Kerala Brides

By Sonia Narang (class of 2008)

Sreeja, a Kerala bride, now arranges marriages between women from her hometown in south India and men in the north.

SORKHI VILLAGE, Haryana, December 2007—The day after her wedding ceremony, Omana and her new husband boarded the Mangala Express to make a 2,000-mile journey that gave her a panoramic sense of her changed life. The train left the verdant rice paddies and coconut groves of her home in southern Kerala and 56 hours later, she stepped off in the dry, brown fields of the north.

Up until that trip, Omana had lived with her parents and never left their village where local custom permitted her and other girls to wear their hair loose and to leave their face uncovered. Now, in her husband’s village in the northern state of Haryana, she is pronouncing words in a new language, learning to cook round flatbreads for her husband’s family, and adapting to the cold Haryana winter. Even the dress is different. Here, she must cover her entire face with a veil.

“It’s difficult doing my outdoor chores with this cloth on my face since I never had to wear this back home,” she said in broken Hindi as she sat in her husband’s home surrounded by his family. As she talked, she tucked loose strands of her hair under a scarf and showed a visitor the photos of her wedding.

Omana is part of a supply and demand phenomenon created by female feticide – the selective abortion of girl children, who many families here have long viewed as an economic burden. Up until ultrasound was introduced into India in 1979, many women were pressured to kill their infant daughters. Now, the new technology has led to selective abortion and some ten million female fetuses have been aborted in the past two decades, according to U.K.-based medical journal The Lancet.

Though sex selective abortion became illegal in India in 1994, the practice continues in many parts of the country. Female feticide is most acute in Haryana, a prosperous farming state where families can afford ultrasounds. The 2001 census counted only 850 women for every 1,000 men in Haryana. That imbalance has forced some in this country of more than a billion people to break with one of its more ingrained customs – marrying within one’s caste, a rigid class structure that defines a person’s place in society. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s marriages are within the same caste, but increasingly, Haryana’s eligible bachelors are looking beyond their region and their caste for brides. Even though doing so is considered the last step of a desperate man, it’s still better than staying single – for men and women.

Three friends from Kerala, south India hold their children in a village in northern India, where there’s a shortage of brides.

The importing of brides or the “marriage squeeze” as a UN report called it, has created its own abuses – women trafficked from the poorest parts of India, women unable to produce children sold off to other men, and the importing of under-aged girls. Demographer Christophe Guilmoto, who authored the UN report, said that scarcity of women also increases the risk of gender-based violence.

While the Kerala women are treated better than the rest, women’s advocacy groups say it’s clear that the adjustments many make are dramatic. Kerala has one of the country’s highest literacy rates and Haryana one of its lowest. And the Kerala brides are also moving to a highly patriarchal society, where property is passed down through the sons and women move into their husbands’ homes. In Kerala, women wield power and no one would think of getting rid of a female child.

But, getting married is as important for women in Kerala as it is for men in Haryana. So, the surplus of bachelors in Haryana gave Omana something she couldn’t find in Kerala – a husband. Like Omana, other Kerala women are considered undesirable by Kerala men for a variety of reasons: age, horoscopes difficult to match, and an inability to pay the required dowry. While Haryana men would ordinarily never marry anyone with these so-considered glitches, none matter if they marry outside their state. The grooms even pay for the wedding, a cost traditionally covered by the bride’s family.

And, brides from Kerala are particularly sought after.

“People here think Kerala girls are better than those from other parts of India because they are well educated,” said Rekha Lohan, a researcher in northern Haryana. Kerala also has the highest ratio of females to males in the country, with about 1,100 women for every 1,000 men.

In Kerala, when families of prospective grooms inquired about Omana’s horoscope and found it was one of the rare ones known as unfavorable for marriage, they looked elsewhere. Every year, her prospects got dimmer. At 29, she was considered far past the marriageable age, and her family considered the options. They had heard of other local women marrying men from Haryana and so they sent Omana’s photo to one recent bride and it went from there to the house of Ajay Singh, a 34-year-old sweet shop employee. Before long, the couple met in Kerala for the first time and just days later married.

“These women don’t share anything with the men they marry,” said Ravinder Kaur, a sociology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. “They don’t share the language, they don’t share food habits or culture. Everything is very different.”

As a result, she added, the marriages are difficult in the first years. “But over a period of time, the women get accepted, they adjust, they learn the language and many of them who came a while ago dress and talk like the Haryana women,” she said.

