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Women Writing Culture
By Ruth Behar
University of California PressCopyright © 1996 Ruth Behar
All right reserved.
No matter how often Charity looked up at the world map above the department secretary's desk, it still struck her as strange. Tilting inward, continents elongated as El Greco figures, the map simply did not have the right shape. The Americas claimed the center, knocking Europe and Africa off to the right. At each side were partial Indias: one with Punjab severed, the other missing several northeastern states. Scattered across all these realigned continents were pins with colored knobs, each pin locating a culture described in a senior thesis written recently by an anthropology major. Charity had been responsible for guiding a few of these projects.
She was looking at the map now because there was nothing else to do as Wendy, the department secretary, sorted through the mail. If Wendy was openly watched, she slowed down: sighing, examining stamps, turning over each piece of mail before she relinquished it to one of the cubbyholes she faced.
Just standing in the department office, Charity knew, could delay Wendy too. But Charity had arrived at the same moment as the plump man from the college post office who each afternoon bore in the plastic tray of mail. She had glimpsed the red and bluechevrons of an airmail envelope and couldn't draw herself away. Stretching out the moments, she stamped her boots, hung up her down coat, ran a hand through her capflattened hair. Nothing had reached her box yet. With the key to her office cold between thumb and forefinger, she inspected the map. She wondered whether the thesis about religious practices among Trinidadian Hindus who'd emigrated to Britain would be represented by one pin or three.
At a university with a graduate school, such pins in primary colors marked students off in faraway places. In this small liberal arts college, though, a pin puncturing paper meant nothing more than an attachment to certain shelves of books in the library. And the Whitney College library was so close that Charity could see the snowdrifts gathering on the steps and at the base of the twin pillars donated by the class of 1836. The map and the library in the same frame of vision mixed a claustrophobia so mean that Charity turned for a better look at Wendy's stack. Manila inter-office envelopes lined with names of professors and administrators were making their weary rounds within the campus. But there were also publishers' catalogues, letters machine-stamped from other institutional addresses in the United States, and what promised to be a few airmail envelopes or aerograms: paper that had traveled far.
It was Wendy of anthropologynot Jane of economics, Betty of English, or Christine of religionwho handled Third World grained envelopes of nonstandard sizes carrying bright boxed scenes related to development, tourism, or political figures with unpronounceable names. Recently when Wendy had been honored for twenty-five years of service to the college, she had brought along a stamp collection culled from countless afternoons of sorting mail. The Whitney College newspaper had carried a photograph of hera plump, bespectacled woman given to wearing bows and ribbonsposing with a page of rare stamps from New Guinea, Togo, and Bhutan.
"One for you," Wendy finally turned to say.
"Ah," said Charity. Had her loitering been that obvious?
"It's that ant-track writing again," Wendy waved an envelope in Charity's direction. "Every mailman between here and India must have needed a magnifying glass."
Charity reached out a hand with the same sensation as having just downed an espresso. She let herself into her office and locked the door. She lit up a cigarette and pushed aside the latest pile of blue books on her desk. Ever since smoking behind the bathrooms at boarding school she did this furtively, a stolen pleasure now reinforced by campus laws against smoking in offices. She ran her fingers over the tiny writing on the envelope and the hard ridges of the reglued stamps. Wendy would expect these stamps.
Then, with a sandalwood cutter that still gave off a fragrance, she slit the envelope and unfolded the bundle inside. There they were, the ant tracks released: scurrying across the page, pressing deep into the paper to leave impressions on the other side, spilling into margins in after-the-fact elaborations. He always covered both sides of every page, and the pages went on: three, five, sometimes even ten.
. . . Thanks for the xerox of the relevant pages from the 1918 Trigarta District Gazetteer. Ironic, isn't it, that these key volumes are in libraries in Berkeley, Chicago, and wherever else, but you can't get your hands on them anywhere in Trigarta? That information really helps me out.
Well, there went the electricity. Now I'm writing by lantern and if these pages have a stench of kerosene you'll know why. It's one of those clear nights, starlight clotting the sky and trickling down over the mountains in their winter white. I spent the day recording midwinter children's games, not because it's my research topic but maybe because I have some sort of unexamined nostalgia for the days when anthropologists were responsible for documenting everything. (Incidentally, do you have any idea whether Bhargava included any of these games in that book you mention in the dissertation? No, I ain't angling for more xeroxes, I'm just curious about whether anyone has written about the games, the symbolism of the walnuts used, etc., etc.).
