I have known Shalini since our early childhood days when we were neighbours in Bangalore. We were complete contrasts: I was chirpy, talkative and notorious, and she was quiet and shy, almost withdrawn. She came from a traditional Hindu, upper-middle class Telugu-speaking family and lived with her parents and her elder brother. She had few friends in school—her two long plaits and her plump figure made her the butt of many a joke. I don’t know what it was that drew us to each other, but we grew to be good friends.
I left Bangalore with my parents when I was just 11. Over time, communication with Shalini became less frequent. Given her shy nature, it was not much of a surprise to me that she did not make much of an effort to keep in touch with the people she knew. Besides, I found myself wrapped up in my own schooling. A few years later, I learnt that she had got married, in what was said to be a spectacular event. I didn’t attend her wedding—I didn’t receive an invitation. I was told that she was going to settle in the US with her husband, who was a student of Engineering over there.
Sixteen, I thought at that time, was a bit too early for marriage.
After I returned to Bangalore for college, Shalini and I met once, briefly. She had come down for a holiday from the US. I was very glad to have this opportunity to meet her after all these years. I thought she looked happy, content with her life. And if there was a hint of sadness in her demeanour, a shadow of despair in her eyes, she did not elaborate. And I did not ask.
We exchanged e-mail addresses at that time, and eventually, we began to write to each other. That was how we got back in touch.
She never mentioned what she was going through. Maybe, at that time, she was not sure of it herself. It was only after her return to Bangalore, after her separation, that she opened up to me, and I was horrified to learn that she was embroiled in a dowry case.
This is Shalini’s story.
Shalini’s childhood was a sheltered one. She went to a convent school, spoke good English and was able to carry herself very well in society. She was very pampered by her father, so much so that she described herself as ‘Dad’s pet.’ She did not, however, get along very well with her mother.
‘My mother has never understood me,’ she told me in the course of confiding in me.
Her parents had a turbulent marriage. This had a tremendous impact on young Shalini, explaining to a large extent why she became so shy and withdrawn. Furthermore, it led her to favour one parent over the other.
When asked what she loved most about her father, she replied, ‘His patience. He is a quiet man, and very patient.’ This disposition drew Shalini towards her father and away from her more vocal, aggressive mother.
As she spoke, I had the feeling that she was trying to tell me something that she had truly come to believe: that it was in her fate never to be a part of a happy family, either in her natal or her marital home.
The problems within her family also led Shalini to lose confidence in herself. This may, in fact, have been the main reason behind her hesitance to socialise with other people. She had never been forbidden from mixing with other people, but she had been a very reserved child nonetheless, making no attempt to have any friends except one: me. I had not realised this when we were younger.
The only thing other than the school that she looked forward to was her Bharatnatyam classical dance classes. Shalini loved to dance. She often spoke of her dreams of becoming a great Bharatnatyam dancer. Ami these dreams, I think, helped her forget her troubles at home—if only for a brief while.
The unhappy atmosphere at home made Shalini want to leave her parents’ house and build a peaceful and loving home for herself somewhere, else, somewhere she would not have to witness her parents’ marital woes and the trauma that came with it. And in this, even Bharatnatyam would not help her: marriage seemed the only way out.
It is for this reason that she always dreamt of getting married and having a ‘perfect’ family. Her image of this ‘perfect’ family involved a cultured, well-educated husband and a child. Not even the slightest hint of argument or disagreement would mar this fairytale ideal world of hers. She wanted a peaceful life, where her man would be the provider and she would play the role of the model nurturer.
Her parents did not wish for her to be married at an early age and encouraged her to pursue her education. After the 10th grade, therefore, she joined college, with the intention of pursuing a career in architecture. Later, as I heard more of her story, I would grow to question the strength of this ambition. Her desire to build her ‘perfect’ home overwhelmed her, leaving her bereft of aspiration to work or be independent in any way.
Proposal for the wedding
‘My family received the proposal for my wedding when I was in my 11 th standard at school,’ Shalini recounted. ‘My father’s cousin sister [female first cousin] had written to him, asking for my hand in marriage to her son.’
Initially, her parents felt that it was too early for her to get married. Soon, however, for some reason unknown to Shalini, her mother began to take an interest in the proposal and started to enquire about the boy. He was very well-educated, they learnt: he had completed a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering in Chennai and was on the verge of finishing his Master’s degree in the US.
Her father was very hesitant during these early conversations about Shalini’s wedding. He was especially shaken by the fact that the prospective groom was 10 years older than Shalini. Her mother, however, was becoming increasingly keen on the match. The groom, in her opinion, was very well-educated, and to top it all, he was working in the US—all of this made him a very suitable boy in her eyes.
Eventually, Shalini’s father was persuaded as well, mostly due to her mother’s enthusiasm. He reassured himself by thinking of the close ties between the two families and telling himself that it would be better if his daughter married into a known family. This interaction of social and familial ties between the families, therefore, became the cement for the marital relationship. He even asked the boy’s family to let Shalini continue her studies after marriage, and they assured him that she would be allowed to do so in the US.
Shalini said, ‘I don’t know how my mother did her background check, but she found out he was educated. Mainly I think she took my horoscope (janam patri) and showed it to astrologers and they all said, “Ya, matching!'” She smiled sadly, remembering those conversations. ‘”They will fit together, it will work, no problem.” You know, I think that’s what she based everything on. No one ever really asked my opinion, I was too young.’
