Bidi Katha

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					Bidi Katha In the beginning I must apologise that this paper is not based on any systematic approach towards Oral Narrative as expected in academic circles. Being associated with Marfat, a Voluntary Organisation working on issues related to Child Rights in the Dhulian Municipality area of Murshidabad district, I have had to interact with many people including adolescent girls and women of different age groups of this area. We were trying to understand the kind of information /knowledge those women have regarding labour rights, entitlements, available govt. services etc. and certain behaviours/ practices in the context of health-hygiene, food habits etc. We also looked into other predominant social issues /values, reasons responsible for perpetuating gender discrimination in the community we are working with. At this juncture I am not dumping those findings on readers/listeners which emerged primarily through focussed group discussion (a technique/ methodology fairly common to the development circuit) and observation. But nevertheless some of those experiences, as I have understood them, can be termed as Oral Narrative. Primarily this is my narrative, my version of narrated events (and narrative events), which I have encountered/experienced through the process mentioned earlier. The fact is, a middle aged male outsider (keeping aside his familiarity and closeness to those women and their world) cannot have the kind of scope or space that is essential to understand how the women’s world is linked with the oral narratives they share only amongst themselves (as I can imagine). Be he an insider or outsider, those narrative events cannot take place in male presence. And mine was no exception. That does not mean that no narrative event (where the majority of the participants, including the narrator, are women) is possible in the presence of men. I would like to share some of my thoughts/ideas in the context of those narrative events as a pretext of proposed Bidi Katha.. Mostly from the Muslim community, the majority of those women (we have interacted with) are involved with bidi rolling, the most common livelihood activity (possibly the only easy option) of the area. Here I would like to remind that rolling bidi and earning a livelihood from that is not child’s play (though a considerable number of children are involved in it). It is a dawn to dusk activity, a daily routine affair for year after year, until age and body decline to continue. In a nutshell, this is how generations of women of this locality, from childhood to old age (8-10 yrs to 55-60yrs) have been spending their lives. Of course this is not the only thing they do; as mother, sister, wife they have to look after all other household activities like cooking, washing and so on, common to most women in other parts of the country. In addition many have to take on the entire responsibility as head of family, because the male members have often opted to work in bidesh for a better earning. They usually come back to stay for a short period with the family (generally during festivals like Muharam, Id etc. or family events like marriages.). Thus it is no wonder that in Dhulian, in comparison with other places (within the district as well as in the state), the rate of female illiteracy and dropout from school at an early age is much higher. To me it seems that conversation among those bidi workers during their routine 8-10 hrs. (34 hrs. at a stretch) of bidi rolling in groups, is likely to provide some of the less explored areas/notion of Oral Narrative. The situation I am talking about (writing down) is much more

Bidi Katha- Arup Das.


complex than what it seems at surface level. Though throughout the process of rolling bidi women share common space for long hours, the prime objective here is to produce the bidi, which is very different from the kind of situation that prevails during leisure/free time, or during bathing/ washing at the pond/river. And for that matter this is completely different from the known genre of Loka Sahitya or Bratakatha performed by women in groups. I would like to mention here that young girls often join the women’s groups as apprentice (unlike in men’s groups) and a silent competition to produce more bidi than others of her age-group is observed. They know who is producing the maximum, who is ‘first’ among them. Although they have never attended school, they know how to count, at least up to 10, which is the minimum number required for a making a bundle. Rolling bidi needs both concentration and skill. To master this (to produce more and hence to earn more) most of the workers develop a rhythmic movement in the upper part of the body while keeping their legs fixed for long hours. The absence of working space at home possibly forces these women to use any open space that is available, and this has more of a rural than an urban feel to it. The overall set-up (environment) and situation is not conducive to narrating a long story by a single narrator (a conventional mode of categorising the narrative), as that requires constant attention of both narrator and her audience. Instead, stray comments, fragmented statements (utterances) on any topic that may have come to anyone’s mind, punctuated with a pause, invite/provoke comments from others (almost as reflex action) to continue with the topic for some time. Then a new topic crops up, after a gap (prolong pause or silence). As Berger puts it: The story invites comment. Indeed it creates it, for even silence is taken as a comment. The comments may be spiteful or bigoted, but, if so, they themselves will become a story and thus, in turn, become subject to comment . . . More usually the comments, which add to the story, are intended and taken as the commentator‟s personal response—in the light of that story—to the riddle of existence. Each story allows everyone to define himself [herself]. The list of topics includes a wild range of possibilities. Most of what happened during the day before or in the recent past, which is still fresh in the mind, is recounted by somebody, some of those are personal yet open to public (women). „The narratives are factual, based on observations or an account given by somebody else. A combination of sharpest [as well as naïve] observation of the daily recounting of the day‟s events and encounters [as passive observer], and of life-long mutual familiarities is what constitutes so-called village gossip‟ [Bidi Katha]. In this village-like situation, ‘the difference between what is known about a person and what is unknown is slight. There may be a number of well-guarded secrets but, deceit is rare because impossible. Thus there is little inquisitiveness. This is not because they are simple or more honest or without guile, it is simply because the space between what is unknown about a person and what is generally known--and this is the space for all performance--is too small.