Have been trying to act on your request for more slides of the tulsi plantsorry you hadn't alerted me at the time when the plant was to be married in November. (This is my first experience with plants that have weddings.) At the moment, the plants are looking fairly withered, and the women's paintings on the plant's platform are fading fast. Following your tip about Prakash Singh's courtyard I went over there with my camera. Was received warmly and sat down to drink tea in one of the kitchens off the courtyard, though all the relatives from across the way crowded in for entertainment. As usual, every interaction with me as a foreigner was framed by comedy. Some of the kids were giggling so that they were thwacked by their mothers (also smothering smiles into their gauze scarves) and then there were loud bawls. Just mention America and the next question is whether I know you, though once in a while someone will bring up a relative who works in New Jersey or even Kuwait and ask if I know them. I told this set of inquisitors that I'd never met you, which disappointed the women mightily. When I added that you sometimes wrote to help me out with my research, I was quizzed on your health . Suksanth? Any children? Mundu? None that I know of, I said. I am deputed to send you greetings, to tell you to come soon, and to remind you that Raju's sister would like a watch with a little face just like the one you wear.
Anyhow, to get back to the tulsi plant. As usual, this courtyard also had the stick-figure divine bride and groom borne in the palanquins escorted by players from the band, and surrounded by trunks and brass pots of dowry. But the dowry also unmistakably included a sofa set, a bicycle, and a television painted in that same spare folk style! I guess times they are a-changing for the Gods too. I'll have the slides developed next time I get down to Delhi. Maybe I'll be able to locate some peripatetic scholar who could mail them from the U.S.
Late in the day I was ushered into a darkened room where the men sat with a bottle of whisky. I was settled down under portraits of turbaned ancestors, rows of group photographs from graduating classes and army regiments, and cross-stitched deities with many arms. After the Hindi news on television, we watched "I Love Lucy" reruns: in English, without subtitles. . . .
"Boy, it'll be great to have this tenure thing behind me," said Isaac, depositing a quick but delicious kiss on the nape of Charity's neck. She was washing spinach in the sink, and Isaac had just taken over the tap to fill a large pot with water for pasta.
"Just a few weeks to go," said Charity, turning. Despite the three years she'd looked upon his face uncountable times a day, she still enjoyed the swoop of his nose, the set of his chin, and his black eyes as they focused in on hers, softening from their usual watchfulness. He was happy today because he'd had advance news from his chairman that the Department of Mathematics would probably vote unanimously to recommend him for tenure. A department meeting still lay ahead, and approval was needed at several rungs of the college administration. So far, though, the prognosis was excellent.
Isaac set the pot on the stove, the burner clicking as it came to life. With his back to her, he asked, "So, is it too soon to start?"
"Start what?" Charity responded. She knew perfectly well what he meant.
"You know, toss them out. Those pills."
Charity concentrated on the crinkled wetness of spinach leaves. "Maybe we should see if I'm reappointed for next year first," she said. She had originally been hired at the college to replace someone who was off for a year's fieldwork in Kathmandu; the following year, having just married Isaac, she had stepped in again for someone who had a fellowship in North Carolina. With shrinking funds available for academic research, no one had been on leave this past year, but Charity had been filling in with a joint appointment in anthropology and English, taking over a folklore course that had been lying dormant on the books since her friend Gita Das had left.
"Charity," said Isaac, "you know that that money from my grandmother . . ."
"I know," said Charity. They had had this conversation before. "But look, I just don't want to be unemployed if I can help it. I've got to keep a toehold in the profession until my book gets written."
"It'll get written," said Isaac. She felt his hand on her shoulder, giving it a squeeze. "You know it will."
Ever since Isaac had begun to put together his tenure file, he had been buying paperbacks on conception, childbirth, and parenting that he left in obvious places: in the basket filled with magazines beside the toilet, under the clock radio by their bedside, on the coffee table among library books and a cube of photographs. He also had been buying books on Judaism and befriending people from the Department of Religion. He said that one had to think through the background you gave a child.
Charity didn't have much to say. She had no interest in passing along her own Baptist missionary upbringing. When she and Isaac first began seeing each other, adistrust of organized religion was one of the many intersections they uncovered with hesitation followed by delight. There had been a certain glee in disappointingmaybe even horrifyingboth sets of parents by marrying into an alien faith. Isaac had not had a particularly religious upbringing in the suburbia where he grew up. Charity realized it was a privilege to be able to shed a background. Even as she identified less and less with Christianity, Isaac was increasingly haunted by reports of swastikas spray-painted on houses in Montana, car bombs leveling Argentinian synagogues, ancient cemeteries vandalized in Eastern Europe.
