The Unkindness Of It All

We don’t just have the moral police in India. We have the culture police too.

The moral and culture police work in tandem–each benefits greatly from the work of the other. For instance , the moral police ensure that women conform to their exalted ideals of chastity and that people of opposite sex do not meet or interact freely. In effect, they make every effort to ensure that arranged marriages continue to rule the roost. Arranged, intra-community marriages set the stage for the culture police to work on.

The culture police then pick up from where the moral police left, and work tirelessly to ensure that the wonderful customs and traditions of our culture, which serve unfailingly to show women their place in the society, are followed to the T.

While the work of the moral police is uniformly clear-cut for the most part, the culture police is a more complex entity–inevitable in a country that boasts of a maddening array of diverse regional cultures. The culture police thus exists in distinct regional avatars. All these avatars, though, are united in their espousal of virulent misogyny.

Like the moral police, the culture police makes its presence felt very frequently and sometimes rears its ugly head in the unlikeliest of quarters–like it recently did in a high court judgement which said, amongst other things, that not following certain traditions and rituals associated with marriage amounted to cruelty on the part of the wife.

Cruelty ? Really?

The way I see it, the whole point of the elaborate customs of all types of Hindu weddings seems to be to demean and humiliate women and their families. Women are decked up, like dolls, and expected to go through the motions mechanically, in the manner of an unthinking, un-feeling robot. The whole purpose is to mollycoddle the male ego, to make the guy and his family feel like they are God’s gift to humanity, while simultaneously rubbing it all in the face of the girl and her family.

These customs are an exercise in celebrating patriarchy and it’s inherent corollary of male superiority. They are a loud and very public proclamation of the inferior status accorded to women and their families in our socio-religious culture.

The ritual of kanyadaan, that central point of almost all variations of Hindu weddings, illustrates this the best. To be fair, the concept of giving away the bride is hardly unique to Hindu weddings–it’s traditionally a part of Christian weddings too, and while in medieval times the idea might have been to denote a transfer of authority from the father to the husband, today it apparently only symbolizes a public approval of the groom by the bride’s side of the family. And herein lies the difference–the Hindu Kanyadaan remains true to the spirit of our ancient texts. The little rituals associated with it, and the ‘mantra’ chants that accompany it, ensure just that. Unbelievable as it might sound, the mantras actually speak of the girl being gifted away, along with the jewellery on her person, to the guy–like cattle, as I’ve always felt.

And then we wonder why so many Indian men tend to behave like they own their wives, –why blame them, they did receive their wives as ‘gifts’ after all. What’s to stop these men, and their families, from treating their wives shabbily and placing unreasonable controls on every aspect of their lives when that curious mix of culture and religion appears to actively promote this viewing of women as property?

The bride’s departure to the groom’s place is another saga altogether. In my community, the girl is made to sit in her mother’s lap and the husband is made to hold her by the hand and pull her up. It is meant to symbolise a severing of natal ties. This, not surprisingly, makes the bride, and the mother, cry–just as it is meant to.  This sets off a chain reaction of sorts amongst those present. Why this insistence on making the bride and her family weep? The groom proceeds to lead the weeping wife, amidst her weeping family, out of her parental home.The symbolism is hard to miss–the husband will always take the lead, and the wife always has to obey, willingly or not. Her wishes and feelings, and those of her family, are immaterial.

And oh, I almost forgot to mention another gem of a custom we have in my community. Right on the day of the marriage, early in the morning, some male relative of the bride is sent to ask the groom for permission to start the proceedings that would lead up to the marriage ceremony proper. Of course the guy is not expected to not ‘grant permission’ at that late stage but the fact that the groom’s, and only the groom’s, permission must be sought before starting the proceedings is loaded with meaning. I can only imagine what a boost to the collective male ego this must be.

I’ll not even get started on the custom of the bride’s family giving gifts to the groom’s family on every little occasion. That is a topic for another day.

I’d say each of these customs is cruel to the girl and her family. I do not know what to make of the culture police wanting us to believe that to not follow these customs would amount to cruelty towards the guy and his family. Is this some kind of a zero-sum game of cruelty, where if one side does not suffer, it will mean that the suffering has been transferred to the other side?

