The ‘other’ Notes on Man Capture

The ‘other’ Notes on Man Capture

Published in LOVA Journal (The Dutch Society for gender studies and feminist anthropology)

Summer Edition – 2009

A meaningful observational film implies that the filmmaker has given shape to the story that others want to tell about themselves. It often leaves out the different negotiations that took place in order to get there. Two young women and the people involved with capturing bridegrooms for them are recorded with the idea to make one film. While one woman’s story becomes a ‘meaningful’ film, the other does not, even though the material around the latter’s capture is more interesting. In this paper, I analyze why, based on the processes that went into the recording and editing of the material.

September is the month of feasting. The Garo people of the West Garo Hills on the fringe of India and Bangladesh abandon themselves to the hard work of harvest in the daytime and dancing, and the drinking of rice beer late into the nights. It is also the season for ‘man capture’. At this time, foremost on the minds of all the young people of marriageable age is the excitement of the matches that are made. Men from one village go to other villages to capture bridegrooms for their sisters, cousins and nieces.

The documentary, ‘Notes on Man Capture’ is a narrative of one such marriage. Ratmi, a young single mother of two, wants a man captured for her. Past love affairs that resulted in children have made this otherwise normal social happening a complicated matter. The film captures the events around her marriage by bridegroom capture. It is filmed over 2000 and 2001. In 2006, conclusive scenes were recorded. Short interviews are used in this mostly observational film to try and get behind gender roles, as decisions shift back and forth between men and women, individual and group, the person behind the camera and the people in front of it. Through the film, the Garo people’s love of humor, their ease with the subject of sex and their roots in a matrilineal society reveal an unusual people of India.

The documentary was recorded on a simple hand held camera that had an external microphone attached to it. I lived then in Sadolpara, West Garo Hills in India. My anthropologist husband was there to do his fieldwork. The crew consisted for the most part of myself with some occasional assistance for lighting during the night scenes. Small, simple but with fairly good quality, the camera I used served me well for this film. Sound was a big problem but fortunately it was possible to fix it in post- production. I have no doubt that the ease and smallness of the apparatus I was using, allowed for an intimate space to be created between the people and myself.

Ratmi, the protagonist of the film ‘Notes on Man Capture’ was also a neighbor. The title of this paper – The ‘other’ Notes on Man Capture – does not relate to the film as it is presently edited. Rather, it relates to the story of Tami, the neighbor who lived, with her parents and siblings on the other side of us. She was also in the process of having a man captured for her in those days. I was recording her story as well, though that did not make it to the final edit. In this paper, I would like to express the decisions that led to the editing out of some of the most interesting material from Tami’s bridegroom capture from the film as it is now.

Tami and Ratmi are related. Tami is a few years younger than Ratmi and the latter’s niece. Ratmi lived with her mother, Jiji. As was customary, the daughters of Jiji were expected to build homesteads around her house. All but one did so. The men who were captured moved into the homes of the women and shared in their property. The children took the surname of the mother. I was born and brought up in India, but that was a very different part of India. In ‘my’ India, the women physically moved house. We are also emotionally and mentally expected to ‘move’ or ‘adjust’ to the needs of our men, children, parents, in-laws and bosses. Most of ‘my India’ is dominated by the caste system, where people are either considered born into ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ castes. It is a centuries old belief system very deeply rooted in the religious and spiritual fabric of India. Despite the constitution of 1950 giving all Indians equal opportunity irrespective of caste and gender, it is almost impossible for us to think in these constitutional terms even today. As a result, higher castes often end up as the higher classes with much better opportunities. This was not true of the Garos I met and got to know in Sadolapra village. In the period I lived there, the sense of hierarchy was between urban and rural Garos, the former perceiving themselves to be superior to the latter. At that time, the people within the village of Sadlopara could be said to be ‘classless and caste-less’, and this was another big difference between them and me. The sixth schedule of the Indian constitution created the legal space that allowed for their particular social systems to survive and be practiced. This is one reason why bridegroom – capture continued to be relevant to them in 2000. Over the last century and half, most of the Garos converted to Christianity, and abandoned this practice. In the region I lived in, it has survived.