Since it was a Friday night, when dinner was cooked, Isaac pinned a yarmulke to his hair. He brought out a book of Hebrew prayers transliterated and translated into English. He lit candles and began to chant. Charity watched from the sidelines, her mind wandering.
As Isaac started to pour the red wine, he shot Charity a wary look. She wondered if by not participating she was reflecting back an image in which his solemnity had something laughable about ita thought vaguely connected to how people in Trigarta found Joel hilarious. But she was standing apart where she could (should?) have joined in, and Joel was joining in where nobody expected him toit wasn't quite the same. After all her years of singing hymns around off-tune pianos followed by years of convincing herself it was fine not to, wouldn't it be a farce to now take up another set of prayers? Wouldn't participating be laughable?
As Isaac broke the bread, Charity conjured up the company of Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. What exactly had that debate between those anthropological fore-fathers been about? One said that ritual relieved anxiety, the other said that not doing the right rituals made for anxiety. There was an article about this in the faded gray Reader in Comparative Religion . Maybe it was reprinted in the new paperback edition with the shiny brown cover. Where was that book anyway? On campus, or in her study upstairs?
They sat down to eat. Charity filled the tension that had opened up between them by reconstructing the debate about rituals and anxiety. She usually enjoyed telling Isaac about anthropology: it was her way of linking up the world of ideas to which she was now professionally tied with the nitty-gritty of her daily life. Isaac twirled his spaghetti as she told him about Radcliffe-Brown's development of Durkheim's points about group solidarity generated through ritual. He was very quiet when she started in on Mary Douglas and how things that didn't quite fit clear cultural categories were threatening. He started to line up the salt and pepper shakers, the wine bottle, his wine glass, and his water glass in a phalanx across the table.
"Those people are just theorizing." Isaac nudged the water glass a millimeter to the right, then finally looked up. "How can you say anything about someone else's practice unless you know it from inside?"
Charity could see he was hurt. Was it the baby, the Shabbat, or the place inside her where the two joined? She chose to answer Isaac's question as a professional. "I guess that's an old problem in anthropology," she said. "How much can bystanders, what we call participant observers, really understand? Do you have to dress up infeathers to say what's going on in a war dance? Do you have to know grief from inside to understand mortuary rites?"
"It's complicated," Isaac said, chewing at his bread. "Take two people, even within the same society. If they don't have the same backgrounds, what do they really share?"
"There's got to be some way to understand different points of view through dialogue," Charity said. "You know, talking sympathetically." She wished Isaac would look at her and not at the burnished lemons on the framed poster by her head. Standing up to fetch the salad dressing they'd left on the counter, what she'd really been meaning to say came out in a rush: "Isaac, really , I just don't see why you're so hell-bent on rushing into sleepless nights and smelly diapers. How will I ever finish my book with a kid howling to be picked up and burped and fed all the time?"
Isaac focused on her. His face was flushed, almost shy; his black eyes were very bright. Charity realized at once that she shouldn't have described a baby in quite such tangible terms. Lately Isaac had developed the alarming habit of accosting mothers wheeling strollers in malls, of staring wistfully out into the snow when yet another friend called to say they were having a baby. He stood up too and stepped toward her.
"Charity, honey," he said into her hair. "It takes time to get pregnant. It takes time to be pregnant. If you're not reappointed, you could spend the time working on your book. You could be done before . . . it. I promise you what I said before: halftime child care." His arms were warm and comforting, his hands gentle as he stroked her cheek. "Halftime," he repeated. Her forehead fitted precisely into the niche at his neck.
Even as Charity clutched Isaac tighter, she wished desperately that she could fly off from this farmhouse in the falling snow. She wished she could toss away the stack of blue books she had to grade by Monday, erase the deadline for her paper in an edited volume, have not agreed to address the local Amnesty International chapter on human rights in India. She wished the winter would end. She wished she could slip under a mosquito net with one of her sisters and talk all through the night.
Faith, Hope, and Charity: all three sisters had been called "Baby" by the servants. Their missionary parents had run a hospital in western India, the father a doctor, the mother a nurse. There was a never-ending stream of sick or injured village and tribal people to their bougainvillea-draped bungalow. While the parents worked, the girls rolled out mats under the mango trees or played badminton. Sometimes they would sneak out and play with the local children who lived beyond the bungalow gates. There was a game Charity especially enjoyed called paggadi , in which you and a partner both extended arms, crossing them at the wrist, and then leaned back, balanced by each other's weight, to take mincing steps that whirled you round, round, breathless, laughing around. If the girls were discovered, their mother would pull a lice comb through their hair and check between their fingersfor signs of scabies. Charity never understood why, if her parents worked with these people all day, their daughters were to keep a supposed distance.
