My mother-in-law’s ex –nurse had a problem and came to me. Her daughter had been seeing a man for the past ten years and now he was marrying a girl traditionally earmarked for him- his niece. She was willing for him to marry her first and then marry the other girl. I told her the legal provisions including the provisions that make promising marriage and reneging, an offence. I sent her to a local women’s organization, who promised to help and that was the last I heard of it, for some time. She was back a few days later. She did not go to the organization, because she felt they would counsel her against marrying the guy and would take a confrontational stance. Instead, she went home to think it over. She had managed to prevent her brothers from manhandling her boyfriend who was cravenly switching off his mobile, but he had dragged her to the police station, where they made her a sign a statement that she would not cause any trouble! Now her blood was up and she had realized that he did not want to marry her. Since the station was out of city limits, I asked her to go to a local lawyer, especially as she persisted in the hope that her boyfriend would turn round at the eleventh hour and marry her. My advice to abandon the scheme since a reluctant husband or a shotgun wedding would be difficult to sustain fell on deaf ears since even the parents wanted only a ‘respectable ending’ to the whole affair.
In ‘ Well done Abba’, Sakina’s mother, a widow, agrees to her daughter ‘marrying’ an old Sheikh from the Middle East, because of the cash he can give her, for the family’s sustenance, only to have her dreams come to naught when she is beaten and sent home. The dowry system has reached out its tentacles to all communities and our office has handled cases among Muslims as well. The Mahila Court sees several ‘suspicious’ deaths tried as dowry deaths everyday. The system goes on, regardless.
Which his why, I wonder, when we talk about our high regard for the family as a nation. Some years ago. I was visiting Warwick, when a professor told me that some Indian judges had visited. She laughingly added the rider that one of them had lauded Indian ‘family values’. She said she was surprised, since she had read so much about dowry deaths, domestic violence and even forced marriages among Indians. She wondered which values we were lauding. She said that while divorce and blended families might be the norm in Britain, dowry death was not. I could not, in all conscience disagree.
The other day, my friend had a slightly different complaint about families. She said that arranged marriage was becoming more difficult, because girls were demanding bridegrooms with very high salaries who owned flats. In the same breath she also told me about some young friends of hers, whose husbands appropriated their entire salaries and did not ‘allow’ them even Rs. 100 to spend as they wanted. These women earned many thousands but had less control over their money than their own domestic workers! Small wonder girls nowadays do not want to marry and the family courts see more marriages coming apart!
When I visited New York , some years ago, I used to sit in a park, which the homeless had taken over. They seemed to be merry, but I noticed an underlying sadness. Walk through any slum and you will see only happy faces. People may fight with each other, but by and large, they know who they are. Even pavement dwellers have a roof over their heads, atleast until they are evicted. Most of the homeless in N Y slept in the open air and could only call a box their own. In the midst of plenty, the contrast is great indeed. My domestic worker disappears every few days. When she comes back, the reason for her absence will usually be a death, birth or marriage in her extended family. I have found that this family is very large and is flung over several villages. I used to pity her. She always moans about the expense of these trips but I have realized that this is just venting. If there were no such trips, she would be lost. It is the communal sharing which shapes her life and is missing among the poor in NY. So a family is an important thing. However, I think we have to consider how far individual aspirations can be encompassed and encouraged within the family. After all isn’t a parenthesis better than a full stop?