Dowry Death Gagan Story

Dowry Death – Gagan Story. Analyse.

Expectations and ‘taking responsibility’

In situations where one partner has enjoyed a great deal of independence prior to marriage and the other has lived a very sheltered life with his/her parents, the couple may often end up having misunderstandings.Our fieldwork highlighted this fact. This certainly was the case with Gagan’s marriage. He brackets his in-laws in the upper-middle class and his own parents in the lower-middle class, suggesting in turn that his wife was significantly more pampered than he was as a child and that ‘she was not exposed to the difficulties of life.’ This then led to problems when she came to live with him, as she could not lean on him whenever she wanted anything in the manner that she perhaps could in her natal home.

Another issue in this marriage seems to be Gagan’s wife’s disillusionment with married life and with living in Mumbai. Her image of how things would be with him in Mumbai did not match up to the reality she was faced with. Apparently, she thought she would be leading a more ‘happening’ life than the one she was leaving behind in Pune. Perhaps we could call her the victim of a ‘bright lights syndrome,’ who then found herself disappointed.

Gagan, on the other hand, took what he saw as a more practical approach, stressing that with marriage came responsibilities, such as earning to pay for the couple’s sustenance, keeping a roof over their heads and providing for their child. Although he believed that his wife was unwilling to take ‘responsibilities,’ it would probably be fairer to say (having heard only one side of the story) that they did not manage to share their responsibilities equally. He expected to be the breadwinner and expected her to be the homemaker, while she would also have liked to get a job and to see him take a share similar to hers in their son’s upbringing.

In other cases too, we found that expectations incongruence can go haywire at similar points. Disgruntled husbands and in-laws told us on several occasions that women from the hinterlands and smaller towns marry into families settled in cities for the joy of being in a metro city. This is quite contrary to their expectations of a girl from a ‘traditional’ place, who will provide them with some comfort in their stressful urban existence. While the clash may initially be between traditional patterns of living and modern ways, once stresses emerge then faults can be found everywhere in interpersonal relations.

Another important issue in Gagan’s case was the handling of emotions during the two partners’ upbringings. In Gagan’s family, everyone was used to openly discussing each other’s problems and helping them through them. In contrast, his wife’s family members did not really open up to one another. ‘I always felt it was not a family, it was only a group staying together just because they’re related,’ he told us.

With such an upbringing, Gagan’s wife found it difficult to adapt to his family and continued to keep her problems to herself. On the other hand, being used to openness himself, Gagan might have found it difficult to cope with his wife’s reserved nature. He also suspects that his wife’s internalisation of her unhappiness and inability to see a way out could have explained why she ultimately killed herself.

Few expectations receive as much emphasis in Indian marriages as the expectation that one should ‘adjust’ and Gagan’s situation is no different. Elsewhere, we have pointed out how women especially are often brought up from an early age with the notion that they must adjust to fit in at their in-laws’ or husband’s home. However, it should also be acknowledged that increasing numbers of men are also being told that they too should try to find and build common ground with their partners. Gagan believed that both he and his wife ought to make efforts to adjust, but they disagreed about who was making the most effort. Each of them was under the impression that s/he was making more sacrifices than the other, leading to trouble between them.

Often, what gets in the way of perfect adjustment is the individuals’ particular personalities. A growing emphasis on personal freedom and identity, especially in the metro cities, makes this even tougher. Gagan’s wife clearly valued such freedom and identity. He did not seek to curtail this, provided she took up the responsibilities he expected of her. But it seems that their different upbringings affected their respective dominant personalities, to the extent that they would

frequently fight on what Gagan calls ‘trivial matters.’ According to him, such fighting is ‘normal’ in any marriage, but it could be that it depressed his wife to a greater extent than he realised.

Gagan isolates the point at which things started to change for the worse between him and his wife as their son’s birth. ‘When you have a child, the responsibilities increase,’ he says. ‘My wife found it a bit too much.’ As it became clear that the boy was hyperactive, she found this all the more difficult. Given the added responsibilities that caring for him entailed, she began to question the life she was leading. It seems it became too much for her when she eventually realised she had become a ‘typical housewife.’

