to learn about how touching was conceived as part of social interaction in Mangaldihi. People were constantly telling me that I had touched someone "low" (nicu) or "impure" (asuddha) and therefore needed to bathe when I, with my definition of what constitutes touching, failed to see how I had touched anyone at all (and felt no need to bathe in any case). I have a particularly vivid memory of visiting Mangaldihi's Muslim neighborhood for the first time, accompanied by my companion, Hena. On our way back to the Brahman neighborhood where we lived, Hena told me that we would both have to bathe. "Why?" I asked. "Because we touched Muslims." "No we didn't," I protested, "We didn't touch anyone while we were there." "Yes we did," she insisted, "We were sitting on the same mat with them, weren't we." "That's not touching!" I exclaimed. "Yes it is; of course it is!" "Well, we don't consider that touching in my country," I retorted. A little fed up after a long, hot day, and particularly disturbed by the implied prejudice that the act of bathing entailed, I let slip my usual anthropological stance of attempting to soak in information without challenge. "Well, here," she said as she reached out and touched my upper arm, "I touched them and now I touched you, so now you have touched them too, and you have to bathe."


Excerpted from White Saris and Sweet Mangoes by Sarah Lamb. Copyright © 2000 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
Note on Translation and Transliteration
Introduction: Perspectives through Age 1
1 Personhoods 27
2 Family Moral Systems 42
3 Conflicting Generations: Unreciprocated Houseflows in a Modern Society 70
4 White Saris and Sweet Mangoes, Partings and Ties 115
5 Dealing with Mortality 144
6 Transformations of Gender and Gendered Transformations 181
7 A Widow's Bonds 213
Afterword 239
Notes 247
Glossary 263
References 269
Index 295
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