Bidi Katha- Arup Das.


Very few stories are narrated either to idealise or condemn, rather they testify to the always slightly surprising range of possible.‟ It is not the mundane information of day to day living (which is anyway known to all of them) that is important, but an overall perspective of the world they live in and that very perspective-building process, which simultaneously develops through these utterances, that holds the key to understanding the kind of oral narrative I am trying to establish. ‘Any utterance has an internal arrangement . . . If it goes beyond a single sentence it goes beyond the rules of syntax, but there still is an arrangement there, especially with what seems to be the freest of all expressions: narrative. … Utterance has a variety of properties both linguistic and non-linguistic . . . The set of premises used in interpreting an utterance constitute what is generally called context.‟ But in this case utterance itself, constitutes the text, and therefore has a dual role. „A context is psychological construct, a subset of the hearer‟s assumptions, of course, rather than the actual state of the world, that affect the interpretations of an utterance. A context in this sense is not limited to information about immediate physical environment or the immediately proceeding utterances: expectation about the future, scientific hypothesis or religious belief, anecdotal memories, general cultural assumptions, beliefs about the mental state of the speakers may all play a role in interpretations.’ (‘Narrative event-Narrated event: Study of Contextuality’, by Richard Baum) Let me share some of the narrative experience I mentioned in the beginning:

Dudh beche mod naki mod beche dudh khaoa:

While discussion was on on the hazardous effects of tobacco and tobacco-related health problems, the women went started talking about their own health problems resulting from this profession. Then the conversation shifted to the rate of production, wages etc. It all depends on skill. There are women among us who can single-handedly roll more than 1500 bidis in one day, one of them proudly said. As a tone of stoicism appeared I tried to make the situation light and jokingly said, ‘So you people continue to produce poison so that we the smokers reach our final destination quickly.’ Someone replied, ‘No sir, your case is completely different. There are people who sell alcohol to consume milk while some sell milk to consume liquor.’ Thela na dile Beral gachhe othe na: There was some problem in getting hold of a ration card. It was told that being situated in the border area, there was no chance of getting the ration card without furnishing a birth certificate. Incidentally, though it is a municipality area, most of the births take place at home, and meeting the formalities of birth registration within the stipulated time, as prescribed in govt. procedure, is out of the question as theses people are ignorant about the subject and nobody has ever said all this to them. So the question was, what to do now? ‘If you have the money, then you will get it easily,’ one said. But where and to whom you have to pay that money? How should we know? The discussion continued to find some possible way out. Debate was on -- whose responsibility was it? Certainly illiterate women cannot

Bidi Katha- Arup Das.


take up the formal procedures of birth registration, they confirmed. The member (local councillor) who asked for vote should take up the matter. If he does not then what will you do? Don’t you think you have some responsibility too? You must understand one thing – A cat will never climb a tree until it is forced to do so. In this case who is the cat? You or your councillor? After a long pause one opined: ‘Both of us.’ I did not ask them who will force whom? Polao na khilie Pulice die schoole pathao . The situation was a bit tense as the govt. machinery and NGOs were knocking on every door for polio campaign. According to the district administration, this area is considered resistant area to pulse polio. Last time there was incidence of violence in some places over the issue. So the administration posted some police to avoid such incidence. I was trying to convince some women during their bidi rolling session in one courtyard, why it was important to immunise every child. After prolonged query I found that even though those women think that polio vaccine won’t harm their children (jani-polao khilale kono kheti nai), they do not want to pick up a quarrel with their husbands. But then why are your husbands unwilling? They (ura bul lo -husbands) think that polio vaccine will make our children impotent. (amader mushalmander bachcha nai hobe.) Do you seriously believe that the govt. and so many people can hatch such a plot? We know that is not the case- with a laughter they assured. If it is so then we would consume the entire vial or by any means we would apply it to their fathers (taile nijjerai gota shishi mere ditam ki uder bapke khilaitam). But why police? An old lady said if police is deployed for enrolling the girls in school instead of administering polio vaccine then I would think the govt. is doing a great job. (Polao na khilie pulus die maiagulake schoole pathak dekhi -tobe bujhi sarkar). Have you been to school in your childhood? The old lady looked hard on my face and said nothing – then softened her look and said my granddaughter does (amar latin ta jai).