She recalls now, ‘I was happy, anyway.’
The real deciding factor
Beyond their astrological compatibility, what was it that became the real deciding factor for the others in Shalini’s family? When I asked this question, Shalini insisted that his educational status made him especially eligible to them. Why this had become such an important deciding factor was difficult for me to comprehend, but Shalini had her own explanation for it. ‘In our family,’ she told me, ‘education makes people better, carries a lot of weightage. On my dad’s side, all are self-made men, especially my dad. He is considered the best in the family, worked very hard to come up.’
In retrospect, Shalini has come to the conclusion that education is not everything that one must look for or judge a person on the basis of.
The misconception is that, ‘Oh! They’re educated people, they must be up to standard, nothing can be wrong with them.’ But I think that’s so stupid. I believe otherwise now, after seeing all that I’ve seen. I have seen uneducated people who carry themselves very well.
Her parents, I realised, had taken their decision using overly-simplistic criteria, despite their apparent concern for their daughter’s well-being. Shalini had to suffer the consequences of her parents’ failure to recognise this.
A high in life
At that time, Shalini, a mere teenager, was simply excited about her upcoming marriage. She had full faith in her parents, believing that whatever step they took would be in her best interest.
‘What happened to your plans to study architecture and have a career?’ I asked her.
‘Suddenly there was nothing more fun than being engaged to this guy and all the dreams of getting married,’ she explained. ‘You should understand that I suddenly had a lot of attention from this guy, and for any teenager I think it was like a high in life.’
As I spoke with her, I had the feeling that maybe, in some unconscious part of her mind, Shalini held her mother responsible for choosing this match, and in turn, for her failed marriage. I had the feeling that she believed that if her father had been allowed to take the final call, he would not have made this decision for his daughter. ‘I’m papa’s baby,’ she often repeated. ‘Mom never really understood me.’
Shalini was thrilled at the idea of getting married—her ‘first love’, as she called it. She fell in love with her husband-to-be at 16, got engaged on the telephone and then married him six months later. Remembering their courtship on the phone, she assured me that ‘any teenage girl would be that way.’ I could imagine her at 16—a wide-eyed young girl, full of hope, full of dreams of escaping her almost broken parental home and building a loving nest for herself.
Could this very hope and expectation have placed extra pressure on the marriage? Had this made the fact that it didn’t work out even harder to bear? Even as I wondered about all this, there was another thing that struck me as absurd: an engagement on the phone? This was the first time I had come across such a thing. I had to hear more.
Shalini explained to me the circumstances under which the engagement took place. ‘It was understood, it seemed sensible because he was doing his MSc there; he had his exams, or some such excuse was given.’
Though the reasoning was ultimately accepted, this matter of the engagement did lead to some tension between the families. While Shalini’s family had wanted to invite their friends and relatives and make it a social affair, there was opposition from the boy’s side, who were adamant that no one be informed about the engagement at this early stage.
‘My parents were like, “You want to call 10 people and do it nicely? Shalini recalled. ‘But they were like, “No, don’t tell anybody, let it be, you know how people are in our family, let’s not create a scene.” I think they felt someone might put us down, or talk bad or something like that.
When the phone engagement happened, all the relatives from the boy’s side were present. From her side there was only Shalini, her father and her brother. ‘I think that was the biggest mistake,’ she realises now, ‘to keep it all hushed up.’ When her parents went to distribute the invitation cards for the wedding, it, of course, came as a surprise to many people. Only at this point she began hearing, ‘Don’t give your daughter! Are you mad?! These people are not good.’ The fact was that the boy’s side were quite aloof from the extended family. Shalini said, ‘Since my mother-in-law got married, I believe she has not associated at all with the family. And they are money-minded. All this, people told my dad.’
Had Shalini’s family not acquiesced to this demand, she might have been spared the wedding altogether.
By the time her family found out about the various objections to the match, it was too late. The invitation cards had been printed. Breaking up the engagement, at this point, was unthinkable. The stigma attached to pulling out of a marriage and breaking up an engagement is almost as bad as the stigma surrounding divorce.
This left me thinking about two things. One was the significance of relations and family ties in Indian society. I could see a clear example of how much importance is laid on the inclusion of extended families in decision-making and how we prefer to keep them involved during the major events of our lives. Extended families can be a boon or a bane. Despite the appearance that too much interference can be a nuisance, many now argue that the breakdown of the joint family system has led to increased familial discord and tensions. In this case, Shalini herself felt that her extended family and the community at large could have helped prevent her from making such a mistake if only they had known.
The other thing I ended up pondering on for a long time was whether Shalini’s family were really unable to oppose the decision to have the engagement on the phone. Could they not have spoken up? It is possible that as the girl’s family, they thought they ought to be passive, and, therefore, made no effort to resist anything—no matter how unreasonable—the boy’s family wanted. To add to this, the in-laws were also extended family, which could have made resistance even harder. Dealing with one’s own family in such matters can be very delicate, so one generally doesn’t want to cause any friction. Especially not at the time of a wedding, which is supposed to be a happy, festive occasion.
The engagement period was a relatively peaceful, happy time for Shalini. When I asked her what it was that they would talk about during their long conversations on the phone, she could not recall anything specific. ‘Oh, everything. His work, his house, the weather. It was just exciting for me because I thought I was in love.’