As the youngest daughter, Ratmi was expected to take on the role of the heiress to her mother. This is why she continued to live in her mother’s house. Every day, she cooked rice for us which we provided raw to her. In exchange, she fed her immediate family rice as well. We were aware that she sometimes helped her sisters with this rice. There were other exchanges that bound us together, like the rent we paid for a house of her mother, Jiji, with whom she lived, and small gifts of food, medicine and batteries that went from us to her and her sisters’ homes. We received from them, gifts of food, and the possibility to ask our questions and to follow them around with our cameras for the research we were conducting. Tami was the neighbor on the other side of our dwelling. She was my kitchen help and in addition, performed one crucial task for us i.e. carrying pots of fresh water up a very steep hill. Her parents received money and she ate her meals with us in return for her services. Soon after she began to work for us, Tami was in the process of having a man captured for her. At a certain moment, she quit the job. There was much daily conversation and socializing over tea (and occasionally rice beer) between our households that included the two male Garo research assistants working with us. It was in this close-knit community of the widowed Jiji and her extended family, with its daily exchanges between all of us, that the footage was recorded.

I knew very early on in my stay in Sadolpara that I would be shooting a film on man capture. I had become fascinated by an account of it by dr. Robbins Burling, an American anthropologist who lived in the 1960’s, in a village not so far from Sadolpara. I was ready for the ‘season’ for man capture in September. In the preceding months, I often made recordings of people and daily life for ‘Young Asia Television’ a network from Sri- Lanka. Most people in Sadolpara were used to me recording them. While I wasn’t looking at an entirely ‘interview’ based approach, I did want to rely on conversations between the people and myself. I knew that despite my close physical contact with them, it just wasn’t going to be possible to make a completely observational film, as it wasn’t possible to know what was going on when and where all the time. So my interactions with them would be as important as their interactions with each other.

On a certain day in September of 2000, we heard that Tami’s father was looking around for a chicken as a man was to be captured for her. When the boys got ready to go, I was on the path with my camera and on the point of following them until Tami came to know this. She stopped me and pleaded with me not to go as the man would get scared and run away. From this moment, the negotiations between Tami and me over the nature of the recording of her man capture story began. It was to last even after she quit the job of kitchen help.

It was also the deciding moment for the fact that there is no scene of the moment of capture in the film. This absence is referred to more than once in the film as it is now. I quote Burling’s description of what he witnessed which seems to be more or less comparable to what happened on the day of Tami’s man capture.

“I was sitting in Rengsangre one afternoon when three shy looking youths from another village wandered in and inquired where they might find Unon. Everybody chuckled, and somebody replied that he might be out in the fields, and suggested that the boys go out there to look for him. The boys walked out in the direction of the fields, until they came over the crest of a hill from which Unon could be seen cultivating in the company of half a dozen other people. Here the boys spilt up, so as to close in on him from all sides. Unon did not realize his peril until one boy was almost next to him. He started to flee but was caught, and after a brief struggle he recognized the uneven odds, surrendered and let himself be led calmly to Waramgri, where a girl was waiting, hoping to become his bride. During Unon’s brief battle, his fellow villagers ostentatiously continued their cultivating and ignored Unon’s plight. Only when the struggle was over did a few look up, but even then no one interfered, and as the captors led Unon away they continued their work. This was by no means a lack of interest, but only a studied non- interference; for when I returned to the village after watching from a nearby hilltop, every body eagerly asked me what happened – “ Did they catch him? Did they take him away?” – with no effort to hide their interest and even glee.

I had just witnessed one of the most exciting events in the life of every Garo man, the bridegroom capture, which is considered the only decent way to invite a man to become a husband. The boy should know nothing of it beforehand, though his family should be consulted if he is being asked to marry an heiress”. (Burling – 1963: 83, 84)

What happens immediately after the boy is brought to the girl’s village is what we see in the present edit of the film. That is Tami’s ‘marriage’ ritual and the reading of the chicken intestine. Some days later, I shot a subsequent scene of her man sitting with his head lowered while Tami’s drunken family enjoys a good joke through the mock marriage of the aged Jiji to a young lad. This is the opening scene of the film in its present form. The rest of Tami’s story, which is actually more exhaustive than Ratmi’s has been left out – The ‘other’ Notes on Man Capture. I would now like to go into my reasons for editing out these.

In the India where I grew up, almost all women of the upper classes (like myself) hired cheap household help in order to pursue their own interests. I was used to this and felt Tami’s help was invaluable to me if I wanted to ‘work.’ However, she had something very important on her mind – namely – having her man captured until he agreed to stay. According to the practice, the captured man should escape. He could do this any number of times. Every time Tami’s man escaped, she had to rally her brothers, cousins and uncles to go and get him back. It took a lot of energy and some manipulation to accomplish this. Everyone (including she herself) was busy with the harvest in those days. Although it was the job of her male relatives to go for her man, it was Tami who had to encourage them. Once the man was ‘re- captured’ and brought back, she had to host parties for him, rewarding the men who went to catch him with rice beer and cooked food. It was hard work to make sure that he would finally accept the marriage and stay. This was crucial and so her job with us could no longer be a priority.

