During the week that the newspapers carried reports about proposed curbs on lavish weddings, coincidentally, Jaya and Valli came to me announcing weddings of daughters in their families.
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Jaya works as cleaning maid at two commercial establishments in south Bengaluru. Valli is a roadside flower seller. Both are of course, indigent, leading a hand-to-mouth existence.
Jaya’s 16-year-old grand daughter Asha used to work in a clothes shop but when her mother (Jaya’s daughter) was diagnosed as suffering from kidney failure and it was clear she would not survive for long, Jaya decided that Asha should be married off while her mother was alive. Asha’s father had abandoned the family, as soon as Asha was born. She took a hefty loan of Rs 1.5 lakhs to meet the demands of the groom’s family in the village (gold chain, watch for the groom, silk saris etc).
I chided her – but the reality is that a teenage girl is not safe in a slum while the grandmother is away at work. The groom’s family even wanted the ceremony filmed and put on CDs to be gifted to all relatives. With Asha moving to her husband’s village, her earnings are now lost to Jaya, who now wonders how she will ever repay the loans.
“Why didn’t you refuse to accept such demands, don’t they know that you work as a cleaning maid?” I asked her. In my lofty ignorance of the realities of lives around us, as it turned out. Valli had also performed, in April, the marriage of her 15-year-old posthumous daughter who dropped out of school because she learned nothing at the government school she went to, and the teacher beat her for making mistakes. She took a loan of one lakh (which she will never be able to return – the usurious interest alone will render her destitute.
Apparently even one lakh was insufficient to meet the demands of the groom’s family who were her relatives and knew her circumstances only too well. Six weeks after the marriage the mother-in-law sent the girl back to Valli, saying that she could return to her husband only if she brings the gold chain and golden jimikki (dangling) earrings that they had specified. I had given the bride gold earrings as a gift but apparently the mother-in-law decided they were not fancy enough. The girl is now, at the age of 15, an “abandoned wife.”
This is the reality. Jaya’s and Valli’s cases will not come under the proposed “lavish weddings category” but they are very much relevant. I had discussions with both families trying to resolve the issues, and unearthed disturbing facts about current urban lifestyles.
A student of mine got married recently and said the flower arrangements for the reception alone cost Rs 1.2 lakhs. Seeing the kind of obscenely lavish spending that educated middle class families flaunt at weddings, families on the lower economic rungs succumb to the temptation to use weddings as a once-in-a-lifetime occasion to “enjoy” the kind of ‘celebration’ that the rich organize.
This is because they know that change and betterment is unlikely in their lifetime, despite political ‘promises.’ TV ads add to the hankering . Not just mothers-in-law, but even Jaya confesses that given their daily denials, a wedding is the only time they can momentarily forget their grinding poverty. Preaching “logic” or rational behavior is useless, because they are also human. Society makes marriage a compulsion, more so in the case of the poor because they have no options of careers or independence. Government schools are substandard, they teach nothing, and without education their daughters cannot hope for betterment. So marriage, even at ruinous cost, is the result.
What we need is not legal prohibitions of “lavish spending” by the upper classes but massive social change, especially among the rich. Ministers and corporate leaders celebrate marriages with invitation cards embossed in gold, with silk tassels, special pandals that block traffic for hundreds of metres, and each invitee carries home a fancy imported brocade pouch with Mars bars and a silver lamp, in lieu of the traditional haldi and coconut.
The maids who clean in the wake of these lavish weddings see the ostentation, the lakhs (sometimes crores) spent on show, and decide the only way they too can enjoy a small fraction of such ‘celebrations’ is to make demands. The reasons why the rich spend lavishly, and the poor get into debt, are the same – “showing off” to their relatives and the community. Does a businessman have to hire a helicopter to fly the bridal couple into the pandal? Does that guarantee happiness? Does one blame a poor groom for coveting a fancy watch costing Rs 8,000 (which is what Asha’s groom chose, though I offered to gift a perfectly good watch costing Rs 1,000) which he turned down?
Blame the sickness in our society, blame politicians for not tackling poverty and lack of education, and not settling an example by eschewing ostentation (Indira Gandhi’s wedding sari was a hand-spun khadi – but sadly there are no such examples nowadays). When a political party wins a landslide victory, they spend lakhs on 50,000 fancy laddus for their workers and Rs 5 lakhs worth of fireworks, instead of celebrating by distributing food for the hungry hordes. Brand new carpets are laid out at Vidhana Soudha, for the state’s MLAs, and ministers renovate their offices at great public expense, disregarding the poverty and malnourishment in the state.
Whether it is lavish weddings or profligate spending of taxpayers’ money on VIPs, the basic issue is crass, immoral insensitivity to one’s social obligations as a citizen. Indian culture has always included poor feeding as part of rituals but we have forgotten such social traditions. Because imitating the west, in conspicuous consumption, abetted by ads, has become the norm. Except that middle class weddings in the West do not throw money the way our nouveau rich do. The sufferers are the likes of Asha, Jaya and Valli, who sink deeper into debt, in the name of emulating the rich (either voluntarily or because of ‘demands’ by the groom’s party).
After the second world war, Japanese weddings were made strictly and voluntarily unostentatious, and those who spent on lavish ceremonies were ostracised. The rich and the urban middle class have to lead, by example, regardless of legal prohibitions, therein lies some hope of reducing the inequalities that our “GDP driven” economic policies are intensifying. Given the levels of pervasive corruption, legal restrictions will only mean the well-heeled will bribe to escape the law, while the poor will be doubly disadvantaged, watching the ostentation with longing and hankerings.
As in other areas (banning child labour, child marriage, dowry prohibition) laws will only facilitate change, but they cannot initiate social tendencies. We need massive change at the community level, which means each one of us, as a parent or parent-in-law, son or son-in-law, taking bold steps to fight what the economists call the ‘demonstration effect,’ and deciding that a marriage is a private affair, not an indecent show to mark the legalizing of a sexual relationship between a man and a woman. I blame the rich, who could take pride in donating lakhs to an orphanage or poor feeding, instead of flying in lacy gift pouches from Switzerland with chocolates for the invitees. As long as there is no shame in lavish spending when millions in the country go hungry and millions of children are malnourished, the law will only be observed in its breach.