Old Customs

By Rajiv Moté

The start of spring was tourist season, and Lalita, an energetic young woman who spoke several languages, shepherded her group of white-haired foreign couples to the hotel balcony. “Come,” she said. “The festivities begin at noon.” Below, the square was milling with people. Hawkers moved through the crowd, selling plastic water pistols and bags of gulal, the brightly colored rice flour used to celebrate. For Lalita’s clients, her mother had made gulal at home for a fraction of the cost charged below. “This is a festival of colors,” she said. “We reenact customs from the time the gods walked the earth in human form.”

“Can’t we go down and join the party?” asked one of the foreign men, flashing a daredevil grin.

“Certainly sir,” Lalita said smoothly. Her duties included keeping her elderly guests comfortable. “But here, you have the privilege of the best view. Look — it is about to begin.”

On a stage in the middle of the square, a row of tabla players started an urgent rhythm, joined by a row of horn players. A troupe of performers mounted the stage and stood in two lines, men on one side, women on the other. The men wore white salwars and vests, tailored to show off their physiques. Small shields were strapped to their forearms. The women wore shimmering white saris sewn with hundreds of spangles. Each held a wooden rod as long as her forearm.

“White is normally the color for funerals and widows,” Lalita said. “But today, it symbolizes the winter blossoming into spring.”

The performers began, circling and weaving in patterns, the women striking their rods against the men’s shields with loud clacks, in counterpoint to the drums.

Lalita’s guests held up devices to record the dance. “In the stories, a god incarnated as a young man, and his goddess wife as a woman in the next village. It was spring, when a man’s thoughts turn to love, and the god felt drawn to her. He led his friends to her village, and they teased and entreated the goddess and her friends. Angered, the women chased the men from their village with sticks.”

“Where can I get one of those sticks?” asked one of the foreign women, to the other wives’ amusement.

Lalita smiled. “Of course, it was all in fun. By nightfall, each god had found his goddess, and the cycle of life continued.”

With the sound of a bursting balloon, the first explosion of gulal rained scarlet on the dancers. The crowd took it as a signal. Sprays of water and fistfuls of color filled the square.

From the balcony, the cameras clicked nonstop.

“How about you?” the daredevil asked Lalita, leaning close and shaking his bag of gulal.

Lalita folded her hands over her heart and glided back. “Oh, I mustn’t. But shall I take your photograph with madam…?”


Some generations before…

The first day of spring brought celebration. Jaya and her mother drove the cart into town while her father and brothers spent the morning on household chores. It was a day of reversals. They went from home to home, taking tea and loudly critiquing the men’s service. But Jaya’s mind was on what came next.

At noon, everyone gathered where the two cement roads crossed. Jaya wore salwar kameez — white, the women said, to brighten the colorful gulal. But she had heard boys whisper to each other that it was to show off what was under their wet clothes. Well let them look. She hefted a lathi from the barrel. The bamboo bowed a little, but was otherwise rigid. A careless blow from a lathi could cause injury, so the men bore shields. Hurting was not part of the old customs. She took her place with the women on one side of the crossing and searched the faces of the men on the other. She saw her brothers, who were fair game, but not… No, there he was. People gossiped that she and Tushar would be arranged for marriage within two years. But Jaya had yet to take his measure.

The men began it, shouting dirty jokes and songs. In truth, no one younger than Jaya’s granny would have taken offense. Sometimes a man ran from their side, threw water or color, and then ran back before a lathi clipped his buttocks. Jaya held Tushar’s gaze. A smile curved her lips. She began slowly spinning her lathi, hand over hand, like she had seen stick-fighters do. His eyebrows shot up to his hairline. Then the tablas played and the women attacked. Before she married any man, Jaya would test his strength.


Some generations before…

The day before the sowing, the village celebrated the coming of spring by honoring its women, the givers of new life. It was a day of reversal. The men cooked, cleaned, and minded the children while the women took their ease. If a husband shirked his duties or botched a meal, on this day the wife was free to beat him.

Chandi had married last summer, and marriage had not yet settled her. Her husband Bankim was a drinker and a gambler, and not a good one: he had lost their goats, a third of their land, and had once even offered up Chandi as stakes, before the other players sent him home. He was nearly her father’s age, but no taller than her, and skinny enough to knock down. What stopped her was his mother. She told Chandi her father had spoiled her, and blamed her for her son’s every failing. The beatings Bankim gave were, like himself, weak and without enthusiasm, but his mother supplemented with cruel relish.