When each sister turned five she was sent off to a boarding school up north, returning home only for the long winter vacations. At boarding school there were other children of missionaries, diplomats, or development experts, and all their textbooks were from America. Though the family occasionally visited grandparents in Colorado and Wisconsin on home leave through the years, until Charity entered college in New York, she thought of America in glossy, slightly fantastic terms. It was the home of Jane, Dick, and Spot; a place where milk did not need to be boiled and gave no cream; where prayer circles made for miraculous cancer cures; where underwear had elastic that did not grow limp after a few washes.
In America, Charity always found it difficult to feel American. Visually, she passed perfectly, with her green eyes and fine hair that was almost blonde in summer. She could wear the products she had stared at in magazinesalready old by the time they reached Indiaand reclaim, for a moment, the wonder of this other way of life. Yet it seemed that even when she was living as an American, she was watching from outside, seeing the strangeness of that way of life. Also, the clip and intonation of her upbringing had remained in her voice. She could never say more than a few sentences without someone interrupting in a voice that seemed unnaturally hearty and flat, "Where are you from?"
Where? This was a hard question. With her first cultural anthropology class in college there seemed a glimmer of hope that there might be an answer. She also took every class on India she possibly could, finding new identities for the people who had shifted so uncomfortably between Them and Us as they unknowingly awaited redemption. She studied Indian religion and did a field project at a Hindu immigrants' temple where at last she accepted prasad , food offerings, of the sort her parents had so strictly warned the girls against (as though, she thought in retrospect, its sweet flavors spilled both amoebas and heresy). In graduate school she wrote long papers about missionaries in South Asia and enlarged her Hindi beyond imperatives. She had decided on a project about gender and religion. It had simply been chance that her advisor, leaning back in his chair and eyeing his bookshelf, had said, "Trigarta: by the way, there hasn't been much done up there."
She had used anthropology to move away from America, constructing and reclaiming a more foreign self through eighteen months of fieldwork in Trigarta. Yet it was Isaac's Americanness that had drawn her to him. From that first day they met standing in line for lunch at the faculty orientationeach new to town, each new to teachingshe had been intrigued. She liked his Brooks Brothers' shirts, knowledge of sixties children's television, memories of his father throwing a ball after work. It was reassuring that he had never been outside America and that she could reinvent India for him through herself: not as a place that made her marginal but that was somewhere central to her past. When the companionship of someone to grade papers with through big empty weekends unwrapped into the gift of intertwined nights, she was overwhelmed. She loved how bright his eyes were, thesoftness of his hands in her hair. She reveled in how their conversations flowed, cutting through layer upon layer of intimacy without ever running dry. It also didn't hurt that at the time he was a Jewish agnostic and that her parentsnow retired to Wisconsinwould recoil.
As the red and gold fall turned to a monochrome winter, Isaac and she had taken increasing refuge in each other's company. Requests that he give her a ride to faculty dinners were gradually replaced by outright joint invitations. Yet Charity's sisters had not been enthusiastic when they learned she was dating the only single, heterosexual, and attractive man on the entire faculty in this remote campus. "Loneliness is not love," wrote Hope from Tanzania, where she was carrying on a fourth-generation tradition of mission work. "Don't make decisions in drought conditions," said Faith, the New York photographer, over the phone. "Heavens, Charity, don't you have any girlfriends around to set you straight?" But the few other young women of her age were either engrossed in raising small children or just weren't her type. Charity had never lived through a New England winter before, had never felt so shiveringly stripped of all that was familiar: friends, routines, locales. It was only under Isaac's down comforter, his body hot against hers, that she could shake off the chill.
In Marchwhen it should have been spring but resolutely remained winterthey had gone for a drive one afternoon along the snowy back roads that bore one away from campus. They had seen an old stone farmhouse for sale. It was a house with broad porches and a view of forests on one side. They agreed that they would both like to live there, hanging out baskets of fuchsia and tending an herb garden when summer arrived. And yet to do this togetherthose mortgage forms, those insurance applications, those monthly paymentsit really would help to be a unit that was legitimately, socially defined. Isaac's mother was on a senior citizens' tour of China. Charity's parents were off visiting Hope in Africa. It had been a civil ceremony, without any family present from either side, to beat the closing date on the house. Charity knew they should have waited, should have lived together first, should at least have had a few almost unresolvable fights. Yet this marriage was an act of affirmationof heat and high colorin the coldest, longest, gray-and-white winter of her life.
