Marriage, honour go hand in hand
In rural India, a poor farmer must borrow extensively, effectively mortgaging his future, to ensure that his daughter receives what is considered a proper celebration
By John Stackhouse
First published June 29, 1993
On the eve of his youngest daughter's wedding, Dalchand sat on his doorstep, looking like almost any father of the bride, worrying and reflecting, counting and recounting, wondering if he had spent too much or too little.
Would his daughter Kanya like the boy he had chosen, would the groom like the expensive gifts, would both families enjoy the lavish celebration?
"My honour is at stake," the farm labourer muttered as a work gang erected a canopy of tinsel in front of his two-room house.
In rural India, nothing excites, enriches or, at times, impoverishes like a wedding.
For Dalchand, 60, who has never earned more than 20 rupees (80 cents) a day, the bill for his 14-year-old daughter's wedding would reach 10,000 rupees by the time the vows were exchanged.
He had borrowed money from almost every family in Biharipur, and said that although "it may take me my whole life to pay them back, I will, little by little."
To feed about 200 guests, there would be 100 kilograms of flour, six kilograms of oil, 50 kilograms of sugar, 50 kilograms of potatoes and 15 kilograms of butter, used by two professional cooks from a nearby city.
For entertainment, there would be Hindi films shown on a rented television and VCR powered by a rented diesel generator, and a 15-member music and dance troupe powered by crates of country liquor.
And of course, there would be a dowry: a watch, clothes, utensils and a new bicycle for the groom.
Asked how a labourer can afford such extravagance even though he cannot educate his three daughters and one son and can barely feed them, Dalchand kept returning to one word: "honour."
A gentle evening breeze had refreshed Biharipur when the village opened like a spring flower in festivity. As men and children returned from the fields with their livestock and sacks of freshly harvested wheat, a dozen women swept the dirt lanes with tree branches while boys strung banana leaves, expired lottery tickets and a Hindi sign reading "Auspicious Marriage" from a new wooden gate in front of Dalchand's house.
Kanya's mother, Kamla, was busy painting the house a watery blue, while inside, the teen-aged bride played nervously with her hair, listening to her mother's friends tease her with song lyrics such as: "We know about the boy you're marrying. There's no wheat in the house, and the mother-in- law is hard of hearing."
Kanya, of course, had no idea about the boy she would marry the next morning - it had all been arranged by adults.
Dalchand and his wife (who did not want to give their surnames because that would identify their caste) began the search for a husband for their youngest daughter three years ago.
Last year, they struck an arrangement with one family, only to see it cancelled at the last minute when the groom's family announced that Kanya's skin was too dark and a higher dowry would be required.
After more searching, the parents found a 16-year-old boy whose family lives 40 kilometres from Biharipur.
"He's a good farmer and he can take care of himself. That's all anyone wants for their daughter," Dalchand said, walking through Biharipur's narrow laneways with a handful of rice, the traditional wedding invitation. People accept the invitation by pinching the rice and then dropping it back in his hand.
Another tradition, the crackle of gunfire, soon reverberated across the wheat fields, sending Dalchand and his neighbours into a frenzy. The warning shot announced that the groom and his family, travelling by rented tractor and wagon, had crossed the nearby railway line.
The princely groom, seated beside the tractor driver, wearing a paper crown and garland of 10-rupee notes, twitching his scant mustache as if to make it grow, looked terrified.
It was clear the 50 or so men accompanying him - there were no women - were drunk as they lumbered into an ornate tent for the feast Dalchand was expected to provide. It was why most came.
Watching the groom's family eat, Dalchand could only wonder if they would demand a higher dowry by threatening to walk out of the wedding.
He had seen the ploy before. The father of the bride had already paid for the feast, bought the wedding presents and laid his honour before the village. He could not afford to pay a higher dowry, yet he could not afford to let his guests go.
Sure enough, during the tilak ceremony that night, at which the father of the bride dabs a painted symbol on the groom's forehead to show respect, the boy's relatives began to curse the marriage arrangement. It was a disgrace, they said. They would leave at once - and take the groom with them.
Nervous, but with the acumen of a big-city banker, Dalchand moved through his congregation of friends, from one neighbour to the next, asking how much they could lend, setting the terms, calling in chips. Within 10 minutes, he had raised another 1,600 rupees. The wedding, he announced softly, would go on.
Content with the new deal, the groom's family returned to the tent for a night of drinking, dancing to Biharipur's only band - called Ali Baba, they have a harmonium and five drums - and watching a troupe of transvestite dancers.
By daybreak, only a few neighbours and a crush of Biharipur children, having taken their goats to pasture, could raise themselves for the Hindu ceremony. In a small courtyard, they squeezed around Dalchand's water pump and four plowshares he had improvised as wedding poles.
In a most pragmatic set of vows, Kanya, covered from head to toe, asked her husband to treat her well, share his money, buy her clothes and not lend money without first consulting her. He then asked her to feed him and his family, and bear him sons. "Even if I am wearing torn clothes," he added, "you will praise me."
Placing pots of water and grain at the base of the wedding poles, the Brahmin priest summoned the food goddess. His assistant lit a fire at the couple's feet to invoke the fire god, and the couple dropped ghee and grain in the flames to call on deceased ancestors to bless their marriage.
The sound of money was never far from the sanctimony. Each spiritual guest cost Dalchand 20 rupees, which he would hand to the Brahmin's assistant. Yet several times, the elderly priest threatened to leave if more cash was not provided.
As the bill mounted, the guests grew indignant.
"Why don't you speak louder?" a woman shouted at the holy man. "Even the gods can't hear you."
"He's old and weak," the assistant snapped back.
"I'm not old," said the priest, suddenly perking up. "Who said that?" He then ordered his assistant, "Don't open your mouth."
When the ceremony was over, and the newlyweds were inside to see each other for the first time, the priest turned to Dalchand, demanding another 50 rupees for his good works, twice the amount they had agreed to. "I get 25 rupees from labourers and you're much better than the labourers," the priest scoffed at Dalchand, a labourer.
"You better take it, or there will be nothing for you," one of Dalchand's friends warned the priest. And so, he took it.
Soon, Kanya emerged, resplendent in a pink sari, her hair neatly brushed with oil, but no one took notice. Her husband was already outside with his groggy relatives, arguing about who would hold the groom's new bicycle in the wagon on the journey home.
Most of Biharipur had returned to the fields, except the Ali Baba band, whose members slept heavily under a row of trees.
Watching the last of the tinsel taken down, Dalchand said he was happy. His last daughter was married. His honour was preserved. He could worry about the debts tomorrow.
"Now," he said, "I can sleep."