Kids Corner


The Cost of Gluttony



During a recent visit to India, I attended a wedding. It was, to put it succinctly, of the super-rich and the flamboyant. It was the "mother of all weddings".

An old palace, turned into a hotel, had been rented for the occasion. The guest list was comprised of New Delhi's rich and famous, as well as the movers and shakers in the country's political circles.

It was day five of the festivities and feasting. The actual wedding was still a couple of days away. The food bonanza offered each day would put a maharaja's chef to shame. Everything from casual fare like chaat phaat, to gourmet dishes like lobster and oysters, was flown in and freshly prepared in kiosks, which were dressed up like floats depicting the respective regions that the food came from.

I heard someone whisper that the bride's wedding dress had been designed in Pakistan by a karigar whose ancestors had once made coronation robes for Mughal princes.  I wondered aloud: how much did it all cost?  The annual salary of a few hundred people that work for the bride's dad, someone quipped.

For some reason, my mind went back to the previous evening's news that had turned my stomach. At a rally in Bhopal, little girls were shown carrying placards that highlighted the plight of aborted female fetuses. "But Why?" they screamed silently.

A helpless sadness engulfed me when the newscaster went on to say that Punjab was amongst the leading states where the medical community was abetting society-at-large in getting rid of unborn girls. 

"But why?", the tightness in my heart wanted to know.  In the land of Guru Nanak where, even five hundred years ago, female infanticide was condemned, sati was abolished, and widows encouraged to re-marry, why was the age-old oppression of women reaping a harvest of female foeticide?

What kind of pressure do these mothers face that changes them into ruthless murderers? What unnatural instinct makes them turn their wombs into graves? Wherefore has this ill wind taken on such a vicious might that a mother's nurturing milk of kindness can become a stream of blood?

If these heinous crimes, that have resulted in the ratio of less than eight hundred girls for a thousand boys, are not a slap across the very face of motherhood, what is?

Random thoughts flooded my mind as I sat nursing my virgin pina colada, in the old palace gardens where majestic queens once roamed in yesteryear.

I remembered, from childhood days, the scrawny old lady who came to pay her condolences to my aunt, at the birth of her third daughter.

I remembered the horrific facts that turned up while doing research for an article for The Hindustan Times on bride burning in the capital of India. Fake stove accidents, that covered up the deliberate pouring of kerosene on daughter-in-laws who were burnt alive, had become an epidemic in the late 70's and 80's.

I remembered our neighbor's daughter who was sent back home bruised and beaten the day after her wedding, because the parents could not provide a scooter in dowry. 

I remembered my stewardess friend who committed suicide after her mother-in-law forced her husband to take another wife, because my friend had not given birth to a son.

In many cases, the assaults against women were made by other women who, at the very least, aided and abetted their errant sons. It was women who devalued women by considering the birth of a son to be a more joyous occasion than the birth of a daughter.

The girl child was always considered "borrowed wealth", and that is why the "giving away" of the bride by her father found a place in many cultures. (Even during Anand Karaj, the father of the bride hands over the edge of her pallaa to the groom.)

The male psyche that treats the woman as a commodity has sadly rubbed off on women too, and made them co-perpetrators.

Guru Nanak and each of the Gurus that followed had seen the scales of power and privilege heavily tipped on one side and raised a clarion call for true equality. But society remained tardy and reluctant in setting the score right.

Today, educated women submit to a matrimonial system that demands their parents make lavish gifts to the groom's side, promote a culture that is impressed by obscenely grand weddings, and sadly ties a woman's self-esteem and worth to the number of events that lead up to her wedding, or the dowry she brings.

The connoisseurs of ostentatious weddings that drag on for weeks, are blithely unaware of the pressure they cast on the less well-to-do.

That is why many a young man from a lower-middle-class family in Punjab has to give up his education to take up a low-paying job that will help him collect the money for his sister's dowry. And when it is time for him to be wed, the mother demands a recompense that she believes she is entitled to. The vicious system perpetuates itself.

Laying the blame of female foeticide solely on the evil of dowry or the lavish expense of marrying a daughter that has bankrupted many a father, would perhaps be an oversimplification. But who can deny its role as a major contributing factor?

When an extravagant wedding for one becomes a tombstone for another, isn't it time to recognize the hand of man in yet another form of exploitation of women?

We owe it to ourselves to dig deeper to find the cause and the cure of the devaluing of girls, but it is about time that the obvious excesses perpetuated by society are tackled.

