Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Question of Dowry

Earlier this week I attended a two-day seminar on the women's movement and the law, which was graced by several well-known academics, activists and lawyers. There were some very interesting and some not-so-interesting papers presented, some thought-provoking, and some entirely incomprehensible. Anyway, the issue I want to discuss here - rather, some random thoughts I want to note down on - is that of dowry.

There were a couple of points during the discussion on dowry that struck me - the fact that whenever we discuss this issue, or it's brought to our attention, it is almost always the violence that emanates from this institution that claims our interest and indignation - even more than the notion of dowry per se. It seems almost as if through all the protests, the media reports, the so-called sensitisation of the police force, the debates surrounding the efficacy of the laws/Acts against dowry, what is being sought to be highlighted, and eliminated, is the violence accruing from it, rather than the practice of giving and taking dowry itself. Instead of clamouring for an end to dowry deaths, we should be asking for an end to dowry; instead of the filing cases against people suspected of murdering or driving a woman to suicide, we should be involving the law and order machinery much earlier.

Which brings me to the second point - how do we define dowry, exactly? There was a discussion on the benefits of extending the definition of dowry - and this I agree with. Dowry these days can no longer be limited to the exchange of gifts, an exchange which is almost always unequal, reflecting the inequality in status that persists till date between the bride givers and bride takers. Isn't the blatant display of ostentation that characterises the majority of marriages a part of this institution? I think it is - yes, I know the lavish arrangements are all too often explained away as signifying the 'happiness' that accompanies a marriage ... after all, a child will only get married once (though that's far from certain in the 21st century!), and why should the family not go out of their way to make the occasion as memorable as they can? Scratch the surface, though, and you open a very different can of worms. We all know that the ostentation is invariably due to a desire to enhance one's status in the particular community that one resides in; or due to an almost desperate desire to cater to the groom's family's every need, lest their daughter bear the brunt of the latter's displeasure at a later date; in some instances certain requirements are even dictated by the bridegroom's family; or all of the above. Buttressing as it does the lowly status assigned to girls/women and, by extension, their families, this pressure to 'perform' and stage a splendid wedding is no less a form of dowry than the more material demands for cash or goods.

Incidentally, despite all this inequality between bride givers and takers, the law, when it is upheld, looks upon dowry givers and takers as equally culpable. Rather unfair, that - while I agree that aiding and abetting an offence is just as big a crime as the criminal act itself, dowry givers are more often than not presurised into acquiesance, thanks to the patriarchal nature of our society and the obsolete traditions it insists on clinging on to. Which woman, knowing that her parents will be arrested, will go ahead and report a case of dowry?

What this seminar also did was bring out the incredibly fractured and fractious nature of the women's movement - but that complex issue, with all its myriad over- and undertones, is best left for a later post.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


A little while ago I finally finished reading Christopher Paolini's Eragon, the first book in his Inheritance trilogy. ('Finally' because my life has taken this sad, sad turn - all I seem to do these days is work at editing some manuscript or the other, or travel in filthy DTC buses to get to work ... the good old days when I was actually reading, and a lot, appear to have gone on vacation. It took me three months to finish Eragon, and most of my reading was done on said DTC buses - when I was lucky enough to get a seat, that is!) I'd heard so much about the book - and the author, who's almost a child prodigy - he's 21 now, but was only 15 when he began writing the book, and was 19 when it took off. I have to say, though, that I was quite pleased with it.

Despite the fact that this is purely conventional fantasy - Eragon smacks heavily of Tolkien and, in a far more obvious manner, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (which itself owes a lot to Tolkien's LOTR), and sticks to the structure of the traditional fantasy tale (a world that might or might not be our own, rules that are different, yet strangely familiar, an endearing hero who is uprooted from a regular life to find that he has hitherto unplumbed depths of courage and nobility within him, battles, monsters and, ultimately, at the heart of it all, the age-old fight between good and evil), Eragon works. This is mostly thanks to Paolini's imagination, continually creates new situations and characters to capture our own, the fact that he is rather a good story-teller, and because he has discovered what appeals to people - believable characters who hold our interest, who can endear themselves to us, and who we can, at some level, identify with.

Eragon is about a farm boy who discovers a dragon egg purely by accident, and ends up becoming a Dragon Rider - the mythic warriors of yore who were defeated by the rogue Rider Galbatorix, who, having crowned himself king, now unleashes his cruel regime over most of the land. Helped by the mysterious Brom, Eragon sets out on a journey that is as much about finding himself as it is about discovering his destiny. In the gripping, taut narrative, what stands out - a stroke of genius on Paolini's part - is the relationship between Eragon and his dragon Saphira. Their growing love, trust and respect for each other, mutual dependence, and complete synchronicity of thought and action is portrayed quite remarkably.

Nevertheless, the fact that Christopher Paolini was just a teenager when he wrote the book is quite apparent - in the way he can't quite resist showing off his certainly commendable vocabulary, in the almost textbook quality of his treatment of grief and love, especially the latter (you can't help being reminded of the fact that Eragon's creator is not much older than the character himself), and in the fact that he doesn't deviate from the tried and tested fantasy novel formula that has contributed to the success of several writers before him. Despite this, however, it is not too hard to see why Eragon rivalled Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - Eragon is entirely believable, romanticising as he does, the qualities of loyalty, nobility, courage, endurance and determination. How many of us haven't yearned for an event that would somehow change our lives, set us apart from the rest of the world and make us heroes, not because we belong to some magical world that we will in all probability not be privy to, but because we embody values that are fast becoming anachronistic?

Is Eragon a great piece of fantasy fiction? No. But is it a good, interesting read that manages to stay with you for at least a while after you're done reading? Yes, it is. Now I can't wait to read the sequel, Eldest.