Sati in India

BOOKS: Burning issue of women’s rights



DEATH BY FIRE: Sati, Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in Modern India by Mala Sen

The event that prompted Mala Sen to write this book took place in the north-western state of Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan, in 1987. An 18-year-old woman, Roop Kanwar, whose husband had died suddenly, was burned alive on his funeral pyre in the village of Deorala in front of a large crowd. After her death, she was hailed as a Sati Mata, which translates as “pure mother,” even though she was childless, and a shrine was set up on the site of her immolation. A social worker who visited the village a few days later found most of the inhabitants insisting that Roop Kanwar’s death was “a voluntary act of heroic courage” which had turned her into a goddess and given her the power to answer their prayers. The man was unconvinced, especially when a very different version of the story began to emerge, in which Roop Kanwar had been buried under a heavy load of firewood to prevent her escape. According to the poorer inhabitants of the village, many of whom did not dare speak openly for fear of offending the dead woman’s well-to-do father-in-law, she had screamed and begged for help as the flames consumed her. When newspaper reports appeared to confirm these findings, the police went into action, arresting members of her family and her husband’s doctor.

Three weeks after the event, the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, finally made a public statement declaring that sati — the practice of widow-burning outlawed in India by the British in 1829 — was “a public shame.” His condemnation, both belated and tersely worded, amounted to confirmation that sati was a controversial subject and far from universally opposed in modern India. Indeed, only the day before, the leader of the Hindu fundamentalist party, the BJP, had spoken in support of the custom at a rally in Deorala. Its opponents, he claimed, were bazaari aurate, street women with “loose” morals who could not understand a widow’s devotion to her dead husband.

The case dragged on for years, until Roop Kanwar’s closest male relatives were finally acquitted of her murder, apparently because of an absence of witnesses. By then Mala Sen, who was born in India but lives in England, had visited the village many times and gained the confidence of the dead woman’s father-in-law. Her account of her visits, and of the man’s conflicting claims about the event and its aftermath, paint a damning picture of the position of women in Rajput society; during their final conversation, she begins to suspect that the source of the family’s visibly increasing wealth might be the money raised, but never used, to build a temple in memory of Roop Kanwar.

Worn out by these frustrating exchanges, Mala Sen decides not to ask any more questions, arriving instead at the book’s apparently despairing conclusion: “In these parts, men ruled supreme and women were in for a bitter war that would probably have to rage for generations, with many falling by the wayside, both the born and the unborn.” The final phrase is a reference to two other practices described in the book, the use of selective abortion (by the rich) and infanticide (by the poor) to get rid of unwanted daughters. She also touches on dowry deaths, the practice of killing wives, often by setting them on fire, if their dowry is considered inadequate, allowing their husbands to marry again.

Death by Fire is likely to be as unwelcome in India as Shekar Kapur’s film based on Mala Sen’s earlier book, about the bandit queen Phoolan Devi. But the focus of Mala Sen’s new book is not one individual but women in general. In a shocking indictment of the prevalence of lethal misogynist customs throughout Indian society, she points out a startling gender imbalance in the population: there are currently 917 females for every 1,000 males.

One of the most affecting stories in the book is that of a woman called Selvi, whose bridegroom agreed to accept her small house as a dowry, even though she had wrecked her marriage prospects by having a child by another man. The marriage was unhappy and one evening, during a quarrel, he tipped kerosene over the back of her sari and set her alight. Selvi ran to her mother’s house, where her brother rolled her in a blanket to smother the flames. The burns took five months to heal, yet she was too afraid to go to the police and incriminate her husband.

This litany of horror stories makes grim reading, yet it is made bearable by Mala Sen’s sympathetic presence in the text. What she describes, during a series of trips to India to research the book, is the everyday difficulties that confronted her as a woman, from travelling alone to persuading un-co-operative witnesses to take her seriously. Her tenacity and exhaustion, combined with her frank admiration for the campaigners she meets, are as affecting as any amount of conventional political analysis. The result is that rare thing, a narrative that is at once horrifying and quietly inspirational.

Copyright 2001 The Financial Times Limited
Financial Times (London)
March 31, 2001, Saturday London Edition 1

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