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For Bride, Dowry Is Deal Breaker

Defiant Indian Women Increasingly Fighting In-Laws' Demands

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page A19

SAYIN, India -- She wore a sari of red silk. He wore a maroon business suit and a gold-and-white turban. In front of several hundred guests, they garlanded each other with roses and marigolds, then sealed their union by circling a fire of mango-tree wood seven times as a Hindu priest chanted prayers. All agreed it was a splendid wedding.

But almost as soon as the flames subsided, the marriage between Keshav Sharma and his bride, Pooja Pathak, collapsed in ugly recriminations.

Pooja Pathak, right, outside her home with her mother, Renu, left, and sister, Chandani. Pooja alerted police when her in-laws demanded a bigger dowry. (John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)

Even though the Pathaks had provided a substantial dowry -- including a motorcycle and about $700 in rupees -- it wasn't enough for the groom or his father, Amar Sharma, who declared barely two hours after the ceremony last month that they would not accept the young woman into their home unless she also came with a new color television and video player, according to witnesses and police.

For Pooja, if not for her parents, the demand was a deal breaker.

"If your father told you to eat cow dung, would you eat cow dung?" she screamed at the mortified groom before telling him to get lost. Father and son were subsequently charged with violating India's anti-dowry law.

Such acts of defiance are rare in India, where dowry-giving and its grim corollary -- the killing of young brides whose families fail to cough up the requisite loot -- remain deeply entrenched. But they are becoming more frequent. Pooja's case was the latest in a series of well-publicized incidents in which brides have balked at dowry demands, suggesting that some young women are losing patience with the age-old Hindu tradition.

The most famous such episode occurred in 2003, when Nisha Sharma, a 21-year-old computer student in New Delhi, summoned police to her wedding after the groom's family made a last-minute demand for $25,000 in rupees, on top of the car and appliances they had already been promised. Sharma's bold move earned her worldwide attention and praise -- among other things, it inspired a television ad for a popular beauty product -- and others soon followed her example.

"There are young, educated women who are standing up, and they want other people to know what they are doing," said Brinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association. "Each case which happens like this and gets public attention does have an impact."

Although dowry has been illegal in India since 1961, the fight to eradicate the practice has been uphill. Notwithstanding the publicity generated by Sharma's case and others like it, police are reluctant to bring dowry charges, and convictions are exceedingly rare, according to Karat and other experts (Sharma's case is still in the courts). Every year, about 6,000 women are killed -- often doused with kerosene and set on fire in staged kitchen "accidents" -- or harassed into suicide by husbands and in-laws angered by unmet dowry demands, according to government data.

A 2002 survey by the women's association found that the traditionally upper-caste institution of dowry was becoming more prevalent in India and was spreading "across regions, castes and communities," said Karat, who attributes the trend to rising consumerism within the middle class. The survey was based on interviews with 10,000 people in 18 of India's 28 states.

Except for its denouement, Pooja's ordeal appears to have followed a familiar pattern.

Tiny and fine-boned, Pooja, who is finishing her last year of high school, looks younger than her 18 years. She is the oldest of three children and a native of Sayin, a farming village of about 200 families just outside the Hindu holy city of Varanasi -- also known as Banaras -- about 360 miles southeast of New Delhi, the capital. Her father, Omkar Pathak, owns a small shop selling betel nut, a mild stimulant.

Like most Indian parents, Pathak and his wife, Renu, considered it their duty to find a spouse for their child. Last summer, after canvassing friends and relatives, they found a promising candidate in Keshav Sharma, a political science student at Hindu University, where his father works as a gardener.

The families arranged a meeting at a temple, where Pooja and her future husband were permitted to speak privately for about three minutes. "I thought, 'He's a very good person,' " recalled Pooja, who would not see Keshav again until their wedding seven months later. Moreover, she added, "He was okay to look at."

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