Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong)

July 12, 2001

The Value of a Woman's Life

By Salil Tripathi

Issue date July 12, 2001

Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry and Female Infanticide in Modern India, by Mala Sen, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20 ($28)

IT WAS ONLY when the sale of coconuts rose dramatically in September 1987 that authorities realized something unusual had happened in the village of Deorala in Rajasthan. Hindus offer up coconuts to deities during festivals, but none was imminent. Curious about the sudden demand in coconuts, police went to the village to investigate.

What they found was shocking: The coconuts had been bought as offerings to Roop Kanwar, a teenage widow who had joined her dead husband's funeral pyre in an act of self-immolation called sati, an ancient Hindu custom banned by the British in 1829. The response was divided--some conservative politicians defended sati as part of the region's traditions, while urban, feminist and liberal voices condemned the incident furiously. Ultimately, as often happens in India, the case brought by the state against the young widow's relatives collapsed for want of witnesses, after a tortuous journey through the legal system.

In Death by Fire, Mala Sen explores the various possibilities and probabilities of Roop Kanwar's case, and presents strong circumstantial evidence that she committed sati against her will. Often concealing her own feminist views, Sen interviewed the key players--including the police officers investigating the case, the lawyers, her family, and her father-in-law--to build a credible, and deeply disheartening, picture of rural India. For Roop Kanwar's story is only one-third of the book: In two other sections, the author explores the agony of Selvi, a young housemaid whose husband attempts to burn her alive, and Karuppaya, the first woman to be jailed in India for killing her new-born daughter.

Sen has handled difficult interview subjects before: Her earlier book was on Phoolan Devi, based on
interviews with the Indian bandit queen who killed 22 upper-caste men, later turned herself in and, after serving her prison term, was elected to parliament. The book was made into a controversial film by top Indian film maker Shekhar Kapur.

In her latest volume, Sen weaves the three women's stories together with a discomforting theme: the low value assigned to the life of a woman in India. Among the poor, plants and herbs are used to poison baby girls; some of the rich use medical tests to determine the sex, then abort if the foetus is female. Many families with daughters are burdened with the demand for dowry, a custom also banned but still prevalent. And widows have committed sati in 13 recorded cases since India became independent in 1947.

Sen is the right author to take on this subject. She left India for Britain in her teens, joining her boyfriend who later became her husband. Arriving in the 1960s in an England unused to multiculturalism, she plunged into organizing textile-mill workers and fighting for the rights of immigrants and ethnic minorities. "I remember how frightened we were when we came to Britain in the 1960s. I had never seen such hatred," she recalls. "It was an exciting period, the time of black power. We were part of the international political movement of young people," she adds in an interview in her south London flat.

Today she has mellowed and channels her energy into reportage, providing the medium for her subjects to speak, but inserting her progressive outlook with judicious comments and juxtaposition. The result is circular, with no definite conclusion. "It is incomplete because our evolution as a society is incomplete," she says. "In India what's happening today is that this cycle of repeated crimes, of unresolved questions, keeps going round in circles. There is the circle of oppression, and some movement towards improvement.
But the cycle continues. I don't see it breaking down any time soon. The condition of women remains horrendous, and excuses continue to be made in the name of tradition."

Education, the judiciary, the free press--none of these are sufficient by themselves, she argues in her book, but together they embolden the forces of change, leading, incrementally, towards progress. "I am an optimist," she says." The struggle in India too will succeed."