Tehelka, May 31, 2001.

Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry and Female Infanticide in Modern India
By Mala Sen
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20

One death is a tragedy, many deaths mere statistics.

It is not easy to recall the names of the hundreds of women who may have been burnt alive because they have brought insufficient dowry. And harder still to enumerate the nameless girls who have been aborted before they were born, or killed upon birth, in the practice of female infanticide still prevalent in many parts of India. But it is in the nature of the unusual, spectacular nature of the incidence of sati in Rajasthan, that people are able to recall the name of Roop Kanwar instantly.

Roop Kanwar’s death, or murder, as Mala Sen circumstantially sets out to prove in her engrossing and lucid journey through atrocities against women in India, captivated the imagination of middle class India in 1987. Governments felt besieged, a Prime Minister was called upon to respond, and legislation had to be enacted to prevent commemoration of the mysterious incident in Deorala in Rajasthan in September of that year. Powerful local politicians like the Janata Party leader and Chandra Shekhar supporter Kalyan Singh Kalwi considered the incident as part of the Rajput tradition; the late Vijayaraje Scindia of the Bharatiya Janata Party defended it, saying “Sati to hamara dharam hai”. (Sati is our religion/tradition).

As the sati system has supposedly been outlawed since early 19th century, and as its known occurrence has become rarer  apparently 11 since 1952  there is a growing perception that it is an isolated, rural custom. Yet, many of those who are horrified by the sati system don’t appear to be bothered in cases of exchange of dowry; and fewer still see its connection with female infanticide, although abortion clinics in Delhi proudly advertise their prenatal sex determination services, saying: “Spend Rs 500 today rather than Rs 50,000 18 years later.” And interestingly, despite the outlawing of amniocentesis and other prenatal sex determination tests, the only case of a woman, Karuppayi, being brought before courts for having killed her infant girl is from a poor community called Kallar in Tamil Nadu.

It is Mala Sen’s perspicacity that she sees the connection between these incidents, and by recounting the stories of three women  Roop Kanwar, Selvi and Karuppayi, she portrays a horrendous picture of the condition of Indian womanhood in her new book, “Death by Fire”. Sen’s gift lies in being able to put at ease people from different strata of society  which is why, despite her obvious sympathies for the Indian feminists, she succeeds in breaking the ice with Sumer Singh, the father-in-law of Roop Kanwar, and earns his trust enough to hear his version of events. While she does not get him to admit anything incriminating, by pointing out his sudden wealth, by showing his callous lack of interest in building a temple for Roop Kanwar or her memory, she leaves the reader convinced, that even if there is no evidence of wrongdoing against Sumer Singh to satisfy Indian courts, in the court of the public opinion formed by the readers of her book, and the lower caste folk of Rajasthan, it is clear who is guilty.

Getting a hardened chauvinist male like Sumer Singh to open up is one thing; but her sensitive ear is able to hear the story of Selvi, who works for Sen in southern India during one of her research trips, and step-by-step, Sen tells the story of Selvi’s tortured life. Her husband burning her, her slow recovery. A touched British Sikh who works as a chauffeur has since donated Rs 40,000 for Selvi’s skin graft treatment.

Sen had earlier succeeded in bringing to life the story of Phoolan Devi, the bandit queen who was the subject of the controversial film by Shekhar Kapoor. She has now focused her attention on the more harrowing reality of Indian women  denied the right to be born in some cases, killed in their first hours in other cases, oppressed and given away as property to husbands and then occasionally burnt alive by the families in which they marry, and then, in rare cases, compelled to be burnt on their husband’s funeral pyre. Alternately, lead a featureless, colorless life as a widow in Varanasi, singing bhajans.

To be sure, such is not the lot of all Indian women; and there are millions of Indians who are proud of their daughters, who love their mothers and wives, who dote over their sisters, and look after the widows. But the cases of ill-treatment are too many to be dismissed as an aberration. And it is fortunate that Sen’s book has come to remind an increasingly urbanizing India that its feudal past will continue to haunt India.


Mala Sen lives alone at the end of a row of council flats in southern London. In between projects, she lives on state support, and over coffee and batata poha, she tells Salil Tripathi about the London she came to in 1965, how it has changed, her disillusionment with the pace of globalization, and the concerns which moved her to write about Indian women in “Death by Fire.”

ST: What brought you to London?

MS: I was born in the north, in 1947, and grew up in Mussourrie. My father was in the Army, and he had seen action in Kashmir in 1948 and Nefa in 1962. It was a military life so we had many postings, and I never felt rooted to one place. My parents separated when I was six or seven, and I grew up with my father.

After my father retired from the army he moved to Bangalore and I went to Bombay to study at Nirmala Niketan. But before that I had been in Pune, where I had met Farrukh Dhondy, who was at Wadia College. We were young and I fell in love. He got the Tata Scholarship and went to Cambridge. A year later, he came to India with his friend Jon Snow, and met me again, and I decided to leave for London with him. It was elopement, I suppose. It was a crazy thing to do, but it was 1965.

