Dec 31, 2011

Signs of a NRN


How to know you are a NRN? Every group has its distinguishing characteristics, and so does the Nonresident Nepali. If you check three or more below, you are a certified NRN:
You open your computer before you brush your teeth in the morning.
At night, you switch the computer off after switching off the light.
Sometimes the computer may be on all through the night.
You know the rates of every phone card calling company. You can also grade them according to their service, call clarity, hassle quotient (number of times you have to punch pins) and sweetness of operator’s voice.
You have put on at least ten kgs since coming from Nepal.
The above statement is one of the reasons you don’t want to go to Nepal.
If you are a woman, you own either a chaubandi, or bakkhu, or dhaago, or any combination of them.
You make the patuka out of your least beloved shawl.
If you are a man, you own either a dhaka topi, or daura suruwal, or both.
You have cooked more momo in the U.S. than you ever ate in Nepal.
At some point, you have ordered tea at a sandwich shop, sushi bar, or fast food joint.
You are a champion at locating the best print among hundreds of “hall prints.”And you can do it mere hours after a movie is released.
Your homepage is either facebook or ekantipur, depending on your age group.
You call your workplace “kaam” instead of “office” like you used to in Nepal.
All your belongings fit in two suitcases and a hand carry.
Your room has either a Nepali flag, or a picture of Buddha, or a small corner full of assorted gods, or any combination of them.
A miniature version of one of these hangs from the rear view mirror of your car.
Of the national flag, you are tired of the question “what does the triangle shape mean?” You wanna ask back, “what the square shape mean in the first place?”
You are annoyed at the fifteen minutes that crops up when you calculate time difference with Nepal.

Dec 25, 2011

The Scaffoldings of Ramayana




If you have ever wondered how gods are made, one look at the Ramayana narrated within the Mahabharata is enough to illuminate this process.  Yes, there is a Ramayana inside Mahabharata, and it is substantially different from the Valmiki Ramayana. Ramayana is supposed to be older than Mahabharata, and we can see how in a few generations, myths have sprung up about the major characters and deified them.
The context of this story is provided by Jayadrath who abducts Draupadi. The Pandavas fight him and bring her back, after which Yudhishthir converses with Brahmans. “We have suffered a lot because that wretch abducted our wife” he says. “Have other men ever suffered like us?” In reply, Markandeya narrates the story of Ram and Sita to the Pandavas who listen with rapt attention.
Markandeya is more or less faithful to the original storyline, but he certainly exaggerates the story and shifts the paradigm from history to myth. From the very beginning Markandeya depicts Ram as an incarnation of Vishnu while Valmiki Ramayana treats him as a human hero for the most part. Ram’s strength and prowess in war are vastly exaggerated. For example, In Valmiki Ramayana, Ram kills Ravan with an arrow that clefts his chest apart. But in Mahabharata, Ram sets Ravan and his chariot afire, so much so that not even his ashes can be found later!
Several magical properties of Ram that were not found in Valmiki Ramayana, but have now become a staple of folklore, can be found inside Mahabharata. For example, there are no floating stones in the original Ramayana, the Ram Setu is simply built by a skilled architect Nala out of ordinary material. By the time of Mahabharata, the stone have started floating. Thus Ram makes the transition from human being to God.
There is also an attempt to fit Ram into the mold of what would later be known as “Maryada Purushottam”. The incident of Ram killing Bali is generally considered a stain in his character, and even his most ardent devotees struggle to justify this step. Markandeya presents Bali as simply an enemy, and omits the back story. In doing so, he erases any question of Ram’s dubious ethics. In Valmiki Ramayana, Ram is portrayed as skilled politician given to frequent displays of temper. But according to Markandeya, he is a godly figure whose aura precedes him, to which Vibhishan is attracted. Vibhishan is portrayed as his saintly devotee, though again, in the original Ramayana, Vibhishan betrays his brother and makes an alliance with another human being to gain a kingdom. Thus is Ram’s reputation as a famous deity cemented.
A larger than life villain was also required to complement this exaggerated hero, as it would be underwhelming to have him battle an ordinary villain. Ravan has only one head in Ramayan, but by this time he has acquired nine more. To make him appear really dangerous, Markandeya even has him cut up one of those heads and offer it to Brahma.
Ravan’s character has grown in inverse proportion to his power: as he grows more powerful, he grows more despicable. In Valmiki Ramayan, Ravan was portrayed as a scholar, veena player, and extremely intelligent person. He had a magnetic personality that even Hanuman felt attracted to at first sight. In the Mahabharata, however, Ravan has degenerated into a despicable wretch. In Ramayan, Ravan chooses of his own volition to not lay hands on Sita. In Mahabharata, he has been cursed by a sage that he will die if he lays hands on an unwilling woman. Thus Markandeya mythologizes Ravan’s villainy by implying that if not for the curse, he would ravage Sita.
This part also mythologizes Sita by proving her chastity beyond doubt (since Ravan is alive, he could not have touched her). Sita’s character, meanwhile, has also made the grand transition from a damsel in distress to goddess. As grandness goes, the Agni Pariksha scene is the grandest of all. Instead of the three gods present in the original, (Agni, Indra and Brahma), Markandeya cites the entire host of gods including Ram’s deceased father Dasharath in “divine and effulgent form”! Sita does NOT walk into the fire, but instead calls out to the elements (air, water, and fire) to prove her purity.  The gods Vayu, Varun and Agni materialize and say that since they are always present in Sita’s body, they know she is pure. Thus, Markandeya has Sita validated by several different gods instead of just one.
There are also many subtle differences that don’t have a large impact but change the story’s tone. For example, in Ramayan, Kaikeyi blackmails Dasharath by wearing ugly clothes, messing up her hair and barring the door of her room. In Mahabharata, she does the opposite by putting on a pretty dress, makeup, and speaking sweetly.
It is interesting to note that when Markandeya mentions Ram and Sita, the Pandavas are blank. They frequently cite older kings like Indra, Sivi and Nahoosh, who seem to be the popular folk heroes of the time, but have never heard of Ram. In contrast, today those gods like Indra and Nahoosh have faded, some have even disappeared, while Ram has emerged from the background to become one of the most revered gods. His fame owes no little to these new embellishments, as some of the most iconic bits that would later come to define the story were added at this point. For example, Ravan’s ten heads and Ram and Sita’s godly personalities. Valmiki Ramayana was nowhere near being the most well known Hindu tale, but it was on its way. Other mythologized parts like the Lakshman-Rekha and the pot of amrit at Ravan’s navel are conspicuous by absence (both in the original and in Markandeya’s version), and would be added later from other sources. Hence, what we see here is a half built myth.  Like a building with its scaffolding still present, it shows us that gods are not born, but made, brick by brick, through such a process of mythologizing.

