BOOK REVIEW - The Place of a Woman.
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 family 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
Reviewed By Arshi Saleem Hashmi
Arshi Saleem Hashmi is Assistant Professor, Peace and Conflict Studies Department at the National Defense University, Islamabad. She is a member of Women in International Security (WIIS) Edmund A. Walsh School, Georgetown University and has also worked at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Pew Forum on Religion and Public Policy and Middle East Institute, Washington DC.