Bulletin No. 4, 1995

Table of Contents:
Director's Notes
Midlife in Bhubaneswar

Director's Notes 
To have many middle-aged people in society is a modern phenomenon. In earlier times, 90 percent of the species were dead by age 40. Prehistoric man lived less than three decades. The life span of an ancient Greek or Roman was less than four decades. In the 16th century one-fourth of those born died in the first year, and the second fourth were dead by 16. Most childbearing women were dead by age 30. Few people lived a full life course. In our United States history the concept of a midlife period is new. As recently as 1900, about one half of the men and women who reached the age of 20 did not live to be 65. There was no sense of a population as a whole moving through middle age.

Chronological age, however, is just one way of defining midlife. Another mode of definition uses changes in social position and social roles in a society: puberty, marriage, parenthood, and many others. Wide differences exist among societies in their representations of the ending and beginning of midlife.

In rural India it is social position, not chronological age, by which one reckons and manages one's life. Changes are regulated by social events and transitions in the family group. For instance, sexual abstinence between spouses begins at the time their co-residing son gets married. Many people do not know their age, and in any case age is subordinate to transitions in the family which set the terms of midlife.
Orville Gilbert Brim
Table of Contents

Midlife in Bhubaneswar
Sixty-six high caste Hindu women, living in extended joint family households in the temple town of Bhubaneswar, Orrisa, India were presented with a sheet of paper on which there were two dots, designated "birth" and "death." The women were asked to fill in the space between the two dots by narrating the most significant events and experiences in a typical person's life, and in their own lives as well. Reactions ranged from boredom with the "typical" life ("You are born, you grow up, you grow old, you die. Do you want to hear that?") or skepticism that individual differences or circumstances even allow for a "typical" life story.

Despite initial reluctance, their tales reveal an image of the life course based not on age or physical well-being, but on a logic of social responsibility, family management and moral duty.

In their narrations, Oriya women divide their life course into either two phases, four phases, or five phases. The rudimentary Oriya model of a woman's life partitions it into only two phases:

      1) life in my father's house (bapa gharo) and

      2) life in my "husband's mothers" house (sasu gharo)

Extended joint family households in Orissa, India, are multi-generational households where after the arrangement of a marriage the sons stay at home-base with their parents and the daughters move out. From the point of view of the daughter who is "married out," the marriage ceremony is the most significant phase boundary in her life. At this point an Oriya woman's socially recognized status shifts from being a "child who is some man's daughter" (a "gio pila") to being a sexually active female who is some other woman's daughter-in-law (a "bou").

Ideally this fundamental phase shift from father's house to mother-in-law's house takes place between 18-20 years of age. Age, however, does not mark the boundary between these two basic phases in life, and biological markers such as menarche or menopause are rarely mentioned when Oriya women describe phases of a life. The boundary of the two phases is marked by the numerous changes in social responsibilities attendant on marriage, including the responsibility to serve and be sensitive to the in-laws' needs and to become sexually active for the sake of reproducing the family line.

For the women in our study, the life course then, is the story of domestic life in two households (first father's, then mother-in-law's). The fact that Oriya women are house-bound, however, is not viewed by them as a mark of oppression. Quite the contrary. The domestic realm is highly valued in Oriya culture, and domestic space (ghare) is understood as a kind of sacred space, contrasted with public or outside space (behare). It is precisely because men must spend time outside the home that they are thought to be vulnerable to pollution and at risk of becoming coarse and uncivilized (abhadra). It is by virtue of being able to remain inside the house that Oriya women believe they are more refined and reserved than Oriya men. They feel more capable of experiencing civilizing dispositions such as "humility" and "shame" (lajya), and less likely to display crude emotions such as anger (raga) or "mocking laughter" (hasa).

The five phase Oriya model elaborates on life in the two houses, presenting us with a more differentiated view of a woman's life course. In the five phase model, life in the father's house is divided into two phases. Phase 1 is the undisciplined early childhood phase (pila), when the daughter is indulged as a kind of adorable yet uncivilized family pet. This phase ends at approximately 7-9 years, when the daughter-child is now is thought to be capable of praying on her own, of distinguishing between right and wrong. Phase 2 is the morally formative yet tender youthful phase (kishoro), when the daughter-child becomes a kind of resident-in-training and is given anticipatory instruction in the social responsibilities and duties of married life. This phase ends at marriage.

Life in the mother-in-law's house is divided into three phases:

      3) the sexually active young daughter-in-law phase (jouvana), when the newly wed woman is expected to have children and dutifully serve the needs of her husband's family members;

      4) the phase of mature adulthood (prauda), when a woman takes over all the responsibilities for family management, including planning and control;

      5) the age of completion (briddha), when a woman gives up the management of family, becomes dependent on her kin and begins to anticipate life in yet another house, the house of "Yama," the house of the God of death.

(Note: This is adapted from work by Usha Menon and Richard A. Shweder, which appears in  Richard A. Shweder, Ed., Welcome to Middle Age (and Other Cultural Fictions), The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Table of Contents

MIDMAC Bulletin Index

/ Guest Register / Main Page / Research / Biographies / Publications /



Modified February 2, 1999