The power and the responsibility lie on the shoulders of educated women.

If they refuse to become the reason for the flagrant display of wealth at a ceremony whose beauty truly lies in simple elegance, perhaps a lovely girl-child will be born, instead of aborted.

Conversation about this article

1: Pritam Singh Grewal (Canada), September 18, 2007, 9:50 AM.

A wonderful analysis of the cost of gluttony. One could even call it "The cost of greed". Female infanticide took place even about a century ago in various parts of the sub-continent, including the Gurus' land, Punjab. We were told that a girl child used to be buried alive by entombing her in a clay vessel or "chaati" with a piece of jaggery or "gurh" inserted in her mouth. A "pooni" or rolled piece of cotton was also interred in the chaati. She was "told" to savour the gurh, spin the cotton and to send a brother to the family to replace her ("Gurh khaaen, pooni kattin; aap na aaen, veeray nu ghattin"). The horror, the horror!

2: Roma Rajpal (Santa Clara, U.S.A.), September 18, 2007, 10:23 AM.

Regarding these expensive weddings, I feel we all should learn to place value on simple and elegant weddings rather than on the elaborate and ostentatious. Somehow, people always talk with awe and admiration whenever they attend one of these "high-class" weddings. As I read these kinds of stories, I feel each and every parent, regardless of whether they have a girl or a boy, no matter which part of the world they live in, need to wake up and stop this pathetic system, this injustice. How? It is simple. The parents should never tie their child into a relationship where another family is showing discriminatory beliefs and values. Many years ago, someone I know had been married hardly for a month when her in-laws demanded many expensive items from her parents! Her parents wanted to oblige for the sake of their daughter's wedding, but she didn't agree to this injustice. Instead, she immediately divorced her husband since he didn't support her views. She had a lot of courage! It is our duty to not let ANYONE do injustice to us. We all need to treat each other with equal respect and regard. We have to have the courage, strength and the confidence to do the right thing. Always remember, Guru Gobind Singh Ji said that tolerating injustice is as much of a crime as committing the injustice.

3: Chintan Singh (San Jose, U.S.A.), September 18, 2007, 10:42 AM.

I think part of the reason for these lavish weddings (even though they may be happening at the cost of bankrupting a father)in India has also got to do with how society and culture are portrayed in Bollywood and television. Pick any recent bollywood production and you'll see only extravagance, lavishness and palacial living - all characters are rich and famous, no poor or middle class. I think this false portrayal makes those who can't even afford them to want these luxuries and ostentations; and so, they end up putting pressure on the bride's family to provide all of this, invariably at horrendous cost. We need some realistic portrayal of the family and cultural values in the media and not just false, materialistic exaggerations which create only jealousy and greed in the society.

4: Harpreet Singh (London, England), September 18, 2007, 11:42 AM.

We in Punjab have the worst male to female ratio in the country, India, which has the worst male to female ratio in the world. That makes us the worst in the world, the worst of the worst. I feel such shame and fear and horror at what we have done to ourselves. The complicity of educated doctors in all of this is even more shocking. Whilst this practice is widespread in India, for a small community like us, its effects will be more devastating. Will we see the time soon when one quarter of all female fetuses are aborted and there are will only be three girls to four boys? What will the millions of Sikh men do without a wife in a generation's time? What horrors await us as the despair and horror plays out? What forms of society will we create? Will we be the first race in history to abort itself out of existence? What shame we carry for this obscenity. But what can we do? Well, as Rome burns, our "leaders" fight over trivial things, place their energies in frivolities, and we do not rouse from our sleep. Are we doomed?

5: Tejwant (U.S.A.), September 18, 2007, 1:24 PM.

According to Sikh values, life is a celebration, irrespective of the gender. A true story: I went back to India 15 years after having I left it at the age of 15. The year was 1985. My mom's house is a pretty big bungalow with some rental houses at the back. Her tenant's daughter had a baby girl and I heard the cries coming from their house rather than laughter and joy for the new arrival. I was shocked to see that because nothing like that had been part of my experience: I came from a household with 6 sisters. I went to Aunty's house and gave them a good tongue-lashing of not following our Sikh values by crying and lamenting the arrival of a baby girl rather than celebrating. They were also taken aback by my reaction but had no justifications to counter my arguments. I told the new born's maama (uncle) to go to the market and get mithai for everyone, so we could celebrate. I arranged a local band with a dhol. We had the band, burfi and ladoos, and lot of bhangra. This unforgettable moment is etched in the psyches of all forever. If we do not follow the teachings of our Gurus, then we become not Sikhs but mere parrots who feel fulfilled just by parroting beautiful Gurbani rather that putting this exquisite poetry into prose so that it can guide us through these turbulent oceans of maya.

