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Behind those parivars

Indians deride western families as morally decrepit and without any family values. But we are no better, writes Amrit Dhillon.

india Updated: Jul 19, 2011 00:20 IST
Amrit Dhillon

The most chilling words I have read recently were those that Ruchi Bhuttan's parents addressed to their daughter shortly before she was allegedly murdered by her husband Sumit in their Gurgaon home on July 5.

"They told her to wait till the morning," a relative reported them as saying.

Your daughter, who has already told you several times that she is being tortured for more dowry by a vicious husband and in-laws is calling, in extremis, late at night from a house where her life is in peril, to plead for help from the two people she is meant to be able to count on, and you tell her to "wait till the morning"?

The photographs show a young woman with a beautiful, open, fresh face, smiling at the camera. A face lovely enough to melt the heart of a stranger. Yet her own parents had the heart to tell her to hang around in hell, hoping, presumably, that she would ‘calm down' by the morning.

Ruchi Bhuttan's own words to her parents struck me with equal force in their touching, little girl innocence. According to her sister, she asked "whether we couldn't take care of her". How sad is that? A child should automatically assume she can return to the safety of her parental home but this is India where married daughters like Ruchi have no idea whether they can go home.

Nor was she alone. Speak to most unhappily married women desperate to flee their brutal husbands and they will tell you that their parents always have one word of advice — a slimy, weasel word that is innocuous in English but most malevolent in the context of parents advising their unhappily married daughters: ‘Adjust'. What they really want to say is: "Just take any cruelty or humiliation that is inflicted on you but don't even think about coming back. We don't want the responsibility and we don't want the stigma."

I have related the Ruchi Bhuttan case at some length to illustrate the humbuggery of the widely-held belief that the Indian family is superior to the family in the West. In any conversation about India vis-a-vis the West, the most common assertion of moral superiority is staked on the devotion, warmth and steadfastness of the Indian family.

In contrast, the institution of the family in debauched and decadent western countries is derided as morally decrepit. Selfish children dump their elderly parents in nursing homes and never visit them; the parent-child relationship is brittle and formal with the parents asking grown-up children living in the parental home to contribute towards bills and food; parents allow their children to sleep around; and the young are delinquent with no respect for their elders and even less for their authority.

But where are family values when the Ruchi Bhuttans need a refuge? I cannot imagine western parents being reluctant to open their doors to distressed and brutalised married daughters. Furthermore, this callousness is not confined to the poor who might understandably be chary of the financial burden of a newly-returned daughter. Rich and educated parents with plenty of spare rooms in their big homes are equally unwelcoming, no matter if the son-in-law in question is a pervert, alcoholic, drug addict, wife-beater, or sadist.

Speak to anyone who works with the elderly and the stories they tell of neglect are upsetting. A social worker who works with broken and abandoned old people told me recently of an old father in Madras whose son and daughter-in-law pretended that they had to go out of town to attend a wedding. They told him that, rather than leaving him alone, they would prefer to check him into a local hotel until their return, for his safety and wellbeing. When they didn't return, he discovered the truth. They had sold the house — his house — and moved to another city.

Indian children are just as capable of mistreating their parents as western children. It simply appears less common here because the parents who suffer such unfilial stabs are too ashamed to talk about it. Once they get their hands on their elderly parents' property and assets, filial love goes up in smoke.

Why this notion of Indians having stronger family values should be so entrenched and widespread is baffling when the selling of young girls into prostitution by their doting Indian parents is common. When the latest United Nations figures show that 35% of wives are beaten by their affectionate husbands. When 39% of uxorious Indian husbands believe these beatings are justified. When tender Indian uncles and cousins often subject young girls in the family to sexual abuse. And when there were as many as 100 loving Indian 'family' men in Kerala who were happy to rape a teenager from Kochi who had been supplied to them by her caring Indian father.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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