This system has probably existed since time immemorial. In October last year, in London, I read in the Evening Standard about a young Indian woman who committed suicide, because of harassment from her in-laws.
A beautiful photo of her was even published. Her husband had passed away and the in-laws refused to give her his share of the family fortune. Just before she died she sent a text to her mum telling her of her ordeal. The paper even said in India, you might be beautiful and educated but beauty and education didn’t count that much, caste did. Her in-laws had opposed the marriage in the first place, because she belonged to a low caste.
A few years back, I watched an episode of a Hindi serial, in which a young woman had set fire to her husband while he was sitting in his sofa drunk as a skunk. On coming home he had insulted her for not bringing enough dowry and that meant a car also. The father sought the help of a lawyer who asked if he had any money. ‘Money,’ he replied, ‘if I had money, my daughter wouldn’t be in jail today.’ But the daughter thought better be at peace in jail than having to face daily harassment at home.
Unfortunately, that may be the fate of a lot of brides in India even to this day, though it’s not as bad as earlier when the harassment of brides for dahej or dowry started well before the mehendi had begun to fade from their hands. But this problem is not among Hindus only. I have met many Kerala Christians in the Middle East, who told me they have to save hard for that dowry. But what gets my goat is this: giving dowry for your daughter would suggest that you expect to get it back from your daughter-in-law, if you have a son. Yet Kerala is supposed to have the highest literacy rate in India.
I watched a video entitled ‘Prostitutes of God’ on the Internet recently on how low castes women in villages have to sell themselves and their very young daughters due to the absence of employment opportunities as there was no other job. Not to mention the spread of HIV. To top it all, everyday they worship a female deity for her support and protection. We think of Bharat Mata or Mother India, where gods and goddesses are supposed to have taken birth… yet the way they treat their women leaves much to be desired. I have to admit though that in other places, it’s even worse and equally despicable.
We are supposed to have been created ‘à l’image de Dieu’, but how can anyone ignore those they call untouchables. They were born of their mothers in the same manner, and breastfed like all of us. Don’t they feel the pain when you hurt them, or do they have a rhino skin? They also shed the same kind of tears. We go to the temple, make a big display of offerings and a lot of pomp. I’m sure He can manage without all this pageantry as all this won’t appease His wrath, because all He wants is your compassion for others. There is no prayer more fruitful than seva.
I will end with the story of my school friend who went to the UK after getting married. Life was not easy with a drunkard and womaniser husband. They separated and she lived in a bedsit with her daughter. She worked part-time as maid for an Indian family. When the ‘malkin’ would pay her wages, she would fold the bank notes several times over, until they became very small. Why, you may ask yourself? Then she would drop the notes in my friend’s palm, so as not to touch her hand. When the kitchen was cleaned up, my friend had to sit on the stairs to have her meal. To her, my mate was a servant and probably of a low caste too.
To keep herself warm in winter, she would sit in a launderette. Later, the council gave her a small flat, which she bought afterwards. She worked as carer in a nursing home, and a Jewish patient bought her a new car, so my friend could ferry her around for shopping. Finally, after sheer hard work, she bought a lovely semi-detached house in North London, without any help from anyone. She raised two kids single-handedly.
She is always helping people with food and donates money to charities, goes swimming every morning and works in the afternoons only, near her home. Food is never short in her house. Now she is as contended as a pea in a pod. My mother always said, never underestimate anyone, for today’s pauper could become a rich man tomorrow and a rich man today can become a pauper tomorrow. Unfortunately, there are some who just forget their humble beginnings when money and power go to their head.
Here, in the past, people laid emphasis on castes but nowadays, it’s ‘sab se bara rupaiya’. But when election is round the corner, the caste system raises its ugly head. And the public, ‘le peuple admirable’ foolishly gets drawn into the web of politicians.
* Published in print edition on 29 November 2013