What Isaac had said about not practicing and building theories clung to Charity through the following weeks. It haunted her as she started at the screen of her computer. It sprang center stage in her wandering thoughts during all-college faculty meetings in an overheated room full of overheated opinions. There seemed such a huge gulf between the Vermont winter and life in Trigarta, on which her job depended; a yawning ravine between the confident graduate student she had been when she did fieldwork and the professionally marginal person she had become. Even with field notes, the dissertation, boxes and boxes of tapes and slides, hermemory was becoming blurred. What could she really say that was new and also true about these lives she had made it her business to describe?
Trigarta. The word brought a haze of green sunshine to her eyes: terraced fields, clumps of bamboo, slate roofs glinting, a bus wheezing by. A flycatcher swooped, tail looping, streaming, white. Her friend Padma would be squatting by the stream, thumping out clothes on the rocks as detergent bubbled on toward the next village. Their best conversations had always been out there, away from Padma's husband and children, the sun warm on their backs. Padma's close-set eyes shot mischief as she described for Charity the skits that women performed, dressed in their husbands' clothes, when all the men of the settlement set off in a groom's party to fetch a new bride. How could Padma, with her quick mind and vigorous opinions, ever be stuffed into the word "informant"?
They were less informants than indulgent friends, these women she spent months with: participating in their lives. They had sunned together on rope cots in courtyards during the winter, had ridden the bus into town squeezed so tight it was hard to be sure where one body ended and another began. They had fanned flies away from children's sleeping faces on hot afternoons, had sat all night in smoky rooms for weddings, had commiserated over the government's inability to contain soaring prices.
She had been physically present with the women, but internally, where was she as she connected their opinions to theories? Even when she didn't have a notebook in hand, she was always posting messages to herself about what to record later. A small part of what she had learned in that year and a half was gathered up, amber fossils, in her dissertation. If she had not been teaching and working on a new marriage over these last two years, they might be set in a university press book that anyone could pick up and enter inside.
Joel had ordered her dissertation from Ann Arbor microfilms, reading it minutely, laboriously, appropriating each experience and insight. This was, after all, the very same field site, and though his project was very different, he took up every piece of information she had. Charity had no idea whether he brought the same intensity to the works of the others who had researched TrigartaBarry, Varma, McBell. She wondered if he wrote to them too.
She had pieced together this much about him: he had grown up in U.S. consulates across the world; he had been a journalist before he went to graduate school; he first learned of Trigarta when his father brought back a set of snapshots taken on a trip up north with Galbraith. Charity guessed that Joel must be older than the usual graduate student. He appeared to be alone in the field. There was never a mention of a woman in the letters, no mention of children. But who knew? A lot could be hidden in the penumbra of life around a professional exchange. How much did vivid stories, though, really count as "professional"?
In Charity's replies to Joel's letters she argued about interpretations, suggested readings, elaborated on scenes that hadn't been in the dissertation and that she'dalmost forgotten she remembered. The exchange of ideas had begun to lure her back into rewriting her book for a few hours each weekend in between preparations for class, household chores, and the ever-renewing piles of student papers. Like him, she kept Trigarta central to her side of the interchange. If the rhythms and responsibilities of her present life pushed into this correspondence at all, it was only in hints from the margins.
Maybe it was the complacency on this campus that was getting to her, Charity thought one weekday night as she was preparing for class. She would send each one of her students out to collect a piece of folklore used by or about a culturally different group. The assignment (typed, double-spaced, proofread) would be due in her office the following Monday.
Whitney College tried hard to recruit minority and foreign students, but most of its students were still overwhelmingly American, privileged, and white. They seemed to have stepped out of a glossy skiing catalogue, and they drove Saabs and Volvos their parents had bought in the event of a drunk-driving accident. On their way from wealth to more wealth, they looked down on the faculty, in their rusting Japanese cars, with disdain. Charity sometimes got trouble from tall boys in her classes who were destined to be corporate chairmen or at least senators: they seemed unable to believe that a young woman with a strange accent might actually make a fair input to their grade point average.
After Charity had issued her assignment she began to wonder where cultural difference would actually be located and made real in a place like this. Among the scholarship students whose clothes and part-time jobs suggested they were of a different class? In pockets in the dorms: Pakistani boys who were all on the soccer team and ate their meals speaking Urdu, the circle of aristocratic Italians who had graduated from the same school and radiated incestuous exclusivity? In the films brought in by the French Club each Saturday for free campus viewing? At the Shabbat services Isaac had begun to attend, and from which he came home humming tunes very unlike the hymns that Charity could not forget? Some of the faculty were from foreign countries, yet at any gathering their difference was erased by the shared denominator of college gossip.
