The Place of a Woman

Southasia - - Book - Re­viewed By Ar­shi Saleem Hashmi

Greta Rana, in her book ‘Hid­den Women’ takes us into the per­sonal sto­ries of women of the aris­toc­racy in Nepal by pre­sent­ing a por­trait of their in­tri­cate lives, their thoughts and their dreams.

The ti­tle Hid­den Women is in­ter­est­ing be­cause the book in­tro­duces the sto­ries of women who are un­known to the rest of the world. Peo­ple out­side Nepal know very lit­tle or noth­ing about them. Their lives are a shadow of the life of Jung Ba­hadur Rana, the founder of the Rana dy­nasty that ruled Nepal for 104 years.

Though the strong women who lived with Rana had great in­flu­ence on him, they were largely por­trayed as his wives who com­mit­ted sati when he died. Th­ese women en­joyed a prom­i­nent place in his life and iron­i­cally, the one he ad­mired most tried to kill him.

The book is unique be­cause a per­son, who is no stranger to the fam­ily or royal pol­i­tics un­der the Rana dy­nasty, nar­rates it. It is the first time the story is be­ing told through the eyes of the women in Rana’s life.

The au­thor, Greta Rana, had an un­usual life af­ter fall­ing in love with a Nepali stu­dent from an aris­to­cratic fam­ily of Nepal. Since 1971, she not only set­tled in Nepal but contributed to the English lan­guage lit­er­ary scene in the coun­try.

Due to her in­ter­est in the his­tory of the Rana fam­ily who ruled Nepal with pow­er­ful prime min­is­ters be­tween 1846 and 1951, it struck her that peo­ple knew lit­tle about the Ranas be­yond their two-di­men­sional, his­tor­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions. In Hid­den Women, Greta delves into the lives of the “rul­ing women” be­hind the charis­matic, Jung Ba­hadur

The book is full of metaphors delv­ing into sto­ries of pa­tri­ar­chal ar­eas where men play cards once the plough­ing is over and women carry out the rest of the agri­cul­tural work. Greta beau­ti­fully writes that the at­ti­tude to­wards women for a long time has been quite chau­vin­is­tic. Good women are sup­posed to be weak and obe­di­ent, while bad women are treach­er­ous and of course, strong and in­de­pen­dent women are not ad­mired by a con­ser­va­tive and tra­di­tional so­ci­ety. As else­where in South Asia, here too, the en­durance to sus­tain and bear pain is taken as the strength in women.

In the words of Greta Rana, “I chose Kadam’s story be­cause a sig­nif­i­cant event in my life gave me an epiphany — that it is those who serve dy­nas­ties who per­pet­u­ate the aura of the rul­ing clans rather than the clan mem­bers them­selves.” His­tory and mythol­ogy are rich with ref­er­ences to the sac­ri­fices women must make for honor and ge­neal­ogy, and the so­cial and eco­nomic bag­gage they are forced to carry.

Greta be­gins with the story of young Kadam from a poor fam­ily in a re­mote vil­lage and then shifts to the characters of Ganesh Ku­mari and Jung Ba­hadur, and even­tu­ally to that of his wives and con­cu­bines. Later in the sub­se­quent chap­ters, the au­thor re­in­forces the gen­eral per­cep­tion about the aris­toc­racy in Nepal. For a reader not fa­mil­iar with the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics of Nepal, it gives a pic­ture of a highly cor­rupt and chau­vin­ist sys­tem within the coun­try. There may be ex­cep­tions but that does not come clear in the writ­ing. Her nar­ra­tion of Jung Ba­hadur’s ac­tions to re­main in power gives an im­pres­sion that even if he made cer­tain de­ci­sions which oth­er­wise can­not be jus­ti­fied, the rea­son was to safe­guard the fam­ily’s honor, which he suc­cess­fully did it.

West­ern and some re­gional South Asian in­flu­ences have trans­formed tra­di­tional moun­tain so­ci­eties. The devel­op­ment par­a­digm and the rapid eco­nomic di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion has caused the change. Women’s value in their house­holds, com­mu­ni­ties and so­ci­eties is de­clin­ing as tra­di­tional moun­tain so­ci­eties are be­ing trans­formed by the pre­vail­ing val­ues be­long­ing to low­land re­li­gious, na­tion­al­is­tic and cul­tural par­a­digms. The mar­ginal sta­tus of most moun­tain so­ci­eties makes re­sis­tance to more pow­er­ful forces dif­fi­cult, and the process of main­stream­ing moun­tain cul­tures into na­tional iden­ti­ties may negate the stronger po­si­tions of women from th­ese tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ties.

Though Nepali so­ci­ety is pa­tri­ar­chal in na­ture, the great palace con­spir­a­cies al­ways had a women call­ing the shots. Royal wives and con­cu­bines schemed for fa­vors. Greta re­minds us of the role of the “rul­ing women”, sup­ple­ment­ing her theme with the characters of Kadam, Jung Ba­hadur’s clair­voy­ant wet nurse, and his mother, Ganesh Ku­mari. She adopts a fem­i­nist tone early on in Kadam’s story when Kadam’s mother-in-law sums up the re­la­tions be­tween men and women: “That’s all they do, plough ... They plough the land and they plough us and we have to look af­ter ev­ery­thing that grows.”

The book is an in­ter­est­ing read as it de­picts the sit­u­a­tion full of al­liances and ri­val­ries that an­i­mated the Kath­mandu court. The strength of the book is Kadam’s char­ac­ter, which links the af­fairs of a feu­dal state with the mun­dane re­al­i­ties of the peas­ants it ex­ploited. Kadam was a sig­nif­i­cant char­ac­ter though it is hard to say to what ex­tent the hid­den women of the Rana dy­nasty were its rul­ing women. The way Greta has nar­rated the story of Kadam, read­ers tend to em­pathize with this in­tel­li­gent but sen­si­tive woman who was sent to Kath­mandu’s roy­alty to earn for her hus­band’s fam- ily and to serve Jung Ba­hadur.

‘Hid­den Women’ un­veils the se­crets within the walls of the royal palace in Nepal but at the same time, it in­forms that de­spite the devel­op­ment and mod­ern­iza­tion, so­ci­eties are not dif­fer­ent from Kadam’s Nepal. Greta through this book gives an­other mes­sage that women are in­stru­men­tal whether serv­ing as a wet nurse like Kadam or a mod­ern, em­pow­ered woman any­where in the world, they have a com­mon bond and not rec­og­niz­ing this bond is a tragedy of our time.

Ti­tle: Hid­den Women – The Rul­ing Women of the Rana Dy­nasty Au­thor: Greta Rana Pub­lisher: Roli In­di­aInk (2012) Pages: 368, Hard­back Price: PKR. 395 ISBN: 9788186939628

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