Compatibility and adjustment
Many families seeking to get their children married are clearly content to make arrangements simply on the basis that they like the man or woman they have met. They feel that they do not need to consider much else besides. This is surprising, because commonsensically speaking, one would have thought that unplanned and ill-thought-out marriages would have greater chances of disruption—perhaps ending in divorce, or even of becoming cases such as those that we investigated. Indeed, there were plenty of such early warning signs among our data.
In a 15- to 20-minute meeting, there are clear limits to what can be discerned. Beyond formal matters, Jasmeet and Tarampal were able to cover little.
For Tarampal, it appears that looks were the most important factor in choosing a bride. Describing his wife as dusky, sexy and appealing, he asked, ‘Who needs money? She looked fine.’ Because both partners said they liked each other based on their initial (but largely superficial) impressions, the families decided to go ahead with the union. Unfortunately, there were many matters related to the couple’s compatibility that simply received no attention.
While Tarampal told us that he and Jasmeet were happy with each other on emotional and sexual levels, his brothers gave us a very different impression. They found the pair to be mismatched, because—in their terms—Tarampal was a highly educated, proud man, married to a very simple village girl. If this were the case, adjustment with each other would most likely have been much harder than what Tarampal claims.
Jasmeet’s mother Amardeep already recognised that ‘it’s difficult for a girl to adjust herself to a completely different environment as one has to change entirely.’ To adjust sufficiently in this case may have taken far more fundamental changes than could be realistically expected. According to the brothers, the mismatches between the spouses led to tension and quarrels and ultimately resulted in Jasmeet killing herself.
Jasmeet may also have expected Tarampal and his family to meet her halfway (or somewhere approaching there). Indeed, in the modern setting, the role of women in many families has changed such that they increasingly expect their husbands to participate in the management of the household, previously considered exclusively women’s work. For example, Amardeep told us that ‘boys should also know to cook. At least they should know how to make tea etc. in case of problems’ (which Tarampal admits he did not).
Most Indian males seem to be unaware of such changes in expectations, and in few households do husbands extend a limited amount of assistance. Some wives appear to feel rather bitter at the lack of sympathy and understanding that their husbands and in-laws show them, especially where they are also working and helping to provide for the maintenance of the family. This can often lead to discord.
Coming from different locations, such as one from a metro city and the other from a provincial town or village—as in this case—also seems to be a factor in spousal compatibility (while it also links to economic expectations). As an example of this, Amardeep remembered that Tarampal used to say that ‘I have married a girl from a village.’ He himself admitted that one of the two key reasons why he believed Jasmeet committed suicide was the marked disparities between his and her families of origin. Given these significant differences, it seemed that Jasmeet used to struggle to get her head around why Tarampal had married her and felt quite inadequate in the face of them. Her mother-in-law’s taunting would have exacerbated this substantially.
Such matters bring up clear points of contrast between arranged and love marriages. This is not to claim that arranged marriages do not or cannot work. Rather, love marriages have the advantage that in most cases, a more substantial amount of time has been available for the two spouses to get to know one another and make the decision to marry based on a deeper understanding of their points of suitability.
In situations where few (if any) meetings are allowed between potential spouses, or where they are not permitted at a significant depth of discussion, the information available is clearly less. Background checks can make up for this to a limited extent, but even these are often neglected or are superficial.
In this case, one might say that Jasmeet and Tarampal’s union was inappropriate, as it entailed insufficient consent. Tarampal for one certainly seemed to perceive the importance of mutual understanding between a couple before agreeing to marry. Having tasted the fruits of another way (through having prior romantic experiences, with which he admitted consistently comparing his relationship with his wife), perhaps Tarampal’s expectations were too high and Jasmeet felt she could not meet them.
This was not just about Tarampal’s expectations, though. His mother’s expectations that she should bring gifts and the two families’ pressures on the couple to have a baby should also be considered. These highlight the tensions brought about by continued adherence to traditional ideas about marriage while India travels the road to modernity.
Procreation and duty
During our fieldwork, pregnancy and child-related issues came up in the majority of our cases. Traditionally, procreation and duty have been understood as two of the most important components of Indian marriages according to social historians. The two are clearly interconnected. Tarampal not only appeared highly enthusiastic about his satisfying sexual relationship with his wife, but also had practical reasons to offer regarding the importance of marriage — namely, procreation. He was brought up to believe that one is alone until one has a family and children of one’s own — this alone completes the cycle of life, he was told. However, this idea is at odds with his own notion (albeit in gestation) that the institution of marriage is unnecessary.
