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Women on the Rise in India Feel the Riptide of Tradition

Funded by a wealthy Bombay family and a distant guru who serves as Hemnani's mentor, the institute charges no tuition for its marriage classes, which meet six mornings a week, although Hemnani is happy to accept donations from students and other followers. About 3,000 young women have taken the course; he said he offers a compressed version in other cities several times a year.

At one recent session, Hemnani began with lessons in Sikhism -- an offshoot of the Hindu faith from which his teachings borrow heavily -- and natural healing, including advice on good sleeping habits. Then he directed Mangtani, the business graduate, to read from his textbook on surviving the rigors of the Indian joint family. (Though patterns are changing, a new bride is normally expected to join her husband -- especially if he is the eldest son -- in the home of his parents, who are supposed to adopt her as their own.)


Aildas Hemnani, who leads a course that emphasizes women should be subservient, instructs students in Bhopal. (John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)

"After marriage, the bride should not think she's going to the in-laws' family to throw her weight around," Mangtani read. "Instead, she's going there to serve the family and perform her duties, in order to turn that home into a heaven."

Hemnani's textbook is filled with such advice. "The bride should do everything according to the wishes and orders of the mother-in-law and father-in-law," it says. "The mother-in-law and father-in-law are never wrong."

It also offers plenty of tips for getting along with a new husband. "For a woman, her husband is everything," the textbook says. "The wife should sleep after her husband and wake up before him. . . . When he returns home, welcome him with a smile, help him in taking off his shoes and socks, and ask him to sit down. Bring him water and biscuits, and with a smile, ask him about his day. A husband's happiness alone is your life's goal. . . . Do not go without your husband's permission anywhere."

In addition, the textbook includes a section on how a husband should treat his wife. Among other advice, it suggests: "If there is anything missing or inadequate in her cooking, do not get angry, but explain to her with love"; "never raise your hand to hit your wife"; and "sometimes praise her good qualities."

As for sex, the less the better: "You can be celibate even when you're married," Hemnani advises, citing a Hindu saint's recommendation that couples have sex only once in their marriage. "If they are not happy with that, then once a year," he writes, warning that more frequent sex "reduces your lifespan."

Mangtani said she saw nothing wrong with Hemnani's recipe for harmonious marriage. "These are our duties -- not to go on insisting on our rights, but do our duties," she said. "If we perform our duties well first, our rights will come."

Notwithstanding her college education and career aspirations, Mangtani became engaged to her fiance -- whose family owns a license-plate factory in a town about five hours from Bhopal by train -- as part of a deal brokered by the two families.

After the families agreed on a dowry of 300,000 rupees -- about $6,400 -- the young man and his grandfather traveled to Bhopal, where Mangtani met her fiance for the first time. "He was happy to hear that I prefer a joint family," she recalled.

Her parents hosted an engagement party the next day.

Mangtani has seen her husband-to-be only twice since that day seven months ago, once to go to a movie and another time to take a boat ride on a lake. But she does not seem worried about getting married to a virtual stranger, in part, she said, because of the lessons she has learned at the Manju Institute.

"The whole idea is to surrender yourself to your husband and new family," she said. "If they let me have a career I will have a career, and if they don't that's okay. My prime goal is to serve."


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