Like many women in parts of India, Savita Chaudhry was a child bride, married at the age of 3 to a boy two years her senior, then sent home to grow up. In keeping with the customs of their agrarian caste, the two were expected to move in together after reaching adulthood.
No one anticipated that Chaudhry, 22, would decide to challenge the system.
Last year, the willowy young woman with the flashing dark eyes refused the entreaties of her "husband" and his family to join them in their village, several hundred miles from this small city in western India where she runs the family grocery shop. She is paying a steep price.
Not only does Chaudhry accuse her would-be in-laws of demanding money in exchange for her freedom, but the leaders of her caste -- a powerful informal council known as a caste panchayat -- have also threatened Chaudhry and her family with the ultimate sanction of excommunication, or ejection from the caste. Such an outcome would rob the family of its social standing and damage the marriage prospects of Chaudhry's 18-year-old brother, among other things.
"If they can't honor the commitment, society will ostracize them," said Bhawar Lal, a member of the council, which claims jurisdiction in the case. "The penalty will be a heavy one. She has to understand that she hasn't even lived with him for one day, and she's complaining about him. It's definitely set a bad example."
The young woman's dilemma shows the enduring power of India's caste system -- the rigid social hierarchy that is integral to the Hindu faith -- even in the face of modernizing forces such as globalization and rapid economic growth. In particular, it underscores the central role of the caste panchayats, which operate in much of rural India as a kind of parallel justice system, especially on family matters such as marriage and inheritance.
Typically composed of five men, these unelected councils have for centuries served as the main arbiters of life in villages across rural India. In the decades since independence from Britain in 1947, the central government has sought to replace them with a more representative system of elected village bodies called gram panchayats. The new system seeks to counter discrimination by reserving some seats for women and other vulnerable groups, such as the casteless Indians known as untouchables.
Combined with urbanization and improved education, such efforts have eroded the standing of traditional councils in some areas and help explain Savita Chaudhry's willingness to challenge an edict that once would have been heeded without question.
Still, breaking the stranglehold of the traditional councils on rural life is no easy task. In part, some experts say, that is because many politicians have come to rely on the councils to deliver blocs of votes at election time. About two-thirds of India's billion-plus people still live in rural villages, where caste loyalties are supreme.
Because of their undemocratic nature, the caste councils tend to be dominated by powerful local interests, such as landlords, and are frequently implicated in incidents of persecution and violence. Penalties are often directed against those who break the rules on marriage, perhaps by eloping with someone from a lower caste. Indian newspapers regularly carry stories of star-crossed "lovebirds" who have been stripped naked, shorn of their hair and sometimes tortured to death on the orders of local caste leaders.
"Everything to do with household and family, all the intra-family disputes, is still very much controlled by the caste panchayats," said Ranjana Kumari, the head of the Center for Social Research in New Delhi, who asserts that women are usually the victims in such cases. "This very undemocratic, very patriarchal and extremely hierarchical system should be abolished."
One of three children, Savita Chaudhry grew up in Himatnagar, a sleepy industrial city of about 100,000 people in the western state of Gujarat, about 300 miles southwest of New Delhi. She studied through the ninth grade, then joined her father in the family's grocery shop, which occupies a front room of their small brick house on a dusty street choked with motor scooters and ambling livestock. She took over the business after her father's death in March.
The Chaudhrys belong to a farming caste from the neighboring state of Rajasthan. Her parents were born in Rajasthan and moved here as a young couple. Like many Indians who migrate to urban areas, the Chaudhrys have retained their ties to their ancestral home as well as to their caste, which includes about 37 families in Himatnagar. By tradition, if not law, these families are answerable to caste panchayats in both Rajasthan and Himatnagar.
Savita Chaudhry's predicament dates to her early childhood, when one of her grandfathers in Rajasthan approached a neighbor and proposed, " 'Let's get your grandson married to my granddaughter,' " she said indignantly. Her grandfather then sealed the bargain by presenting the boy's family with a coconut.
Chaudhry and her parents then traveled to her father's village in Rajasthan, where she was married to 5-year-old Pappu, who uses just one name, in a ceremony performed by a Hindu priest. She was one of 26 children in the village who got married that day in 1985, which coincided with a Hindu festival considered auspicious for weddings. Child marriage is illegal in India but is still widely practiced in Rajasthan and several other states.
In symbolic consummation of the union, the bewildered 3-year-old spent the night at the groom's house, then returned with her parents to Himatnagar. "I don't consider myself married," said Chaudhry, who has no memory of the ceremony. "I was 3 years old. It was more like a game than a marriage."
Nevertheless, the families remained in loose touch; two years ago, Chaudhry decided that she wanted to get to know the man to whom she had been pledged as a child. For the first time in eight years, she said, the couple got together at the home of her uncle in the southern city of Bangalore, where Pappu worked in a sari shop. But the reunion did not go well.
For openers, she recalled, Pappu asked her to borrow $1,825 in rupees from her father on his behalf, then chided her for not covering her hair in his presence. "It made a very bad impression on me," Chaudhry said. "He was okay-looking, to be honest, but his conversation made no sense."
Soon afterward, Chaudhry tore up Pappu's photograph and told her parents she would not go to live with him, a decision they supported. But he and his family insisted that she honor her commitment and move to their village in Rajasthan, members of both families recalled.
Hoping for a peaceful resolution, Chaudhry's parents traveled last December to Rajasthan and offered the family $2,280 in rupees to end the relationship, according to Savita Chaudhry's mother, Patashi.
"It's a custom within our caste," she explained. "If the girl doesn't want to marry the boy, the girl's family pays them off." But Patashi Chaudhry said the man's family refused the offer, insisting on four times the amount offered.
In a telephone interview from Rajasthan, Pappu's mother, Kelki Devi, denied that the family had asked for money. But she acknowledged that they had pressed their "daughter-in-law" to join them in their village, and that they took the matter to the caste panchayat when she refused.
"Finding wives for my three sons wasn't easy," she said. "We didn't want to involve the caste panchayat, but what are we to do?" Pappu, now working in Bombay, could not be reached for comment.
The panchayat in Rajasthan sided with Pappu's family and referred the matter to the caste council in Himatnagar, which last month summoned the young woman's mother to its meeting place at a Hindu temple and threatened her with excommunication.
"These things are not good for the community," explained Lal, 38, the member of the Himatnagar panchayat and a labor foreman. "They have to understand it's not so easy to break off a relationship."
But Savita Chaudhry said she was determined to do just that, having fallen in love with another man. "It's very unfair," she said of the council's threats. "I'm not some cow or goat."
Special correspondent Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi contributed to this report.