8. The Politics of Dirt and Gender: Body Techniques in Bengali India
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213 eight The Politics of Dirt and Gender Body Techniques in Bengali India Sarah Lamb On my second trip to the village in West Bengal, India, where I was later to live for a year and a half, a girl met me by the roadside, crying. She had been the one to show me around the village on my first visit and had generously shared with me her and her sister’s egg curry. She reported that the other village girls had seen her washing my dish, and so she had become ‘‘untouchable .’’ She was a Brahman, member of the highest Hindu caste, but I was not even a Hindu. She would have left my dish on the ground and called later for someone of a low or untouchable caste to wash it, had I known to place it there (as I should have). But instead I had handed her my dish as she was gathering up the others, in what in ordinary U.S. etiquette seemed to me a helpful gesture. The untouchability this girl, Hena, thereby suffered was the kind that could be cleansed by bathing—and so she did bathe and resume normal relations with her peers and neighbors. But she cried when she saw me again because she liked me and didn’t want to hurt me and was eager to have a relationship with me, someone beyond the confines of her village. Yet she feared others wouldn’t accept me or our friendship, because of my deep impurity as a foreigner. Dirt, Undress, and Difference 214 Later, people in this village, even many Brahmans, began to eat with me and even wash my dishes and wipe the place where I had been sitting, but not until or unless they found out two things about me: 1) that I didn’t eat cows, and 2) that I bathed regularly, particularly after defecating. I had learned to do both things, in my (perhaps natural human) desire to fit in and be accepted. So I found myself bathing rather frequently, and forging quite intimate relationships with many in the village. Much scholarly ink has been spent exploring dirt, pollution, and purity in South Asia. Louis Dumont, for instance, in his classic tome Homo hierarchicus , argues that the opposition between the pure and impure is fundamental to the entire organization of Hindu society and ideology, manifest most strikingly in a fixed vertical hierarchy of pure and impure castes. Material from India figures centrally as well in Mary Douglas’s well-cited work Purity and Danger, in which she makes the broader argument that dirt in general is matter out of place, illuminating both a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order (1966: 35). In India, Douglas suggests, elaborate notions surrounding impurity serve essentially to order and maintain the social hierarchy of Hindu castes (1966: 125). For ordinary people living in India, like Hena, the girl who washed my dish, practices and beliefs surrounding dirt and pollution are more complex than such neat structuralist models of caste hierarchy imply—as other scholars have variously argued before.1 Beliefs about dirt or impurity2 pertain not only to caste but to gender, class, nation, race, age, and visions of modernity and backwardness. Social-bodily conditions of dirtiness and impurity are, further, not neatly determined by or representative of fixed hierarchies, but rather are—like the broader social categories and hierarchies that define and constrain people’s lives—constituted and (re)negotiated in daily practice. Since my closest friends and informants in the field were women, and since much of the bodily training I received from Bengalis as to how to comport myself and manage my impurities pertained to my being a woman, I will focus this exploration of dirt on gender—particularly on the ways rural women ’s lives and identities are made and constrained through elaborate daily practices pertaining to cleansing and dirt. I concentrate on the people in the West Bengali village of Mangaldihi, in northeastern India, where I lived for 18 months in 1989–90 and again for shorter visits in 2003 and 2004. Mangaldihi is a large, predominantly Hindu village of about 1,700 in the gently undulating terrain 100 kilometers northwest of Kolkata. Brahmans, whose neighborhoods are located in the village center, dominate Mangaldihi; they are numerous (although the Scheduled Caste3 Bagdis number about the same) and own the most land, and the village’s major religious festivals revolve around the Vaishnava...


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