Dowry dilemma

Hurtling through Kotagiri town we were struck by the expression on this fellow’s face.There is something majestic but also sad, shaggy and lonely about this dog. I can’t seem to put my finger on it.


I was initially going to say just this and nothing more about the picture but something was holding me back from publishing this post. I kept looking at the picture and felt that there was something more that I wanted to say, I just didn’t know what it was.

One could either see this street dog as an animal with not a care in the world. He has no commitments, no bills to pay, no exams to pass, no corner office to strive for, no kids to put through school. Or you could see him as alone in the world, constantly unsure and battling for territory, his next meal or a warm safe place from the cold. My view of his situation changes depending on what’s happened that day.

Today, I feel that this dog, despite his scrounging for food and safety has a lot more dignity than some of the poor in our country. It is every (privileged) Indian couple’s rite of passage that one day your domestic help/maid/servant will ask you for a loan. Whether it’s to pay off another loan, a family emergency or pay for a sister’s wedding. I’ve seen my parents do it, I’ve seen our friends have to do it and I naively thought we had escaped this upsetting practice that sadly as an employer is also my responsibility. It’s a horrible rite of passage, not even in the same universe as drinking, smoking, sex, tattoos.

Our domestic help asked us for Rs10,000 (US$182)  for her sister in law’s wedding. She lives in the servant’s quarters behind our house with her husband who is our gardener and their two small children. The practice is that you reduce their salary by an agreed amount every month till the money is returned, interest free of course. In her case it would be Rs1000 a month for the next 10 months. That would mean that her family of 4 have to live on Rs1200 a month. Forget that we give them at least 7 kg of rice and 7kgs of atta a month free, they still have to pay Rs1000 (US$18) to send their daughter to school every month (she’s 6 years old).  After paying back our loan and the daughter’s school fees (which does not include the fees for books and uniform), they will effectively have Rs.200 (US$3.6) to live off. They also have a son who is just about to start kindergarten. Incidentally, the husband, our gardener earns about Rs6000 a month. What they do with their money I have no idea because clearly they are not saving.

After this episode some basic financial education is required. They actually need to put up Rs.50,000 (US$910), out of a total Rs100,000 for which they have secured 40,000 by selling off their ancestral agricultural fields in their village. It’s been sold to a local land owner, possibly with no documentation and at a much lower value than it is worth. There goes his children’s inheritance and future security. I have to admit that we are not close with our domestic help and their work is definitely not up to scratch. Perhaps if we liked them and trusted them more, this decision would not have been so difficult (and again, I hate to admit, annoying, disturbing, ruining the peace, forcing us to confront the realities of other people’s misery)

These are the facts of the case. My dilemma is that I am completely against the practice of giving money for dowry, which is what this money is going towards. I have heard too many stories of husbands and their families extorting money from the bride and that is a horrible way to start a relationship. Everyone deserves to have a decent wedding but there’s a limit to this dowry nonsense. It’s one of the reasons this country is where it is – because of inane customs that breed inequality and desperate poverty. Is it only education that makes us realise that opulence when facing penury isn’t worth it? Worst of all I will not allow someone’s dowry to eclipse a little girl’s chance of going to an English medium school. The rampant practice of dowry has to stop.

By the 1960 Prohibition of Dowry Act, the act of demanding, giving and  receiving dowry before, during or after the wedding  is illegal with a fine of Rs15,000 or the value of the dowry whichever is more and a 5 year prison sentence. The parents of the girl can give her items to make married life easier and this is called Stree Dhan or wife’s property. Even if she gives those items to her husband or his family, they are only trustees of it and have to give it back to her when she demands. The latter I’m sure does not always happen, unless when under police escort. The parents can give the couple gifts and in order for that not to be construed as dowry, the items have to be written down with a lawyer present.

The other thing that irked us was that the husband was looking a little smarmy through this and it was his wife that was looking deeply distressed about where to get the money from. We were suspicious as to whether this was really for a wedding or had they gotten in to some trouble with a moneylender. Why should this woman be so desperately concerned about her husband’s sister, the same man who she claims gets drunk and has beat her in the past? The amount of money, the reason for needing it and the entire culture that we would be perpetuating was making my skin crawl and blood boil. We later learned from our translator who speaks Telugu and Hindi and been working in the area for over 10 years that in Telugu society, the husband’s wife has to care for his family now like her own and the onus is on her to get their half of the money organised for the girl’s wedding. That’s why she was looking so intensely worried because then her life would be made miserable by her husband’s family and her husband, possibly.

So after much head scratching and soul searching I realised that both the DH and  I have the same perspective on the issue and we were not getting anywhere. Essentially we felt that Rs.10,000 was too much and that giving it for dowry was out of the question. I called an old friend because she’s always able to give me a new perspective on these sorts of issues. And it was good we spoke.

She said that whatever money we give, we should be comfortable with the amount which we were not. Second, she said if they are using it for some other purpose and they have repeatedly lied to you about it then you have to take their word and believe that the universe will serve them a very bad case of diarrhoea as pay back. We don’t need to right all the wrongs people do – the universe can take care of itself. Third she said to prevent this sort of thing happening again take the money that they are paying you back every month (that we are cutting from their salary) and put it in to a bank account in the name of the wife and daughter. That way, the money is available in a time of emergency and they will learn the value of saving. We talked about many things and finally the DH and I took her advice and came up with a plan.

We would give them only half of the money they asked for for the wedding, so Rs.5000 which they would pay back every month for the next 5 months by cutting Rs.1000 from their wages. The other thing we will do is pay the next 5 months of the little girl’s tuition fees, which is Rs.5000, which they do not have to pay us back for. We will also open a bank account in my name and the little girl’s name and put Rs5000 in to a fixed deposit. This is so that neither her father nor her mother can touch that money or coerce her to take it out.When she turns 18 she can do whatever she wants with the money. If it grows at a measly 5% she’ll have around Rs.15,000 (US$273) in 13 years’ time.

