In the early afternoon of Aug. 12, 1983, on a gray, sweltering day during the worst of the summer monsoon, the 30-year-old wife of a scooter cab driver was doused with kerosene and set on fire. The burning occurred at her home, in the working-class neighborhood of Karol Bagh, in a small, dark entrance way leading from her front door to an inner courtyard. Her screams could be heard in the street.
The woman ran out the door and threw herself into a pool of water that had collected from the heavy rains. Her husband lifted her out of the gutter, put her in his cab, and drove her to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. She was admitted with burns over 60 percent of her body. Dr. S.C. Jha, the chief of the burns unit, says that with these kinds of burns, most people die.
But this woman lived. Three months and five days later she was discharged from the hospital, with deep scars on her legs, arms, neck, upper chest, stomach and back. Only her breasts and face were untouched.
The woman says her husband and his sister did it to her. "My husband was holding my hair, and my sister-in-law poured the kerosene on me," she says. Then she says her husband guarded the door as her sister-in-law lit the match.
"Afterward," she says, "my husband told me that if he had known I was going to survive, he would never have taken me to the hospital." She says they tried to kill her because she had not brought enough dowry to the marriage, even though she says she had already given them furniture, a television, a refrigerator, jewelry and cash. She says her husband beat her regularly, and charges that he was having affairs with other women, including his own sister.
The husband and his sister say the woman did it to herself. The husband says he was not at home, and the sister says she was having tea upstairs when she heard screams from below. "She was shouting, 'I'm burning, I'm dying,' " the sister says. She says she has a normal relationship with her brother. Both suggest that the wife was mentally unstable and suspect she may have been having an affair with her uncle. They say she is blaming them for a suicide attempt as revenge for her unhappiness in the house. They never asked her for dowry, they say, and in any case, she had brought them nothing.
The husband has been charged with assault, and the sister-in-law with attempted murder. The trial is set to begin in New Delhi's Sessions Court today.
"Bride burning," as it is known in India, is a household phrase for a form of murder that has grown to epidemic proportions. Last year in New Delhi alone, the police report that 460 women died of burns under suspicious circumstances. This is a decrease from previous years, but women's rights groups say the statistics may be misleading because so many crimes go unreported.
The usual scenario is this: A wife is burned to death, usually in the first year of an arranged marriage, by her husband and in-laws, who are angry at what they consider an insufficient dowry. Once the woman is disposed of, a new bride who presumably will fulfil the dowry demands is found. Sometimes in-laws ask for cars, videotape recorders and thousands of dollars.
The in-laws tell the police the burning was a stove accident or suicide, and since it has taken place behind closed doors, there are no witnesses. The family is careful to destroy all the evidence, most of which has gone up in flames. It is difficult to make a case, which is why burning is such a popular form of murder. Another is its practicality. "Kerosene exists in every household," says Vina Mazumdar, a social historian. "Burning is the easiest."
The case of the wife of the scooter cab driver that comes up in New Delhi Sessions Court today is not celebrated. On the surface, it is remarkable only for its ordinariness, and for the fact that the woman survived. There are no famous lawyers nor outraged women's groups involved. Neither side of the family is especially articulate, and during the course of several interviews, the wife is caught in a number of contradictions. Although she has to be seen as the victim, even if she tried to kill herself, she is not always a sympathetic one. "After two slaps from me," she says proudly, referring to her frequent quarrels with her husband, "he couldn't even get up off the floor."
And yet, a close look at this case shows that it is not so ordinary after all. Dowry is only one question. What went wrong in this family is more subtle, and, in that sense, is a more accurate illustration of what it is like to struggle and aspire in working-class India in the 1980s. It shows how a family reacts under the enormous pressures of overpopulation and rampant consumerism. It shows how women feel trapped by archaic custom in miserable marriages and why some see suicide as the only way out.
"When I'm talking to women," says Kanwaljit Deol, the woman who runs the New Delhi police department's antidowry division, "Sometimes they'll casually say, 'Well, if there's nothing to be done about my marriage, I'll just kill myself.' " Deol says suicides by burning are more common than clear-cut dowry deaths, and she thinks the ancient tradition of sati, in which a proper Hindu widow was expected to immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre, has seeped down and been reinterpreted by the desperate 20th-century bride. Sometimes a bride will even burn herself to get back at her husband, Deol says -- a statement that infuriates women's rights activists like Subhadra Butalia, who actually saw a husband burn his wife across the street from her home in 1978. "Why should a woman burn herself to commit suicide?" Butalia says. "Why torture yourself like that?"
