Sunday, December 18, 2005

Discussing passive dowry!

I am at an age where most of my friends are getting married. Conversations invariably revolve around what one will look for in his/her future spouse. We all talk about what is acceptable and what is not, with considerable conviction. There are some who accept arranged marriage as time tested method and are willing to wait to choose from the right ones brought forward by the parents. There are others, the romantics, who believe in Yash Chopra like endings, and fan arguments in favor of choosing for oneself. Thus they create enough matter for gossip, and in general humor us with their bravadoes, escapades and failures. In heart we know, we all will get married, and as it always seems to happen, most will appear richer right after they do. Like it has happened with rampant pollution and corruption, we, Indians, have accepted this ritualized exchange of gifts, where the bride's family pays for all the bills. This custom of dowry, somewhat amazingly and alarmingly, continues to flourish and this is spite of all our education and grand talk about progress of society.

The most obvious form of dowry is where the demands are explained and outlined at the outset, and depending upon how the greed grows, the market forces, the pliability of bride's family, the counter-offers and some astronomical or astrological reasons, the demands evolve with time. In some of these cases, getting married is like finding a life-long credit agency, where one must be paid in cash or kind for just being an in-law. Many people, in spite of their education and social standing, allow themselves to become leeches on the wife's parents and brothers. The most easily cited counter scenario is where the bride is asked to walk into husband's house in three pieces of clothing. When I discuss about dowry, I am usually referring to neither; both represent extreme cases and my identification of dowry as a problem demands I talk about passive dowry, the most prevalent, and yet the least criticized method.

Passive dowry is the most common form of dowry. The bride's family is supposed to supply whatever they deem as necessary for newly weds, for it is clearly stated that the groom's family lacks no luxuries per se. The bride's family is supposed to estimate and evaluate what gifts and presents could be considered satisfactory in the social circles of both the families. An over-estimate is always pleasant for the receiver, an under-estimate source of perpetual jibes and widespread "thu-thu" (criticism, metaphorically stated by spitting at the defaulters face). People might talk about groom's getting a new car in hushed voices, and bride's family may say out aloud that their daughter requested it as she wouldn't want to walk after marriage, but the bottomline is that the car stands in the garage of newly married couple, will remain there, the groom usually accepts it with either a smug or sneeky smile and the bride's family is poorer by that amount. If one lives away from his parents, we often hear about the secretly managed sudden increase in the standard of living. We often associate it with the groom's coming of age, realizing a married life requires more than just a bed and a tv, and maybe it is partially true that marriage brings some sense into us bachelors. It seems to bring lots of other things too. Like sex, and of course money; we usually talk about neither. We see where the money came from, and either wink or close our eyes. How convenient!

Even if the groom demands nothing, there is no guarantee that he won't do it later. The bride's parents must, indeed, for custom and age-old wisdom demands it, must always have enough emergency funds to meet the stated and unstated demands of the in-laws. Sometimes the groom's family is totally opposed to dowry, and then the bride must suffer through the constant whispering and sniggering from either relatives or from the neighbor, who leave no opportunity to remark how empty handed the bride's family must have been. Not only we have embraced and ritualized dowry, we have also allowed it to become a status symbol. In the naked hunger for easily earned money, dowry is a phenomenal thing. It comes with someone who you are supposed to share your life with; and you seek payment for uniting with her who stars have designed for your sake. You seek a price for yourself, for an IAS is obviously more expensive than an IPS, a US degree definitely requires more gold than a desi pedigree, IIT & IIM is obviously means acquisition of better valued commodity than from a run-of-mill college. In this market, where we sell and buy companionship, each ability and disability, education and ancestry, custom and social standing, play a role in making most of us the most overpriced objects of affection. Being hypocritical as always, we shall not call these bought objects with the name they deserve, for these objects come armed with social recognition and even in selling themselves, they are the ones who call the shots. Still, most end as over-hyped and over-priced objects of affection. What objects for what purpose, and ah, at what price!

Discussing passive dowry, as it is, is like discussing most ailments of our society. We divide ourselves into camps, contrasting one situation with another, and give some a benefit of doubt as we like them or know them or cannot openly renounce them. We treat all arguments as attacks on our own selves, as an attack on how our family has conducted itself over the years, and find ourselves wanting in one respect or the other, for we all, at some point, are involved in abetting in the same crime we stand here to condemn. We look for easy escape, cite how people in other countries get gifts as well, say how happy certain couple is with dowry or without dowry in picture, we contend that only love cannot run a marriage and we resign saying, it is a necessary evil, we don't like it, and we don't approve of it. We say someone must do something about it, maybe the government. In the heat of moment, we announce we will not be party to any dowry taking or giving ritual, which would mean that in next marriage we attend, we shall drown our commitment in gulps of whisky or pronounce our lack of complete familiarity with the groom's family as reason for doing nothing. We will defend all gifts we will get at our marriage. Sometimes, the brides will themselves insist on having certain gifts. At most we will read or write certain articles or blogs about it, but I am sure as hell, we will leave this discussion saddened and embittered. For like in passive corruption, or like in promiscuity, passive dowry survives due to an understanding between the involved parties. In our society ruled and run by compromises, passive dowry is natural and inevitable. So is my tone, your response, and our collective morality.

