This is a story of girls hounded sometimes to death for daring to love an outsider a man from another community caste or religion
You don’t have to look far to find them. These girls are everywhere, right from the hinterlands to the heart of India’s über-modern metros; they are from well-off as well as non-privileged backgrounds in equal numbers. And every day, these girls seem to lose some essence of their selves, appear more torn between love and obligation, fearing the worst and hoping for the best.
While the khap (clan) panchayats of Haryana have long been notorious for sending killers after ‘disobedient’ couples, one of the most shocking recent killings took place last year in the capital of the country. Nirupama Pathak, 22, a Delhi-based journalist, wanted to marry a colleague, someone of a lower caste, and she was pregnant. One night, she SMS-ed her boyfriend that she had been locked up in her bathroom. Soon afterwards, she was found dead. The family charged the boyfriend with rape and abetment of suicide. But the post-mortem showed Nirupama had been asphyxiated, and her mother became the prime suspect.
Evidently, an educated, independent woman finding love in a metropolitan city is not safe from a violent society.
Seeing an increase in the number of honour killings related to intercaste marriages, the government and the Supreme Court have tried various approaches to curb such a crime. Either the efforts are not sincere enough, or the regressive social mindset is set too hard, because the torment continues. If a woman is not killed, she is abused, mistreated in a hundred other ways until she gives in.
Cuffed to conformity
Meet Natalie Joseph, a marketing professional in Mumbai. In her early thirties, she is well-paid, drives her own car and is always well turned out. But Natalie, so composed outside, is racked by doubts inside.
“I’ve known Rishabh for a decade now, since college,” she says. “We were colleagues, too. Then we fell in love. Now, we’re inseparable. My parents know him, and they actually like him. But for them, all that matters is that he is not a Christian. Rishabh has offered to convert, but that is not enough for them. My father, who retired as a colonel, is a preacher now. Naturally, the preacher’s daughter cannot set a bad example.
“For the past seven years, I’ve been waiting for my parents to accept Rishabh. Friends say we should get married anyway. Maybe in my twenties, I would’ve done that. Now I know that if I elope with Rishabh, I will be dead to my family. As it is, my elder brother (who had a Kannadiga girlfriend) and I have not spoken in five years.
“I don’t know if my parents want my happiness. They once watched while our church pastor railed at me for not being a good Christian girl. Three years ago, I had a nervous breakdown. So now my parents don’t talk of marriage at all. Rishabh has never tried to force me. But he, too, wants to settle down. When I see my friends so happy, I long to be like them. For now, I will wait. Maybe my parents will agree tomorrow, maybe a year later... Who knows?”
Escape from prison
Natalie has made a choice to live in a prison of her parents’ making. Meeta, a Marwari girl in Bengaluru, was locked in one: her in-laws’ home. “My parents pledged me to Alok when I was 10 years old. He was 25, carrying on the family business of pawn-broking. After I turned 19, they married me off to him. When I resisted him, my inlaws put me under lock-and-key. But I managed to escape and contact Vimochana (an organisation that works for womens’ rights in Bengaluru).
“My people are capable of doing anything to get me back. So, to keep me safe, didi from Vimochana contacted all the top police officers in the city. They also sheltered me in a ‘safe house’ for two months. Now I am 20. Didi is my guardian. She helped me get a job so I can earn a living. I will never go back to my family; I don’t know what they will do to me. So yes, I am scared sometimes, but also happy. I am sure Alok has remarried. After all, men can’t be without a woman for long.”
Pride and prejudice
Kaveri, 31, from Mumbai married for love, but her life with Vikram Singh has been forged from immense pain. Kaveri is a Coorgi (or Kodavathi), a member of a proud, martial race in Karnataka that fiercely guards its customs and culture. When the woman breaks that custom, her children are not considered Coorgi any more.
“I fell in love with Vikram, who is from Dehradun. In my father’s eyes, that is unforgivable,” she says. “My two sisters and I grew up knowing we had to marry within the community. We’ve seen girls (and boys) in love with non- Coorgis being brainwashed, not allowed to step out of the community. But that didn’t matter to me. Thankfully, my siblings, my mother and aunt supported me. They were by my side when I got married in Dehradun seven years ago.
“Our daughter is six. She will never be considered a Kodavathi. Vikram is keen that I teach her our language, but you need to be part of a community to imbibe the culture. My daughter will not have that experience. But I have no regrets. My father’s ego prevents him from acknowledging my family. I am secure in my love, my life.”
Still the dark ages
Dr Radhika Chopra, associate professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, says it’s disheartening to see such cases even today, dictated by the traditional setup. “Despite giving our daughters the best education and letting them chart their own course of life, when it comes to marriage, they are expected to be traditional. Parents tend to get excessively concerned about their social standing. As a result, the woman is asked to toe the line or find her own way, as is the case in urban households where the woman has the courage to stand up for her love,” she explains. Chopra adds that though intercaste marriages are beginning to find gradual acceptance in the urban context, intercommunity marriages still see much more resistance, and in this, men and women “are subjected to an equal amount of pressure. Since women tend to be more emotionally vulnerable, they are subjected to more mental torture.”
According to Dr Susan Visvanathan, chairperson and professor of sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, a woman is still perceived as having no identity of her own. “This stems from deep-rooted traditional thinking, where women are seen as synechdocal – their identities come from men, whether fathers, brothers, other male kin, sons or lovers,” she observes. A noted author herself, she points out that Indian parents tend to keep a hawk eye over their children’s choice of partner. “The work world has one set of rules, secular and modern; the traditional mores of the home are more regulating,” she states.
Does that explain why daughters are tortured? “Parents who do not believe in humane principles of conduct will ill-treat their daughter if she does not conform to custom. Human rights are as necessary at home as at the workplace,” Visvanathan adds.
A ray of light
Parents who cast off their daughters for the ‘greater good’ of the community have women like Donna Fernandes to contend with. Fernandes is co-founder of Vimochana and a women’s rights activist for over 25 years. She is also mentor, older sister and even surrogate mother for girls like Meeta. Fernandes points out that when parents educate their daughters, they broaden their horizons. “Then why expect daughters to remain traditional when it comes to marriage?” she asks. “The institution of marriage is a business, a contract. The rich merely conceal that aspect better,” Fernandes adds wryly.
She and fellow Vimochana members have been threatened, attacked and had their office ransacked for sheltering girls escaping from forced marriage to men many years older. These girls prove that despite the brutality, they are ready to stand up for their right to love, to marry the men of their choice. That is a fire worth stoking, even if the hand gets burnt at first.