Dec 24, 2011

Poll results: winter in america

Thank you everyone for voting and making this poll successful! It was a lot of fun!
Congratulations Koili, great job!!!
Lali deserves honorable mention as she came second through great campaigning :)


Koili
  103 (49%)
Lali
  70 (33%)
Nikki
  8 (3%)
Rabina
  18 (8%)
Sewa
  40 (19%)

Dec 16, 2011

First Winter in America

Characters: Sewa, Lali, Koili, Nikki and Rabina

All are Nepali girls spending their first winter in America. 
Sewa is reading, Lali is watching animes, Nikki is chatting, and Rabina is watching TV.

Koili walks into the room wearing tiny clothes. Sewa looks her over with a critical eye.

Sewa: Koili, I know you are stylish, but look, it’s snowing outside! Don’t you think it’s a little too cold to be wearing shorts and a blousy top?

Koili (indignantly): Hey, this is actually my full sleeved shirt and long pants. This is what the dryer did to them!

Lali : Hmm, that explains why my blanket cover fits the pillow now.

Sewa: And my shawl became a handkerchief! I now wipe my nose with it! (Dabs her eyes with a thick pink hanky.)

Rabina: You snotty little kid! You should have listened to me and washed your clothes by hand. That’s what I did, and my clothes still fit me! In fact, that reminds me, I washed and hung a couple clothes outside, I should go get them!

Nikki (hurriedly grabbing the remote from Rabina’s hand): Great, that means I can watch some TV now!!

Lali and Sewa come along to watch TV, which is showing some pretty violent riots. Lali’s eyes grow larger and larger with every second.

Lali: OMIGOD, what is that? Are the Americans doing andolan to protest something?

Sewa (nodding her head in a concerned manner): Yea, and it seems pretty intense too! The newsreader said that today is “Black Friday”! Something really bad must have happened, why else would it be named “black”? Is someone dead or something?

Nikki: Black Friday is not a day of mourning, silly! Black Friday is the day after thanksgiving. On this day many stores offer huge discounts on their products. People line up outside the stores before the stores open so that they can buy before the stocks finish!

Sewa (disgruntled): Hmph! Still doesn’t explain why it’s called black!

Koili: I think I will shop for some tickets then, I want to go visit my brother in Arizona.

Nikki: Because there is a lot of traffic jams, mobbing, and riots, like you can see on TV! This is the busiest shopping day of the year as Christmas shopping opens today.

Koili: OMIGOD!

