21-27 November 2014 #733

Personal anthropology

While the Gods Were Sleeping gives non-Nepalis a glimpse of the real Nepal, and gives Nepalis an outsider's perspective
Sonia Awale

While a graduate student in anthropology at Stanford, Elizabeth Enslin meets fellow student Promod Parajuli from Nepal and falls in love.

Enslin had wanted to study African culture, and had romanticised about working there but romance takes her to Nepal instead. She follows Parajuli to India researching education and the grassroots movement. They briefly visit Parajuli’s family in Nepal after which they return to the US, get married and finish their studies.

They travel back to South Asia, and while Promod goes to India to continue his research, Enslin, pregnant with their first child, stays back with Promod’s family in Nepal. She is not just a daughter-in-law; she is learning and experiencing Nepal’s Brahmin culture up close and personal. As her sociological imagination takes over, you can almost see Enslin taking notes about caste and kinship as her husband’s family goes about its daily chores in a remote Chitwan village.

While the Gods Were Sleeping

A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal

by Elizabeth Enslin

Seal Press, 2014

Paperback, 312 pages

Although her in-laws are welcoming and gracious, Elizabeth is still considered culturally impure and is therefore not allowed into the kitchen to cook rice. She feels her outsider status acutely, and often wonders what she is doing there.

Her anthropologist mind admonishes her for following her man to this remote corner of the world. But it is as if her marriage, her life as a Brahmin wife, daughter-in-law and mother are all extensions of an academic fieldtrip, the results of which are documented in her book While the Gods Were Sleeping.

Enslin is interested in why and how women rebel at the local level. She interviews Nepali women who dare to strike out and speak out, and also women who are oppressed by class, caste and tradition. She investigates the cultural roots of domestic violence, the dowry system, child marriage and other manifestations of patriarchy. She records local women’s songs and poems on poverty, gender, inequality and political oppression and translates songs of defiance sung at Tij and Ratauli.

She interviews women who join the literacy classes initiated by her and the Parajulis. Amma, Enslin’s mother-in-law, plays a central and inspiring role in questioning the traditional place women are supposed to keep in society and family. Enslin finds her academic interest veering towards analysing how women organise, and the life stories of women rebels.

Enslin’s pregnancy and her decision to deliver at home forms a significant portion of While the Gods Were Sleeping. There are complications with the delivery and she is rushed to Bharatpur Hospital. Enslin wonders how many mothers in Nepal, or even Chitwan, have that option.

The book is divided into three parts: a personal memoir about the early days after her marriage, the initial culture shock of being in Nepal, and the challenges of an aspiring anthropologist with the political backdrop of the last days of the Panchayat and a stirring democracy movement.

Enslin’s academic background makes the narrative dry and observational, and she doesn’t intrude in person unless necessary which gives the book a somewhat academic tone. It could have been more interesting for the lay reader if there was more personal reflections on the relationships within the family and community.

Enslin has chosen to write more about Amma, and less about her relationship and life with Promod. The timeframe of the book is 1980s-90s, and Nepal has changed dramatically since then. So, readers looking at more contemporary trends in gender relations, community activism, the role of mothers’ groups and female health volunteers in public health awareness will be disappointed.

Enslin gives non-Nepalis a glimpse of the real Nepal, and for Nepalis the outsider’s view gives us a unique perspective about our own country, society and families, and how much things have changed in the past 25 years.