I came here with him, to London, but would have gone wherever he went in those days. I was too young to think about it. Partly it was horror and terror of being alone in a strange place and being here in the 1960s, it was a new world that I saw through the eyes of students and friends of Farrukh’s, like Darryl and Zarine (the journalist Darryl D’Monte and his wife Zarine). I worked in London and they were in Cambridge. There were very few Asian women in London at that time. I had to be in London because there were no jobs for me in Cambridge. What would I have done? I met Farrukh each weekend.

Oh, it was an exciting period  the 1960s, the time of black power. We were part of the international political movement of young people. I worked in the struggle of Indian workers’ association in Leicester, the Bengali Housing Action Group and so on  it was politics that kept us together, not just romance. We began to drift after a while, we were married, then separated, and now we are close friends. There is no one to blame.
ST: That was a radical time for the black power movement.

MS: Yes, there was the combined movement of black organisations and the emergence of women’s groups. We fought for the rights of immigrants, housing, and so on. We fought for the rights of Bangladeshis for housing. It was a strong, militant movement in East End of London. We took over vacant buildings near East End and moved homeless families in 55 flats. Those families lived in horrible dorm-like conditions and they could not apply for council housing because they were deemed single. Their families would not get entry visa and they were homeless. Today if you go to Brick Lane, it has transformed!

ST: It was the period when Enoch Powell made his famous speech about rivers of blood.

MS: Yes, there was a lot of racism out in the open. We had to organize ourselves and be determined. We made great gains, we are proud of today’s UK.

ST: In that case what do you make of William Hague’s speech about Britain turning into a foreign land? (The Conservative Party leader made such remarks in a speech this spring in the lead-up to the elections).

MS: Hague’s speech is close to Powell’s. Look, everyone is disappointed with Labour party and I feel Tony Blair is too presidential and needs to be pulled down a bit. He can’t continue to rely on our votes. What’s going on with the country is just not good enough. We need real socialism and the philosophy of a Fabian Society, not this yuppie culture, which I have no time for. If I vote, it is because I am against Tories.
But not voting will jolt the government, and if the public does not vote in droves on June 7, it means they are not against you (Blair) but you (Blair) don’t have our vote. The apathy is real among Britain’s poor. They think like Indian voters  kya fark hai? Sab chor hai. (What difference does it make? Everyone is a thief.) The only power left is the power of protest.

ST: In that case, were you sympathetic to the protests against globalization on May 1 in London?

MS: My marching days are over. Bhai, I did it till I was 49. I do believe in the cycles of generations. I don’t relate to today’s generation, so why join in their protests when your heart is not in it? I am against capitalism, against north-south imbalance, against US control of the world, against the Star Wars, against hypocrisy. I have worked with the women who protested against nuclear missiles at Greenham Common.

ST: There is a sense of incompleteness about your latest book, Death by Fire. You get the sense that you’ve drawn various strands together, but there is no conclusion.

MS: It is deliberate. It is incomplete because our evolution as a society is incomplete. 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.

ST: Where do you see the solution?

MS: Fundamentally, the problem starts with social prejudice. It is engraved in our bodies, minds and souls. There is a deep-rooted sexual bias against women. Look at the sheer number of women who support the oppression of women. See the number of mothers-in-law in Indian jails. We have too deep a mind set. Education can be a solution, but it cannot be independent from the society.

ST: And arguably, Roop Kanwar had studied upto higher secondary level, but nothing in her educational system prepared her to value her self-worth, and her father-in-law a school teacher was obviously unaffected by what he was expected to teach his students, about equality of sexes, about what the law has banned…..

MS: Absolutely. Some sections of women have it ingrained in them that they are powerless, and the patriarchy system perpetuates itself. I still trust the judiciary, though.  

ST: But the judiciary has let the Deorala men off the hook.

MS: Every system has its flaws. We do have a democratic tradition, but too many of us are apathetic, and many who can influence things are corrupt. Those fighting for change should get public support. They fight a hard battle.

ST: How does it feel, living in a council flat in London, having these strong views on India, but the frustration of not being able to influence change?

MS: I remember how frightened we were when we came to Britain in the 1960s. I had never seen such hatred. I had to work and the life experience made me feel part of the revolution and of never-ending struggles. I am an optimist. The struggle in India too will succeed. If you are part of the movement the dream does not die.

This sounds unusual to many Indians here, who don’t walk the streets of London anymore. They have lost touch with what’s going on. They are different. Some are rich, divorced from the reality. They are like the Bombay rich, driving around the city, with their windows wound up, they don’t know the life on the streets. But I am a writer, and for me the whole street is my canvas. It depends on what you see and what you encounter. And you want to capture that reality accurately so that change is possible. I can’t do it alone, and I acknowledge the superb work of Indian feminists, Indian activists, and Indian journalists who have kept this issue alive.