Lali: Yes, I know how you feel. I felt the same when I saw it on TV! Some people queue up all night, in this freezing November weather, I would never do that, not even for a roomful of fluffy toys on 99% discount. Maybe I would if it was a boxful of my favorite movies. Or maybe….

Koili: Oh god, who cares about some stupid discounts!  Look at the price of the plane tickets! They are sky high! FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS FOR A ONE WAY TICKET? ONLY LAST WEEK THEY WERE ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS!!!! I THOUGHT YOU SAID WE GET DISCOUNTS FOR BLACK FRIDAY, I WAS EXPECTING TICKETS FOR 20 DOLLARS!

Nikki: Come on, Black Friday doesn’t apply to everything! Tickets are an exception, the price of tickets rises according to demand! And winter is holiday season, what with Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas arriving one after another. A lot of people travel in the holidays, so the demand must be pretty high at the last moment. You could have gotten cheap tickets if you booked six months ago, but 20 dollars? You wouldn’t have got that even a year ago! 

Rabina: OMIGOD!! I am so shocked!

Sewa: Haven’t we had too many OMIGODs already today? Why is Rabina still shocked about Black Friday?

Rabina: Who cares about Black Friday? Look at my clothes, I hung them to dry outside and now they are as hard as wood.

Rabina shows her clothes. Each of them is frozen in U-shape, as if they were still hung over an invisible clothesline. Her towel looks like the hard cover of a book with the pages missing.

Koili: Oh no, we forgot it’s below freezing point outside! Look, some of the dripping water has frozen at the end of the clothes!


Sewa: Hmm, I wonder if that frozen piece would be called stalagmite or stalactite. You know, Harry Potter wonders the same thing in Gringott’s underground passage….

Rabina stares daggers at Sewa. Sewa decides to explain, though in a smaller voice.

Sewa: umm, you know, about limestone formations…

Rabina: I DON’T CARE ABOUT ANY LIME STONE, LEMON STONE OR ORANGE STONE, UNLESS I CAN USE IT TO CLOBBER THIS SHIRT INTO SHAPE! I NEED TO GO TO WORK TOMORROW AND THAT’S MY FAVORITE WORK SHIRT!

Koili: Calm down dear, we will hang your clothes over the heater to dry!

Rabina: Phew, there are so many of them, I will be up all night drying each of them individually over the heater!

Lali: Here, have some chocolates, it will cheer you up. I got them from my office, my boss had a basket of chocolates on his desk!

Rabina (forgets her troubles and beams): Wow Lali, from now on you get us delicious chocolates every day, ok!

Lali: I think my boss put it out just for the holiday season! People are feelings generous and want to share their happiness! If you ever went to the library, you would see most of the staff have put some goodies on their desk, so you can go around eating chocolates all day from various desks if you want!

Nikki: HEY, NOBODY EAT THOSE CHOCOLATES!! YESTERDAY I SAW MY COLLEAGUES TRYING THEIR BEST TO AVOID IT! THEY WERE PUSHING THAT BOX OF CHOCOLATES AWAY FROM THEMSELVES!! I EVEN SAW A FEW OF THEM DUMPING ITS CONTENTS ON OTHER PEOPLES’ DESKS WHEN NO ONE WAS LOOKING!

Lali: That is because they are dieting silly, they all want to avoid overeating!!!

Nikki: Huh?

Sewa: Who cares, we got free chocolates, yupee!

Lali: Hmph, I guess people must be really dieting in the holiday season, which is why nobody cleans the dining rooms! In Nepal we clean and scrub our houses for the holiday season, here I just saw spider webs when I went to eat out last month. There was even a spider sitting on my table!

Rabina: Haha, did you even manage to eat with the spider sitting nearby?

Lali: No, I shrieked and ran out as soon as I saw it!

Rabina: That explains it, you didn’t look closely enough. The spider is made of plastic and the web is of cotton. They were all fake dear, just Halloween decorations!

Lali (looking like a deflated balloon): phsssssss. I thought decorations were meant to be pretty, not scary.

Rabina: Wait till you see Christmas, every house is going to look lovely! With the ornaments and lights and statues, it is going to be as pretty as Tihar!

Lali: Oolala, I am going to have fun looking at them!

Nikki: Great, I will buy you all some Christmas gifts today. After all, it’s Black Friday!

Koili: And I will book my tickets right now instead of waiting for the last minute!


