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White Saris and Sweet Mangoes

White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender, and Body in North India

Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 323
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  • Book Info
    White Saris and Sweet Mangoes
    Book Description:

    This rich ethnography explores beliefs and practices surrounding aging in a rural Bengali village. Sarah Lamb focuses on how villagers' visions of aging are tied to the making and unmaking of gendered selves and social relations over a lifetime. Lamb uses a focus on age as a means not only to open up new ways of thinking about South Asian social life, but also to contribute to contemporary theories of gender, the body, and culture, which have been hampered, the book argues, by a static focus on youth. Lamb's own experiences in the village are an integral part of her book and ably convey the cultural particularities of rural Bengali life and Bengali notions of modernity. In exploring ideals of family life and the intricate interrelationships between and within generations, she enables us to understand how people in the village construct, and deconstruct, their lives. At the same time her study extends beyond India to contemporary attitudes about aging in the United States. This accessible and engaging book is about deeply human issues and will appeal not only to specialists in South Asian culture, but to anyone interested in families, aging, gender, religion, and the body.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93526-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  6. Note on Translation and Transliteration
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  7. Introduction: Perspectives through Age
    (pp. 1-24)

    This book explores aging as a means of gaining perspective on notions of gender, the body, kinship, and the forces of culture. It does so in West Bengal, India, because of the rich understandings of aging found there, as suggested by the passages quoted above.

    One common image of older women in India is that of powerful matriarchs who have finally come into their own as elderly mothers, mothers-in-law, and grandmothers, revered in some ways, as Hena reports, as deities. But when older women, like Billo’s Ma, describe their own lives, they more often speak not of power and reverence...


    • 1 Personhoods
      (pp. 27-41)

      I arrived in Mangaldihi quite by chance. I had landed in India at the end of December 1988, anxious to begin research. I had thought I would focus on a rural community or village, where it might be easier for me to get to know a wider variety of people, since villagers would tend to be less enclosed than city dwellers within the walls of their own homes and workplaces. Several restless weeks slipped by in Calcutta and then in the sophisticated university town of Santiniketan while I sought suggestions about a specific location. To most of the Bengali city...

    • 2 Family Moral Systems
      (pp. 42-69)

      The most common Bengali term used to refer to what we in English might call a “family” issaṃsār. It literally means “that which flows together,” from the rootsSaṃ, “together, with,” andsṛ, “to flow, move.” In its most cornprehensive sense,saṃsārrefers to the whole material world (pṛthibīorjagat) and to the flux of births and deaths that ali living beings and things go through together. More commonly, the term designates one’s own family or household (which is in some ways viewed as a microcosm of the wider world’s processes). Thussaṃsārnot only refers to the...

    • 3 Conflicting Generations: Unreciprocated Houseflows in a Modern Society
      (pp. 70-112)

      At the same time that the people in West Bengal spoke to me of family moral systems that bound persons together across generations, they also worried that the ties connecting persons within families were becoming increasingly loose. I asked one old man, Rabilal, a Mangaldihi beggar of the Muci (leatherworking) caste, what happens when someone gets old, and he replied pessimistically, “When you get old, your sons don’t feed you rice.” The young girl who cleaned my home, Beli Bagdi, responded when I asked her what would happen to her when she became old: “Either my sons will feed me...


    • 4 White Saris and Sweet Mangoes, Partings and Ties
      (pp. 115-143)

      In the previous two chapters, aging and gender were considered from the perspective of persons who strive to maintain family relations in the face of such menaces as intergenerational conflicts and the changes brought by modernity. For both women and men in Mangaldihi, however, a central problem of aging was not how to maintain family ties that threatened to be too loose but how to loosen bonds—to kin, places, things, one’s own body—that had become very tight. This is the problem I hinted at in the preface, in describing Mejo Ma’s predicament—how could she die, when she...

    • 5 Dealing with Mortality
      (pp. 144-178)

      An enormous amount has been written about Hindu funeral rituals by anthropologists and historians of religion,¹ and one might think that there is nothing new to be said. But almost all previous studies of death in India have focused on the funeral rites themselves and not on how people think about and plan for death in their everyday lives, particularly as they grow old.² Rituals of death themselves are important and fascinating, but they certainly do not exhaust the human encounter with death. How does the experience of death fit with daily life? what about bereavement? the sentiments of those...


    • 6 Transformations of Gender and Gendered Transformations
      (pp. 181-212)

      The women I knew in Mangaldihi often spoke of their lives in terms of the profound changes that they had experienced in their bodies, and in the kinds of social ties making up their personhoods, over the life course. In this and the following chapter, I take a more focused look at issues I first raised in the book’s introduction: how does aging affect definitions of gender, and gender affect experiences of aging? These questions speak not only to how we think about gender relations in South Asia but also to how the ways the category of “woman” has been...

    • 7 A Widow’s Bonds
      (pp. 213-238)

      Widowhood was the last phase of life for most women in Mangaldihi. The older women whose lives I have described over the previous pages—Khudi Thakrun, Bhogi Bagdi, Choto Ma, Mejo Ma—were mostly in this stage. They had almost expected to spend part of their lives as widows, since girls were younger than their husbands at marriage, generally outlived them, and usually did not remarry.

      Widowhood was also a dreaded time of life. Depending on her caste and age at widowhood, a woman could expect to face any number of hardships. Her economic condition might be precarious. She might...

  11. Afterword
    (pp. 239-246)

    Seventeen months into my stay in Mangaldihi I commented in my field-notes: “Almost everything about life here seems so ordinary to me now that it hardly seems worth describing.” It was getting to be time to go. I went on: “Everyone talks to me constantly now about how I’ll be leaving soon. They tell me that it will be sad for them when I go, that the village will cry for me, that its lanes will seem empty. But they tell me that it will be even harder formeto leave them: After having mixed with Mangaldihi’s people for...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 247-262)
  13. Glossary
    (pp. 263-268)
  14. References
    (pp. 269-294)
  15. Index
    (pp. 295-306)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-307)