Dec 18, 2005
Written after conversation with two friends, AS and FSA.


AdHocQuirks said...

"passive dowry survives due to an understanding between the involved parties. In our society ruled and run by compromises, passive dowry is natural and inevitable. So is my tone, your response, and our collective morality."

Ardra said...

even when there are a few communitites which do not follow the dowry system ( matrilinear societies in Kerala)- still people around keep asking- as if they cant understand the significance- i've found it wearisome and futile to explain the situation- they seem to think it reflects badly on the bride's parents and that rankles...

bharath said...

agree with ardra. Its the sort of mentality of some bride's parents that it will show poorly on them if they didn't give generously. No groom (not bold enough) would want to hurt their pride by denying the gift.

this is just one PoV and it isn't mine :p

El enigma said...

funny...I was talking about the same with a friend 2 days is the educated, literate, upper middle class families who are resposible for it the most..mainly because they have within them the power to stop this ritual to some extent, but they don't....rather encourage it openly...and I don't understand the likes of brides and grooms at all....they can say a clear NO to such forms of passive dowry.....but they won't...they don't....rather abet it day in and day out.....some on the pretext that it won't matter if they stop, the rest of the world wud still continue....and then someone, somewhere who cannot afford has to suffer...because the ritual continues without fail even in the circles of those who can make a difference....


Fizo said...

That was a very serious blog coming from you. Ofcourse the passive dowry thing exists. Not just in terms of money/things etc but also in terms of behavior. Oh my God! Might have heard innumerable times 'ladki waale hain..jhukna tho padega hi..'. Its like a virus that eats away right from the day the marriage is fixed. The 'ladki-waale' are expected to do so much - right from making sure every person comprising the party that makes up the 'ladke-waale' who could be the most remotely related person is expected to be given royal treatment. This behavior exists almost everywhere. It is so disgusting! And after doing all this without a murmur since they are 'ladki-waale' expect to hear grumblings...loads of them..right from the 'ladke- waales' grandma's third cousin's aunt to the bridegroom's parents and everyone else in between. It is sickening! And no unfortunately, I don't see any solution to this. It is one of those things that is so ingrained in our culture and traditions that no matter who stands up, the women or the men or even the both of them, it shall imho unfortunately go on!

great introspective blog btw...err..are thos shahnaai's in the background for our sharma ji? :-p

Vivek said...

Comments copied from sulekha:

Vivek Sharma comments:
on Dec 19 2005 9:36PM delete this comment block this user
Thanks Maria, Biswajeet, faa!

Perhaps Maria is right in saying that "saas and bahu" play the pivotial role. But in reality, even when the both families are willing to have a marriage without dowry and/or pomp and show, the whole society seems to sentence the marriage as a failure on part of both families.

Faa, somehow we men are able to get away with lot more than women can dream to get away with. Partly, it is because of the role played by women themselves in pulling the mavericks in their sex down by outright criticism and excessive mockery.

Maria S comments:
on Dec 19 2005 4:35PM delete this comment block this user


First, let me say- No one can be for 'aggressive dowry'- and there is no way to defend it!*And some of the demands you have listed as 'passive forms' of dowry, I can still see them as 'aggressive' extractions.

But, if there is to be societal change- there are two people (both women) who have to play key roles. 1)the prospective bride 2) the mother of the groom. If women in these two roles, join forces and take a stand- 'against seeking/giving dowry', only then the system will begin to change..As long as 'older' women allow the cycles to continue and make younger women go through the "same stuff and pain" they did, nothing will change. Can't entirely blame men for this.

Now, I am not sure if paying for the wedding expenses is anything unique to Indian culture..somehow, I would not use the word 'dowry' for it. In most cultures, parents of the bride (and parents of the groom) do help out. (personally, I am against lavish weddings and the waste involved)...Sometimes the 'parents' want to show off..too. I have known of situations where the couple wanted to have a smaller wedding, with a few selected guests.. but it was the bride's parents, who insisted on making it a grand affair and more expensive.

Marriage, besides being a sacred union- realistically speaking, is also made up of 'economical/financial contracts'. If parents can help a couple willingly to 'start a new life', with some reasonable financial assitance/material things, I don't see any problem with it. But I have also seen the bride/groom and the groom's family demand some outrageous things.

I do hope that things change..but am not sure, if they will! With donations for medical/professional schools..and even primary schools on the seems tobe becoming 'more about money/finances' and not less!


faa comments:
on Dec 19 2005 1:26PM delete this comment block this user


well written..

indian society is becoming broadminded.ha

But for the bahu the same old traditions go on and the list never ends .if u dont speakup the first time then u r made to do things for the rest of your life and no credit will ever be given to u for your good behaviour or accepting the old traditons in this mordern age.for the boy of the house all mordern things r accepted because he is man .then there r no elders to tell him that he is for the dowry it was what his parents asked for it never is assiciated with the boy himself

Biswajit Talukdar comments:
on Dec 19 2005 12:17PM delete this comment block this user
Well written. It is sad that passive dowry has become a part and parcel of our lives - give or take which ever side one may be - unfortunately not to expect that would be unexpected !