NOTE: If you like this post, please vote on the poll on the top right corner. And please vote for Sewa, since I am the one who brought this conversation to you :D


Published in Parakhi blog: http://www.parakhi.com/blogs/2011/12/02/winter-in-america-part-i
http://www.parakhi.com/blogs/2011/12/09/winter-in-america-part-ii

Dec 11, 2011

Life, Interrupted


I carefully walked into the big house. I had come to volunteer at a nursing home without an inkling of what I would find. Grant, the head nurse who happened to be a guy, was friendly to me. He suggested that I play cards with some of the inmates. Sandy and Patty both greeted me with a smile; they were probably used to having visitors.


“Is it cold outside?” Sandy asked, looking at my jacket. With the first impression of their secluded life, I replied affirmatively. “Danny and I live just around the corner,” Sandy introduced herself. “I used to say when I lived there, that when I get out of here, I won’t go very far. And I didn’t get much farther than around the corner...,” she laughed.


Patty mentioned that her daughter had a developmental disability, and she herself had ten different diseases. She said she couldn’t live at home because someone took away her apartment, and her boyfriend’s check was late. She had an oxygen pipe going through her nose. Sandy followed suit soon, talking about her two daughters, how she put a rope in the middle of their room to divide their territories because they fought so much. Her husband Danny was gruff, and didn’t even respond to my hello. The conversation turned to why Sandy and Danny were there. “I was at a hospital and then went back home. We thought we could manage on our own, but we lasted a total of six days. They brought us here as we couldn’t take care of ourselves, he kept falling over…” Sandy wiped a tear from her eyes. She had a pipe coming out of her back.


“Yeah, you come in here, you see a lot of interesting things,” said Patty, to lighten up the situation. “I am winning this game,” I said in a bid to steer the conversation. We were playing cards, and I had a lucky hand. Danny apparently didn’t think much of it. “Beginner’s luck!” he boomed, and we laughed.


Soon they were speaking to me in conspiratorial whispers. “There’s that lady down the hall, who is always yelling and screaming: Turn off the light, turn off the light!” Patty said in her nastiest voice. “Yesterday she came in and switched off the lights in this room. She lives halfway down the hallway, it doesn’t even bother her,” Sandy chimed in.  “And sometimes she even goes down the hallway with her potty bowl, naked!” Patty added. Right on cue, I heard her yelling “Turn off the light, turn off the light!”


 “There’s a guy who always says: Now I gotta start that truck” said Sandy.  I asked why that was. “He is confused,” they were all quick to defend him. “There is a woman” Danny suddenly spoke up. “That always says tomorrow my mother is coming to visit me. And the man next to her says, listen, if your mam visits you then I’m outta here because your mam is 140 years old.” “The woman is 94 years old” Sandy explained. This was one woman I felt really sorry for, waiting for her long dead mother to visit her.


 From time to time, they gave a running commentary for my benefit. “There comes our snack cart,” said Patty, and a woman handed them their snacks of choice--crackers, granola, and peach. Patty also told me that Sandy’s delicious looking chocolate milk actually had protein shake in it. I asked Sandy if it tasted good, and she grimaced. “In the morning she gets it with tomato juice, and you should see her face then,” Patty laughed. “I am just taking it to so that I can get better, and can go back to my life again.”  This was a woman 64 years old!


Later, I would meet some of the characters from their whispers. The guy who wanted to start a truck ambled in. He was in a wheelchair, and looked lost. “What are you doing, Bob?” Sandy asked him. Bob mumbled incoherently for a long time. “I am fixing the toilet,” he finally said in a barely audible whisper. “But you did that yesterday,” Sandy reminded him. “Did I...?” Bob was very childlike. Eventually he went away as confused as he had come.


Patty called her family and we heard her yelling on the phone. Later, she discussed the events with Sandy. “My boyfriend didn’t come to see me because his father had a car accident two days ago and he had to go to a chiropractor,” she relayed. “Why is he telling you so late?” asked Sandy. “Yeah, I know, that’s what I told them; don’t forget that I am here.”


Somewhere along the way Sandy managed to tell me that she and Danny had been married for 50 years. “I tolerate him,” she said with a laugh. “It’s the other way around, actually” Danny said with a rare smile. “You can tell, can’t you?”  Sandy immediately turned to me. Patty added that she had been with the same man for 17 years. Larry walked in, and I asked him about his married life.  “I tried marriage, twice, and didn’t like it,” he replied. “I have a daughter, she never visits me. I have two brothers, they never visit me either.  I’ll probably die a lonely man, and I don’t care!”


Suddenly, everything that I had always feared was staring me in the face. I was scared of being forgotten by my family like Patty, of dying lonely like Larry, of losing my memories like Bob, and I was scared of spending my last days waiting for the visit of someone long dead.  But I also found a lot of inspiration and love. Strangely, these were the people who spoke the clearest English, and understood me perfectly, never asking me to repeat anything. They were so well spoken, and perfectly sane in every other way but their illness. And most of all, I was inspired by their optimism and their will to go back to the life they once had despite being so ill!

