Saturday, November 19, 2011

A man's worth: dowry redux

‘So what are you worth?’ I asked.

‘Rs 50 lakhs,’ he wrote back.

I tut-tutted: What was Rs 50 lakhs these days? Too late to ‘improve’ himself, he moaned, but he’d make sure his unborn sons grew up to deserve more respectable dowries.

It was all a joke, of course. The ‘dowry calculator’ was doing the rounds on Facebook and I urged a friend, a business journalist, to get himself ‘valued’ for the marriage market. The application is intended a cheeky jab in the ribs, an exasperated joke aimed at people who still give and take dowry. We’d like to shake them up and say, come on, who does this dowry crap nowadays?

In fact, it’s been a long time since I heard money and marriage mentioned in the same breath. Brides-to-be discuss zardozi, colours, new linen. When shaadi season comes around, newspapers are full of articles about beauty treatments and wedding planners. Bridal wear trade fairs aggressively advertise themselves, and yet, nobody talks about where the money will come from. Who will pay for the impossibly solid gold jewellery, the band-baaja-baraat? 

More importantly, who will pay the price for it, in case nobody wants to foot the bill?

It is tempting to believe that it doesn’t matter all that much. But one morning you open the newspaper and you know who pays the price. They just found the charred body of the 25-year-old niece of a Congress MP from Secundrabad.

Once you start keeping track, dowry deaths become impossible to ignore. In June, I read reports of a 28-year-old in Basti (UP) being burnt alive; in Motihari (Bihar), a pregnant woman and her infant daughter burnt alive; in East Delhi, a 20-year-old set herself ablaze, leaving behind an eight-month-old daughter; in two separate cases in Bangalore, a 20-year-old killed herself and a police constable’s wife hung herself; and in chilled-out Goa, there is much consternation because of four dowry-related cases (two of them were murders) reported in less than a month.

It is also tempting to believe that it doesn’t touch us – educated, professional women. When I first asked my friends, they just shrugged. But the more anonymity I promised, the more stories came tumbling out.

Seema* told me that a few years ago, she was ‘seen’ by a young man who worked in the merchant navy. The boy’s parents were both academics and the family was ‘well-placed’. Everything looked set. But Seema’s uncle put a spanner in the works, saying, “This is too easy; something’s wrong.”

The family decided to put his hunch to the test. Seema’s father told the ‘boy’ outright: “We invested in her education but I’m a government servant. I can’t afford to give her anything. Our daughter will come to you with two new pairs of clothes. I just thought you should know this.”

The young man went home. Later that night, he called back to say that his mother had ‘collapsed’ after hearing such bad news. The match was immediately called off.

Another friend Preeti* didn’t fare so well. Her dad began setting aside money for her wedding when she was very little. It infuriated her but he just said she would need it one day. And sure enough, she did. “No demands were made,” says Preeti. “It’s a lot more sophisticated than that. But at the engagement, my mother-in-law casually said: ‘Whatever you give her will be put out on display, like, say, a washing machine’.”

Preeti’s father bore all the expenses for the wedding, and also forked over cash to buy new furniture although she was moving into a furnished house. Despite this, Preeti says her mother-in-law taunted her for years because she didn’t have gold bangles.

Someone else began to make disparaging remarks about the ‘north’ and said that things were much better in the ‘south’. So I began to look for dowry stories from south India. In an online forum, I found a curious anecdote about Bangalore. The writer mentioned a techie who was being interviewed for a new position. Things were going well until “this guy (…) was informed that the team works on products that are completely owned by the Bangalore-based group and that there won’t be any travel to USA… He told the group head: ‘Sir, please let me go to USA for just one day. If I have a USA stamp in my passport, I will get one crore dowry’.”

It may be hard for some of us to imagine why an educated girl would meekly hand over Rs 1 crore to a guy who made a one-day pilgrimage to Silicon Valley. But others might wish that it was as simple as that – making a one-time lump sum payment and buying life-long love and peace. Sadly, it doesn’t work like that.

As Gauri Sharma, a human rights activist, points out, dowries are not paid once but several times over. “At the ‘first’ Diwali, Holi/Lohri, Karva Chauth, fancy gifts are given. In many families, the first child is delivered at the girl’s parents’ home. I know someone who just gave birth. Her husband asked her to tell her parents to pay the hospital bills! So they paid although her dad was a retired gentleman. And it didn’t end there. When she was going back to her marital home, her mother sent gifts for her husband’s entire family, plus more jewellery. I asked her mother: ‘Why?’, she just said: ‘Beta, it is riwaaz’ (tradition).”

Yes, that loaded word, tradition. It makes us put up with too many things that do us no good, and often, there’s murder to pay for it.


Hard fact: According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2009, there were 8,383 dowry deaths reported to the police. These include murder and suicides in cases where the wife has alleged that her husband or in-laws have been pressuring her to ask her family for cash or other assets.


A bit of fun: Wondering how much India’s most eligible bachelors would be worth in the marriage market? 

Well, if you use the Dowry Calculator, not all that much. Whoever made the application must think that match-making aunties will not look at cricketers, politicians or actors as worthwhile investments in the marriage market.

I tried to calculate Rahul Gandhi’s dowry but there was no professional category for ‘politician’. So I chose ‘self-employed’. I also don’t know if he gets a salary as an office bearer for the Congress party, but as a Member of Parliament, his salary is supposed to be Rs 1.3 lakh a month (plus benefits). He went to Harvard so I put that down, and googled his approximate height (unverified).

The calculator says: ‘Dream dowry amount still eludes you’ and valued him at Rs 50 lakh. 

According to another, similar application (, Rahul Gandhi would not get any dowry at all.

Ranbir Kapoor does better. Since ‘actor’ or ‘artist’ was not listed as an option, I listed his profession as ‘family business’, and his skin colour as ‘wheatish’ (can do with some Fair & Lovely). Turns out, he’s worth Rs 65 lakh.

Cricket is also not mentioned as a ‘profession’, so while checking out Virat Kohli, I put down ‘self-employed’. But since he plays international cricket, it seemed fair to say that he works in ‘any country more developed than India’. He too was valued at Rs 65 lakh.

[This story was first published by Elle (India) in September 2011].


Jai_C said...

I'm probably missing some ironic humour here...

Years ago you created a bit of a stir on the comment threads when you repeatedly referred to JLo as thin.

...and here you have Ranbir Kapoor pegged as wheatish!

I used to think I dont care abt this, but when ppl as fair as RK are described thus it surprisingly manages to disturb the equanimity of this deeply Dravidian reader.

Its like I'm thinking "wow what must she think when she meets really wheatish and dark skinned ppl".


Annie Zaidi said...

Jai, I have not met RK in real life but based on what I see, I'd describe him as wheatish. Have you seen the colour of wheat or unrefined flour? It is a kind of very pale brown. Most of us Indians, even the fair ones, are that colour. When you say 'really wheatish', you are referring to a shade that Indians like to describe themselves when they are in fact, darker. Matrimonial ads never have people describe themselves as dark.
And as for what I think when I meet dark skinned ppl, well, I think, hello, here's a person and this is what this person looks like. What do you expect me to think?
I am not one of those people who mid-describe shades of brown for the sake of pretending that we are all a little whiter than we are. I don't care enough about skin colour.

Jai_C said...

I thought you were going for some kind of humour there based on maybe he was doing ads for F&L or F&H, but my mistake- I had him mixed up with Shahid Kapur. Googled and found that RK in fact has taken a principled stand that he wont do such ads.

I dont know & havent cared enough abt color gradation to keep this going on shades of wheat but I do think we southies are a different kind of wheat than you northies :-)


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