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THE BURDEN OF A GIFT

Sita’s Curse Stories of Dowry Victims By Seema Sirohi, HarperCollins, Rs 295

It took one call from the mobile phone of a hennaed, bejewelled bride for India to suddenly wake up to a social disease that has been killing with the same regularity as SARS in distant shores. With a fatality rate of 9,400 per year, dowry in India has more claims to being an epidemic than the recent scare. But no. Propelled by the new consumerist culture and the conspiracy of silence between victims and perpetrators, the virus of dowry promises to mutate and live. It couldn’t kill Nisha Sharma. But there is no doubt that the Sharmas, waiting to transfer their undelivered cartons of dowry to the next man they choose for Nisha, carry the social infection, as do millions of other Indians like them.

Conceived before Nisha happened, Seema Sirohi’s book intended to break the unnerving silence that greeted this social crime, particularly in the media, the social fora, the government and all other places that matter. Through her “extended journalism” she decided to give voice to six victims she chose with great care from thousands of others. “I decided deliberately to include only those cases which had a ring of optimism, however faint and nebulous.” There couldn’t be too many of them.

Three parents and three victims themselves speak out. Sirohi culls their stories from her interviews with them, the dowry-seeking families, their neighbours, co-workers, lawyers, police officials, sometimes witnesses. Sirohi has toured the country, visited torture-chambers, looked through yellowing court papers, even risked physical harm to get right the tone of the voices.

She succeeds most of the time — to bring out the helplessness of Tikka Preet’s father, fighting against the cunning of the Singh Gill family which drove his only daughter to suicide, the undying faith of Maria Bai in her Allah even after having lost her daughter to the butchery of a son-in-law, the grit of the 80-year-old Satyarani Chaddha who continues to persevere 22 years after her six-months pregnant daughter was burnt alive. Then there is Jyoti, Mary Shaila and Archana who tell their own stories. But Sirohi’s histrionics also sometimes jar. About Chaddha, “She is the Warrior Mama who cares little about her accoutrements”.

Sirohi makes it clear that she does not want to get into theoretical abstractions. She does not. She uses concrete examples to show the reach of dowry — cutting across classes, communities, and regional divides. The practical problems with dowry laws are also slipped into the narrative of the individual cases. But the conscious decision to skirt abstractions also has its pitfalls. Sirohi does not shirk from offering her own theory of why she thinks public attention has suddenly waned. In the course of it, she comes down heavily on the current political dispensation, the lackadaisical attitude of women’s groups, the media and what she calls the “NGOization” of social activism. But she also gets away from offering her own solution to the problem by putting forward some dominant views.

“On the inside,” Sirohi writes, “the innumerable instruments of subordination and subjugation of women within the family must be fought, and on the outside the many disadvantages of inheritance laws, employment opportunities and attitudes of the state.” The former is likely to prove more difficult. Let us take Sirohi’s heroine, Satyarani, for instance. Despite losing one daughter to dowry, Chaddha married off her other daughter with a sizeable dowry. Subhadra Butalia writes in The Gift of a Daughter, that Satyarani even alienated her own daughter-in-law from her child for going out to work and refusing to part with her entire salary. Butalia says, “Satya was a victim of the same system which she herself helped perpetuate”. Which is why simple solutions won’t do.

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