As he had to work to provide for the family, Gagan felt his wife needed to accept her ‘housewife’ responsibilities. He did not think she should work unless she could show it was financially viable, especially in the light of the need to provide for childcare. So while she may have thought she was aiming for a more fulfilling life, Gagan’s reading of this was that she was running away from her responsibilities. His wife in turn felt that he was not making enough effort at childcare, but Gagan’s position was that he was doing the best he could, given his time constraints as a working man. His wife seemed to imply that they could both share earning and childcare responsibilities, but this is still a fairly revolutionary contention in most Indian families, even in Mumbai.

This misunderstanding about role expectations would have inevitably put extra strain on the relationship, and the mismatch between her expectations and those of her parents would have only added to this. For them, no matter how difficult it may have been for her, it was important that she should eventually find a way to go back to her husband. While Gagan told us that her parents ‘should support her whether it’s right or wrong,’ perhaps we could say that this is less about what is right and wrong and more a matter of differing perspectives.

Perceived optionlessness

As we have just seen, Gagan’s interpretation of the situation was that his wife had been running away from the responsibilities entailed in marriage, especially that of bringing up their child. The previous section also discussed the couple’s expectations from marriage, and related to this are their beliefs about what the institution of marriage meant. Although the option of divorce seemed to come up on several occasions, it was never put to effect, and ultimately Gagan’s wife lost her life through alleged suicide.

Frequently fight on what Gagan calls ‘trivial matters.’ According to him, such fighting is ‘normal’ in any marriage, but it could be that it depressed his wife to a greater extent than he realised.

Gagan isolates the point at which things started to change for the worse between him and his wife as their son’s birth. ‘When you have a child, the responsibilities increase,’ he says. ‘My wife found it a bit too much.’ As it became clear that the boy was hyperactive, she found this all the more difficult. Given the added responsibilities that caring for him entailed, she began to question the life she was leading. It seems it became too much for her when she eventually realised she had become a ‘typical housewife.’

As he had to work to provide for the family, Gagan felt his wife needed to accept her ‘housewife’ responsibilities. He did not think she should work unless she could show it was financially viable, especially in the light of the need to provide for childcare. So while she may have thought she was aiming for a more fulfilling life, Gagan’s reading of this was that she was running away from her responsibilities. His wife in turn felt that he was not making enough effort at childcare, but Gagan’s position was that he was doing the best he could, given his time constraints as a working man. His wife seemed to imply that they could both share earning and childcare responsibilities, but this is still a fairly revolutionary contention in most Indian families, even in Mumbai.

This misunderstanding about role expectations would have inevitably put extra strain on the relationship, and the mismatch between her expectations and those of her parents would have only added to this. For them, no matter how difficult it may have been for her, it was important that she should eventually find a way to go back to her husband. While Gagan told us that her parents ‘should support her whether it’s right or wrong,’ perhaps we could say that this is less about what is right and wrong and more a matter of differing perspectives.

Perceived optionlessness

As we have just seen, Gagan’s interpretation of the situation was that his wife had been running away from the responsibilities entailed in marriage espe   illy that of bringing up their child. The previous section also discussed the expectations from marriage, and related to this are their behefs about what the institution of marriage meant. Although the option of divorce seemed to come up on several occasions, it was never put to effect, and ultimately Gagan wife lost her life through alleged suicide.

Divorce was a problematic idea for both Gagan and his wife. Gagan speaks of how he saw marriage as ‘a one-time affair.’ His wife, on the other hand, faced stiff opposition to divorce from her family. This left her in a quandary, as she perceived that she could not adjust to the life that was expected of her as Gagan’s wife, in which she had to prioritise their home and child. She also could not go and live with her parents on a long-term basis. The hole she felt stuck in seems, at least according to Gagan’s version of things, to have been serious enough to have cost her her life.

This begs a question: if Gagan’s wife perceived she could neither stay with Gagan nor go back to her parents, why would she have chosen suicide in pre­ference to seeking an independent life supporting herself? In fact, Gagan says that she thought she could take care of herself and her child on her own income without trouble, and hence she did not want maintenance (though he assumed he would pay to support their son).

Given the information we have, we can only speculate on all this. But it seems that one reason why Gagan’s wife would not seek a divorce on this basis was that while she did not want to depend on Gagan, she may not have liked the idea of living at a lower income than she was accustomed to. We know she came from a somewhat pampered upper-middle class upbringing, and even Gagan’s finances were not enough to support the standard of life she would have preferred to lead. Furthermore, while she looked for a job in Pune that would help her support herself and her son and put her life back in order, she would need some support till she was able to achieve this. However, her parents denied her this and her husband did not seem to understand her perspective. This could have left her feeling insecure not just emotionally but also financially, and could have added to the sense that she had no options.