Burling’s description of the rituals associated with bridegroom capture does not go into the details of the ‘re-capturing’ process. So it came as quite a surprise to me. It also made the possibilities for the film I was making so much richer. I needed her in two ways – to go on with re-capturing her man and to work in our kitchen. It wasn’t possible to do both properly – for both of us. It was a difficult negotiation that often landed me with the job. In Sadolpara, as almost everywhere, the kitchen was associated with ‘women’s work’, so Tami and I had to sort it out between us.

The months I had lived in Sadolpara, before this, had given me an understanding of some of the cultural differences between Tami and me. In ‘my’ India, as my hired help, chances are that Tami would be of lower caste and definitely of a lower class. This would be reason enough for her to subjugate her interests to mine. This did not apply here. As for my having more of the much-needed money to offer, apparently even that was not so important beyond a point. What of parental authority – quite all pervasive in the whole of South Asia? Theoretically, I could have gone to her father and mother (with whom we had the agreement for her services) and said, ‘Tami has to chase her man when I want it and cook and fetch water for me when I want it, or she will lose her job’. In practice, I knew it wouldn’t work because no Garo would expect another to subjugate themselves to another to this extent. While parental authority does exist with the Garos, Tami’s parents would not have used the stick of the money she brought in over her head, or even the question of their ‘honor’ (also quite all –pervasive in South Asia) to subordinate her interests to mine. Besides, they believed, like her, that her first duty at that moment was to make sure she captured and kept her man.

So while Tami still worked for us, I had little choice but to share in her work in the kitchen. Even when the stress levels were at their highest, Tami did not hesitate to host meals for her man and relatives in our kitchen and ask repeatedly for ‘film shows’ of the recordings we were making in the village for his entertainment. I felt that in some ways our roles got reversed and she was the ‘boss’ and I was the help. This would have been impossible in ‘my India’.

I quote from the journal I kept in those days:

“Tami takes control and gives orders to Samji, Pilme, [her younger sisters] me. All politeness vanishes. She is frantic! I find myself obeying…. washing this, giving that – cleaning the lamp which she hands to me and says, ‘wash it’! Her mother asks where the eating was to be. I ask Tami. She opts for our house. But first she makes tea with milk at our house and takes it to hers. I begin to lose my balance. It feels very strange to be ordered about by Tami. She asks what vegetable to cook and when I say ‘sawil’ [a green bean], she says ‘ no,  ‘baring’ [aubergine] because the ‘new man’ [her captured man] will not eat ‘sawil’. So I say ‘cook baring’.

Today, more of the same. Tami ordering me about. I, getting very resentful”.

I was angry also that I had to adjust to the needs of others when I had such interesting material around me to shoot. I began to insist that she do her part of the duties owed to us. When the pressure got too high for Tami, she quit the job of kitchen help without even consulting her parents. During the period described above, I thought that the uncomfortable nature of our ‘conversation with the camera between us’ had to do with the stressful nature of the situation. What this experience taught me was that Tami was not ‘shy’ in the way that I understood ‘shyness’, though she often acted like that. It also heightened my awareness of our cultural differences. I continued to record her story, and she let me, but continued with the same sort of behavior and negotiations as before. I had a variety of situations around Tami’s story yet apart from the two scenes I mentioned earlier, she remains anonymous in the film. I will return to this shortly after I have turned my attention to Ratmi.

Tami’s maternal aunt, Ratmi, who I was also filming, always expressed her feelings and desires more openly to me, in a ‘language’ that seemed more ‘familiar’. By this I don’t mean the Garo language. I mean the ‘language’ of communication that consisted of words, silences and their possible meanings. It is as if she sensed what I wanted from her, figured out how to give it and had the desire to give it to me. Tami, her parents and siblings had another way of communicating, one that demanded more sophistication from me to be able to make something ‘meaningful’ out of it. Their ‘language’ was unfamiliar ground.

