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For Bride, Dowry Is Deal Breaker

Dowry figured prominently in the negotiations between the two families, according to Omkar Pathak. At first, he said, the Sharmas asked for about $1,200 in rupees as well as a Honda motorcycle, watch, gold ring, color television and video player. The families eventually settled on the lesser sum of about $700 and a cheaper brand of motorcycle and agreed that the color television and video player could wait until a few months after the wedding, Pathak said.

"The father of a daughter is a helpless creature," he explained. "Even if the father does not believe in dowry, he has to bow down, because he has to think of his daughter's happiness."

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)

On the night of the wedding ceremony, things seemed to go well. Colored lights glowed above the dirt yard outside the Pathak family's modest home, and a band greeted the arrival of the groom's procession. Later, about 500 guests dined on lentil stew and tamarind chutney as a loudspeaker blared Bollywood songs. Some guests lingered for the fire ritual, which lasted until about 4 a.m., when the bride retired to her home and the groom and his family left for a nearby community hall.

Two hours later, Keshav and his father returned to collect Pooja and her belongings, which she had packed into four suitcases in preparation for the move to the Sharmas' home on the other side of the city. The bride's parents fed their new son-in-law a ritual breakfast of yogurt and jaggery, a confection made from molasses. But the mood quickly soured, Renu Pathak said, when the elder Sharma and his son made clear that they expected a television and video player on the spot.

The bride's parents tried to be conciliatory, they and witnesses said. Clasping their hands in the Hindu gesture of submission, they pleaded that they had given more than they could afford and promised to provide the additional items as soon as they could.

But the Sharmas would not be placated. "The son said, 'We haven't asked for anything big,' " recalled Aparna Dwivedi, who runs a nonprofit social welfare group that employs Pooja as a volunteer and had stopped by the village that morning to wish her well. "The boy's father was standing there and using a lot of foul, abusive language."

When the bride's father sought to underscore his desperation by kneeling to touch the elder Sharma's feet, he was kicked, according to a police report.

Pooja, who had been listening from the rooftop, said she finally decided to take matters into her own hands. Still wearing her wedding sari, she stormed downstairs to confront her new husband, who tried to blame his father for the standoff.

But Pooja was having none of it. "You just get out of here," she said she declared, threatening to hit Keshav with her shoes. "I was very angry," she recalled. "We had given so much, and yet their mouths were still open."

Pooja's anger had a galvanizing effect on her parents. Egged on by relatives, they decided that if their daughter and her dowry were not good enough for the Sharmas, then the two men might as well "enjoy the breeze in jail," as Pooja's mother put it. Omkar Pathak fetched the police, who arrested the Sharmas and held them for seven nights, after which they were released on bail.

In a recent interview, Keshav, 22, asserted that the bride's parents had given the motorcycle and cash on their own initiative, not as a condition of marriage, and denied that he or his father had insisted on the additional goods. He said he was still mystified as to the cause of the blowup. "We don't know what happened," he said. "My father is not the type who would demand."

Police officer V.K. Singh said several independent witnesses had corroborated the Pathaks' account. The elder Sharma, he added, acknowledged making the last-minute dowry demand when Singh spoke to him on the night he was taken into custody.

Despite the criminal charges hanging over the family, Keshav and his mother said they remained hopeful that Pooja would still agree to move in with them. That seems unlikely. For her gumption in standing up to the family, she has been feted by women's groups, honored by a state university and offered free training at a computer institute.

Besides, said Pooja, "I don't want to get married now. I want to finish my studies."

Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.

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