Our fieldwork showed that few women are happy to accept a step down in lifestyle comforts at marriage. Many expect to marry into a better way of living, if anything. But while financial security may be an important attribute of a healthy and secure marriage, making this too large a part of the reason to marry can risk equating money with happiness, which does not always work well.’ fhis may especially be the case when such a woman marries into a family that does not then grant her financial control or even an input into financial affairs, might speculate that Gagan’s wife could not conceive of a happy life if she did not have the kind of financial resources she coveted. Yet if she were to have to support herself alone, the kind of work she seemed to be eligible for would have earned her much less than what she was living on with Gagan.

In the course of our fieldwork, it became very clear that the basic personal relationship of two people who have married one another and that of their immediate kinship and social group(s) was something we could not ignore, While some may wish to assert individualism and personal control, inter-linkedness or more or less manifest joint family identity tends to remain a fact in most contemporary Indian marriages. In other words, one is rarely entirely autonomous. Where one is unable to handle the competing forces one faces, the result can be disastrous.

Though it seems that neither perfectly suited her, Gagan’s wife never man­aged to extricate herself entirely from her parents on one side of her and her husband on the other. Apparently, she told her father towards the end that ‘compared to you, my husband is much better,’ because Gagan was far more willing to let her decide fundamental things about her own life. Yet from her point of view, returning to Gagan was not an option that would solve her problems either. The net result for Gagan, as he tells us, was that not only did he lose his wife, but also his father-in-law ‘had felt that somehow I’d taken his daughter away from him.’ Resentment over this could have partly motivated the false murder case he says he is facing.

Going back to Gagan’s idea of marriage as a one-time affair, it is important to stress that Hindu marriage is seen as a sacrament. Although this was what Gagan saw as the ideal, he did not demand this. In fact, he showed he was willing to agree to a divorce if his wife absolutely insisted. However, much of Hindu society still believes that come what may, loyalty to the person one marries is essential. Marriages, according to this mode of thought, must be everlasting. This partly explains why the social stigma on divorce is so high, as we have stressed elsewhere. Social values are certainly changing in some pockets, but such changes tend to be much slower than material changes, causing conflict in people’s lives. This appears to have been pertinent for Gagan’s parents-in-law.

According to some, most parents would rather see their daughters dead than divorced and back in their natal homes. We question the prominence of such extreme views today (if indeed they were ever prominent). Our case data seems to show that although the parents we met or heard about often tried to keep their daughters in their matrimonial homes until their dying days, they never quite believed that an unnatural death could befall them and tended to be utterly traumatised when it happened.

The key point to draw from this, as is blatantly clear in Gagan’s case, is that in situations where they do not receive parental support, women can ultim­ately lose their lives. Owing to traditional reservations about divorce and its implications, the support system from parents—extending also to the larger family and the friends—is frequently absent. Previous research on death cases showed that most of the affected women had made at least one attempt to go back to their natal homes, but that they were returned to their in-laws. This was apparently reinforced by the fact that women were still brought up to think that they wereparaya dhan, so they often saw toleration of their circumstances as their only hope for change.

Ultimately, at least according to Gagan, his wife came to the conclusion that suicide would be her best option. She had tried to live with Gagan, but did-not want to persist with this. She had tried to go back to her parents, but her father eventually told her that ‘we cannot stay together’ at a time when she needed him most. Gagan stresses that his wife had always been banking on her father to support her, so hearing this was the final straw.

In hindsight, Gagan can see why she chose to end her life: ‘neither did she want to stay with me, nor did she want to go back to her parents. And she was clearly unhappy. There was no other option.’ Until this time, she had apparently always felt that she had a place in her parents’ home and that they would support her come what may. But no longer.

In cases such as this, it seems to us that women’s families ought to bear much of the blame for abandoning them when they are most needed. If Gagan’s in-laws had supported their daughter on the topic of divorce, this could have saved her life, as Gagan himself concedes:

When she started feeling that her parents were not helping her and that I wasn’t prepared to go directly for a divorce, she didn’t know what to do. If we’d filed for a divorce, I feel she would most probably not have committed suicide. To me, that’s a more important issue, rather than whether I’m being blamed for it or not.

