"Red is my color," I used to say. Just because I liked it best, Iowned it. How many other things have I claimed as mine so easily? Whistling andsunshine, life and liberty. Things that can be lost. For most of us, lifepresents itself as a steady progress toward owning more, but having less.Vision, acuity, even walking—one bad fall taught me that was only a gift onloan. Then my broken leg healed and walking was mine again.
But getting older means the breaks will come harder. I know this. I'm aprofessional observer, reporting on that inevitable human progress: the endlesshungers for more, the having less. I see how age and loss can bring atemptation to hold harder to the privileges that remain. The customs ofhoarding happiness infect every culture, as the powerful find ways to bar theweak or the young. I want to believe the cycle can be broken. I want to get oldand give things away.
"Red is my color," I used to say and never will again, because ofa beautiful, spirited girl named Menuka Poudel. We met in a village in lowlandNepal where red was everywhere: in flowering hedges, women's saris, and the teekapowder that dusts their hair and dots their foreheads as the symbol ofmarriage. I was there on a ceremonial day, so poinsettias in jars lined thedusty road, blazing against the mud-brick houses. I wore a red bandanna againstthe fierce lowland sun. I'd come as a journalist investigating women'sdevelopment projects. This trip marked my 25th anniversary as a professionalwriter, and I felt shadowed by the girl I used to be, the one who took up herpen believing people would behave humanely if only they knew the whole story.
“Red is my color,” I used to say and never will again,because of a beautiful, spirited girl named Menuka Poudel.
Since then I've crossed continents for those stories, breaking bones alongthe way, wearing out youthful hopes and most of my trust in happy outcomes. Mycurrent assignment felt likely to restore my optimism or put nails in itscoffin. I'd been told that in this nation racked by a decade of armedinsurrection, one international development agency had kept working whereothers could not. Its programs had improved the lives of more than 20,000families. Even in the best of times, human kindness is fragile. How could itweather ten years of war?
If Menuka had the answer, I was listening. As we waited for the day'sceremony to begin, she chatted eagerly, establishing that we had the samefavorite color. We both have young daughters. She married at 16 and moved inwith her husband's family. "I imagined my husband and I would be the twowheels of a cart," she said, but five years later, when she was pregnantwith their third child, her husband died. "My mother-in-law made me washthe teeka from my hair, and told me that as a widow I could never wearred again. No bright colors."
Widows here don't remarry. A husband's death is the next thing to it for hiswife. Her community sees her as bad luck; drab clothing broadcasts her shame.For widows like Menuka, it also broadcasts vulnerability and the risk of sexualassault. Nevertheless, at 21 she adjusted to a lifetime without color. "Mylife was ended."
I know no other way to be alive than to keep listening, even to stories assad as this. But should I stop hoping that somewhere the story will bedifferent? The people of Menuka's village are seasonal agricultural workers,joined by the common ground of poverty. They have no doors that lock, hardly apossession beyond the handfuls of rice stirred into each day's meal. And stillthey could find a way to divide themselves into haves and have-nots. Marriedwomen ostracized widows. High-caste families still spurned those of lowercaste. Before meeting Menuka, I'd talked with an elderly widow named DhanaBishow-Karma, an "untouchable." She never let her shadow fall onanyone. In shops, she paid by tossing rupees without touching the owners'hands.
I'd touched the old woman's arm as I listened, wishing to prove this system that binds her is nonexistent where I come from. But I know better. I started school in a racially segregated first grade. In my country our poorest youth disproportionately inhabit our prisons and our wars. Schoolchildren scramble for classroom supplies while luxury accumulates around corporate heads. If we had no other currency for privilege, I'm sure that we, too, would make rules about shadows, and hoard color.
During the long drive to this village, I'd discussed my doubts with a Nepali staff member from Heifer International, the development organization that had worked here through roadblocks and revolution. Its mission is to train communities to become self-reliant through raising livestock or other means. Yes, she agreed, bridging that gap between rich and poor is complex. Material support alone—simply having more—is not the answer. "It won't really change the situation unless people have changed themselves," she said. "I value Heifer for addressing mental poverty. Mostly that comes from the women coming together in meetings, working on goals."
