The Indian TV channel was playing Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK) when the phone call came to say that Aparna’s wedding had been called off.
“Is the wedding postponed or canceled?” my mother was asking on the phone. When she hung up, she shook her head. A single word: “Dowry.”
On the screen, Arti Shahani, the new bride and daughter-in-law in HAHK, was cheerfully working in the kitchen, bidding the male executives adieu, peeling an improbably large number of apples in a demure sari with head covered. This cloyingly sweet scene suggested she had no ambitions of her own whatsoever, and was therefore the ideal gharelu (home-making) daughter-in-law. The one bright spot offering some diversity in this fantasy-land was the token professional woman, Razia, the Muslim “lady doctor,” who confirmed the good news that a child was on its way. In this Bollywood la la land, there was lots of aap and hum. No sign of class struggle. Servants were malleable and agreeable, harmony reigned with no sign of discord. And this is what it takes for a family to chug along, we are to understand.
“Chalo, it’s good that we found out what kind of people they are before the wedding,” my mother was saying in a soothing voice. The wedding card had been on the refrigerator magnet for months. I took it down and tossed it into the recycling bin.
I grew up with such happy memories of Delhi weddings. I remember when my uncle got married in the 1970s. I was a young girl, and had a particular fondness for softies, soft-served ice cream cones, being careful not to spill them on my made-for-the occasion frilly frock. Unlimited (free!) Coca-cola and Fanta outside of parental supervision. Espresso with sugar cubes. Spotting a hippie foreigner near a hotel pool, from a faraway land called America, and marveling that hair color came in a shade other than black. What fun.
And then another memory popped up in my mind, less sanguine. Hushed whispers. The unhappily married aunt who died in a blaze of kerosene fire. The demands from the groom’s family had been insatiable, unceasing, relentless. It seems every family has a story of a ‘dowry death.’ Was this the dark shadow of all the bright lights I remembered? What was the relation between my aunt’s death and all those sparkling weddings?
PAYING FOR THE BFIW
Those “5 star hotel” wedding parties from my childhood came swimming back to my memory. Who exactly had paid for my free wedding dinner?
Wedding costs are rising in India. In 2017, there were “over 12 million weddings in the South Asian nation every year estimated to cost over $25 billion and growing at 30 percent annually. In short, it is an obscene display of wealth,” according to Murali Krishnan.
“A person in India spends one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on a wedding ceremony, sometimes pledging their land as collateral” said Ranjan, an MP in India trying to introduce moderation in weddings.
Some scary statistics cast a shadow: according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), dowry-related crimes are on the rise. In 2001, this number was 6,851 dowry deaths, in 2006, that number had risen to 7,618 and reached 8,233 in 2012. The conviction rate in these cases, however, remained at only 32 percent.
Dowry deaths continue to rise, according to 2012 NCRB figures. “On average, one Indian woman commits suicide every four hours over a dowry dispute notwithstanding existence of laws for their empowerment.”
Things are particularly bad in the capital city of Delhi.
“Dowry cases in Delhi have been on a rise over the years. Though crimes such as murder and robbery have been either decreasing or seeing a marginal rise each year, dowry cases have doubled in the last five years.” On August 14, 2017 Hindustan Times published a special report about Delhi’s dowry-related cases. It analysed all the alleged dowry cases registered across Delhi in the first six months of 2017 and found that the tradition cuts across demographics. According to the statement of women in FIRs, their families were bullied for many types of dowry items — from an Audi to a buffalo, to a motorcycle or a house.” From 2,046 cases in 2012 to 3,877 in 2016, dowry cases in Delhi have almost doubled in that period.
On screen, HAHK, the subject of dowry has come up, with the clownishly vampy Bindu gnashing her teeth at Arti Shahani’s lack of dowry. To his credit, the patriarch Alok Nath sticks up for this dowry-less girl.
Manjua Devak’s story popped up on my Facebook feed. Someone had posted it on a group, and I was saddened to read about this IIT scholar who killed herself after being harassed for dowry. I thought of the radiant smile in a photograph of my aunt, whom my mother had loved, and how my aunt had become one more statistic of a dowry death.
I turned to my mother. “I agree with you. There are worse things than calling off the wedding.”
This article is dedicated to my late Sunila Masi. I was too young to remember meeting her, but her story stayed with me.
Geetika Pathania Jain is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.
Cover photo credit: kevbabe