Charity arrived midmorning on Monday to find a paper pinned on her office door without an envelope to shield its contents. Wendy was in a huff. Mr. Henderson, the department chairman, cornered Charity as he dashed off to class. "I'd like to talk to you when I get back," he said, brusque and redfaced. Charity went into her office and looked more closely at the paper.
There's this guy who loves his girlfriend so much that he tattoos her name on his penis. When it's erect, it reads WENDY and otherwise, it's just WY. Well, one day this guy is in New York City, and he goes into a public urinal. There's this big black man peeing beside him, and he just can't help noticing that he has a WY on his penis too. "This is really a coincidence!" he tells the big guy. "So your girlfriend's name is also Wendy?" "What do you mean?" the big guy asks. "I mean, what's that WY?" The big guy laughs. "That's no WENDY, man. It says, WELCOME TO JAMAICA, HAVE A NICE DAY ."
Soo Chen, the studentone of Charity's bestwent on to point out that this was part of a larger cycle of "black dick jokes." She used theories from the class to interpret this joke in terms of gender relations, male hierarchies, the grotesque and carnivalesque, and sexual anxiety about the Other. It was an excellent interpretation.
When the next bell pierced through the morning, Charity went into Mr. Henderson's office. He offered her a seat and nudged a box of Kleenex and a jar of candy toward her (he had once explained that these were helpful with girls after exams). After some preliminary remarks about the weatheralways a safe topic in the Northeasthe fixed her with cold blue eyes and asked some pointed questions: Were dirty jokes a course requirement? Were students not aware that those who served the college should be respected? Might not assignments that insulted particular minority groups involve the college in lawsuits?
Charity tried to explain that Soo did not mean to be impertinent but no manila envelopes had been on hand. Stereotypes, she said, could only be deconstructed through close examination. She agreed to bring Soo in for a formal apology to Wendy. All through the interview, Charity prayed to herself that this incident would not cost her her reappointment. It was a relief to get into the car with Isaac that evening, to drive away into the open snowfields, to transform the story from trauma to comedy through retelling. She stopped short, though, of writing about it to Joel. He had no place in the day-to-day details of her life.
It was yet another Monday in the relentless, gray progression of weeks. Charity opened the window when there was a knock on her door. Winter air swirled sharp into the radiator-dried interior. She hid her ashtray and folded up the letter. It was probably a student in search of counsel: hand-holding duties spilled beyond office hours, especially when midterms were at hand. But it was Wendy.
"Oh, excuse me, umm." Wendy said. Male professors were universally "Mr." at this college, but somehow the female professors ended up being referred to by their first names. In the clash between what people called these women behind their backs and how they ought to be addressed, most ended up stripped of names that could be used to their faces. "I want to talk to you about those letters you get," said Wendy. "You know, the ant tracks from India."
"Certainly," said Charity, tensed. Was Wendy going to lecture her about the propriety of married women receiving such thick tracts? Why did everyone on this campus feel they had a right to observe and interfere in each other's lives?
"I've noticed," Wendy continued, "that you've been receiving a lot of those letters."
"It's common in professional correspondences," said Charity. "We happen to be colleagues." Jesus! This was reminiscent of boarding school, hanging one's head before the Anglo-Indian matron, extending a hand for a whack. Was Wendy still on the rampage because of that folklore item?
"Well, I just wondered," Wendy said.
"I don't want to interfere . . . but I wondered if you could tell this person that they're sending the same stamps pretty often. If you look at what you got today it's the same as last week and the week before."
Charity examined the envelope on her desk. Tiny scenes formed a jagged patchwork around the address. Five navy-blue women in saris balanced pots on their heads, striding out in matched precision worth fifty paise each time. The cows they'd just milked stood patiently in the background, enclosed in a different world from the hairy, glaring, barbed-wire-fence-nudging cows Isaac and Charity confronted on their daily drives. For a rupee apiece, cotton blossoms burst out from a sepia background: cotton, snowball white. The ten-paise fillers were farmers hoeing beside irrigation canals. The fields, stretching out in an inner horizon, were as green as the faraway summer.
"Sure, I'll write to . . . the person," Charity said, looking up from the envelope to give Wendy an ungrudged smile. "The only problem might be if the village post office doesn't have others in stock. When I was there I sometimes had to go to a main post office a long bus ride away to find anything in the denomination for airmail. Sure, I'll mention it."