In the case of the scooter-cab driver's wife, it is virtually impossible to know what really happened. But that in itself is to understand a little bit more. At the least, the story shows why bride burnings are so difficult to prosecute, and how in unhappy families there is no one "typical" case.
The names of the wife, the husband and his sister have been changed.
Surinder, the wife, is a tall, slim and pretty woman, with long hair pulled back in a bun. Most of her scars are hidden by her long-sleeved tunics and loose-fitting pants, but there is still rippled, splotched skin visible on her hands and neck. At a first meeting she is demure and distrustful. Later she is angrier and bolder, and lifts her tunic and pants to show the horrible scars on her stomach and calves. She says she is still in some pain. Twice she cries when she recalls how she was treated at her in-laws' home.
"I'm unlucky that I'm still alive," she says bitterly. "I wish I were dead."
This is her side of the story. She tells it while sitting on the floor of the one-room, rooftop shed she now lives in with her sister and brother in Raghubir Nagar, a lower-class neighborhood near the outskirts of New Delhi. Her two children, ages 4 and 5, live with her husband. She would like to have them with her, but she feels too weak to care for them.
She speaks in Punjabi, her mother tongue, the language of the state of Punjab. She is a Sikh, a member of a religious minority that broke away from Hinduism 500 years ago. The interpreter is Renuka Singh, a doctoral candidate in sociology.
The problems all started, Surinder begins, on her wedding day -- Sept. 30, 1979. "I never wanted to marry him in the first place," she says. She had seen the groom once before. "So-so," she remembers thinking of his looks. She had a bad feeling about him and tried to object, but after 10 days gave in to family pressure. The groom in fact was in her family -- his sister had married one of Surinder's uncles years before. Marriages between nonblood relatives are not uncommon in India.
Surinder had grown up in another uncle's home, a small house a five-minute walk from the shed she lives in now. "I've never been so happy," she says. Her parents had sent her there when she was 4 because they couldn't afford to keep her on the north Indian farm where they struggled to make a living. The uncle, her mother's brother, was a scooter-cab driver and in a good month could make $100.
Surinder's job was to take care of her grandfather, her mother's recently widowed father. She cooked and cleaned for him, never learning to read and write. In the evenings she would go to the neighborhood Sikh temple to listen to the religious songs.
"There were no worries," she says. "I ate, I wore nice clothes, I lived well."
The marriage soured as soon as it began. Surinder's dowry had been loaded up on a bus and taken to her in-laws' home on the wedding night, but the next morning, she says, "the whole drama started. When the family saw the dowry, they said, 'You've hardly got anything.' "
She says they harassed her day after day. Sometimes they would go to her uncle's house and demand large sums of cash. When they didn't get it, she says, they would beat her. They beat her again when her first child was born, a girl, because she had not given birth to a boy.
She was lighter skinned than all the women in her in-laws' extended family, which she says made the resentments worse. "My color mattered to them," she says. "They were jealous because I was beautiful."
They treated her as a virtual slave in the house, she says, forcing her into round-the-clock cooking and cleaning. "Sometimes they even locked the refrigerator so I wouldn't be able to drink anything," she says.
Sociologists say that in traditional Indian homes, the new daughter-in-law always has the lowest status. Beatings are not supposed to be part of this. But a husband often refrains from speaking to his wife in front of the family during the day. In some cases, the mother-in-law will keep the newlyweds from sleeping together at the outset. "The son is the great aspiration of the mother and serves her emotional needs," says Yogendra Singh, a leading sociologist. The theory is that the mother-in-law has missed out on emotional intimacy in her own arranged marriage, and so has turned to her son. In mistreating her daughter-in-law, she is simply repeating what was done to her by her own mother-in-law a generation before.
Surinder's mother-in-law died in 1981, two years after the wedding, when a truck hit her. Her father-in-law had died in 1967. Although the deaths might have brought some peace to Surinder's life, she instead grew even more threatened by the other women in the house. She says she became convinced that her husband was sleeping with the wife of his older brother. He himself had told Surinder there were others.