Bonyar Bhangon On flood and erosion everybody has something to say. Possibly because those events have happened a number of times and are still a constant threat to the locality. Over the years they have seen how the river has swallowed up land, trees, houses, garden, cinema hall etc. Not necessarily all the time it is a personal loss of property or land. In such a manner with detail they recount those events, as if it happened only yesterday. While asking few adolescent girls about their experience of flood, one lady started describing how she went to watch erosion last time, how in front of her slowly disappeared houses of x, y, z, - a big tree and so on. So you were not affected? No-we stay here- far away from the river…One of the girls started giggling. She snubbed them for being insensitive (ira sob changra churchil kichhu ki bujhbe) and said that one should listen to this kind of account seriously (hasir ki-ee sob mon dia shunte lage). Poverty and hardship could not take away from that woman the sense of a greater loss and for that matter, the history of the place. On similar issues I observed that men do recall as well but, those are more general pictures like a report in newspaper lacking in details and the personal touch.
  Mooting the idea of using a mask. Radio kine dao What about putting a mask during rolling bidi? I asked the group while chatting.

Bidi Katha- Arup Das.


Mask? - The kind we see Marwaris (Jains) putting on their face? With utter disgust Taslima discarded the idea - Impossible. So uncouth. But wont you think that it may filter some tobacco dust while working? Can protect you from some of the health problems you mentioned earlier. That’s true. But then we cannot talk. How do you know? So you say Marwaris don’t talk? No, I don’t mean that. Wearing a mask during rolling bidi means we are dead. Sitting in silence for hours, horrible! We will die if we cannot talk. But just now you said there is nothing except bidi you talk about. So what if you don’t talk at all during rolling bidi? With laughter she said – All right. Agreed. But give us a radio so we can listen to music and song. (Incidentally while men in groups roll the bidi, listening to the radio is a very common sight.) Hence there are problems at two levels-- one is to identify and establish the narrative text and the other is to look for a suitable methodology to extract meaning out of it. In his essay Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative, Roland Barthe wrote: ‘Faced with infinity of narratives, the multiplicity of standpoints--historical, psychological, sociological, ethnological, aesthetic, etc.--from which they can be studied, the analyst finds himself more or less in the same situation as Saussure confronted by the heterogeneity of language (langue) and seeking to extract principle of classification and a central focus for description from the apparent confusion of the individual message. Keeping simply to modern times, the Russian formalists, Propp, and Levi-Strauss have taught us to recognise the following dilemma: either narrative is merely a rambling collection of events, in which case nothing can be said about it other than by referring back to the storyteller‟s (author‟s) art, talent, or genius-all mythical forms of chance-or else it shares with other narratives a common structure which is open to analysis, no matter how much patience its formulation requires. There is a world of difference between the most complex randomness and the most elementary combine (to produce) a narrative without reference to an implicit system of units and rules.’ In the end I would like to quote Walter J. Ong in the context of the paradox of studying orality in printed form. “They become „patterns‟ and „codes‟ and „themes‟ and „monumental composition‟. They have „context‟ and „substance‟. Their behaviour becomes, linguistically speaking, a matter of grammar, a term which by its very derivative betrays the source of its invention in the behaviour of words as written not spoken. Its rules are said to be “imprinted” on our brains. If presented, it becomes “information”, which is “packaged” and “stored” in the warehouse of mind. We lack a model for it in our consciousness. A general theory of orality must build upon a general theory of society” (Orality and Literacy) Hopefully understanding the society, which is under the clutch of poverty for generations and bearing the burnt silently as fate written by Allah, will get a new dimension through theory based on Feminism and in the process Oral Narratives too.

Bidi Katha- Arup Das.


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