Still, her mother-in-law honored the old customs, and when Bankim burned the rice, months of Chandi’s frustration and rage boiled to the top. He cringed when she scolded him, and her loathing grew. She never cringed. Never. She grabbed the switch, the same that he used to beat her, and thwacked it across his thighs. Bankim began to cry. He curled like a dying spider on the ground and rolled, trying to avoid the blows. The switch raised welts on his back and shoulders. Chandi found a meditative rhythm in beating her husband.

“Enough, brat,” his mother said. “You know tomorrow, first thing, I will give you threefold what you have given.”

Chandi’s rhythm slowed, until the switch fell from her hand. Then she sat down on the dirt floor and cried alongside her husband.


Some generations before…

Late on the night before the sowing, oil lamps glowed behind the shutters in the Widows’ House. The married women had slipped away from their beds to come. Old Siddhi, the eldest of the widows, took her sandalwood box from its hiding place and removed the lid. Inside were wooden tokens, each with a man’s name scratched on one side. Throughout the year, farm women had slipped the tokens to Siddhi for safekeeping.

They sat on rugs while she sorted the tokens. Over the years, most names were discarded quickly. Dull or impotent men whose wives had grown bored, flirts who hadn’t been caught going further, men who delivered beatings only when deserved — those names were either recanted or overruled. By their customs, all must be agreed, or at least none opposed.

This year there was only one uncontested pile. Laal’s wife, Aruna, did not speak. She had drawn her veil over her face, looking down and away, in a classical pose of shame. Aruna had been a lovely dancer, once. Her movements were still expressive. But others also submitted Laal’s name. He had not given his wife any new bruises since the sowing drew near — the men understood enough of what passed among the women to be wary. But over the year the neighbors noticed. They saw when Aruna could not lower her right shoulder, and when she began walking with a limp that persisted even now. Her bones did not mend properly. Her dancing days were done.

In his three married years, Laal accumulated many tokens, and now there came no advice on gentling him, nor suggestions to encourage other husbands to set him straight. When none spoke for him, the widows sent the married women home. Then they deliberated his fate.

As dawn spilled over the hills, the men drove bullocks to plow their plots of earth. Some women carried bamboo poles across their shoulders, with buckets of water from the river hanging from both ends. It was hot, thirsty work, and some of the women tied their skirts above their knees as they climbed from river to field. A cool drink gave men an excuse to find discreet shade, and some would playfully splash the women who served them. And some of the women would shed their wet clothes and spread them out to dry.

Kalpana was young, pretty, and as skilled a dancer as Aruna had been. This could be seen even in the way she carried water to Laal. She let him drink deeply, and dabbed his brow with a damp cloth. He responded in kind, with less grace but more enthusiasm, and he followed her swaying walk to a copse of trees, where she went to hang her wet things. He did not immediately see the three veiled figures waiting among the trees, all in widows’ white. They carried poles, but no buckets. “Remember this,” one of the figures told him. “Or it will be less gentle the next time you raise your hand to your wife.” The poles rose and fell until the three women’s white garments blossomed with red, like pomegranate seeds leaking juice.


Some years before…

The sowing had begun when Siddhi woke up. Her nights were restless since her hair was shorn and she had given away her clothes to don widows’ white. She missed her home and bed, and her husband too, if not so much. The snoring of the other women in the Widows’ House, and the misery of her new station, kept her awake. She washed hastily and draped herself in a threadbare cotton sari. All were expected to work, and she was not old. Not yet.

The remaining jobs were the dregs of the pot. With pole and buckets, Siddhi carried water from the river to the farmers furthest away. To make it worse, the men had their own customs. As she went from field to field, she endured teasing about the smoothness of her head, how she was still young enough to bear more children, and how lonely her nights must be without a man between her thighs. She endured gropes, fingers on her scalp, and water splashed on her blouse.

Tears welled in Siddhi’s eyes when Babu tried to draw her in for a kiss. “He was your friend,” she said to him.

“He was my friend,” Babu said. “He wouldn’t have wanted to leave you lonely.”

“I’ll scream.”

“No one will hear.”

She lunged out of his grasp, to where she had dropped her pole and buckets. Her hand closed around the shaft just as his did. They tugged in opposite directions, and the pole whipped around, striking Babu alongside his head with a bucket. He let go. Siddhi swung the pole the other way, and the bucket went flying, but the bamboo connected again with a crack. He dropped to his knees. Siddhi had beaten rugs before. Beaten them in a fury. This felt better.

By the time she buried Babu in the field, her sari, stained brown and red, was in tatters. But she felt calm. Widows lived at the fringe of society, mostly ignored by those who still had station and purpose. She would go to the elders in the Widows’ House. She would tell them everything. They would understand, and they would protect her.

Over the years, Siddhi found purpose in her station. There was needed work for women ungoverned by men, new customs to sow. Her sleep was much improved.

chicken breakOld Customs © 2016 Rajiv Moté