"He told me he would only come to me when other women weren't available," she says. "I didn't enjoy sleeping with him." She became angrier when she discovered he was giving money to the older brother's wife, and also to his own sister, Amrita. The sister had recently come back to live in the house because her own marriage was ending, and she needed financial and emotional support. Soon Surinder was certain her husband was sleeping with his own sister as well.
By August 1983, Surinder says, the tension had become unbearable. During one fight the husband and his sister had thrown kerosene on Surinder. She was sure they were going to kill her. A few months before, a New Delhi judge had handed down the first death sentence in a dowry case, and now everyone in the neighborhood was talking about bride burning. Every day there seemed to be another story in the newspapers about a young woman who had died in a stove "accident."
On Aug. 12, 1983, Surinder was at home feeling weak and feverish after donating blood for a relative in the hospital. Her 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son were with her. Also at home were her husband and his sister.
Around 2:30 p.m. another fight erupted. Surinder says her husband and the sister began beating her. Her husband held her, his sister poured the kerosene, and this time Surinder fell to the floor in exhaustion. Her husband went to guard the door as his sister threw the match. Surinder says she doesn't remember where it hit or how it ignited. All she remembers is that she ran, flaming, past her husband at the door. "He just let me go on," she says. "When you're burning, nobody wants to touch you." She threw herself into the gutter.
On the way to the hospital, she was still conscious. "My husband told me that if I blamed him, he would kill all my uncles," she says. This is why, she says, she never named him in two separate statements she made that night in the hospital. She first told a police investigator and then a court representative that her husband had beaten her but left the house. Her sister-in-law, she said, acted alone.
This is the reason her husband is charged with assault and her sister-in-law with attempted murder. Judges say that one of the most difficult things about prosecuting bride-burning cases is that many women are reluctant to implicate their husbands. Additional Session Judge S.M. Aggarwal, who handed down the death sentence in the earlier bride burning case and who has ruled on three dozen others, says that even if a husband has tried to kill his wife, she will often feel it is her duty "to serve him, and not cause him any harm."
Surinder is not like that these days. "I'm glad I survived," she says defiantly. She says she lives for the revenge on her husband and sister-in-law. "Now I'm a thorn in their flesh," she says.
Manjit, the husband, is a slight, sad-eyed man. As a Sikh he wears a turban and has a medium-length black beard. He speaks in Punjabi through the same interpreter. He is less angry than his wife, but sees himself as the victim. He and his sister were in jail for more than a month before they were released on bail. When he finally came home, the neighbors told him his children had been eating from the gutters in the street. Now, he says, he has had to send them to a boarding school he can hardly afford.
"I am all alone," he says. "I have no one to cook for me."
This is his side of the story. He and his sister talk in the house in Karol Bagh, where the burning occurred, in a small, dark bedroom that opens on to the central courtyard. Sometimes he is so passive that he seems almost uninterested, other times he gets tears in his eyes when he asks why his life was destined to turn out this way. "My faith has been broken totally," he says. "I just want to die now."
The problems started in the very beginning of the marriage. His new wife had brought no dowry, and yet he hadn't complained. "We knew she was poor," he says. He thought she'd be happy in the house, the same one he'd been born in 30 years before. It was old, but still much larger than where she'd been living before. And it was close to the large markets of Karol Bagh, where women from all over New Delhi came to shop. Manjit's father had worked in those markets as a vegetable seller, an immigrant who had settled in New Delhi after the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan drove him from the border state of Punjab. It was a move that would instill in his offspring, like millions of others, a feeling that they were refugees in their own land.
Manjit's new wife was soon complaining all the time. "She used to get angry about every little thing," he says. And yet she didn't even have to cook for a large family, like most new brides. After his mother died, it was just himself and the children. His two brothers and their wives kept to themselves upstairs; his sister Amrita would only come by for visits.
But his wife became very jealous of his relationship with his sister, even though he was just trying to help her out. His sister had left her husband, and she desperately needed money. Surinder hated it when he gave it to her. "She wanted to control my brother," says Amrita.
As it was, Manjit was working night and day, trying to make $100 a month for his own wife and children. And he was never unfaithful.