Dec 5, 2011

Sleeping Beauty: Evolution of a Kiss



Sleeping Beauty: Who doesn’t know the story of a princess who falls asleep on her 15th birthday and is woken up by love’s first kiss? In this familiar story, the princess’ parents forget to invite a malevolent fairy, who curses the princess to die on her 15th birthday from a spindle’s prick. But a good fairy negates the curse by saying that the princess will just fall asleep for a hundred years, and wake up with love’s first kiss. However, this romantic story once had other, not so romantic versions. What we know today is the result of numerous revisions and substantial censoring throughout the ages.



To start with the earliest written version, a story called “Sun, Moon and Talia” can be found in a 1634 Italian collection by Giambatista Basil. In this story, the princess’s sleep is not the result of a curse. Instead, her horoscope forecasts that she will incur great danger from flax. The prominence of horoscope is surprising in a European story, but Sun, Moon and Talia has more surprises to offer. After the prince discovers Sleeping Beauty, the story follows in this way:
“He called to her, but she would not wake. As he looked at her, and tried to wake her, she seemed so incredibly lovely to him that he could not help desiring her, and he began to grow hot with lust. He gathered her in his arms and carried her to a bed, where he made love to her. Leaving her on the bed, he left the palace and returned to his own city, where pressing business for a long time made him think no more about the incident.” (sic)
The famous kiss is conspicuous by absence in this graphic description of intimacy. Talia becomes pregnant and in due course bears two children. She wakes when her child sucks her thumb and removes the cursed piece of flax. She takes her two children and goes in search of her husband. To her dismay, she finds that the prince is already married. The much married prince surprised me too, as the story is European, and presumably polygamy hasn’t existed in Europe for many centuries. The prince nevertheless allows her to live in his house, but his wife is jealous of Talia. The first wife is an ogress and schemes to kill and eat the children. However, the prince finds this out in the right time, burns the ogress to death, and happily settles down with Talia. This version has many objectionable parts that were edited out later, eg. a prince who has sexual intercourse with a random corpse, a married prince with a roving eye, the birth of illegitimate children from a corpse, and a cannibalistic first wife.
Later, the French writer Charles Perrault published his version of Sleeping Beauty in 1697. For the first time, the evil fairy and her curse are introduced. Also in this version, the princess is unnamed and the prince is thankfully unmarried. But here too, there is no kiss, the good fairy prophesizes that the king’s son will come and wake her after a hundred years have passed. When the princess wakes, she finds the prince kneeling in front of her, mesmerized by her beauty. They talk and decide to get married. The censored part comes later in the form of the prince’s mother, an ogress who wants to eat her grandchildren “in piquant sauce.” But again, the prince finds out in time, burns his mother, and settles down happily with his wife. This version gets rid of most objectionable parts like sex with a corpse, illegitimate children, and a polygamous situation.
In the best known text of Sleeping Beauty from 1812, the Grimm brothers call the princess Brier Rose. There is a demure kiss after the princess wakes up. The story ends here, and thus avoids the cannibalism depicted in earlier version. But the most famous version with even more editing was yet to come. In 1959, Disney released the movie Sleeping Beauty, where for the first time it was prophesized that a prince’s kiss would wake her up. There are many other firsts in this story. The princess is called Aurora and is obsessed with love, she walks around singing love songs and mooning for her beloved all through her adolescence. Also for the first time, the princess and the prince are in love with each other before she falls asleep. She does not stay asleep for a hundred years, and the prince battles a dragon which was nowhere to be seen in any of the earlier versions. It is this version of the story that we know today, and it has become so pervasive that it has come to symbolize all fairytales.

Why was there so much editing in the folktales? First of all, folktales were never meant for children in their original form. Before the advent of mass media, stories entertained people of all ages. I think of them as the precursors of sms jokes and facebook videos that people now share with each other, which are usually uncensored. Even a cursory glance at Nepali tales will confirm the same: there are many stories with a lot of violence and mature themes. When the Grimm Brothers’ first collection of folktales came out in 1812, it was not meant for children and contained a lot of mature themes. However, the collection instantly became popular with children, though children were disturbed by many of the themes. For example, in the 1812 version, Snow White’s real mother, and not the stepmother, is the villain and tries to kill her. Grimm brothers, one of the earliest people to realize the potential for a children’s market, edited many of the mature themes for their next edition. By the 1819 version, Snow White’s mother is already dead, and she is attacked by her stepmother.
Today the folktales are specifically marketed towards children with much editing. Especially after Disney took over, disturbing themes were completely eradicated. With its movies, story books, coloring books, dresses, tents, pillows, pencil boxes, and all sorts of other pink merchandizes, Disney leaves no stone unturned in popularizing its watered down versions. But it is interesting to note that true folktales are not necessarily childish, and maybe worth an adult’s time too. They provide a window into the minds of people who enjoyed such types of stories, and give us clues about contemporary social constructions and values.

