In a short span of four weeks, even as I was reading the narratives of eight couples — either defendants or complainants in dowry-related cases of domestic violence and deaths — compiled in this book, there were media reports of 20-odd such cases. That their incidence continues to be high worries me a lot. It was perhaps such a feeling that prompted Robin Wyatt and Nazia Masood to take a close, hard look at the problem.
Based on a year's intensive fieldwork in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore — which included recording interviews with the victims of domestic violence and also with those accused of the crime — the authors attempt to comprehend and explain the “sub-text” of dowry deaths and unravel the truth behind them. They do succeed in demolishing the conventional image of “dowry deaths”. By digging deep and getting at the root of a couple's problems, they are able to expose the alarming gap between the legal mandate and the dominant social dictates.
Flavia Agnes, a social activist and a women's rights lawyer, puts the age-old dowry problem in perspective, when she says, in the foreword, that it needs to be understood in the larger context of matrimonial relationships. For instance, the power equation and inter-personal dynamics between spouses; frictions between couples and their respective natal and matrimonial families; disputes over financial arrangements; and disappointments/frustrations due to unfulfilled expectations.
It is to their credit that the authors have gone about the job meticulously. They have diligently followed up each case with a copy of the FIR, providing notes for discussion and analysing it threadbare and, in the process, throwing light on issues that are quite often overlooked in dowry-related cases. In addition, social issues pertinent to every case of marital conflict are also examined in earnest.
Each story — whether it's an account of a friend, a blogger's first person narration, an interview with marital counsellor, or the transcript of a session with an NGO representative arguing for the wrongly accused — is constructed refreshingly, and no two cases read the same, although the core issue is identical.
What drives the text is the simple point that a marital dispute tends to enter the public sphere in the garb of a dowry-linked issue largely because of the prevailing cultural climate, wherein dowry-related conflicts are considered less shameful or humiliating than incompatibility — emotional, sexual, attitudinal, or any other.
The authors are of the firm view that the multi-dimensional relationships arising from marriages could be negotiated smoothly if only the spouses and their families approached them with due care and sensitivity. This will help in minimising the fallout and, thereby, prevent them from getting dowry-tainted.
Where marriage counselling is frowned upon and remains inaccessible to a large section of society, the pro-women anti-dowry laws that are supposed to provide a remedy actually add to the problem. Rooting for timely and proper counselling, Wyatt and Masood strongly believe that many of the differences could be sorted out even within a crowded family environment. When that doesn't happen, the marriage inevitably breaks down, often with violent and disastrous consequences.
Undoubtedly, the dowry system changes the lives of everyone involved, and the authors have tried to capture a true and comprehensive picture of domestic violence. Here are a few notable cases recorded in the volume. Shalini, at 16, fell in love with a man 10 years older, who as it turned out was only interested in her money. Frustrated with daily beatings, Akhil's wife divorced him. Mohini's in-laws used dowry as an excuse to get her out of their son's life. Neeti poured oil on herself and got burnt.
The authors seek to find out, in every one of these stories, whether dowry was indeed the trigger, and conclude that it was rarely so; yet the incidents got labelled as such. They are clear that the anti-dowry law has failed to deliver. But they do not think any tweaking or tightening of the legal provisions will make any big difference either. In their opinion, this is mainly because the dowry problem has been misunderstood in India by the lawmakers and society alike.
Basically, the question is one of the various stakeholders making an honest attempt to end a marital discord and adopting a sensible strategy to realise that objective. Given the complexity of human relationships, Wyatt and Masood say, the dowry problem needs to be thoroughly re-examined.