6: K. Singh (New York City, U.S.A.), September 18, 2007, 2:53 PM.

Shame on all of us for not protecting our daughters ... We cannot be very human if we are not able to respect the gift of birth ...

7: Meeta Kaur (California, U.S.A.), September 18, 2007, 9:03 PM.

Jessi, thanks for reminding us about the tragic state Punjab is in. It feels a bit too scary to even utter or discuss. I hope I can raise my daughter to be an emancipator for her global sisters by reminding her that her education/diverse experiences/personal freedoms come with social responsibility towards her society.

8: Devinder Pal Singh (New Delhi, India), September 19, 2007, 3:13 AM.

I think this mess of throwing lavish marriage parties etc., has had its impact and has stifled the life of many a human being. The media can help in highlighting those marriages which are conducted with simplicity and without brash exhibition of wealth. Furthermore, those couples that have opposed extravagance in marriage and lead a simple life after marriage, should be showcased in the media as role models. This would definitely encourage the young to help society get rid of this disease and bring in some fresh air and much needed reform.

9: Brijinder Kaur Khurana (New Delhi, India), September 19, 2007, 11:10 PM.

Nicely explained. Basically, it is up to all the young women that they should boldly say a big "NO" to their parents that they will not get married if they will give dowry. They should opt for simple marriage in a gurdwara. Only family members should attend and there should be a simple lunch afterwards. It is really possible to eradicate the evil of dowry and its side effects. Here's my own story: When my parents started looking for a suitable match for me, I very clearly told my father that I will only marry a person who will never ask for dowry and will go for a simple wedding, otherwise I was not interested in marriage. One day, my father informed me about a young man who was less educated than me, was earning less than me, had neither parents alive to support him, was simple in looks, and was interested in getting married with me. He was a distant relative, hence known to us throug family connections. I met with him, talked to him and found that he was genuine. We got married ... in a simple ceremony. My engagement ceremony was attended by a dozen people at night at our home, after I returned from my office. For the wedding: no ghori, no band, nothing. The Anand Karaj was conducted in the gurdwara and lunch for the guests (50 people in total) was arranged in a good restaurant. My parents gave me jewellery and good clothes. We shifted to a rented accomodation and within six months of our wedding, we purchased a new house. Slowly, we purchased dinner sets, beds, almirahs, sofas, microwave, etc., and today we live well and have all we need. We are very happy and grateful for all that God has given us. We both have every luxury required to live a normal life. Basically, if you go looking for a good house before your marriage, you will have to pay the price for it ... but if you make it yourself with the support of your companion, you will enjoy it. So girls, go change your attitude, go change the world!

10: Harmala Kaur Uberai (California, U.S.A.), October 04, 2007, 1:31 PM.

The article presents well the tragic but prevalent practice of female foeticide/infanticide, but it is my belief that a correlation is being suggested here and propounded in the responses to this article, that just does not exist. That we are still a somewhat male-oriented society is a given. That these heinous practices still continue, in spite of education and awareness, is also true. But the fact that a lot of our weddings are examples of ostentation, is just indicative of our persona as a community. We are a somewhat gregarious, loud people, and this translates into our celebrations as well. Also, the desire for oneupmanship, and keeping-up-with-the-the Joneses' complex dictates the ever growing ostentation in our celebrations. So yes, this is an issue, but I do not believe that it is at all related to the much deeper and distressing issue of female foeticide/infanticide.

11: Satinder Gill (India), October 22, 2007, 11:59 PM.

A very well written piece. The hankering for a male child in India, including the Punjabi community, is utterly shameful and disgusting. The joy exhibited at the birth of a son is cheap, to say the least. Particularly the elderly women of our grandmother's era go all out to make a drama of the entire male/female child discrimination. One just has to see the look on their faces when someone congratulates them on the birth of a grandson. Some pretend to feel the same joy for a girl child but the forced smile is a dead giveaway. Things have not changed much in the last few years as I used to think they will. It is a myth that only uneducated people take part in such charades. It is the educated people who add to this mess ... one can only pray to Waheguru that these lost souls will some day see the light of day.

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