I grew up hearing stories of dowry.
A domestic worker in my building often complained about having two daughters, because of the dowry she’d have to give. Another person ‘joked’ about having four sons, and the dowry he’d get. It was also all over TV and movies. Like many other ’90s kids, I often saw daughters in law being chided by the husband’s family for “not bringing enough with them” in dowry. It was a reality all around me, and yet I never saw how crudely it commodified a woman, measured her worth to cash and clothes, and enforced the deeply patriarchal notions of women being inferior to men. My privilege was a shield for me – “This will never happen to you,” it said. “Your parents and your family are not like this.” And therefore, why did I have to care, right?
Then one evening, I was at a wedding in my hometown Rajkot, and I heard more ‘jokes’: “Aani dowry aana jevi lambi aapvi padshe (Her dowry will have to be as ‘tall’ as her).” Someone was making a comment about my height and trying to crack a dowry joke at the same time. I was aghast. How deeply is the ‘concept’ of dowry ingrained in our minds, that we can speak about it this way? The numbers reveal an even harsher truth. Just from 2012-2014, 24,771 dowry deaths were reported in India, with over 8,000 cases registered each year. I can’t even imagine the number of unreported cases and instances of things being exchanged as “lavish gifts”.
Despite this, I wonder why this subject has been so poorly represented in our films and TV shows. Apart from the film “Daawat-e-Ishq” (which had many problems of its own), I can’t seem to recall a mainstream Hindi film or TV show in recent times that has addressed dowry. But there’s a sparkling exception in one song, that has personally given me immense strength and resolve since I heard it – “Rupaiya”, sung by Sona Mohapatra.
As part of TV show Satyamev Jayate’s startling episode on dowry (2012), the song shook the entire nation with its powerful lyrics and became an anthem against dowry. The first time I heard, it affected me so much, that I cried as I clapped along. “Arre mujhe kya bechega rupaiya (How can you attach a price to my worth?),” it asks.
Focusing on how a woman doesn’t need a marriage that determines her self-worth and respect for her, it throws away all the stereotypes associated with the “coy bride” and how she must fit in with her family. And what makes it even stronger is Sona Mohapatra’s smashing performance and grit. Don’t worry if it overwhelms you slightly, and you need to a minute to take it in. It happened to me too.