I found it noteworthy that Shalini’s fiancé, as she went on to point out, would take advantage of his hold over her and always make her spend money on calling him. After a few initial calls, he refused to call her any further, claiming it was very expensive for him. Therefore, Shalini was forced to make all the international calls—she remembers the bills running to tens of thousands of rupees every month.1 Somehow, Shalini did not see any problem with this at that time. No eyebrows were raised by her parents, either.
Did she later perceive this as part of the ‘dowry problem’ she came to allege? This thought prompted me to look up the definition of ‘dowry’, as laid down by the Dowry Prohibition Act. According to section 2 of the Act, my Internet search told me, it is ‘any property or valuable security given or agreed to be given either directly or indirectly at or before or any time after the marriage in connection with the marriage of the said parties.’ I concluded that these phone payments could not be considered ‘dowry’ by the law per se. It was more a matter of the two sides’ financial expectations, and it tied in closely with their understandings about loyalty to one another.
At the time of this story, INR 100 was equal to US$ 2.17, £ 1.36 and €1.64.
The wedding was a grand one, but it was not without its problems. For example, the boy’s family insisted that arrangements be made according to their very demanding specifications. They even expected Shalini’s parents to travel to another city to receive the groom when he arrived from the US, a few days before the wedding. Shalini told me that she always knew there were differences between the families, but these problems were too much.
It seems clear to me that the boy’s side felt it their right to dictate terms and conditions to the girl’s side! Most Indian communities are still patriarchal in nature, and I know that it is commonly understood that the boy’s side can afford to assume a position of power over the bride and her family. Shalini and her family may not have realised it in so many words, but expectations from the in-laws had already begun pouring in. Her family had not felt able to resist these expectations. Nor could they communicate their difficulty in fulfilling them.
Shalini narrated various other instances of her in-laws causing tension for her family. For example, they insisted that her family should make a display of wealth in the form of brass and steel vessels and other household items, supposedly in accordance with the customs and traditions of the boy’s family. Initially, Shalini’s father refused to do this, saying that it would look cheap. A big row ensued, and Shalini’s parents found themselves in a difficult spot. I am unsure whether the groom’s family had really been offended, or whether they merely took the incident as an excuse to exert pressure on the girl’s side and make them aware of their powerlessness.
Further expectations kept emerging. Tickets had to be arranged for all of the out-of-town members of the boy’s side to come to Bangalore. Cars had to be provided for them to travel around the city. Their hotel rooms had to be organised and paid for. This was not an easy expense to bear—some would consider it an unreasonable expectation. Shalini, however, said that it had been her father’s choice to make his guests comfortable.
Shalini did not realise anything was wrong until the first night after the wedding. ‘You should understand, I was the bride,’ she pointed out.
I was just busy getting ready. Everybody was pulling me from each side, ‘Do this puja, that puja [religious offering]. Do the mehendi, do this, do that.’ Normally the mother of the bride comes and leads the girl to her room. My mother didn’t come, my brother and my father came, just said, ‘Don’t worry, mama is not well.’
Later, Shalini would learn that her mother’s blood pressure had risen because of the stress of all the demands made by her in-laws.
These expectations had not been expressed by the groom’s family earlier. Although it was Shalini’s father’s choice to make such elaborate arrangements, not everything was purely out of his own volition. He realised that he had to make the groom’s side comfortable, and so he went out of his way to do so. But even then, the groom’s side was not satisfied. They created issues to the extent that Shalini’s mother got so stressed that she became sick.
It was Shalini’s parents who handled the situation every time—she was too busy getting ready for her wedding. This is not to say she was entirely unaware of the friction between the families at the time—but she was unaware of the nature and extent of the issues. ‘My parents just didn’t tell me,’ she explained. I was too young. So I was not aware of anything, even the money being demanded and all those things. It was more like, “Just give this when you go there.” And I didn’t even ask. So to me, everything was ok.’
It is indeed interesting that while her parents deemed her too young to be burdened with their problems with her in-laws, they did not deem her too young to be married off. I wondered, are her parents also not to blame for putting her in this position?
I had to wonder, if Shalini’s family did indeed believe that it was dowry harassment, why did no one ever think of stopping the wedding and putting an end to the situation? Shalini explained,
That’s not even thought of in our family. See, if someone now asks my dad today what he would have done if he’d known, he would say, ‘I would have stopped the wedding,’ because he has seen so much more. He knows now. But at that time, where you have protected your family so much and you have a so-called status, everything matters. He never would have.
As I listened to Shalini’s explanation, I thought of the constant social pressure that we let ourselves be subjected to. This is, in fact, intrinsic to our behaviour as Indians. My friend’s childhood, marriage and peace of mind had been stolen from her because of this absurd pressure. Her in-laws were responsible for her plight—but so were her parents and the entire society.
The financial demands were never direct. If they had been, Shalini says she feels sure her father would have put his foot down and refused to agree to the match because it would have been obvious that they were in it for the money. However, it was known that Shalini was her father’s only daughter, so whatever he had would fall solely to her and her brother. The groom’s family could, therefore, expect that her father would give whatever was in his capacity, even though they had asked for no more than the girl’s hand in marriage. It was understood, and the fact that he was arranging such a lavish wedding probably made them all the more certain.
‘They said, “No, we don’t want anything, just give your daughter,”‘ Shalini recalled.