But how does "mental poverty" end when new entitlements seem to create new needs? Two nights earlier, in Kathmandu, I watched an American tourist complain scornfully about our hotel. Privilege begets privilege. That very morning I had tied a red scarf on my head without a thought. Now my scalp burned as I listened to Menuka explaining how she'd lost that color forever.
When Menuka's husband died, her bereft mother-in-law began attending meetings of the Milan Mahila Samuha, or Women's Togetherness Group. With guidance from the Heifer development staff, they devised a livelihood-improvement plan. They would raise meat goats. The first women to receive the animals pledged to pass some of their goats' offspring to other members, renewing the cycle until every villager had a source of income.
This was the story that had intrigued me: how did Heifer outlast the storms of war? The trick was to create material assistance from inside a village itself, rather than from far away. I wanted to believe it could work, but had to ask: Would some cheat? Don't lower-caste families get left out? I hated my skepticism, but that was the question I'd asked Bishow-Karma. "I am the lowest of untouchables," she said, "so of course I was afraid to go to a meeting, at first. Where would I sit? But the women who helped organize us were very open-minded about untouchable people. They spoke right to me! And little by little, high-caste women would share their feelings and even take food together with me. This was beyond my imagination. We had a long talk about spiritual values that stayed on my mind afterward. I thought, 'Maybe that's why the others are nice to me.' "
She'd been surprised to learn someone in the group would give her animals she could raise, earning the first income in her life. More surprising was the idea that she would eventually pass on that favor to another. "I had given away some vegetables once, but never a big thing. This was a new idea for me. It gave me new energy for living."
In the embrace of two old women holding each other, I saw the architecture of human grace.
Menuka's mother-in-law also found herself energized by the workshops, as first they tackled sanitation and nutrition, then gender and caste. She decided Menuka should come to meetings, too. "The discussions made us start thinking about how women treat other women," Menuka said. "The fact that widows carry shame. It's women who make their daughters follow these rules." Her mother-in-law agreed. Talking about unspeakable things had caused her to think about what was hers, to keep or to let go. "Girls wear bright colors and bangles before they get married," she reasoned. "So being happy is not just a privilege of marriage. My son is dead. But my daughter-in-law is not."
Menuka was every inch alive as we sat waiting for the Women's Togetherness ceremony to begin. Fourteen women who'd earned income from their goats would now pass on the offspring to newer members. The donors wore red saris; the new initiates wore lavender. The whole village had turned out. I felt hope rise, and soon was crying like a child, because Dhana Bishow-Karma, whose old untouchable hand I'd wanted to hold, was now standing, throwing her shadow over everyone, holding her gift: a lop-eared goat wearing a necklace of marigolds. She walked toward her chosen recipient, another poor widow belonging to the highest caste in the village. Last year Bishow-Karma couldn't have entered the woman's home. Today she gave her good fortune. In the embrace of two old women holding each other, I saw the architecture of human grace. How astonishingly simple: mental poverty ends this way. A person's status can change, not by receiving but by giving.
If life is a march toward owning more and having less, it can also walk backward in its tracks, creating riots of inexplicable compassion, spinning straw into gold. It can change the rules, and dance. Menuka now stood up with her mother-in-law. The other mothers came forward with a plate piled with redteekapowder, the adornment forbidden to widows. By the handful they scooped up the color red giving it back to this daughter, rubbing it onto the crown of her head, covering her hair and face in a cloud of vermilion. She fell backward as the older women passed her from hand to hand, wrapping her in a red shawl. They had made a decision: Menuka should walk forward into her life, wearing color. Tears streaked scarlet tracks down her powdered cheeks. Schoolgirls and mothers cried for her joy, which was also theirs.
Now Menuka thinks her mother-in-law should wear red, too. Young people will change, she says, when the older ones do. As the crowd walked home, I took off my scarf and gave it to a girl who'd been eyeing it. Red isn't mine—for what on earth can be owned that hasn't been given away? The poinsettias wilted, and the village looked ordinary again. But untouchables had been touched. A widow danced barefoot in a red shawl. Today, in this place on earth, there was enough.
Barbara Kingsolver's 12 books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have won numerous awards, including the National Humanities Medal.