Gunja is scared. Very scared. She is a runaway wife from Nandapur village in western Uttar Pradesh, and the mother of an infant son. Two years ago, Gunja and two other girls from her village in eastern UP were hastily married off to three men who had come looking for brides from a faraway district in western UP. After Gunja had a son by her husband, her in-laws told her that as they had paid a hefty price for her, she must sleep with her husband’s unmarried brothers as well. At this she ran away. “I will not be a Draupadi (the famed beauty in the Mahabharata, forced to be wife to five Pandava brothers) to these Pachhanhi (western) men,” she says. She chased away her brother-in-law, who had been sent to fetch her back to Agra, but is now worried that they may try to kidnap Pradip, her one-year-old. She guards him closely.
Gunja is one of the many young girls from eastern UP villages whose parents are increasingly selling their daughters to aged men from female-deficient parts of western UP, Punjab and Haryana, who can no longer find wives in their own region. As more and more prosperous farming communities in western India resort to illegal sex selective abortions, the alarming decline in the female population in these communities is becoming starkly visible. Whole villages now have no marriageable girls. Poorer regions, mostly in the northeastern part of India, still have a normal male-female ratio. Not because they love girls more, but simply because they do not have access to expensive ultrasound clinics that would carry out illegal sex selective abortions. These villages are increasingly becoming the suppliers of cheap brides for ageing men in the western region.
This could have resulted in happiness all round, you think. After all, this is the only way a girl from a poor family can get married inexpensively without a dowry, and at the same time the female-deficient zones are freshly seeded with young women. But wait. This is a strange market where the demand may exceed supply, but this still would not make the scarce commodity more precious to the producers. The birth of a girl is still considered a curse all over the region. Daughters must be married as soon as they attain puberty and a marriage with a suitable dowry is still considered superior to one without. Because of this stigma over accepting a bride price, families who sell their daughters to older men for a hefty sum keep the marriages under wraps even if the girl, after she reaches her new address, finds that she is going to be further sold to another buyer or expected to accept multiple sex partners. If she returns, chances are she will be sold again.
The middlemen who act as marriage brokers keep tabs on all poor families which can be talked into selling their daughters. To avert attention, they refer to such weddings as turanta biah (a fast-track marriage) and claim they are actually performing a noble deed to get some poor man’s marriageable daughter married at no cost to the family. Under their guidance, a host of families in villages like Rajepur, Tantepur, Soojabad and Nayi Basti are hurriedly clinching deals and conducting turanta biahs en masse in the local temples. Barring the girls, everyone is happy. The middlemen get a sum of some Rs20,000-Rs30,000 per deal clinched and the brides’ parents are reimbursed for all the wedding expenses incurred. Most of them like to be paid in advance, Mohan Lal says, and prefer to give away their daughters in mass marriages in the local temple. Girls from the Kashi area are considered the cheapest as their families live in perpetual penury. Perhaps for this reason, once they reach their husbands’ houses, they are often treated not as wives, but slaves.
A few of them who have managed to escape afterwards and return to their parents, like Gunja, recount horror tales about being starved, beaten and worked like bullocks in family farms and even being forced to sleep with other men in the family. Several of them are sold again by the husbands’ families if they fail to please them.
This is the paradox. In the male-centric society in our northwestern region, women may be willingly aborting female foetuses because only the mother of landowning sons has a pivotal role in the family. But their power is derived from and made visible only in their absolute control over these young women their sons buy and bring into the family. If they dream at all, the girls, occasionally forced to abort a female foetus by the mother-in-law, dream of a day when they can get their own sweet revenge by bossing over another young daughter-in-law. The lives of a mother who hails from one’s own region and the ‘bought’ wife are thus ultimately not very different. There are many ways in which both are excluded from equal participation in society. Both have a relationship of structured dependency with the men on whom they rely for roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter), and from whom they derive their social identity. And the pleasure the mother is supposed to feel when the sons go out and buy cheap brides from distant districts is just a vicarious pleasure. It is aimed at displaying the status of the family’s men, who can afford to buy and import brides. Ultimately, even the mothers of these rich men must fill their hours supervising useless, pointless, unproductive and repetitive work. Even if the family sells some land at an astronomical price, unlike their men, these women will never be the market for recreational vacations or high-speed bikes or shiny new cars. While sons and husbands buy super-speed bikes to vroom around villages, visit brothels in the city, go see movies and get drunk, the leisured matriarch will continue to quarrel with the young wives or sit in the local temple rocking back and forth in some unspoken sorrow.
(Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org)