‘That’s enough.’ Those days, a full suit for the wedding cost nothing less than INR 7,000-8,000, and my dad gave some three to four suits like that. And my dad didn’t buy anything but Van Heusen shirts for him [fiancé]. And when I went there [the US], the whole apartment was empty. My dad’s money paid for everything we furnished it with.
Apparently, Shalini’s father didn’t see this as ‘dowry.’ It was simply something he was doing for his daughter and her new husband. In fact, Shalini added that ‘they didn’t treat him like a son-in-law but like a son’—they believed that they had a duty to provide for the boy they had welcomed into their inner family. Clearly, Shalini’s in-laws took advantage of this sense of duty. There is no denying that the two families had a problem around financial expectations, but Shalini’s family did not come to see this as a ‘dowry problem’ until much
later. What started out as gift-giving eventually got labelled as ‘dowry demands’ after things became badly wrong in her marriage.
My mind wandered, thinking about the countless marriages where similar gifts are given to the groom’s side. Where these brides live content lives with their husbands and in-laws, I never hear them talking of ‘dowry problems.’
A week after the wedding, Shalini went with her husband and in-laws to their home in Chennai, where she stayed for a few days before her husband left for the US. After this, she waited for her visa to be processed so that she could join him there. During this time, Shalini told me that her in-laws did not allow her to use the phone to call either her parents or her husband. She did not understand the significance of what was going on—the fact that she was being harassed through isolation from her family.
Shalini’s in-laws told her, ‘Let your parents call you if they want, why should you call them?’
Shalini, who was aware that her father’s side was better off than her in-laws were assumed that they indeed ought to be the ones to meet such expenses. Her parents’ sense of financial obligation to their daughter and son-in-law had in fact not run out.
When they called, she was not allowed to talk with them in Kannada because her in-laws did not understand that language—they only spoke Telugu. In a way, some might suspect that Shalini’s in-laws wanted her to shift her loyalty from her natal home to her marital home, but Shalini had the feeling they were trying to assert their control over her more severely than this implies. ‘I never used to push these things with them,’ she told me.
I used to just accept it and keep quiet. So that was them trying to understand and control what I’m saying. I was newly married, and at that time I was this typical kid who didn’t want to do anything to upset the elders, wanted everything to be good, everyone to be happy. That’s the way I was brought up: ‘respect your elders and be obedient.’
One thing that’s very interesting is that Shalini’s in-laws’ behaviour towards her changed when her father gave her some money to hand to them on one occasion. ‘My dad gave me INR 70,000 and I asked him, “Dad, what’s this for?” He just said, “It’s for some paperwork for the visa. Your in-laws know, just give it to them.”‘ Once again, she simply did as she was told. ‘I gave them the money and suddenly everything was better.’
After arriving in the US, Shalini found her husband’s home to be little more than an empty apartment. ‘Nothing was there!’, she exclaimed to me, seeming to relive her amazement.
The bed came in the day after I landed. I had to do everything. My dad had sent some money and he made sure there was money in our account all the time. So I set up everything. A TV, a microwave, all that was bought from my father’s money.
Even her education was paid for using money given by her father. At that point, she did not think of these things in terms of ‘my money, your money.’ She thought of it as her father helping them settle into their new life.
From this point on, a pattern was set. Her father would deposit money in the bank and her husband would withdraw it for all their expenses. Even a house was bought from this money! Shalini was granted no say in how it was spent. ‘My husband never gave me any money. He used to buy whatever we needed for the house—groceries and stuff—himself. Even his personal expenditure was covered this way.’
Shalini was almost in tears as she told me of the time her husband demanded a car from her father. According to him, it was necessary for her safety as she had to travel to college while pregnant. In reality, though, Shalini was never allowed to use the car; instead, her husband used it to drive to work every day.
While I was seething with anger just hearing all this, Shalini was simply choking with emotion. What hurt her most was the psychological abuse wrapped up in it all.
In spite of how my emotions ran high, in more rational moments my mind kept coming back to this thing about dowry. I tried to define what I was hearing and kept finding myself saying that Shalini and her family had been victims of extortion in the general sense of the term—not of dowry demands. But perhaps, I speculated, such terms are no more than labels applied for legal purposes.
I wondered, was Shalini’s marriage really bad all the way through? ‘Not really,’ she reassured me. She agreed that there were problems from the outset, but most of these problems were between the two families—Shalini was not generally aware of them. In fact, she spoke warmly of her first year of marriage. ‘I used to have trouble in my studies, and he used to help me out,’ she recalled fondly.
I was too young to realise it might not always be this way. The problems began when I started questioning him. Till then, I didn’t realise. But you can’t be blind to everything all the time, can you? I started asking, ‘Why?’, ‘How much?’ and things like that. I didn’t realise I was living there on my dad’s money.
Power was held and maintained by her husband. The minute Shalini began to be ‘disobedient,’ cracks appeared in the marriage. Her husband could not handle being questioned by his once docile and compliant wife.
Will marriage solve all their problems?
Shalini was but a child when she got married while her husband was 10 years her senior. Maybe she almost instinctively looked at him as an authority figure, especially in a foreign country where she was a stranger. If so, I suppose this would have made her more vulnerable. ‘I was too young,’ she told me yet again.
Now I regret getting married off at that point. If I’d known better, maybe I wouldn’t have agreed to it. ‘Could haves’—there are too many of them. I never even used to talk to anybody. At that time, it was just home, college. Nothing. I never even had friends, except maybe you. Our upbringing was like that.