"If you don't mind," said Wendy.
When Wendy left, Charity lit another cigarette and returned to where she had left off, on page 6:
Thanks for the reference from C.I.S. . . . I tracked it down in the library when I got to Delhi and think that what he's arguing about egalitarianism mingling with hierarchy does fit. By now Dumont-bashing is passi (I'd better figure out how this fits in with subalterns). I'm actually quite intrigued by the idea of friendship as a subversion of social structure. You had some of that in your dissertation on the groups of girls that gather for Goddess worship from a cross-section of castes. I'm trying to get a handle on it among men. Is it an outgrowth of education in schools, or was it there all along within a village setting? I'm not quite sure, maybe the oral histories will help. Among women, I'm handicapped by being a strange and foreign man. Children cry when they see me, they really do, giving mothers an excuse to withdraw to inner rooms. I try to be amused by the mirror that incredulity and suspicion holds up for me, but on a daily basis it can get disorienting. I don't know that I can really help you with those questions you sent, but I'll try .
I agree that an anthropological sensibility is important at this moment in time, as interactions between different taken-for-granted perspectives are speeded up by the global media, trade, travel, migration. I guess that what we call an anthropological sensibility really boils down to accepting that there aren't any ultimate solu -
tionseach is somehow tempered by culture and circumstance. And more and more, everything is jumbled . . . .
Just as she was about to turn the page, the telephone rang and there was an impatient sequence of knocks at her door. Charity put the letter away and returned, for the moment, to the round of duties that fenced in her energies.
"Judaism is a family religion," Isaac softly said. It was his birthday, and his parents had sent him a Torah. After dinner he showed Charity how each page was arranged. Hebrew was a beautiful script, to Charity a mix of Sanskrit and Japanese. She ran her fingers over the black patterns, seeing how it could be alluring to enter this gilded, complex world that Isaac had spread out before them. She could even understand why Isaac now sat in on intermediate Hebrew. Yet she felt no tug toward this world herself.
"I want to pass this on to our children," said Isaac.
"Sure," said Charity.
"This really matters to me," Isaac continued, tensing against the shrug in her voice. "I want you to participate."
"I guess they'd have to be formally converted," Charity said, examining her nails. This was stalling for time. "Look, I always stand beside you as you light the candles. If you want to read a page of the Torah each morning I really don't object."
"You watch," Isaac looked at her with troubled eyes. "You don't join."
"At least I don't interfere." Charity leaned away. She blurted, "Isaac, I can't participate more and be true to who I am."
Isaac pressed a palm on the open page, as though drawing in its strength. "We'll confuse the children if we give them two different messages," he said. "They'll grow up without being sure of who they are or just what's right. In this mixed-up world people need strong roots. If we're raising children, it's our responsibility to give them all the security we can."
Charity stopped herself from shooting: "What children?" She was still staunchly punching out birth control pills, though a new wariness had made its way into their bed. To press down sharp words, she thought about an article she had once read on ethnicity. It must have been in that Writing Culture collection. Maybe she should put together a course on ethnic identity to figure out what Isaac was after. She quoted someone, she wasn't quite sure who, aloud: "In the postmodern world all identity is hybrid."
"Charity," said Isaac, placing the book on the coffee table and fitting his arm around her. "This isn't some sort of fancy theory, this is our life. I want it to be a Jewish life and not leave you out of it. I want us do this together."
"What about India?" said Charity, feeling bleached, as if she might cry.
"What about it?" asked Isaac. "I'm not talking about your research, I'm talking about our family life."
When they held each other, Charity felt a barrier between their chests: a mingling of vulnerability, distance, disappointment. She thought of the time at the end of the semester when they had been invited over by well-meaning colleagues for a party that turned out to have a Christmas theme. "Happy Hannukah," the hostess had said to Isaac. Later, the hostess had steered him toward the piano so he could lead them in Christmas carols, and she was upset that he had demurred. "Her attitude was that if she recognized Hannukah, I should join in for Christmas," Isaac had fumed on the ride home. "Couldn't she see that as a Jew I might not want to participate, that this is a choice?"
If Isaac could understand this about a group, Charity wondered, why couldn't he see the analogy in their household? Could dialogue really build bridges across differences: planks laid down with agreement, swaying suspensions hung through persuasion, girders tempered in hot argument and cemented with affection? What exactly did one need to build a bridge with at least two broad highways that would stand up to many daily commutes?
