The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page

Sometime in the Seventies, Subhadra Butalia and her husband, both emigrants from Pakistan, built themselves a small house in Jangpura, New Delhi. Facing their home was a large house belonging to a successful Sikh entrepreneur in which lived three generations of his family including his son and his newly married wife Hardeep Kaur and their baby. Subhadra often heard Hardeep crying after she had been beaten by her husband. One afternoon she heard her screaming and smoke billowing out of the house. Neighbours collected round the house. A taxi drove up and Hardeep was taken to hospital, where she died.

Not a word about the tragedy appeared in any paper. Later, some women activists arrived on the scene, interviewed neighbours including Subhadra and filed a report with the police. Hardeep’s husband and his family were arrested on charges of demanding dowry, torturing Hardeep and then setting her aflame. No neighbours were willing to give evidence; even Hardeep’s brother (her father was by then dead) backed out of the case. Only Subhadra refused to be bought out. It was on her evidence that Hardeep’s in-laws were convicted and sent to jail.

That began Subhadra Butalia’s (she is now 80) active involvement in helping newly married women who fail to meet demands for money made by their in-laws, are tortured and often forced to commit suicide or are murdered. Their numbers run into the thousands every year. In Delhi alone, an average of four to six married women end their lives by hanging themselves from ceiling fans or burning themselves: of the latter, the usual explanation given is the bursting of a gas cylinder or clothes catching fire by accident.

The fact of the matter is that in one way or the other all of us who do not raise our voices against this crime against humanity are guilty of indifference towards the plight of our daughters: parents who meet demands for dowry and bar their doors against married daughters, in-laws who behave like ravenous beasts, neighbours who are nosy and yet refuse to give evidence, the police, lawyers, the judiciary and everyone who thinks it is none of his business. The more galling fact is that the crime is more prevalent among the literate middle and lower-middle classes than among the uneducated poor, more among Hindus and Sikhs than among Muslims and Christians. When looking for brides, the two things uppermost in the minds of a boy and his parents are the girl’s looks and the money she will bring as dowry. Among the worst offenders are the cream of our civil services. Butalia writes: “During our visit to the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration at Mussoorie, we were shocked to learn that the majority of the probationers who get married after joining the service, openly take dowry, negotiated by themselves or, with their knowledge and consent, by their parents. The amounts involved are usually staggering. We understand that some have received up to Rs 30-35 lakh, with recent promises even extending to Rs one crore, while Rs 15-20 lakh are said to be commonplace. The sums vary according to the probationer’s caste, community and state of origin and are pushed up further by the state of allotment (that is, the area/state to which the person is sent to work). The rates are openly discussed among the probationers without the slightest shame or hesitation — indeed, with pride — regardless of the fact that the taking of dowry is a specific offence under the Dowry Prohibition Act, as well as under the conduct of rules of the All India and Central Services. They set the pace too for the escalation of dowry all over the country.”

Read Subhadra Butalia’s The Gift of a Daughter: Encounters with Victims of Dowry and ask yourself: “Have we any right to call ourselves civilized'”

There’s a caller on the line

If there is any truth in the notion that people who are alike are drawn towards each other, then, as surely as night follows the day, I am going crackers because the number of crackpots in my life continues to rise steadily. I have never met any of them face to face; they write to me or ring me up at odd hours. I receive a lot of mail, but there are some who write three or four letters or post cards to me in one day. They have nothing special to say, no questions to ask — so I reply to them in a line or two on 50-paisa post card. I also periodically get what is known as hate mail. During the heyday of sant Bhindranwale and the Khalistan agitation, they were usually in Gurmukhi, threatening to wipe out my entire family if I did not stop writing against santji and Khalistan. Among the prized ones is one I got some years ago from Canada. It had the choicest incestuous abuses in Gurmukhi. Only my name and address were in English: “Bastard Khushwant Singh, India”. I marvelled at the efficiency of the Indian postal service for locating me as if I was the only one in India answering that description. Now that has stopped; instead I get unsigned post cards addressing me as “Pakistani kutta, Pakistani randi ke aulaad and so on. I treasure them as mementos. The day they stop coming, I will feel there is something wrong about what I write.

I have more than my fair share of crackpots ringing me up at odd hours. Once there was a man who claimed to have invented an “internal TV”. He could communicate with Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sanjay Gandhi, all of whom were by then dead and gone. Nehru had advised him to see me because I could make him the chief minister of Haryana. About the same time, another rang me up and told me he was Nehru’s son and that I should arrange his meeting with Indira Gandhi. A couple of years ago, a chap rang up to tell me that the Dehra Doon Express was running late. He continues to ring me up almost every other evening, and, no matter who picks up the phone at my end, he proceeds to offload important information like how many TV sets or motor cars are produced in India every year; and how Brahmins and Kayasthas are looting the country. It is no use interrupting him; he has his say and abruptly puts down the phone with “good bye for now”.

The latest addition to my callers is a foreign lady who rings around 6 am, greets me sat sri akal and asks me if I believe in djinns. When I say I don’t, she proceeds to tell me Delhi is full of jinns, you can’t see them but you can feel them. She quotes William Dalrymple’s novel, City of Djinns to prove her point. She wants me to drive round the city with her to give further evidence of bhoot-preyts. One caller who I have not heard from for a long time and miss used to ring me up late at night and greet me with a drunken voice: “O ulloo kay patthey” (you son of an owl). If I told him he was drunk, he retorted, “Tere baap kee peeta hoon” (Do I drink your father’s whiskey)' And if I protested about his wasting money, he replied in the same way, “Tere baap ka paisa lagtaa hai” (Does it cost your father anything)' I expect by now he has drunk himself to death.

Email This Page