Many young women seem to think that marriage will solve all their problems. I’ve seen this belief reinforced by adults, who constantly talk of getting us ‘settled’ by getting us married. It seems ironic when I think that marriage can be, as Shalini found out, one of the most unsettling phases of our lives—at least until we adapt to the newness of things. Shalini could never fully ‘adjust,’ as we girls are so often told we must come what may, and she came to regret her decision.
Shalini and her husband, I felt, were totally mismatched in terms of interests and things they could talk about, and also in terms of their temperaments. Much of this probably came from their age difference. Whatever the reason, though, they were living far away in the US and did not have their families around them for company and support. They only had each other, and yet they did not connect at all.
I was glad I could be of some support now to Shalini. I assured her that I was there for her as a friend and, even if nothing more, I would always be there for her to talk to.
As she talked to me, Shalini sounded very sure that her in-laws intended to make financial gains out of her through dowry. A lot of her troubles, she believes, were caused by their simple greed. In this, her anger is directed mostly towards her mother-in-law, who she blames for many of her problems.
But as we got deeper beneath the surface, Shalini shared with me that the relationship between this woman and her son was such that there was no place for her in between them. Although Shalini didn’t realise it in quite such terms at that time, this gave rise to quite a power struggle between them as they both sought emotional access to her husband.
According to Shalini, it was largely her mother-in-law’s influence that led her husband to treat her the way he did. ‘He’s the kind who is always listening to what his mother says,’ she explained to me. ‘The older brother is not so much into his mother so she latches onto him, saying, ‘Don’t do what your brother did’. He always felt obligated to do what she said. He was trying to be the good son.’
Shalini still believes that there was some ‘niceness’ in her husband. Sometimes, when she speaks about him, she sounds almost tender.
As I began to hear more about the emotional side of things, which she seemed to have kept under wraps for most of this time, I asked Shalini to what extent her problems were ‘dowry matters’ because she ultimately found herself needing to file a case against her husband. But her reply was firm. ‘No, it was always about the money.’
It was planned. Money was demanded right after our marriage and just before I left for the US. It was very convenient for them that my husband should have money lying there in a joint account. It was specifically meant for my education, but was used for everything else but that. And today also, if I would have said, ‘I don’t want the money, I can do without maintenance,’ I’m sure I would have got the divorce a long time ago.
While Shalini spoke much of financial demands and other forms of mental cruelty, she said that on one occasion the abuse was physical. In fact, it was caught on the camcorder when the in-laws were staying with the couple in the 1 and filming their baby playing. Apparently, her mother-in-law began instigating her husband against her for some reason or other. ‘He beat me up real bad,’ she recalled, ‘And they were just standing there and didn’t even make an effort. It was just one and a half months after my delivery, so I didn’t have much energy to resist. I had a left of bruises on me after that.’
Looking back, Shalini recognises that she could have done a lot to make her in-laws’ lives difficult after this. But at the time, she told me, ‘I still didn’t think it was the end of the world,’ even though her mother-in-law had apparently implored her son to ‘just get rid of her once and for all.’ Shalini feels unsure how far he might have gone, but she thinks he knew he was abroad and was smart enough to know he couldn’t have simply got away with it. ‘If it had been India, it would have been different,’ she added.
I found myself wondering whether Shalini’s mother-in-law really was suggesting murder, or whether she had actually meant he should leave her. I did not dare ask Shalini—one can only guess. But either way, the desperation of Shalini’s situation came out clearly from her words.
When he beat the shit out of me, I think I was better off. Mentally, it was just too exhausting because it was affecting me so much. I didn’t want to accept that the end was coming. I was being pushed to it and I didn’t see it coming. I thought he was just being stupid, I didn’t see it the way it was and what could actually happen. That’s what scares me now. I mean, when my parents say, ‘Just go back to him,’ I feel like, ‘Oh no!’
One of the main reasons behind Shalini’s fear of her mother-in-law was that she believed in and practised black magic. Across urban and rural India, irrespective of religious faith, many people point to black magic to explain things that they otherwise cannot explain rationally. Though Shalini admitted to me that the idea of black magic seemed a bit far-fetched, she seemed very convinced about it nonetheless. ‘I never used to believe in it till I experienced it,’ she told me.
I had reached a point where I could hardly talk and stammered all the time, and I was really fearful to even venture out of the house. People always asked me, ‘Your mother-in-law, did she stay with you?’ I said, ‘No, she was in India.’ ‘Then how the fuck could she create an issue?’ You have to admit that that’s very hard to explain.
The most severe occurrence that Shalini puts down to her mother-in-law’s black magic was the fact that she did not menstruate for two whole years. This condition of hers baffled doctors in the US. Her mother-in-law had given her a small slip of paper inserted inside a silver cover to wear around her neck—Shalini now suspects that this amulet was cursed.
Shalini found it very hard to conceive of the idea of leaving her husband, but it did come to her mind when things became too hard to handle. She knew her parents would never support her in this. Even today, years after she has been separated from him, her parents still hope that she will return to her husband. She has long felt stuck in a desperate situation, with very few choices at hand.
He wanted to end the marriage
As Shalini spoke, I could see how she had been treated as a puppet, a mere medium through which to make money. The communication between the couple, even while they were together, was minimal. Their conversation generally related only to essential things. At other times, they would have verbal duels. Even when things were going really badly, her husband did not see the need to speak with her and try to sort out their problems. Perhaps one could conclude that his unwillingness to communicate was indicative of the fact that he simply wanted to make money, and, therefore, did not care about her or the problems she felt they were facing.