In 2001, I moved from India to the Netherlands. In 2003, I looked for the first time at the footage I had shot for this film. My idea was to make one film with both the stories in it. In reviewing the material, my focus on the cultural differences between Tami and me began to assert themselves in a different way. Tami’s man’s body language – the lowered gaze and head, the avoidance of answers to my questions and the shy laughs went on for a couple of months during my recordings. These seemed to epitomize the different gender equation. I now became obsessed with wanting the audience to see his body language again and again. On the other hand, the day after Ratmi’s man was captured; I asked him a question  ‘Are you going to stay here?’ He looked straight into my camera and said ‘ No, I will be going to my village’. This is in the present edit of the film. This is ‘familiar’. It is no wonder that though Tami’s man capture story is not in the present edit beyond the first two scenes, both the opening scenes of the film are actually about Tami and her man. In both, her man sits ‘cornered’ by her relatives, head lowered, not uttering a word while everyone around him is drunk and having a great time. These should grab the audience’s imagination. Also the image of the embarrassed man – eyes lowered and biting his lip, on the DVD cover of ‘Notes on Man Capture is Tami’s man, not Ratmi’s. Another example of a scene that I couldn’t get out of my mind (and my editing) was a subsequent visit Tami and her male relatives made to his village to ‘re-capture’ her man. He was away herding cows so while we waited for him to return, I found myself with camera, Tami and her mother in law on the latter’s balcony. While Tami smoked a cigarette, and looked out into the distance for her man, her mother in law made and served us tea. It was a role reversal that would make most South Asians jump out of their skins in surprise. The hierarchy between mother in law and daughter in law turned completely on its head!

Between 2003 and 2007, I edited six versions of ‘Notes on Man Capture’ telling the stories of Tami and Ratmi in one film. In the credits of the film as it now, is a long list of names under ‘grateful acknowledgments’. These are the people (and there were more) who were my ‘test’ audiences for the different edited versions of the film. The list consists of Europeans, Americans and urban South Asians except unfortunately, Garos. These versions just didn’t work for the audiences. In 2006, I went back to the village and shot scenes with Ratmi and her man and with Tami and her man. They were meant as concluding scenes ‘…and five years later…’ It didn’t help either.

It took a lot of work and much disappointment for me to realize why these earlier versions didn’t work. Tami’s is a story in itself – requiring a structure that gives the time and space to the silences, jokes and her (and her family’s) ‘unfamiliar’ communication with me to come into their own. In all the versions I edited, I tended to focus on highlighting my understanding of the cultural differences between us in similar ways to the ones I have just described. I failed at giving a shape to the ‘unfamiliarity’ with Tami and her family’s way of communicating with me. Their giggles, their averted looks, their mumbles, cryptic words, and incomprehensible retorts, or simply, ‘ why are you shooting’? , Or my having to give a sort of explanation at the end of which I would ask, ‘isn’t it’? Or their disappearance from my frame – these remained out of my grasp. It was the same in the presence or absence of the camera.

I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it was an ‘uncomfortable’ experience for me simply because it took me out of the comfort zone of familiarity. Ratmi (her mother or her man) would fill a pause in a dialogue with words or expressions that related to the question or the dialogue. Or they would stay silent, which could also have a meaning that could communicate in relation to the context. If looked at from the point of view of comfort, it should have been recording Ratmi that should have been more uncomfortable. Probing into her life i.e. a woman with past lovers that resulted in children (not condoned, though tolerated in Garo society unlike in ‘my’ India where it was akin to committing a sin), there is where the discomfort would be expected to lie. Seen in this light, Tami’s was the more ‘comfortable’ story, since it was her first marriage and without the baggage of the past that Ratmi had. Yet, for me because of this question of the ‘familiar and ‘unfamiliar language’ used in communication with me, the one story is a completed film and the other is not. Tami’s story remains the ‘other’ Notes on Man Capture that did not make it into the final film.

In 2008, I went back to the village with the film as it is edited now. Before and after the screening of it, both Tami and Ratmi were generous in their feelings towards me. They expressed happiness and excitement at my visit and cooked and hosted my family, by now grown with the birth of our two sons. The evening the film was shown, Tami, Ratmi, their men and their families were present. In the period of our stay after the screening, neither Tami, her man or any of her family approached me to ask what had happened to the hours and hours of material I had recorded with them. If they wondered why they were not seeing much of it, they never let me know it. If they questioned what I planned to do with it in the future, they didn’t ask me, directly, or through the research assistant with whom they were on very good terms.

I was not surprised. Finally the ‘unfamiliarity’ that characterized my relationship with them had become ‘familiar’.

Nandini Bedi – April 2009

References:

1. Burling, Robbins (1963), Rengsanggri; Family and Kinship in a Garo Village, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

2. Bedi, Nandini (2007), Notes on Man Capture (documentary film, 43mins, DV-PAL).

Amsterdam: Chitra Katha Productions – worldwide distribution

New Delhi: Magic Lantern Foundation – South Asia distribution

3. Bedi, Nandini  (2000) Sadolpara Journals unpublished