So effectively we are giving them the Rs.10,000 they asked for, without asking for it back, but giving it for a purpose that we feel more comfortable with. In the end I think it worked out nicely, despite it being such a sad thing that we even have to do this, that they have no place to turn to, no NGO, no SHG no government. We cannot expect that we can end this horrible custom of dowry using this girl as an example because she will suffer the consequences and not us. If she doesn’t show up to her husband’s house with a table, gold, a steel cupboard, and a fridge or TV then she’ll be constantly beaten, verbally abused and ostracised by her husband’s family. Many new brides commit suicide because they just can’t take it any more. We will not be the ones getting beaten and looked down upon. It’s a classic catch-22 – if we give her the money for dowry we are perpetuating this evil social custom and if we don’t she’ll get beaten and abused. What avenue is there for people who know that others are giving/demanding dowry. Do we go to the police? I’m not sure what the policy is on that one.

This gardener of ours has 5 sisters, each for whom he has sold off bits of high yielding agricultural land to pay their dowries. Would he have been better off in the village, working the land and while it’s not a well paying job at least he wouldn’t be living in urban poverty. According to P.Sainath is yesterday’s Hindu, he would be three times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else in the country (other than farmers). The farmer suicide rate in India in 2013 is 47% more than what is was in 2011. Urban poor, rural hopelessness and despicable social customs – how will it all end.

The DH and I have known each other since we were kids. SOmetimes we still feel like kids making grown up decisions… this was one of them. I’m voting for the dog’s life today.

About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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6 Responses to Dowry dilemma

  1. Butku says:

    Gayu this was wonderfully written… After reading this I feel equally troubled, lucky, and quite helpless, which shows that you’ve really hit the nail on the head! It’s so hard to know what the correct thing to do is sometimes, and I understand exactly what you mean about being annoyed and disturbed that you’re forced to confront something you would rather just avoid. I think you’ve done a really good thing by opening an account for the little girl. Let’s just hope she is able to do something good with it when the time comes.

  2. Alka ganesg says:

    I have always hated this business of giving loans and having to cut it from their salary because it leaves them so little for that month. Also, like you, one always suspected it was for something other than what they said it was for. My way of doing it was this I gave all the money to my gardener as a donation, and insisted that he furnish the receipts for school tuition fees etc. by not asking for the repayment he felt indebted to me, and that made him feel humiliated, and it was enough to prevent him from asking for another loan. I offered to pay this money to him every year if it was for school fees, but oddly he never asked, so I suspect, that was not the real reason. I am not sure how correct this way is, but I feel that it is better to increase the salary of our helpers who we pay poorly. Every time I got a salary raise i passed it on to my maid as well. In the end, my maid stayed with me till we retired, and was the highest paid maid in the campus, with the effect that when I retired, she then became unemployable, as no one else would agree to pay so much, even though they could have afforded to. Now, though she no longer works for me I give her 30 per cent of her salary as a pension which will continue for 10 years after my retirement. It is complicated, because of income disparities, desperate need, alcoholism, social customs of dowry, moneylending at high interest rates etc. etc. my way is, cut through everything and pay out generously with the understanding that you are not going to give loans, period. I do not buy the argument that every one is not well off enough to pay servants a lot. If we look at an average middle class spending habits it is clear that we all can pay servants a lot more than we do. Alka ganesh

    • THank you for sharing your experiences. We could pay our servants more. Two things hold us back. One is because of where we live (the organisation) there are rates laid down for each task they do. Second, while some people pay more because the servant looks after the children & is at the person’s beck and call, in our case, we don’t really trust them and there is no love loss between us. I am constantly after them for the simplest of things that have been explained hundreds of times. To some that will just be an excuse rather than a legitimate reason. Your pension plan works for people who have really looked after your family and that’s a really good method of keeping them financially solvent even after they are not working for you. The level of education is so low that basic financial understanding is non-existant. It is my responsibility to teach them how to save, how to be aware of their expenditures. However, it is difficult when even basic numbers cannot be comprehended.

  3. Carrie says:

    I know I will sound like a spambot when I tell you “Wow – what a great post!” But I’m doing so anyway. It really caught me. I can identify with there being no easy answers to this one, just like with so many other things in life. Also, I can totally identify with the dog, just sitting there … ha, ha. Don’t get me wrong. It’s because of the mood in the picture, which reflects my mood today as so many other days, I guess – and all the connotations that can be derived from such a picture. Your post wouldn’t have resonated as much without it, and it was well chosen for that reason. I hope it does that for others as well.

    This whole problem with deep poverty and oppression makes me want to hide my head somewhere. Because I wish I could do something, but I really don’t feel I can do all that much… I remember, when I traveled in South America over 10 years ago, I would have these really long conversations with myself about whether or not I contributed to poverty by tipping beggars. What if it just ‘taught them’ to beg. Or was I a evil capitalist asshole for thinking that? First world problems … talk about it. And it was all too much thinking, I admit, and the case in point is a lot less important … but there is a similarity, isn’t there?

    Thanks for writing about this.

    P.S. Notify me if you don’t want me using your pic in my post about your post, okay?

    • Thank you for your thoughts. YOu are welcome to use the picture as long as you put a link to my blog and give the appropriate credit.
      There are no easy answers to Poverty

      • Carrie says:

        Thanks! I hope I do’ed it the right way.

        My dad used to say that poor people would not be (so) poor, if they just “worked harder”. He never went to Bolivia, though. Or India.

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