This communication dynamic was not just an issue between the two of them, it was also a feature between the two families. Shalini told me her husband thought it only necessary to speak to his in-laws about ‘their daughter’ and not to her, his wife, directly. Shalini feels she was too young and innocent at that time to realise what might have been on his mind.
‘My husband had not given me the impression that he was unhappy with me,’ she told me, ‘Not even a clue. Small arguments, disagreements, fighting, “don’t talk to your parents”; all that had happened, but I had never taken it as a big deal. But this, no way! I was too fucking innocent; dumb, rather!’
On their first trip back to India, after two years of marriage, Shalini’s husband sat down with her parents and told them that he was not happy with their daughter. His implication was clear: he wanted to end the marriage.
‘My mom was shocked,’ Shalini said as she mentally relived the moment
I had never told them about all the small fights. She was like, ‘What is this, why didn’t you tell us?’ I said, ‘I was not aware myself so how could I tell you?’ I was just as shocked as they were. They thought it was just a phase, it would all be ok. They felt I was too young. Oh, he is 10 years older, he is much more mature. She is still young, just let her be.’ I think they thought that the fault was with me.
Deep down, Shalini felt that her parents never truly supported her. They appeared to lay the blame on her for not making the marriage work. In this, I feel her parents failed to realise their own mistake in choosing to have her married so early.
Even whores are treated better
Shalini’s husband also showed displeasure with her on the sexual front. Nothing about her could please him, it seemed. ‘As far as sex goes, I think I was more happening than him,’ she candidly told me, woman to woman.
He was always working, work. I feel I masturbated most during my married life, I was so deprived. But when he wanted it, I don’t think he ever knew the word ‘foreplay’. Nowadays, I’m a little more educated in all this, but at the time I just let him do as he wished. What could I do? Only when he bloody well wanted to get intimate, it was understood. I felt like such a whore after a while. In fact, I think even whores are treated better.
At one point, Shalini’s husband apparently complained to his mother-in-law that her daughter was not allowing him to get intimate with her. This, I think, may have been another way of discrediting Shalini. His complaint, in fact, was completely at odds with how she told me his behaviour was.
After her husband began forcing her into intimacy, heedless of her personal needs, Shalini lost interest in sex altogether.
Nonetheless, Shalini remained clear about her priorities for her marriage and her life. First and foremost, she wanted to be a good wife, true to her upbringing. Separation and divorce were not options for her.
‘You know how it is in our Indian families,’ she explained. ‘Once the girl is married off, she is not considered a part of her parents’ house, not considered a daughter. She’s first a wife, then a daughter. So at that time, I felt like I knew my place and my priority was my husband.’
During her first two years of marriage, the only solace Shalini had come from going to college. There, she was able to divert her mind from the tensions at home. But after she started questioning her husband about money matters, a year and a half into their marriage, things turned for the worse. Her marital life became so full of tension that she was unable to concentrate even in college anymore.
‘I think I was too depressed,’ she reasoned.
He suggested that I should take a break from college for a semester, six months or so. So 1 did, but I regretted it because I was sitting at home doing nothing. I was cleaning, cooking, all that; but I was going mad. That was also because there were other stress-related things going on in my marriage, obviously. He would tell me, ‘Don’t talk to anyone, don’t do anything, this should not be like this, don’t do this.’ He used to work weekends, also. So I had no one to talk to. Not even my parents.
Shalini never tried to discuss her depression with her husband. Nor did she contest his proposition of taking a break from college. She was, essentially, very submissive. I have no definite answers to why her husband restricted her in so many ways. Neither does Shalini, but she puts it down to his suspicious nature.
At that time, Shalini began to wish for a child, as she thought it might help the couple sort out their problems and give them something to bond over. So when she found out that she was pregnant during a holiday at home in India, she was thrilled. Her husband, however, did not react in a similar fashion—it became one more excuse to make life difficult for her.
She told me,
I was happy about the pregnancy and my parents were also happy. They had been very worried because he had come and said to them that he was unhappy with me, so they must have thought that after this, things would settle down. In our families, that’s all that matters: a kid comes, ok, everything will be fine. Having a child is also seen as final for the marriage, there are no questions of turning back.
But his reaction was, Two years you’re with me in the US, you don’t get pregnant. Then two weeks you’re in Bangalore, you get pregnant?!’ The implication was clear. I even took my son to the court when he was two and a half, just so that he could see that his son is a carbon copy of himself. But I don’t know if he cares.
This allegation of infidelity played a major role in the breakdown of Shalmi:s marriage. And clearly, it had nothing to do with dowry.
‘Anyway,’ Shalini went on,
When I went back to him after my India trip, I was not well. Still, he didn’t even come to pick me up at the airport, like he was supposed to. He very conveniently said, ‘take the bus and come back.’ When I got back, he was pretty rude and inconsiderate.
It wasn’t just my pregnancy. He was always complaining about my family, he would just degrade them and I could not stand it. That day, it was more of that. He had such cheek. Their money was good for him, everything else was fine, but he would still sit there and say things about them!
