I woke up this morning thinking about Ha Long Bay, for no particular reason. I’ve never been there, only seen it in photos, but it is what I dream about whenever I’m having fantasies of my honeymoon. Sometimes, it just pops into my head out of the blue, like this morning. The photos make me dream of a surreal world where I will float on a wooden boat in the calm seas, sail past giant rocks that stick out of the serene waters like ice cream — ha ha ha, you dropped a Freudian slip Dilman, only a man in a horny mood will think that a rock looks like ice cream — and make love on the deck of the boat under the big moon that hangs above the ocean like cupid. I will be with this pretty Pinoy girl, who loves to swim in the sunset like a mermaid hurrying home to her lover.
And while I lay in my bed dreaming about Ha Long Bay (which, if I’m to imitate an untalented comedian, sounds like Her Long Bay) I remembered a woman I met in Nepal. She was twenty one years old, had been married for nearly five years and was still a virgin.
Her name was Meena. (It seems like half the girls in Nepal are called Meena.) I met her in a village deep in the mountains of Surkhet, where there was no electricity, no mobile phone network coverage – though the place was flooded with mobile phones, which is the center of entertainment for the youth, for movies and music – and no internet. I loved the place, the serenity, the beauty of the houses, I wished I was living in such a village.
And if you were a randy man, you would want to live in this village for different reasons. It was full of lonely housewives. The men marry, and then run away allegedly to work in India, or Kathmandu, or some other far away place which promises employment. Mostly India, like Meena’s husband.
It was an arranged marriage. She was about sixteen then. Her husband left for India to work the same night of their wedding, h. According to Meena’s sister, her husband did not touch her that night. He was too exhausted after all the wedding ceremonies, and he had to leave for India before dawn, a journey that begun with a six hour hike over mountains to Chisa Paani (sic, I forget the spelling, but it means ‘cold water’) in Kailali, where he would get a bus to Dhangadi town and then off to Delhi. So he had to save his energy for the trip and not waste it on celebrating his marriage — though Meena was a really pretty sixteen year old woman!
So you wonder how this woman told me intimate details of her sister’s life barely a week after I met them. Well, I went to this village to make a documentary about inter-caste marriage. Being a foreigner who talked the language passably fluently, people opened up to me so easily. But again, Nepalis do not have a sense of privacy, or intimacy, or whatever. Often, a complete stranger would approach me, and do ‘namaste‘, and then straight off ask; “How old are you?” “Are you married?” “Where do you come from?” So I figured the best way to talk to them is to cut the BS of small talk and hit hard the moment you’ve finished the tea they offered.
And I made it known that I was looking for stories of inter-caste marriage. We had come to interview a couple, Jaisara and her lover Khadga Bahadur, who had to live in a jungle for several days, surviving on roots and wild fruits, because her parents wanted to kill them. But then, the villagers told me of many other cases in the village, and Meena’s was one of them.
Well, Meena’s husband returned home from India once every year, during the Dasain festival, which is like Christmas to Hindus. But the first year he came back, Meena was terribly sick with diarrhea. How could she sleep with him in such conditions? The second year, she wondered why she is stuck with a husband she doesn’t even know. The night before he got home she escaped and spent the festival with her sister in Nepalgunj, six hours away by bus. Her husband was furious. But Meena could not return home because during Dasain, the country shuts down. No cars on the road.
Her husband then decided to go to India via the Nepalgunj route, and Meena welcomed him into his sisters home, but she refused to sleep with him. “How can we do it in this house? It’s not your house! Wait until we get back to your house.”
The next year, his parents decided that Meena would not go anywhere. She had to stay home and await her husband. The week before his arrival, they locked her up in a room. However, by this time, she had fallen in love with a boy called Suresh, and this boy did not want the absentee husband to break her virginity. “How do you know if he stays faithful to you in India?” he argued. “Maybe he sleeps with prostitutes and now has AIDS.” He smuggled a large quantity of valium into her room. Her husband failed to stay awake throughout the festival! Every time he tried to do it to her, he fell asleep.
Unfortunately for her, the fourth year, her boyfriend could not get valium. Yet Meena was determined not to sleep with her husband. During that Dasain, she spent many nights in the coldness of the cattle-shed, or in the kitchen, and though her in-laws tried to force her to make a baby, she insisted on her husband taking an AIDS test. Naturally, they were furious. He beat her up. But one of his brothers took her side, and that saved her.
Well, in the fifth year of the marriage, about a month before Dasain, I showed up in the village. Three days later, Meena eloped with Suresh. Gossip had it that Meena wanted to break her virginity with a man she loved. She could not dishonor herself with adultery, so she had to marry her secret love in an elopement before she could sleep with him. (I failed to understand the argument as I do not know how a person divorces in Nepal). Suresh being a high caste, and she a low caste, the tranquil village suddenly erupted into tension. I expected a fight. I was thrilled that I would be able to film an inter-caste disturbance as it happens — a morbid thought! — but I was disappointed.
The night before the elopement, there was a party, the rice-feeding ceremony of a six months old baby boy from an inter-caste marriage. Meena danced more than any girl that night. There were madals, and singing, and clapping, deep into the night. And when they got tired of drumming and singing, they would play music from their mobile phones. I remember a song from the Nepali movie, “Batuli”, which Meena’s brother had choreographed, and Meena with three other dancers performed it the gathered revelers. Both high and low caste mixed freely in this party, drinking together, being good neighbors to each other as they celebrated the baby’s first taste of rice. (The dances from this night feature in the documentaries I made, Untouchable Love, and The Sound of One Leg Dancing)
The next morning, Meena went missing. She was supposed to be in the field harvesting rice, but she wasn’t there. They thought she had overslept following the party. Someone went to wake her up, and discovered she was missing. Her clothes were no were to be found. They ran to Suresh’s home, and guess what, he was missing too!
When we showed up that morning, we found the village in tension. Meena’s sisters were crying, terrified that the high-caste people would attack them.
I was advised to leave the village quickly, being a foreigner on an inter-caste marriage mission. My cameraman was not willing to spend even another minute in the village. So we sneaked back to Barbiyachau and took a bus to Birendranagar. I called Meena’s sister a week later, but all she told me on the phone was that ‘It was settled’. I don’t know if Meena is with Suresh, or she was forced to go back to her husband, but one thing I’m sure of, she finally broke her virginity.