The culture police, in the garb of this judgement, have done their bit to ensure that these toxic customs do not get challenged by those who do not benefit from them.That the apple cart does not get toppled–not just yet, anyway. They forget, though, that oppressive customs survive only as long as people are willing to tolerate them, and they might not be able to stop an idea whose time has come.

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15 Responses to The Unkindness Of It All

  1. R's Mom says:

    And in the Tambram wedding, it goes to the extent of the groom ‘pretending’ to go to Kashi and the bride’s father calling him back and requesting him to marry his daughter saying ‘I will give you a wife, dont become a brahmachari’ Really!!

    And then the whole concept of sitting on the father’s lap while the groom actually places something like a horn symbolizing that the girl is a cow or something on the head before putting the thali

    and then the bride’s brother helping the groom and bride to put something like puffed rice into the fire symbolizing that if you are in trouble you can come to me..but the groom’s sister doesnt do that..why?

    and then the groom’s sister tying the third knot for the bride’s mangalsutra…indicating whose decision is it finally to let the groom marry the bride..yaa right!!!

    Gosh I could go on and on and on..all your posts do this to me…trigger me to write so much!

    I so wish, I had the sense 6 years ago to refuse to marry by the ritual way..I wish I had the brains to have just taken the money and used it more productively..Life is definitely teaching me so much in hindsight 😦

    • I’ve heard about the kasi-yatra in Tambram weddings too. What’s the point, really!

      Oh we too have the same puffed rice ritual –the brother helps the sister and the groom put it in fire. Is it meant to symbolise the brother’s willingness to help in times of need? I didn’t know that. You’re so right–why should only the bride’s bro have to make such a commitment and not the bride’s sis? And what about the groom’s siblings?

      The more I think about them, the more revolting I find them. Such a waste of time and money!

  2. Excellent write up.
    Hard hitting and direct.
    Every community among Hindus in India is trapped and no one wants to take the initiative to change.

    But there is an option that many new generation couples are boldly choosing.
    I too experienced it personally just a few days ago.

    Yes, I got married to my wife last week!
    Ha ! Ha! Ha!
    Here is the story in brief.
    Now that have retired, I finally found the time to get my 37 year old marriage registered.
    After making due inquiries, I found that all it takes was filling up a simple form giving the date and venue of the marriage, names and addresses of the bride and groom , attested by three witnesses to the marriage, six copies of a recent picture of the couple and a copy of the wedding invitation card.

    I spent Rs 135/- as fees, Rs 150/- for six copies of a good picture of ourselves taken at a reputed studio, and I bought sweets for Rs 500/- to placate my nephews and neices who extracted this ransom out of us when they came to know.

    It took just one hour at the registrar’s office and we both came away grinning from ear to ear, with the new marriage certificate. The experience was pleasant and without any hassles whatsoever.

    This certificate will come in handy when we try for our green card

    For new marriages the procedure is equally simple and, while waiting, I amused myself at the Registrar’s office looking at pictures of young couples who had served the mandatory one month’s notice. Their applications were kept for public scrutiny.

    There is no need to surrender to any culture police.
    All that money saved on a lavish wedding can serve as a nice initial down payment on a new house or apartment.

    Who will bell the cat?

    Too late for me.
    If my son proposes it I well bless it

  3. Fem says:

    Don’t get me started on this. Really, you are so going to regret having written this 😛 From A to Z, I dislike everything about weddings. What ought to be a lovely and happy experience is actually an exercise in humiliation. And what is this nonsense about people grinning and “you are now part of this family”. No ma’am, she am not! She is just your cousin’s brother’s aunt’s son’s wife. I also dislike the weeping among the women’s side. What’s that all about? That stems from the parents of the women drumming it into their heads since childhood that she would now be at the mercy of her in-laws. Who would not weep in that case?

    I totally dislike the going to the groom’s parents’ house after the wedding. Why? It’s nice to be welcomed, but that is not the real purpose, is it? You are usually then shown off to the multitude of guests who “welcome” you to the family. Poor hubby doesn’t get a welcome, then?

    I simply refuse to attend weddings these days and go for the reception and / or engagement. It may not change anything for others, but I cannot stand wedding ceremonies.