Shalini had, in fact, told me about these taunts on other occasions, and I remembered thinking that they seemed designed to test her loyalty between her natal family and her husband. So when she appeared to take a stand for her natal family, her husband was further angered. At the same time, I recalled that Shalini’s mother-in-law appeared to demand her son’s loyalty to her over his wife, and he complied with her in this. Perhaps she thought that now that Shalini was pregnant, the couple’s bond could tighten and she could lose this loyalty to her daughter-in-law. But by sowing doubts in his mind about the child’s paternity, it seemed she had found one more way to keep her son on her side.
I asked Shalini whether she ever looked around for any help with all this. She told me she had indeed tried. During her pregnancy, she had become so depressed with the abuse she was facing that she had contemplated suicide. Fortunately, she had turned to a marriage counselling centre instead. I found it admirable that Shalini had found the courage to seek out such help, even more so because she was able to convince her husband to accompany her to the sessions. Her feeling was that he had only agreed because he was in the US and perceived that the system would get the better of him if he didn’t comply with the norms there. At the counselling centre, they warned him that he would be considered fully responsible for her. If any harm came to her, he would be held accountable.
Ultimately, however, Shalini’s husband sent her back to India. The counselling process had failed to turn around the couple’s marital problems. When she was six months pregnant, they were fighting all the time about every little thing. By this time, she had built up the courage to be more vocal and told him she didn’t want their child to be born in the US.
‘I felt so hassled,’ she told me.
With great difficulty, he booked the tickets, again from my dad’s money. The flight was the next morning; the previous night he did one natak [drama], started crying, saying, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want you to go.’ So I called my parents and said, I’m not coming.’ They were shocked, they were like, ‘What happened?’ They were suspicious. But they didn’t insist that I must come.
This seemed to me like a sharp contrast with Shalini’s husband’s earlier behaviour towards her, especially since he had made it clear to her parents that he was unhappy with her.
‘Why did he want you to stay?’ I asked. Shalini replied,
I think deep down inside he also wanted a child because, in the end, he had applied for his Green Card. The minute the child was born, all those formalities would be unnecessary. He could then get a Green Card very easily. It would be just a breeze.
Was this true? Could a temporary worker in the US get a Green Card so easily? If so, wouldn’t thousands of outsiders be deliberately having children in the US? I was not so sure this was his motive, but I refrained from expressing my doubt to Shalini at this point.
I wondered whether things had improved between the couple from this point on, as Shalini had hoped. They hadn’t—and somehow, I wasn’t surprised at this. Shalini’s account matched perfectly the pattern of the cycle of domestic violence that I had studied during my Social Work training. The situation reached its worst when her parents came to visit her just before her delivery.
Shalini had been against them coming though she could not put a finger on why for me. ‘He said, “No, let them come,'” she recalled.
And then, when they did, he treated them like pieces of crap. And I could never say anything or even fight with him. My parents were there. If I was going to be arguing with him in the room, they would be able to hear it. I think that was when they got to know the real dynamics of what was happening, how bad it was.
In a way, Shalini’s parents’ visit to the US was a boon for her. She witnessed her husband openly humiliating her father, and this seemed to stir something in her. She became a stronger person for it. She started attempting to take control of her own life. At this time, her husband was trying to push responsibility for her onto her father. But she would not let that happen.
‘I think I stopped controlling my reactions,’ Shalini reasoned. ‘There was one instance where they said, “We will take her back, get her well and send her.”‘ Apparently, he reacted, ‘Take her—but sign in front of a notary public that you are taking responsibility for her.’ ‘I was against all this,’ Shalini protested.
So I told him, I’m fine here, don’t you worry.’ But they were worried. I lost all respect for my husband at this point, but I think I wanted the marriage to work out because I knew how much had gone into it. I didn’t even think of it as an option to get out. Divorce and all didn’t ever cross my mind.
Even after witnessing their daughter’s ordeal in person, Shalini’s parents similarly couldn’t bring themselves to consider divorce. The perceived public shame would be too much for them. Alongside this, there were also more practical concerns.
Shalini explained that she had just delivered.
My dad was worried about what was going to happen. He protested to my mom, ‘How are we going to leave her alone and go when this man’s behaving like this?’ What would any father want at that point? He wanted my marriage to go on. Which parent would want it to end? He didn’t see any other possibility for me. The fact that even after two years of my separation I had not taken any legal action was itself proof enough that divorce was never a thought.
Of course, I knew that to many families like Shalini’s, divorce simply does not occur as an option. I guess it’s mostly because of the social stigma attached to divorce that people close their minds to it.
I was running again
That’s my rational mind speaking now, though. At the time, as I heard more of Shalini’s story, I found myself stunned into disbelief. Had my friend really been going through all this without any attempt to get out of that marriage, that household?
‘What eventually made you sit up and realise that this was not going to work out for you?’ I asked. Shalini replied,
It was for the baby’s sake. Once a baby is six months old, he starts understanding everything. The minute his father’s car came and the garage door opened, he used to crawl to the stairs. I’m sure he was tuned into the different people in the house and their ways. My husband used to work, come home, have his dinner, then go to his study. He would not do anything else, not even take his child out.
Shalini recognised the necessity of a healthy atmosphere when raising a child. This is precisely what her marital home lacked. Things had reached a point where her husband had almost stopped talking to her — neither, clearly, did he care very much for their son.
Shalini could not help viewing her son’s growing awareness of what surrounded him in the context of her own memories of growing up in an unhappy household, where her parents fought all the time. As she dwelled on this, it hastened the breaking point.
‘I just wanted to get out of there like how I wanted to get out of my parents’ house when I was 16,’ Shalini told me. ‘I was running again.’