"I treated her as nicely as possible," he says.
But still she would get angry. One night when he came home at 11 for dinner she gave him cold vegetables and bread. When he told her to heat it up, she became furious.
Sometimes after their fights she would go back to her uncle's home. Manjit began to wonder about the two of them. Was it her uncle she wanted? Had there been a relationship before the marriage? He began to think about it all the time, but never confronted her.
Among lower-middle-class families in India, some psychologists say, affairs with relatives are considered less scandalous than affairs with people outside the home. They are at least believed to be more common. For one thing, there is less of a chance that the affair will be discovered in the community and talked about. For another, the Indian extended family is a tightly knit, insular group, with much closer relationships than families have in the West. Even Sudhir Kakar, an Indian psychoanalyst who has a middle- and upper-middle-class practice, says that of his patients who are having affairs, most are with extended family members.
In August 1983, Manjit says, there was another terrible fight. Surinder had been behaving strangely -- beating their small daughter, and once even threatening to burn the child. But this time, Surinder poured kerosene on herself and said she wanted to commit suicide. "Then she called her uncle," Manjit says, "and told him that I had poured kerosene on her and was trying to kill her."
Some days later, on Aug. 12, Surinder was at home feeling weak and feverish after donating blood for a relative. Manjit had gone to the hospital to pick her up, and found her there in the relatives' room, whispering in a corner with her uncle. When the two saw Manjit they stopped. "Why did they stop whispering when I got there?" he asks. He was now almost certain there was something between them.
At home that day, his wife was even angrier than usual. Manjit felt he could no longer control her, and grew more and more worried that she really would try to kill herself. Finally, in desperation, he left the house and went a few doors down to "auntie's," an old family friend. He wanted to ask her what could be done for his wife.
It was while he was there that he heard the screams. He rushed home, picked his wife out of the gutter and drove her to the hospital. When he got there the doctors wanted to know what had happened.
"Whatever I tell you," he said, "You won't believe it."
Judging from the court and police records so far, there appears to be no direct evidence to support either side of the story. What exists in the file is circumstantial: A swatch of the clothing worn by Surinder the day she burned was sent to a police lab for analysis, and was determined to contain kerosene. And on Aug. 11, the day before the burning, Surinder had gone to the neighborhood police station and lodged a complaint that her husband was beating and starving her.
It appears from the inspecting officer's report that the police did not interview neighbors or witnesses at the scene. It appears from the court file that investigators did not collect evidence in the house, although a police photographer did take some pictures of the interior. And yet, the investigation took four months -- a month longer than the maximum supposedly allowed.
"The police take their time, and wait for the accused to bribe them," charges Subhadra Butalia, the women's rights activist. "Other times, it's a lack of interest or lack of a proper investigation. The courts insist upon evidence, but without it, the court must give the benefit of the doubt to the accused."
Even so, lawyers and judges say Surinder's testimony in court will have considerable weight. "In burning cases, usually the sympathies are with the wife," says K.K. Sud, the lawyer for Surinder's husband and sister-in-law. "The presumption is that a woman would not want to burn herself, or not want to disturb her home and two children by making a false accusation against the husband." This case, he says, "will be difficult. It is easier to build a defense when the person is dead. When the injured has survived to speak, that's a strong piece of evidence."
What really happened here? Is it possible, as this lawyer alleges, that Surinder had only planned to burn herself a little bit so she could blame her husband and sister-in-law? Is that why there were no burns on her breasts and face? Did she become horrified when her plan got out of hand?
Or, as she maintains, had the family's resentment against her been building for years -- first because the dowry wasn't enough, then because her firstborn wasn't a boy, then because of false suspicions of an affair with her uncle? Did the husband and his sister want to get rid of her so they could have each other and control the house -- and find a new bride with a large dowry?
Or maybe it is a combination of the two. In the fury and confusion of the fight on Aug. 12, did Surinder pour kerosene on herself, threaten to commit suicide -- and then, in a rage, did her husband or sister-in-law throw the match and do it for her? Or did they pour the kerosene, and did Surinder then light the match?
"Even after everything that's happened, I still want her to come back to me," says her husband. "She is the most wonderful person that anyone could have."
"The day that he and his sister are put behind bars," says his wife, "I'll be happy."