All the versions mentioned above, except the Disney movie, can be found here

Dec 2, 2011

Why can't women do it?

If women really are talented and can do anything that men can, why are there few famous women philosophers, scientists, writers, musicians, and politicians? Why have women been unable to achieve anything notable in history? Are women really oppressed or are they making much ado about nothing? Underlying these questions continuously thrown at women is the assumption that opportunities are available equally to men and women, but women are just not capable enough to utilize them. This issue of women’s inability to break the glass ceiling seems striking to education in general and ELT in particular, because growing up I have heard these limitations resonate in the experience of every female teacher in Nepal (my mother and several aunts being among them). Though teaching is a popular occupation with women, very few women are found in positions of leadership. The widely adopted explanation for this phenomenon is that women can only do women’s work: housekeeping, cooking and raising babies. In this post, I first share a review of the book “The Madam Curie Complex” by Julie Jardines, who completely overturns this traditional view. I then ask readers to consider how the situation compares to the field of Nepalese academia.

Jardines has researched and listed a number of limitations faced by women in science. Interestingly, those limitations sound eerily familiar to any woman in higher education, and even more so in societies like Nepal. Jardines begins the book by tracing the image of science right from the foundations of Western thought. The earliest philosophers like Aristotle and Plato declared that men are objective and analytical, while women are feelers and sentimental beings. Other rational thinkers also Descartes followed in the tradition and perfected this image. The field of science, as a result, has come to be seen as very virile and physical. In the post- World War II era, following the success of atom bomb, scientific victories were treated like military or sports victories. Male scientists, including Albert Einstein, became a prominent part of art and culture, featuring in superhero movies. Already, the well was poisoned against women who wanted to become scientists. How did the definition of science as male affect women scientist?

Madame Curie is probably the most famous woman scientist of all. After radium was discovered, the French academia lobbied to have the prize given only to her husband, just because Marie curie was a woman. Even though she had started the work on radium before her husband Pierre joined the team, and she was the team leader even after her husband joined. Her husband insisted to the Committee that his wife was the driving force in the research before the committee relented and awarded the prize to the couple. Even so, at the award ceremony the prize giver quoted the biblical story of Adam and Eve “God saw that man was alone and sent him a helpmeet.”

Such condescending attitudes awaited all women who wanted to pursue a career in science. Jardines lists the case of a woman whose examiner did not come to take her oral exam and said he had been sleeping, though it was 2 pm. Women who graduated in the traditionally male fields did not find employment. Like many other women, Ellen Swallow Richards took on menial job as a janitor and sweepers just to be a fly on the wall and learn about her subject anyhow. A talented woman like Rosalyn Yalow who later went on to win the Nobel prize in physiology had to take stenography courses because no one would employ her.Due to anti nepotism policies active in those days, only one of the spouses was employed by an organization. Unsurprisingly, it was mostly the male half of the couple who was employed, even if he was less qualified than his wife. Marie Curie’s husband was appointed a professor at university while she was not. And after the death of Pierre, she was allowed to take over his post, but not as a full professor that he was, only as an assistant professor. Laura Fermi, the wife of Enrico Fermi was herself a fully qualified scientist before she gave up her career to pave the way for her illustrious husband.

Besides the sneering attitudes of the top people in the field, women also faced many practical day to day problems. There were no often no women’s bathrooms in the buildings. Women were often barred from attending public lectures because there were no female seats. Men bonded over nights out at bars and made work related decisions while socializing, which women were not allowed to attend.
And what was happening to these women’s home lives as they struggled inthe professional arena? Today, Madame Curie is remembered as a motherly figure who had nothing on her mind but to discover a cure for cancer through radium. But the reality was far from it, Madam Curie had no interest in curing cancer, but instead was a very passionate scientist. This image of a motherly, caring woman was created for the sake of publicity so that more women could identify with her and fund her to get more radium. The slightest departure from this image could be disastrous: when Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize, it did not make much news because the newspapers were busy writing about her alleged affairs. These allegations destroyed her reputation; in contrast, the affairs of Albert Einstein were treated indulgently by the press.