Shalini returned home to her parents in India after three years of marriage, an eight-month-old baby in tow. She had no idea where her life was headed. She only wanted to stay away from her husband for a while. In spite of her memories of her own unhappy childhood, the thought of divorce had still never crossed her mind.
‘I felt, “Ok, if he stays away from his wife and child, he might have a moment of realisation,” she reasoned. But this just didn’t happen.
It was only later that Shalini realised what her husband had driven her to. It came rushing back to her then as she told me about it.
When my parents came for my delivery, he told them, ‘Don’t think I will make your daughter happy. I will not simply demand a divorce, I will make sure she goes back to you on her own.’ That was pretty clear. He was adamant that I would be going back for good, and of my own volition.
I could see that Shalini’s husband had long since wanted her gone, but was anxious not to be seen as the cause of her departure. Perhaps he was worried about how he would be judged by society. Despite popular belief, a lot of men also face the stigma of divorce and may be socially ridiculed if they end up with a broken marriage, behind their backs if not openly.
If that’s not enough of a disincentive, women’s families—unhappy with separation and the burden of having to look after their once married daughters—frequently urge them to take their husbands to court for maintenance. Consequently, men (like Shalini’s husband) might not file for divorce themselves, but instead push their wives into taking the decision to leave and ‘escape’ a bad—even abusive and violent—marriage. All this seems to come out of a misguided hope that it will make them less liable to maintenance obligations. Such men do not seem to expect their wives to instead file for divorce on the grounds of cruelty, or even file criminal petitions.
Shalini stayed with her parents for two years after that. During this period, she frequently felt weighed down by great stress and depression. Her parents too were deeply upset about the situation, and this added to Shalini’s trauma as they held her responsible for their misery.
After two years, with no first move by Shalini, her husband finally filed for divorce in India. Shalini had taken no legal action, partly—I suspect—in the hope that they would be able to avoid the shame that comes from being the party that pushes for a marriage to end. More than this, her parents continued to quietly hold on to their hopes that the marriage would succeed, even after so much time.
‘My parents just kept quiet, they didn’t do anything,’ Shalini said. ‘They just thought, “The boy will come around.” Because he’s a relative they felt a little more hopeful that something would work out.’
Today, Shalini says there are a number of failed marriages in her extended family, so her case does not come across as such an insult to her family. But at the time, it seemed far worse. Perhaps her situation set a precedent within the family, giving others the courage to step away.
I felt that Shalini’s story was that of someone who for long had felt unable to exercise control over her own life. She had let her parents marry her off, allowed her husband control over her finances, had not resisted when he practically threw her out and even let him be the one to file for divorce. Now she was being coaxed by her parents into responding to his divorce application by filing a maintenance petition of her own. They hoped that this would deter him from going through with the divorce and instead ask her to return. This was their only hope it that time, and probably still is even all these years later.
Perhaps Shalini had never been in control of her life at all.
Shalini now feels she is completely dependent on her family, and this adds to her problems. Unless she becomes independent and stable both financially and emotionally, 1 doubt she will be able to take any decisions for herself and her son. Even though she lives under her parents’ roof and looks to them for financial support, she feels she is fighting this battle alone. ‘My father asks me, “How long will we live?”‘ she told me with despair. ‘My mother is like, “How long are we going to keep helping you?” And then my brother tells me, “You should go back and adjust.”‘
Though her parents clearly had their own motivations, Shalini told me she agreed to file for maintenance because she wants her husband to support her son and guarantee his future.
Recently, she said she had come to believe that she is very much capable of getting a job to provide for her own personal needs. With this proclamation, I could see Shalini transforming before my very eyes. Now she has started to look for a job, she has made new friends and even physically she appears a changed person. She has begun to take matters into her own hands, she is hoping for a better tomorrow and she is finding new agency within herself with which she may build this future. I am overjoyed.
‘I think I now have the confidence in myself to earn my own money and look after myself,’ she told me. ‘As for my son…well, you envision a certain future for your child. Just because I am going down the drain, I don’t want him to also suffer along with me, to be denied a good life.’
This talk of ‘going down the drain’ showed me that my friend still has some way to go. On some occasions, I see Shalini regress into her old self. On these days, she appears to have no confidence in herself and little hope for a better future. At such times, she tells me she still hopes that one day she might be able to go back to her husband. Because she hates having to feel dependent on her parents, she regresses to the belief that this is the only way to get out of this misery.
Coming across a satisfying job has proven difficult, and for a time she found herself stuck working with her brother in a position that didn’t pay because he was having financial troubles of his own. In the midst of this, her court case cost money. Because her parents were paying, this reinforced her sense of dependence.
As a friend, I was there to listen, to hold her hand and to wipe away a tear. As a student of Social Work, I went to the effort of writing her story in the hope of getting my head around the dynamics of her situation. In particular, I felt compelled to clear some of the popular myths that link domestic cruelty and broken marriages with a dowry. This is not to disregard the prevalence of dowry itself. The point, I felt, is that cases like Shalini’s require a more holistic approach—there is so much more to her situation than dowry.
I feel that we must start looking more carefully at the various other elements that have a part to play in the breakdown of marriages. If there is to be any hope at all of assisting men and women to foster healthy relationships and happy marriages, or else of helping them opt for divorce without viewing it as such a terrible proposition, we must stop hiding behind the smokescreen of dowry.