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
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.
INTERVIEW WITH MALA SEN BY SALIL TRIPATHI
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
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
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
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
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.