Other women scientists also struggled to maintain such an image, without which they were shunned by the larger society. Even though they were scientists, they were expected to fulfill all the duties of a mother. Rosaline Gilbraith was said to sew buttons, make lunch, and attend all the school plays for her children, while Rosalyn Yalow lived only one mile away from her laboratory so that she could walk there after she had put her children to sleep. Even Marie Curie’s otherwise supportive husband left the childcare to Marie and his father. Jardines quotes Charlotte Whitton who famously said that “a woman has to work twice as hard to be thought half as good as a man.”

And if any woman, despite these hardships, managed to climb the ladders of her professional career, she would face the biggest roadblock of all: the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize is awarded to at most three people at a time. Rosalind Franklin unluckily happened to be the fourth partner in the team that won the prize for discovering the double helix structure of DNA . Naturally, she was the one axed from the team, even though it was her photograph that provided conclusive evidence of the structure.

For a woman, it was not enough to be talented to be recognized. They also had to be patronized by the men in the field. Exceptionally talented women like Lisa Meitner, whose work contributed to building the atom bomb, ended up losing out on the prize. Meitner’s partner of thirty years Otto Hahn received the prize alone. As a consequence, Jardines calls the life of Maria Mayer charmed, even though she had taught without pay for most of her life as no one would give her work. Mayer won the Nobel prize for her work. Her husband was a physicist and she socialized with other respected physicists like Enrico Fermi. In contrast, talented women like Eleanor Lamson, Florence Sabin and Williamina Fleming, who had no defending husbands like Pierre Curie, were employed in subordinate positions while the credit for their work was taken by their male superiors. Jardines acknowledges that Nobel Prize discrimination sometimes happens to men too. However, the ratio of discrimination towards deserving women is much higher than the same for their male counterparts.

Many of these problems do not exist any longer. We have laws in place that bar discrimination, and many people have begun to concede that women can be successful in scientific careers. Many (not all, but many) men are willing to help out in the house and coordinate double careers. Thankfully, women can usually find bathrooms at workplace. And yet, the ratio of women in science remains low. A typical engineering class contains about 10% of girls. Girls are even rarer to find in pure science subjects like pure math or physics.

Many of the social glitches that dogged these earlier women still continue to pester today’s women in all fields of career. Jardines writes that once at a conference, a humorous picture of a bikini clad woman was displayed, and the men present burst out in raunchy jokes. How is a woman to handle a misogynist joke? Should she laugh along and hurt her feelings? Or should she express her feelings and jeopardize her career?Most of the socializing takes place in the evenings over drinks. In Nepal, most women still do not stay out late and drink. Work ideas are shared and camaraderie is built over the socialization, out of which most women are shut off.

In conclusion, this book gives an insight into the systematic exclusion of women from science. Jardines explains why it was so hard for them to make inroads into science and proves that the absence of women in science is not a factor of their genetic makeup. In fact, these insights are helpful for women in any field to realize the limitations facing them, and to gradually face these challenges. Hopefully, as time passes and more and more women enter all kinds of subjects, the path will be easier for future women.

As stated above, teaching is a popular career for women, maybe because it falls in the traditionally feminine fields of caring and nurturing children. Today there may even be more female teachers than male teachers in Nepal. But it would be laughable to say that a Nepalese woman can move ahead in her career as well as her male counterparts just by the dint of her talent and hard work. First, the gender hierarchy that prevails in the Nepalese culture as a whole largely shapes the roles that men and women play within the academia: men are expected to, want to, and quite often have the privileges to take relatively superior roles like that of administrators and supervisors compared to women. Second, the burden of work that women have at home doesn’t allow them to invest nearly as much time, to gain as much academic/professional expertise, and to aspire as much as men at work. Third, women who do desire and get into leadership positions are not given the same respect by men simply because they are not men. Fourth, when women are elected or invited to take on roles with authority and leadership, men tend to see their very entry into the position as representation. It would be rare for men to see the entry of a woman into the scene as a privilege for the men to have a female colleague who can add new perspectives and strengths to the institution/organization and its mission. I could go on, but I will leave it there and ask you to add your own perspectives on the issue. I hope you will join the discussion and point out issues that you have observed or experienced in Nepal.

Which of the situations described in the review above have you seen happen in Nepal? Does a particular example resonate with your or one of your colleague’s professional experience in the academia? How far have we come from, say, 30 years ago in terms of women leading or shaping the field of education? I would be delighted to read comments from the NELTA community about this subject.


Nov 26, 2011

Gender bias in Mythological Names

The name of Ram’s stepmother who sent him the forest is pretty well known. But not many people know that Kaikeyi is not this woman’s name at all. The word Kaikeyi is a generic adjective meaning that she came from the kingdom of Kekaya (speculated to be Caucasus Mountains). In fact, this name is so generic that several women in Hindu mythology are called Kaikeyi. In the Mahabharata, Queen Sudeshna of Viratnagar (where the Pandavas spent their Guptavas), is often referred to as Kaikeyi. Ram’s stepmother just happens to be the most famous of all the Kaikeyis. Throughout the Ramayan, she is called with this reverse eponym and not once are we told her real name.