Both Tarampal’s and Jasmeet’s respective families had imbibed society’s message that one has a duty to procreate after marriage — preferably within the first year itself. Tarampal and Jasmeet therefore found themselves under tremendous pressure to have a child. The pressure worsened as Jasmeet found herself unable to conceive. It is important to note that she did not actually want a child so early in her marriage. Her husband believes that this was one of the two main causes of her alleged suicide. The beginning of her slump into serious depression about this subject came some four to five weeks before her death. Our fieldwork highlighted the stresses inherent for many couples who live in joint families and are, therefore, forced to face other family members’ expectations. This is something which increasing numbers of young couples are seeking to avoid through living separately. Perhaps, if Jasmeet and Tarampal had managed to do the same, the burden that Jasmeet felt would have been considerably less. Most significantly, she would also have had to worry less about her festering poor relationship with her mother-in-law.
The couple did discuss the option, but Tarampal wanted to accrue five years of work experience and then leave the country to find better work abroad. The thought of being left behind by yet another family member made his mother feel a considerable degree of insecurity. This is why he did not want to live away from her before it would be absolutely necessary.
It is worth reminding ourselves that Amardeep gave us a very different impression of the various family members’ different feelings about Jasmeet’s efforts to conceive. She told us that ‘we all wanted a baby because we thought that unless a baby is born, their problems will keep on increasing.’ Indeed, as we found in many of our fieldwork cases, child bearing is often seen as a cementing factor in relationships. In this case, such expectations may have been well-intentioned, but actually served to heighten tensions, and ultimately led to Jasmeet’s unfortunate death.
Superiority and control
Owing to their very different backgrounds, Jasmeet always felt a pronounced sense of inferiority in her husband’s house. Tarampal, on the other hand, felt a clear sense of superiority—he told us that he always felt he was better than her. A more intelligent wife, he felt, would have tried to overcome him, thereby causing trouble. He was, therefore, content with the balance that they had.
Jasmeet may have found this considerably harder to deal with, however. We know that she already felt inadequate for failing to conceive, for not cooking to the family’s liking and for not bringing enough items of worth to her marital household. Tarampal’s keenness to preserve such a relationship could have hastened her downfall.
Our fieldwork showed that a common reason behind ‘dowry-related’ marital abuse is men’s desire to control their wives. Such power dynamics may be related even to small things, such as the quality of cooking (as with Jasmeet). It is also important to realise that particularly in the middle classes and upwards, women are increasingly striving to redefine gender relations. Many are now capable of doing most if not all the things that men can do, because they have access to the same educational and employment opportunities. Yet despite such changes, men still often think they are superior and women are weaker (as Tarampal did).
According to her mother, Jasmeet was capable of far more than Tarampal seemed to give her credit for. This may have made him feel insecure and more determined to keep her in her place. Sometimes, other women that we saw in this position were unwilling to take such treatment lying down, leading to other kinds of manifestations of those cases that concern us here. These cases are less about dowry and more about social changes.
In a lot of our fieldwork cases, the ideal ofkanyadan (Literally meaning gift of the virgin bride) appeared to be reversed. Indeed, many men’s parents seemed to feel thatputr samarpan (Handing over of one’s son to one’s daughter-in-law) was becoming the dominant practice. They sometimes felt like their sons had been stolen from them by their wives. In such cases, these women’s mothers-in-law may get actively involved in the accompanying dramas. They feel that the houses they live in were theirs until these women invaded them and damaged their bonds with their sons. Many mothers-in-law have, in fact, had to go through a similar process in their youth. This may give them the impression that they have earned the right to regard their houses as their fiefdoms.
Tarampal, in fact, summed up the entire matter: he believed that a lot of the problems in his marriage could be accounted for by the ‘egos’ of his wife and mother. His father was no longer around to rule over the family, leaving his mother in charge. When Jasmeet came to the household, she also felt she had a right to superiority over her.
Tarampal’s mother’s belief in this superiority was tempered by an insecurity that developed in her after Tarampal’s wedding, as she began to fear that her son’s emotional loyalty had shifted towards his wife. She apparently found this all the more difficult to deal with because she defined her life by her three sons after her husband’s death. The resulting jealousy received its outlet through making Jasmeet’s life more difficult.
