507. Sita as Symbol

Be warned: this post is about symbols, double entendre, hidden meanings, fecundity, and has a few references to the religions of India.

Over in Serial today, Marquart is engaged in a symbolic exchange. He gives three gifts, and a young man and his wife give a pledge of lifelong loyalty. When the ceremony is over . . .

. . . the boy, who as son of a serf had been nobody, gained status and lost freedom. And the girl, who had been of the village, lost freedom and gained a husband.

That insert is the first sentence in tomorrow’s post. Things don’t always come out even when you serialize something that was written as a whole.

All this is nothing new to fiction, or life. It closely resembles a young man becoming a squire, or a successful warrior being knighted. There is an exchange — fealty for security in the master’s service — and there is both a gain and a loss as someone passes from one status to another.

The thing that makes Marquart’s exchange a bit different is that the young actors in the drama are lowly. You might call them peasants or serfs, which are technically not the same thing, but which share being low on the scale of status.

I go low all the time. I grew up on a farm, wading through cow manure. At school I used a slide rule (google it) but at home I used a shovel. I feel comfortable with lowly folks; with working folks. Even though Tidac is a god, he doesn’t know it and ends up being raised . . . Oops, I nearly let a spoiler slip there!

The girl receives an iron pot, and Marquart says:

May your hearth be always warm, and the pot and your belly always full.

The audience laughs. Marquart could have said that differently — more coarsely — but that would have been offensive. As it is, “the girl blushed and the villagers giggled”. Unmarried, in a culture like this one, the girl was a danger and was in danger. Once married, pregnancy becomes appropriate, and even desired. The “full belly” refers to hunger satisfied and pregnancy.

Marquart says the right words at the right time. The moment is ritualized, and ritual makes the unsayable, sayable.

The iron post was given to the wife from the hands of a female servant. No man touches it.

The plow shear is given to the man. The girl touches the package, but the man opens it. More symbolism. Later, when the man receives the axe, she does not touch it at all.

After giving the plow shear, Marquart says:

Urel, plow deep and often, so that your seed may be sewn, and your harvest may be bountiful.

“The villagers and serf alike howled with laughter.” Double entendre rears its lovely head. Yes, Marquart is telling the serf to be a farmer, but he is also commending him to the marriage bed. And everyone present knows it.

If he had said the same thing baldly, everyone would have been offended at his lack of tact. They would also have missed a chance to be in on this great joke that they all got to share.

It resembles the rules of cussing. Every time I hear someone casually saying f**k, I think, “What a waste.” A good cuss word has to be saved for the appropriate occasion, and delivered with perfect timing. Throwing it around like an ordinary word wastes it. If you say f**k every time you bump your knee, what is left to say when you drop an anvil on your foot?

Double entendre is fun. Sometimes kids don’t get that. They think their elders are afraid to use plain language, but it’s all a game. If you don’t follow the rules, the game is no fun.

By the way, I didn’t think up that bit with the plow shear. In some South Asian languages, the word for the act of plowing is the same word used for the act of intercourse. A professor in one of my anthropology classes told us that, but then he added, “Just because the word is the same, doesn’t mean that when a farmer says, ‘I’m going out to plow my field,’ he is really saying ‘I’m going out to commit ritual intercourse with the earth’. He just means that he is going out to plow.”

I don’t think my prof was being entirely honest. I think he was wanting to keep a class full of post-adolescents under control. In fact, that farmer would be saying both, simultaneously, and enjoying the double entendre.

One last note. In the Ramayana, the god Ram’s wife is the goddess Sita, and the word sita also means furrow.

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