Why did this happen? Why was the name of a major character forgotten and not recorded in the story? A closer look at names of other mythical characters informed me that this was not a coincidence, but was part of an overarching trend of gender bias in myths. Gender bias in our myths is a foregone conclusion, but the etymology of names gives a fascinating view into the vast reaches of gender bias.

Our myths contain hordes and hordes of such forgotten women like Kaikeyi who are named simply after the kingdom they come from. Ram’s mother Kaushalya, for example, is so called because she is from the kingdom of Koshal. In Mahabharata, the mothers of Dhritarashtra and Pandu are often addressed as Koshalya because they are from Kashi. They are lucky, because their given names Ambika and Ambalika, are also mentioned in the epic. In contrast, Gandhari, who comes from Gandhar (a West Asian kingdom in modern day Afghanistan), is not fortunate enough to have her name recorded. Similar is the fate of Madri, coming from Madrades (modern day Madras, as is not difficult to decipher.) We do not know Madri’s real name. Kunti is the luckier wife here, because her given name Pritha is mentioned quite a few times. The name Kunti comes from the name of her adoptive father, Kuntibhoj, and so is not her own name. The same fate also encounters the next generation, where Draupadi is called after her father Drupad. She is also often called Panchali after the kingdom of Panchal (not after her five husbands). She was named Krishnaa for her dark complexion, but this name is used far less frequently.

Why should all of this be a problem? For starters, it is simply not fair to recognize a woman just by her origin; imagine if every female student in America were to be known only by the name “Nepali.” That would be a gross injustice to the individuality of each woman. Besides, most of the men who have parallel roles in the myths are given individual names. Ram’s father is not called an Ayodhyan, he is called Dasharath, and the husbands of Madri and Gandhari are not called Hastinapure, they are called with their proper names of Pandu and Dhritarashtra. Gandhari is not given a proper name even though she is as prominent as her brother Shakuni. Even when Madri’s brother had a much smaller role than Madri, he has a proper name, Shalya. These men are never called Madre or Gandhare. Sure, Draupadi’s brother is sometimes called Drupad after his father, but he is more often called Dhristadhyumna, which refers to his daring nature.

Besides the galling discrimination to begin with, it also appears that men can accumulate new names that give them more praise. The original text often refers to the Pandavas by names that reflect their achievements. Yudhishthir is called Dharmaraj, referring to his just ways. Bhim is called Vrikodara, which means wolf-stomached, referring to his voracious appetite. Arjun is called Dhananjaya, meaning he is the winner of wealth. In fact, these newly minted names of men often overtake their original given names. Karna was named Vasusena by his adoptive parents, but soon became famous for giving away the kundals that adorned his Karnas (ears). Ved Vyas is called so because he divided the Vedas into four different parts, and in time it overtook his first name Dwaipayan, which means “born on an island”. Parashuram’s name was changed from Ram because he did great deeds with his Parashu (axe). Krishna was so named because for his dark complexion, but soon his other names like Madhusudan (killer of Madhu), Keshav (killer of Kisi), Hari (one who takes away sins), Govinda (one who takes care of cows) etc became just as famous as his original name.

In contrast, women with multiple names never manage to outstrip the fame of their origins. Sita is known by the various names of Janaki, Vaidehi, Mithila, and many more, most of them referring to her father’s kingdom. Even her given name Sita refers to the furrows created by the plough from which she was born, it does not refer to her virtuous qualities or her deeds.

To be fair, there are many mythological women whose proper names are mentioned. Tara, Mandodari, Damayanti, Savitri, are some of them. There are also a small number of women named for their achievements. But what tips the scale is the overwhelming number of women who are known simply by their lineage, and the few men that fall into this category. The overarching theme is that women are only known for the identity of their country, or at best, their father. Nothing they do after that in life matters: neither their individuality at birth, nor their achievements thereafter, are worth recording. Men, on the other hand, are given names that reflect their individual characteristics, and have the opportunity to cement their reputation through new names commemorating their success. (This trend applies only to human females and not goddesses who have their proper names.) I find this trend to be a reflection of the norms of Hindu society where traditionally, women were not allowed to have careers, their only career of home management was not deemed noteworthy, and only male achievements were counted.

Published in the Kathmandu Post: http://www.ekantipur.com/2011/11/27/oped/whats-in-a-name/344517.html

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