To a large extent, Tarampal blames his mother for his wife’s eventual death. It was only due to his loyalty towards her that he agreed to this marriage in the first place. ‘Mum spoiled everything,’ he told us while recalling how she had forced him to get engaged to Jasmeet before he had even had the chance to think the decision through properly. What was worse was that she failed to provide him with necessary support after marriage, too.
Tarampal expected his mother to understand his feelings and respect his desire to forge his own future, both in romantic and professional terms. He put his priorities aside just for her. Tarampal feels that she should at least have learnt to control her anger after she began identifying shortcomings in his wife. This failure of hers, he says, was one of the key factors that proved instrumental in driving his wife to suicide.
Tarampal recognised that some of his own actions also had a part to play in Jasmeet’s death, such as when he showed his loyalty to his mother in one particular fight just before she killed herself, as he perceived that she had been right on that occasion. Jasmeet too expected his loyalty, as her mother confirmed to us. Being denied may have made her feel all the more isolated and desperate.
Dowry and financial loyalty
The second reason that Tarampal identified for Jasmeet’s suicide was the stress she felt by virtue of coming from a very different background, especially in economic terms. Tarampal’s mother expressed great disappointment over her financial expectations of the marriage. It is very possible that Amardeep had intended to marry her daughter ‘up’ in economic terms, even though she denied it when questioned. We get this impression from the fact that she also married her other daughters to comparatively wealthy men, helping them to leave their humble Punjabi village home far behind. Jasmeet only realised the extent of the economic disparity after marriage. Her awareness that she could not live up to her mother-in-law’s expectations of financial loyalty added to her depression.
Although we are discussing financial loyalty here, Amardeep talked only about dowry when making her complaint to the police. This is the reason why Tarampal faced a section 304-B IPC charge. However, her statement that the death ‘was because of dowry’ is weakened by the remark, ’till today, we have not understood why they killed our daughter.’ This comment betrays an inability to understand why wives die like this, resulting in the assumption— as we witnessed in so many cases—that it could only be because of greed for dowry. This is how the matter has been aggressively portrayed by the media for several decades.
Interestingly, Jasmeet’s aunt had lost her life in an unnatural manner only a few years before Jasmeet’s death, and her husband had faced a similar charge: This again suggests that filing a dowry-related police complaint was essentially a learned response.
If Amardeep had truly believed that dowry-related harassment was the direct cause of the deaths of two members of her immediate family, one would assume that she would be anxious to stay away from future marriages involving dowry. Yet, she told us she still gave dowry to her other two daughters.
Another piece of information that leads us to suggest that using the word ‘dowry’ was merely a matter of legal expediency is that Amardeep did not really see what was wrong with dowry even after both deaths. Indeed, she told us that the groom’s family has a certain degree of right to such expectations, since it will be responsible for the bride’s expenses post-marriage. And, just like Tarampal, she described such giving as almost customary, now that society has come to expect it in spite of the legal prohibition.
Representations of truth
In a triangulated case such as this, it is natural that different narratives will emerge. As we have stressed elsewhere, it was never our intention to try to discern who was telling the truth in a given case and who was not. Rather, we were seeking to deepen our perspective about the dynamics of such marriages. However, two points are worth making about truth with respect to this case.
The first concerns the matter of whether this was a suicide (as claimed by Tarampal) or a murder (as claimed by Amardeep). From what we know, there seems to be very little evidence to suggest that Tarampal and his family directly administered poison to Jasmeet. Few experts would agree with Amardeep’s assertion that ‘nobody dies on their own like this.’
From the rest of what Amardeep says, it appears that she can do little more than assume that her daughter’s death was related to harassment. We would not like to suggest that her assumptions are entirely unfounded, but in cases like this one, there may be a strong possibility that the accusing side is determined to apportion blame. This could be a part of an attempt to cover up its members’ own faults or to make them feel like these faults were less significant compared with whatever the direct cause of death was.
It could also be that they feel the need to hold someone responsible for their daughter being dead. This, at least, gives them one source of solace, especially if it leads to that someone being punished. It offers them the hope of some sort of a closure. Sometimes, this is in fact a key motive in itself for using the anti-dowry laws.
Our second observation concerns the fact that Tarampal hired a mediator to work between his family and the judge. Though it was eventually reneged upon, in this way he was able to strike a 1.5 lakh bargain guaranteeing that four of the five accused would be acquitted and he himself would get a lenient four- to five-year sentence. Such deal-making in the courts does not fit the image of justice that enthusiasts of India’s judiciary so tirelessly maintain and gives a clearer idea of what really goes on: law versus life, as it were.
