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I do get some support and relief from it. Yet like great Indian narratives, Tamil dirges produce results. This is especially the case when women cry together, for in the clusters they can cry as long, intensely, and unself-consciously as they need to. Both behaviors are contrived, because the act of lamenting does not simply let out emotions, it also induces them.

Further conversations with my consultants revealed that gestures associated with the delivery of crying songs incite and magnify the Tamil emotional and bodily manifestations of grief. Not that women do not feel this emotion to begin with, for we have seen that without kurai they cannot cry out their songs.

The Tamil women I worked with clearly contended that the act of crying out their laments reduces, even eliminates, if only temporarily, their symptoms and feelings of deprivation.

They need one another in order at once to catalyze themselves and purge themselves of their disappointments. They may cry together, but they do not really share grief. After all, they all mourn the same subjective losses as daughters, sisters, and wives in Tamil society. But women do not incorporate strictly common experiences into their lamenting practices. Dirges are never actually about common experiences, social trends, or gender dynamics.

Instead they almost always describe the personal lives of the women who express them.

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Although formulaic and traditional, Tamil laments nonetheless cultivate a meeting of culture and individual sensibility. Individual women are able to assert their unique personalities by selecting out of a wide cultural repertoire those dirges that resonate most profoundly with their own emotional dilemmas.

As indicated in chapter 1, they also recompose some songs extemporaneously, drawing on their favorite themes, metaphors, phrases, and structures to fuse their own struggles with the prototypical experiences of the daughter, sister, and wife described in dirges. In chapter 1, I described how Tamil women might lament at funerals to move others to pity them or to seek relief from the burning sensation that pain and anger cause.

These two broad objectives might also provoke women to lament outside the funeral context. And yet, because characters and life situations vary, when women do lament in day-to-day life neither the motivations nor the consequences are ever quite the same as in the context of funerals.

Underneath the distinctive and sometimes contradictory applications of the genre, however, runs a constant theme. In this respect her dirge functions almost like a diary. It is a chronicle, certainly, but also much more. In the end, it is a narrative achievement. Such accomplishments of narrative and interpretation rarely occur in a cultural vacuum. Stories therefore carry certain cultural assumptions about what a person is, for the discourses a culture makes available for describing the course of a life are replete with notions of personal growth and change Rosaldo ; Langness and Frank For example, contemporary Western autobiographies almost always begin with the category of life called childhood, focusing in particular on relationships with parents and siblings, because our current concept of self and personality development is inextricably linked with early family dynamics.

The language of crying songs can be seen as a cultural model for Tamil women to use to talk about themselves and their lives. Not every lamenting Tamil woman makes use of such temporal contrasts. But the result is the same. Instead of progress or simple maturation, what is evoked is dearth, decay, and death.

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Understanding what goes into the shaping of autobiographical discourses is critical, because these accounts have the potential to control life experiences. Because people invest their very identities in the life narratives they fashion, those narratives come to act as models not only for conduct but also for the ongoing integration of new life experiences. The language of comparisons, with its emphasis on memorable experiences and devolution, becomes the framework within which Tamil women both view their lives and live them.

In the end, then, women become what they cry about. The life stories of the four women I worked with and the narratives of their crying songs illustrate this point. The others shed tears.

When I met her in at a village funeral, she had a plain look with irregular features: a large nose, thin lips, missing teeth, and the thinning white hair of an aged woman. Yet there was something striking about her face. Neither age nor fatigue could mask her attentive gaze and a smile full of vitality. As I felt uncomfortable thrusting a microphone in front of her at a family wake, we agreed to meet again in the privacy of her home. Although I kept my eyes on the road, I could see from a distance the rocks and boulders piled high around her village.

There had been talk that this walled-up world with red soil and few trees could not support its tallied population of one thousand inhabitants. I noticed many abandoned houses, the absence of men, and signs of poverty. In her youth she had run away from her husband to live with another man. Ellamma violated other taboos of caste society as well.

She served as the village midwife, a job usually performed only by women from the low-status barber caste because delivery requires contact with impure substances like blood. After I deliver a child, I go home and take a bath. What is the big deal? My relationship with Ellamma proved immensely valuable. She knew hundreds of crying songs and was able to do what most Tamil women could not: she could sing dirges to me. Because lamenting behavior occurs only in situations like funerals where feelings of kurai run high, most of these women found it impossible to burst spontaneously into crying songs outside of the proper emotional context.

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Over time a few of these women did get used to the odd situation that I put them in, but then they faced another problem. They could not perform without exhibiting the behaviors usually associated with lamenting. Inevitably these women would be induced to sob. Over time, many devised ways to communicate their lyrics to me, often by reciting them without any melody.

No One Cries For The Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, And Graveyard Petitions

However, such arrangements were not necessary with Ellamma, who could sing dirges to my tape recorder without any apparent inhibition. She could perform her dirges without emotionally engaging with them. Ellamma, unlike most women, could step outside the frame that usually binds these songs; in this as in other ways, she herself was outside the norm.


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Adding further value to my research, Ellamma was also a brilliant translator. Ellamma was still alive when I returned to Tamilnadu in My heart jumped when I saw her again and noticed the toll that age had taken on her body. No longer able to stand up straight, she walked facing down with her head and torso twisted to one side. She agreed to help me again, only this time she brushed aside my suggestion that I should meet with her in her home and said instead that she would come to mine in Gingee.

She occasionally showed up as early as 6 a. Ellamma had also become harder to interview. She eluded many of my questions, often launching into a crying song out of the blue and as if on automatic pilot.

No one cries for the dead : Tamil dirges, rowdy songs, and graveyard petitions

When someone interrupted or contradicted her, she would retaliate with a long-winded story that allowed her to remain the center of attention. Yet she had outgrown our ethnographic conversations. She was no longer interested in elaborating on texts or cultural contexts—she wanted to speak about her personal life. To this end I have deleted repetitions, digressions, hesitations— anything that would have made her story hard to read. And yet I hope that I have preserved its overall tone and narrative form.


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Here is how her story began. The girl died soon after giving birth to the only one of her four children who survived infancy.