5.06 / June 2010

DISEASES, DISORDERS, BREAKS

listen to an excerpt from this story

There are of course, girls and girls; yet at heart they are pretty much alike. For man, the over-grown boy, life has commonly two, and only two, sides: work, and play. When the father of a boy wishes to arrange a marriage he sends emissaries to the father of the girl. They open the proceedings by saying, ‘So-and-so has come to partake of your stale food.’ But this is a thorny subject. Suffice it to say that all men love all girls— If the father of the girl approves he gives his consent by saying, ‘He has come on foot, I receive him on my head.’ Happy he who has for a helpmate one who possesses the faculty of increasing a zeal for the first and of adding a zest to the second. The bride and bridegroom go into the water, and each in turn hides a jar under water, which the other must find. Wherein, O woman, thou mayest happily find the two-fold secret of thy life-work.

***

The boy is furnished with a bow and arrows and has to shoot at a stuffed deer over the girl’s shoulder. After each shot she gives him a little sugar, and if he does not hit the deer in three shots he must pay 4 annas to the sawasa or page. There is something exasperatingly something-or-otherish about girls. After the marriage the bridegroom does not visit his wife for a month in order to ascertain whether she is already pregnant. They then live together. Man is a greedy animal: he wants all or nothing. And they know it—which makes them more something-or-otherish still. The widow is expected to marry her late husband’s younger brother, especially if he is a bachelor. If she marries another man with his consent, the new husband gives him a turban and shoulder-cloth. Women tacitly extol man’s greed: they will not be shared any more than they will share. After birth the mother is impure for five days. There is no other word for it.

***

A girl is a complicated thing. The dead are usually burnt, but children under six whose ears have not been pierced, and persons dying a violent death or from cholera or smallpox are buried. There is something canine in the masculine nature: It is made up of clothes, smiles, a pompadour, things of which space and prudence forbid the enumeration here. When the principal man of the family dies, the caste-fellows at the mourning feast tie a cloth round the head of his successor to show that they acknowledge his new position. It is curious, but it is true, that proud man becomes prouder (and—more curious still—at the same time humbler) when weak woman gives him something. They have a vague belief in a supreme God but do not pay much attention to him.

These things by themselves do not constitute a girl, which is obvious: a look, a smile, a locket, her hair, a kiss, herself. The deity who presides over their profession is Loha-Sur, the Iron demon, who is supposed to live in the smelting-kilns, and to whom they offer a black hen. Nor is any one girl without these things, which is not too obvious. They worship their smelting implements on the day of Dasahra and during Phagun, and offer fowls to them. It is marvelous how a woman contrives to find something to look up to in a man. They have little faith in medicine, and in cases of sickness requisition the aid of the village sorcerer, who ascertains what deity is displeased with them by moving grain to and fro in a winnowing-fan and naming the village gods in turn. Where the things end and the girl begins many men have tried to find out.

***

Many girls would like to be men—they refuse to eat monkeys, jackals, crocodiles, lizards, beef and the leavings of others. They eat pork and fowls and drink liquor copiously. Many men forget the artistic tendency of the feminine temperament, a tendency which shows itself in many ways—except on occasions. Temporary excommunication from caste is imposed for conviction of a criminal offence, getting maggots in a wound, and killing a cow, a dog or a cat. The lady-killer is always an object of attraction to ladies, even to those whom he makes no attempt to slay. Permanent excommunication is imposed for adultery or eating with a very low caste. Perhaps this is just a part of their something-or-otherishness. They are profusely tattooed with representations of flowers, scorpions and other objects. This is done merely for ornament. But it often leads to strange embarrassments and entanglements. Why they should want to be men, men cannot conceive. Few things terrify a man more than the knowledge of a woman’s ability to make her emotions: By eating the most horrible food they utterly subdue their natural appetites, and hence acquire great power over themselves and over the forces of nature. Men pale before them, grow hot and cold before them, run before them (and after them), swear by them (and at them). They are much feared and disliked by the people owing to their practice of extorting alms by the threat to carry out their horrible practices before the eyes of their victims, and by throwing filth into their houses. In matters of emotional finesse the masculine instance is nowhere: they gash and cut their limbs so that the crime of blood may rest on those who refuse to give.

It is an open secret that girls are fonder of men than they are of one another—blinded, befogged, befooled at every turn. They do not cook, but eat the fragments given them in charity as received, which they put as far as may be into the cavity of the skull used as a begging-bowl. Which is very lucky for the men. It is said that for some time past human graves have been found robbed of their contents, and the mystery could not be solved until the other day, when the police succeeded in arresting a man in the act of desecrating a child’s grave, some forty miles distant from the capital.

***

Girls differ; and the same girl is different at different times: a woman; a race horse; a patent; and the money-market. When a man is dying they put basil leaves and boiled rice and milk in his mouth, and a little piece of gold, or if they have not got gold they put a rupee in his mouth and take it out again. For ten days after a death, food in a leaf-cup and a lamp are set out in the house-yard every evening, and every morning water and a tooth-stick. He is a fool who stakes more than a portion of his substance on any one of them. The women put a lamp on a red earthen pot and go to a tank or stream at night. When she is by herself, she is one thing. When she is with other girls she is another thing—impalpable, invisible, divine. The fish are attracted towards the light, and one of them is caught and put in the pot, which is then filled with water. It is brought home and set beside a small heap of flour, and the elders sit round it. When she is with a lot of men, she is a third sort of thing. Her feet are not washed nor besmeared with red powder at the wedding ceremony like those of other girls. When a caste offence is committed the Dukria goes to call the offender, and is given the earthen pots used at the penalty-feast, while the Phopatia receives a new piece of cloth. It is not the growth of long and intimate acquaintance, for often it acts spontaneously and at once; and neither the woman who possesses it nor the man who succumbs to it can give it a name. As often as not a man goes regularly by some name other than his real one. When she is with a man, they swear by the pig and abstain from eating its flesh. The dog is considered an unclean animal and its tail, ears and tongue are especially defiling.


James Tadd Adcox's work has appeared in TriQuarterly, The Collagist, and Anti- Poetry, among other places. His first book, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, is available from Tiny Hardcore Press, and if there is to be a zeitgeist (a correspondence), written collaboratively with Robert Kloss, is forthcoming from NAP Press. He lives in Chicago.