It scared me. It felt too presumptive, too forward, too fast. I barely knew this guy, and here he was planning the interiors of our house. Later I learned that he began investing in real estate right out of college.
This new house was just another investment, and he was merely asking me for help. He never planned to live there. He said he was saving to retire in his 40s. I had just started my first job out of college, earning about the same amount as my mother did then after 25 years as a professor.
I was enjoying the perks of that generous paycheck. Why would someone want to retire at 40? It sounded bizarre to me. He was already tired of all the financial responsibilities, he said. For him, retirement was to be the freedom I was enjoying at that moment — enough money to live comfortably with no obligations. He wanted to travel. He wanted to work on fun projects.
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He wanted to maybe take a career chance that he never could otherwise. His retirement plans sounded much like my plan for my early 20s: Live selfishly for myself. There are certain undeniable truths to be being the firstborn son in a middle-class Indian family.
One of them is that you are expected to help support the family financially. It did not come as a surprise to him when he became the sole provider for his parents, sister, and maternal grandparents immediately after he graduated from engineering school. He bought them a house at the age of Before we got engaged, I had made my stance on dowry clear to Srini. He had the same opinion. Srini had conveyed that to his parents.
No demands were made.
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My parents, however, decided to give me — a person who does not wear any jewelry, not even a wedding ring — a pound or two of gold jewelry. A matter of pride. Weddings are hard, and I had no fight left in me. So I went along with it. I wore an armor of gold. The numerous chains were stitched onto my sari to keep them in place.
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I never saw that jewelry again after the wedding. My mother-in-law has it safe in a bank locker somewhere. One of the first conversations I had with my mother-in-law was when she told me that her son had certain responsibilities to his sister. She then asked me to not stop him from fulfilling those. Scholars cannot agree on the origins of dowry.
Dowry was seen as a way for the family to give women their share. The sons are expected to stay and support their parents while their wives take over the domestic responsibilities like cooking and cleaning. So she is essentially considered a freeloader unless she pays for her lodging and food expenses in dowry. Now with more women joining the workforce, this justification falls by the wayside too. But like the gender wage gap seen even in countries like the US, some things are so entrenched in the culture and gender politics that they defy all logic.
It is not easy to get rid of them. India recognized dowry as one of the problems it needed to tackle as a young republic.
The Dowry Prevention Act of and later amendments aimed to outlaw the practice and empower women to report dowry extortions. The law criminalized both giving and receiving dowry, and it recommended a minimum imprisonment of five years and a fine equal to the amount of the dowry. But the law has a rather narrow definition of dowry that excludes any voluntary gifts when no demands were made. This has given rise to a whole new vernacular when it comes to stating dowry demands without explicitly stating them. And legally it would no longer be dowry.
Refusing to give dowry would reflect badly on Srini and his family, his uncle warned him. Srini and I have no pride invested in dowry. In fact, I would be ashamed if we caved in. She is against dowry, she claimed. But her parents gave and received dowry for her and her brother. She calls it a necessity that she had no say in.
Blaming the society and washing our hands of the culpability is a classic move when it comes to appeasing our consciences. I realized I was doing nothing different. My guilt of letting family down was, I realized, pushing me toward my own justification of dowry. Maybe some potential groom will come along for Priya who does not want dowry. We are more than willing to share our wealth with Priya and to provide her any support she needs. But we will not stand behind a marriage propped up on such promises or gifts.
Breaking this news to the family is not going to be easy. We are going to be labeled selfish. Distant relatives will place the blame on me, the outsider, for breaking the culture. And Priya may never get married to a man from the same caste and community as her. Kavya Sukumar is an engineer with the Vox Media storytelling studio. First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays.
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