It wasn't just the Trigarta crew that huddled around Charity's desk. Fellow professionals clustered also in her classroom, weaving around her head, fragments of their words rising to her lips. Some of these people had been dead for many decades; others were still alive. She'd glimpsed some of their names on tags at conferences, looking swiftly up to take in the face, and she'd heard some of them speak from behind podiums. She'd even been introduced to a few, standing in hotel lobbies. And some were old friends. Scholarship, Charity reflected, was fellowship too, ideas arrayed around vivid personalities. After noticing at a plenary session that a man whose work she admired combed his hair over a bald spot, she had never felt quite the same about his ideas. Or running into a distantly recognized name and seeing the woman's smile, her audacious earrings, her handwoven jacket, Charity had sought out her book with all the intensity of a fan. These fellows who inhabited other anthropologistswhat impact, Charity wondered, did they carry as people shaping not just ideas but lives? Participating in the common profession, they observed each other too; observing, they grew and changed.
Marina Alvares, who had invited Charity to be on a panel at the last American Anthropology Association meetings, was now editing a volume of the papers. Charity knew that Marina had gone to the same graduate school as Joel. The next time Marina called to announce deadlines, Charity slipped the conversation around to him: "Tell me, what is this Joel Powell like?"
"Oh, he's a Weberian," Marina said, ever the resolute Marxist.
"I mean, as a person: what is he like?"
"He's a good colleague," said Marina. "Real good with references."
Charity saw it was inappropriate to press this further.
Wendy had distributed an application form for summer research support from the college. This year, because of some new bequest by the Class of 1935, it was a spring rather than a fall deadline. She looked up from her typewriter as Charity drew out the sheet of paper from her mailbox.
"If you want me to type that thing be sure to get it in a few days ahead," Wendy instructed. "These days with those word processors, everyone ends up giving me their forms with blank spaces to fill. The last minute, too. I'll be all backed up the day they're due."
Charity was turning the form over and over. "Yes, Wendy," she said absently.
Charity studied the form some more in her office. For once, this was something that visiting faculty could apply for. She actually did need to get more information and check back with people before the dissertation could be published, and a summer grant would help her do it. But Isaac? He wanted her to work on the house this summer, now that his tenure had been approved. He pleaded that she quit those occasional stealthy cigarettes he could always catch with a kiss. He was dropping hints about using the leisure time for baby-making. It could be a summer of mornings in their futon bed, opening herself at last to his domestic plans. Or else she could spend the summer on rope cots at the edges of other peoples' lives, observing them, her own future on hold.
Looking around her office, she did not see the messy piles of papers, the books lined up on the shelves, the framed photograph of Isaac. She saw parrots swooping after ripe leeches, greens of many shades and textures overlapped and intertwined. She heard women singing as they stood ankle deep in muddy water, transplanting young rice, as buses wheezed past in clouds of blue smoke. She smelled clothes dried dankly indoors as rain poured unrelentingly, day after day, night after night.
Just where did her responsibility lie?
Hope would most certainly not lavish good-wife advice. Married and with four children, she would urge, "Stick to your career, don't compromise. If you go have a baby, you might as well forget being anything more than a faculty wife who's hired now and then for a course." Faith, still single, would insist that Charity hold on to a man who loved her and wanted to have her children: at all costs, she should hug him, stroke him, hold him tight. "Heck," Faith had recently said over the phone, "if we put up with evening prayers every day for years, what's the problem with sticking it out through one evening a week and in holiday seasons a few extra?"
Charity sat with her elbows on her desk, eyes open in the darkness of her palms. She listened to her older sisters' voices, wondering if her own would ever join in, calm, firm, certain of being right. Living with someone, sleeping beside him night after night, even her breath was intertwined with his. How could she separate herself enough to diverge from his desires?
After a while, Charity slid open a drawer and pulled out a file marked TRIGARTACORRESPONDENCE. She sniffed the paper, smelling Indian stationery stores, mold, and kerosene. Then she shuffled through the sheets, not to read, but to ponder the patterns of those tiny trails. Anthropologists had written about diviningfrom poisoned chickens, cowrie shells, kangaroo droppings, yarrow sticks. They wrote about how other people made sense of their lives, not about their own quests for certainty. Where, Charity wondered, would she find a divinatory system for the way a pen tracked across blank paper? If only she could gain a revelation, a clear vision, of the larger realities these squiggles of ink emerged out of and pointed into: self-directed, hurrying ants.
Excerpted from Women Writing Culture by Ruth Behar Copyright © 1996 by Ruth Behar. Excerpted by permission.
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