    • I love it when you get started, Fem 😀

      The showing -off of the bride to the relatives bugs me too. The bride is supposed to sport just the tiniest of smiles on such occasions–if you smile too much the relatives whisper about the bride being too happy, not missing her family at all, the husband probably indulging her too much, yada yada. On the other hand, if you don’t smile at all, those same people will gossip about the bride not looking happy, being haughty, arrogant etc. Heh.

      • biwo says:

        As a bride nothing you ever do is right. You are criticised no matter what.

        I think this is to ensure that the bride does not get too uppity and understands her role in the husband’s family, ie, a glorified servant and perpertual underdog.

        My colleague’s father-in-law expected her to stand up everytime he entered the room. In his opinion, a DIL must never be seated when the parents-in-law enter a room.

        Of course, this courtesy was never reciprocated.

        I think this whole tamasha is to massage men’s egos. I have begun to wonder why Indian men need constant reminders of their superiority? There’s something sadistic about humiliating your own wife, in the guise of tradition, so you can feel superior.

        I’ve also begun to wonder if Indian men are really capable of loving their wives, since they do not object to customs and rituals that humiliate and inconvenience their wives and their families.

        If a man really cares for his wife’s feelings, would he condone customs and rituals that disrespect her and cause her distress?

        Is it not natural to want to protect your beloved from insult, disrespect, criticism and humiliation? Sadly, Indian men don’t hold their wives feelings in such high regard.

        The truth is, the vast majority of men take their wives for granted but sulk if they are not given their “rightful importance”. Child-men not real men!

      • It does smack of sadism, Biwo. The whole point of an arranged marriage, I think, is to make sure that the man has no real feelings for his wife so that he is not too bothered by all the insulting situations the bride is subjected to. He is also encouraged to view her as his , and his family’s, property. In fact, any overt dispaly of affection towards the wife is frowned upon in traditional circles. And the wife , of course, is supposed to look up to him as pati-parmeshwar.

        Such a thoroughly screwed-up system, and how well it has served the men over the centuries.

  4. Deeps says:

    Excellent piece of writing! All that you have said is so very true of our culture. But the problem is we know how ridiculous our customs and rituals are, how degrading they are to women in particular yet we continue to follow them for the simple fear of being shunned by the ‘society’ :(.

    Being a Malayali I know how much pride we take in claiming that we follow the matriarchal system and the girl belongs very much in the house where she is born and brought up and yet on my wedding my father had to hand me over to my husband as a custom :roll:. It broke my heart to go along with that ritual :(. Why does a marriage have to mean that a woman has to leave one family in order to welcome another one in her life? This whole concept of ‘paraya dhan’ rages me like hell!

    • You are right, Deeps–the fear of the society appears to be hardwired into the Indian psyche and it is this fear which makes us follow these ridiculous customs.

      I didn’t know kanyadaan was practiced in matriarchal societies too 😦

      /Why does a marriage have to mean that a woman has to leave one family in order to welcome another one in her life?/ Exactly!!

      • Ashwathy says:

        Only in certain parts of Kerala.

        My mother got married and the husband came to HER house, not the other way round. Same for my step-mom. 🙂 It makes the bride feel more at ease since she is going back to her own home and then the bride and groom leave next day for

        In my case, it was not practised only because I did not have a single home to call my own (my parents are separated) and rather get into that debate, I’d rather go and spend the night peacefully at my husband’s place. But the very next day we came back to my mom’s place as per custom.

        And in our community, girls still have equal right in their own homes as well as their husbands.

        However they are some communities that deal in giving a car as a gift from the girl’s father to the groom at the time of wedding. Even if the proposed parties don’t indulge in it, there will be annoying relatives poking their nose in and asking, oh which car did he get? Only maruti swift, damn! Oh wow, he got an Audi?? … and so on and so forth 🙄 Sigh…

      • Girl’s father giving the groom a car as gift has apparently become very, very common everywhere . It’s fascinating how these customs keep updating themselves to keep up with the times–I remember a time when this car-gifting was something of a rarity. It’s also interesting that any change that does occur tilits the scales even further in favour of the men 😦 “Only maruti swift, damn! Oh wow, he got an Audi?? ” just about sums up the general attitude. Suits men fine, doesn’t it?

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