Conducting fieldwork in three large jails, we quickly saw that they were full of lower-class people who could not afford to make such deals. Tarampal himself was the only well-off person with a dowry death conviction that we encountered. He was apparently only there because his attempt to bribe the judge had backfired owing to his own foolish and untimely rebuke.
Meanwhile, our interviews with defendants facing cruelty charges showed that there is no shortage of wealthy individuals facing such charges, but that \ few are behind bars. There is a high rate of acquittal, suggesting that many such people are able to pay their way out of these charges too, either corruptly or in the form of a settlement. This is in spite of the charge’s supposed non-compoundable nature, which means that the State should continue to fight the case even if the petitioner withdraws his or her complaint. In reality, this clause has been increasingly set to one side.
Our fieldwork material indicated that when a woman’s natal family and/or close friends start supporting her, there is less of a risk of death. But it can be fatal if the natal family continues to insist that she should go back to her husband. Only in a few of our death cases had the police been approached about marital abuse while the woman was alive. This suggests that really terrible things can happen when a woman sees no possible way out before anyone from the outside comes to know. Women with no support networks can eventually be the ones that die.
Amardeep suggested that she and her family did not even realise that her daughter was going through so many difficulties, stressing that it was only through Jasmeet’s friends that the information came to light. But it would not be too far-fetched to speculate that perhaps she said this to reduce the burden of guilt on her shoulders. After all, she did not pull her daughter out of her marital house and ultimately she died there.
It seems that Amardeep only started viewing the matter so seriously once her daughter was dead. It was at this point that she started taking issue with Tarampal for harassing her—something she had never done before—and ultimately killing her. Before this point, we were told that she would stress that problems occur in every marriage, so one must do one’s best to resolve them rather than walking away.
If she knew that her daughter was being mistreated, as she suggested she did when she heard about the death, then this would appear to be an instance of a natal family failing its daughter when she needed it most.
Tarampal suggested that his mother-in-law did not consider that she really had such a choice, as she would have found a divorce extremely difficult to accept. This is because her village society still cannot accept a divorced woman, he explained. Tarampal too may have dissuaded Jasmeet from considering such an option, as he had always stressed to her that marriage was for life—no matter what difficulty might come up along the way.
From the suicide letter she left, it seems that Jasmeet had in fact wanted to leave this marriage. However, she apparently perceived that this was not an option she could have while alive. She was most afraid of the disgrace that her family would have to face. The boundary she crossed to share at least some of these feelings with her friends was not enough to save her life. She needed to know that there are other options in such a situation, and professional help might have had a better chance of convincing her of this.
While psychotherapy, marriage guidance and other forms of counselling have become broadly accepted means of trying to save a troubled union in the West, these forms of counselling have yet to find wide-ranging favour in India.
The main form of counselling that we found to be available is located within the structure of the legal system (police, courts, women’s commissions and so on). This follows an explicit agenda: to ‘save’ marriages, and thus families, even where serious allegations have been made.
Often, the police inspectors-cum-‘counsellors’ who preside, zero in on dowry straightaway. We cannot conclude that this is a helpful approach. Indeed, those of our respondents who spoke positively about the idea of counselling said they wanted something very different. Rather than focusing on very practical and legal matters, they wanted counsellors who could take into account feelings and emotions.
In this case, it seems to us that counselling early in the day could even have prevented Jasmeet’s death, even if not saved her marriage, and this must emerge as a crucial finding from this study. Tarampal told us he recognised that Jasmeet was depressed, owing to her inability to conceive and to the fact that she could not meet her mother-in-law’s expectations. Although he thought that seeing a psychologist made sense, she did not want to do this owing to the associated stigma.
At the same time, Tarampal thinks that he himself would also have benefited from such an opportunity, because he too had been affected by stress caused by these issues of contention. Asked whether he confided in anyone about this, he told us, ‘No, this was our own small world.’
Both of them felt that there was nobody else they could turn to. And this in turn put strain on their marriage. TarampaTs change in nature led to more ‘hard talks’ with his wife, presumably creating the impression that even the one person they could otherwise confide in was against them.
Counselling might have given Jasmeet some hope that she was not alone, that another way was possible. It might have saved her life.