Another thing to note was Gagan’s wife’s depression. While he was aware of the state of her mind, no outside assistance was taken beyond her parents. He tells us,

I had it in mind that she needed some sort of psychological help. But I knew the moment I said that, she’d feel that I was trying to bracket her either as someone who was mad or mentally disabled or something. And I didn’t want that kind of trouble.

This begs the question of whether counselling could actually have saved her.

Counselling is something that is yet to gain widespread acceptability. Yet several of our respondents spoke positively about their interview experiences with us because—often for the first time—they had been given the chance to talk about their feelings and emotions. Their positivity reflected the fact that doing this had helped them unjumble their feelings and emotions and begin to get their heads around their situations better. This, in turn, makes a constructive contribution to one’s individual agency and can help one gather hope that a ‘way out’ is possible; that there is another option.

Dowry in cases

Gagan expresses amazement at the fact that he is facing a dowry-related case. As far as he can see, ‘only very conventional customary gifts were exchanged.’ These do not fall within his understanding of dowry as prohibited by the law. ‘These are the things you normally give in a marriage,’ he explains. ‘The basic logic behind it is that you’re carrying them to a new house. So you provide her with her basic needs.’ That is to say, these things were for her and not demanded by him.

It is clearly true that millions across the length and breadth of India and throughout its socio-economic strata continue to give and take such gifts and see no problem with doing so. Gagan’s and his wife’s families are no different. Indeed, they see it as something positive—unless, of course, they become victims of extortion. From our fieldwork, it seems that such gift-giving and gift-taking only becomes problematic when there is breakdown in the marriage or an even worse tragedy and a legal case evolves. The question then becomes one of the fine dividing line between what is a gift and what is dowry.

Many women and their families seem to be using the anti-dowry laws to get justice for other crimes, operating under the belief that they will not get sufficient justice by appealing to the correct laws because they seem insufficiently ‘strong.’ We have not heard both sides of the story here, and perhaps there was in actual fact reason to hold Gagan liable for abetment to suicide. Bringing dowry into the picture, even when there was no problem with it before, has become a means of building a stronger case suggested by police, lawyers and NGO workers alike. There is now an understanding across the concerned professions that the anti-dowry laws are ‘strong laws’ because they put defendants on the back foot, given that the onus is on them to prove their innocence (at least under certain clauses).

Having gained a firmer understanding of the way the law can be misused and manipulated thanks to his interactions with the NGO he went to, Gagan now feels that there was deliberate intent to do this on his father-in-law’s part. After his daughter died, he wanted to blame somebody and also sought to deflect the responsibility away from himself, following his decision to send her back to her husband in her hour of greatest need. Consequently, he went to the police and tried to allege that Gagan had killed her. Instead of simply refusing to file such a complaint on the grounds of lack of evidence, it appears that the police showed him how he could allege dowry-related cruelty that resulted in her death. There seems to have been an equal lack of evidence for this, but for the police, perhaps it was the easier option.

Although he started out feeling very confident about his chances in this case, considering how ludicrous he perceived the charges against him to be, Gagan now says he feels extremely worried. ‘I now see that even though there is no evidence for it, if someone writes a couple of statements about dowry then their accusations can be presumed to be true,’ he explains.

The immediate wake-up call to the strength of these laws came when he failed to get anticipatory bail and also got suspended from his job because he was a government servant who had been taken into police custody for more than 48 hours. He reports being treated well by the police, who he believes knew he was not a wife killer or responsible for any kind of cruelty to her, but ultimately they had no choice but to arrest and hold him after the charges were made.

None of this has done anything to inspire Gagan’s confidence in the criminal justice system, which—as he is becoming increasingly aware by the day—is beset by poor investigations, delays owing to choked courts and corruption at all levels. Justice, as Gagan has now learnt, often does not prevail.

Dowry Death – Gagan Story. Analyse.
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2 comments

  1. This is the irony of living in a gender biased society, people (includes police,system and judiciary) assume you as a culprit as soon as some unfortunate incident of this magnitude happens. I myself is fighting a false dowry death case where chances of me clearing out are very bleak. But i strongly believe in GOD and India’s judiciary system, just hope the all the evidences i have do click the system.

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