The Exceptional BuhariThe portrayal of the daughter-in-law in a story in a school textbook entrenches Nepal's patriarchy
Flipping through the pages of the government textbook for Grade 7 Nepali, one comes across this baffling paragraph which would be funny if it were not so serious:
An elderly couple live in a village. They bear a son in their old age whom they name Balram. When Balram grows up to be a young man, the couple decide to get him married. The wedding is a grand affair. Balram’s wife is exceptionally beautiful and his parents are ecstatic about having found such a beautiful buhari. However, the sasura, curious about her intellect and disposition, decides to test her. So he calls her in and asks her, ‘Buhari, can you tell me how much you think we spent on your wedding?’
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Red flags go up all over that paragraph that serves as the story's exposition. But wait, things get even more interesting:
The buhari replies, ‘I think you must have spent only about 2-3 manas of rice grains’. Offended by these words, the sasura retorts as he fumes with anger, ‘Your wedding cost me a fortune, and you’re saying 2-3 manas of rice grains is all that was spent? You make it seem like I incurred no expenses’.
In what sounds like a line lifted right off of a hammy Indian daily soap, the sasura then goes on to say,
‘I don’t even want to look at your face anymore. Go back to your parents’ house right away! There is no place in my home for a buhari like you’.
Although aghast at her father-in-law’s response, the buhari does not utter a word. The dad-in-law, on the other hand, is determined to send her off to her parents’ house. The two then embark on a journey to the buhari’s parental home.
As the plot thickens, it is revealed that the buhari has a special ability, thanks to which she can communicate with animals. Along the way, the sasura-buhari hear a wolf howling. The sasura does not think much of it, but the buhari knows exactly what the wolf is ‘saying’. The wolf's words translated are too bizarre to ideate. It says,
‘There is a corpse buried right here. If someone were to dig it up, I could feed on it. There’s a diamond ring on one of its fingers. I’d give the ring to whoever digs up the corpse for me’.
Upon hearing this, the buhari thinks to herself,
‘If only I could lay my hands on that ring. My sasura will never believe me if I tell him about this. Oh, what a fix I am in!’
Soon, the sasura-buhari decide to make a pit stop under the shade of a banyan tree, and the sasura dozes off as he rests. The buhari then sneaks off to the spot where the wolf had been howling and starts to dig. Unsurprisingly, she unearths the corpse, presents it to the wolf, and takes the diamond ring on the body's finger.
Not only are readers confounded by the sheer absurdity of the plot of this 'story', but it must be hard for young Grade 7 readers (or even their teachers) to shake off the macabre mental image it projects in the mind. Aside from a blatant disregard for the concept of dignified treatment of the dead, this story actually presents grave robbing as a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
This is not all. The buhari then goes on to dig up some more valuables after a crow tips her off. The sasura is delighted to have come upon so much wealth because of the buhari. Subsequently, she also hands the diamond ring to the sasura and tells him all about how she found it.
As you may have guessed, the sasura is now in awe of the buhari and regrets ever having doubted her. Having had a change of heart, he decides not to take the buhari back to her parental home.
The story drags on as the sasura continues to ask the buhari random questions to test her wit till he is convinced of her ‘intelligence’ and ends with the sasura ‘entrusting’ the buhari with all his household responsibilities as he is finally impressed with her.
What is a student to learn from the protagonist’s attitude towards his daughter-in-law? Will the story leave a child assuming it appropriate for a man to ask his daughter-in-law how much he must have spent on her wedding? Will a child be able to question why such an enquiry on the part of the father-in-law is even relevant?
Will a seventh grader who reads the story consider it a man’s prerogative to ‘send his daughter-in-law off’ to her parents the minute he feels offended? What is a girl child to make of the portrayal of the buhari in the story? Are they to think that there is nothing wrong with assuming that a man is entitled to ‘test’ whether his daughter-in-law is good enough for the household?
Is it only after she proves her ‘worth’ that a woman is acceptable to her marital family, even if that means digging up graves to bring in wealth? Oh, by the way, where was the woman’s husband while all of this transpired?
Even if the author who wrote this story thought it would be an appropriate example to teach children they should not be too quick to judge a person, didn’t a single person who reviewed this story to decide whether it should be part of the school curriculum find the details in the story in the slightest bit objectionable?
It is worth noting here that the line-up of authors and reviewers featured in the preface of the textbook in question is predominantly male and all from the dominant ethnic group. Perhaps objections were raised to the content of the book, but they were overruled?
Either way, this and many other examples warrant a closer assessment of the government’s school curriculum development system, particularly the process of reviewing and screening content to ensure it is conducive to children’s overall social and emotional development in addition to helping enhance creative and analytical skills.
It is crucial for those who design Nepal's school curricula to be mindful that the content of textbooks can solidify gender and social stereotypes in young minds and shape how people perceive and interact in society. If we are to envisage a future free of gender bias and social inequality for Nepal, school textbooks may be a good place to start.
Sudeshna Thapa is a human rights lawyer and researcher.