The marriages are perhaps toughest in the smaller villages where the cultural practices such as wearing the head covering are strict. But even here, in the village, a few Kerala women are making their mark.

All the villagers, for example, know Sreeja, a 31-year-old woman from Kerala, who arranged Omana’s wedding and several other matches. After Sreeja’s matchmaking side business took off, she became the talk of the village and appeared on local newscasts. Though she works in the fields and dons the traditional head covering like most women here, she wasn’t willing to abide by the prejudice towards newborn girls.

Negative attitudes towards girls remain strong. “Haryana’s society doesn’t recognize they have created this shortage of women by eliminating their own girl children,” Kaur said.

Moreover, she added, as long as men are able to marry women from elsewhere, “They can pretend there is no crisis.”

Usha sorts through photos of her wedding, which took place in the southern state of Kerala.

Sreeja is an anomaly in the village. But nearby in the town of Hansi – just 10 miles away – strong Kerala women are becoming increasingly common. At present, the town of 75,000 people has about 300 Kerala brides, the majority who come from the same town in northern Kerala. Some of those marriages have been brokered by Usha and her sister Vasantha, who first married Haryana men several years ago. Now, with the help of their mother in Kerala, the sisters have enlarged their own community by arranging eight other matches.

“Earlier, I was always homesick and wanted to go to Kerala often,” said Usha, who lives with her large extended family in a two-story home with an open-air courtyard. Five years into her marriage, she comfortably moves about the house, cooks north Indian meals with ease, and speaks fluent Hindi.

“I was thinking about my mother, brothers, and sisters all the time.” Now, she doesn’t miss home as much and only visits Kerala for weddings or other major events.

She said her husband’s family welcomed her into their home, supported her, and even taught her how to cook like a Haryana girl. “The curries here are made very differently. We use coconut oil back home in Kerala and they use a different kind of oil here. I learned how to make the curries from my mother-in-law.”

Still, Usha feels most relaxed around other transplants from Kerala. On one recent winter day, she wrapped a chiffon pink scarf around her neck, put on a red sweater, and headed to a nearby house to meet her closest friend, who like most of her friends is also from her hometown in Kerala. These women are like her sisters, she said.

“If there’s some event in my home, I invite them. Similarly, they invite me over to their houses. If I fall ill and have to go to the hospital, they come with me to the hospital.”

As Usha navigated the narrow alleyways, she got a few stares, but mostly blended in with the others on the street. The minute she arrived at her friend’s home, she switched into her native language of Malayalam and the two women chatted over cups of steaming sweet tea.

Usha, a Kerala bride, learned a new language and customs after marrying a groom in north India.

When the women visit their parents in the south, the differences between life in Haryana and Kerala are immediately visible. As the train pulled into a Kerala village one January morning, the villagers were in the final hours of an all-night temple festival, complete with drumming, fireworks, and intense traditional dances performed by men in bright red masks and headdresses. In Haryana, the Kerala brides said, everyone would have been asleep hours earlier. And like New Yorkers who winter in Florida, Kerala brides prefer the warm weather of home to the cold weather of Haryana.

Usha’s mother Kalyani, who still lives in Kerala, said that marriage will always trump geography.

“When the girl gets old and is unable to find a groom and get married here, we’re fine even if she gets married to someone far away,” Kalyani said. Moreover, she added, even if her daughter and the other brides can’t stay in Kerala, they get married in the Kerala style.

“The groom’s family brings the wedding dress and jewelry to the bride’s house the day before the marriage.” Even though the brides permanently move to Haryana, Kalyani has no regrets.

“When I arrange a wedding, I’m giving the bride a new life and god will give me blessings,” she said.

Read the story on Sonia Narang’s blog.

A Journey to Ayodhya

By Wu Nan (class of 2008)

AYODHYA, Uttar Pradesh, December 2007—This is the way pilgrims reach Ayodhya. Thirty minutes before the Farakka Express left for Delhi, passengers filled track Number 11. As they waited to board, some kept warm with wraps, others with blankets or rugs. Young girls and children fell asleep on the ground as rats scurried to get the crumbs under nearby benches.

Ayodhya, the site of a 1992 religious riot between Hindus and Muslims, first caught my interest this past December when the government announced another delay—the 43rd—in issuing its investigation of the incident. Again, the Muslim and Hindu activists blasted the government and the sharpness of their argument made me wonder about the the depth of such religious and political.

The facts are these: Up until December 6, 1992, Ayodhya, a city of less than 50,000 population and over 460 miles east of Delhi,  was the site of the 16th Century Babri Mosque. Hindus had long argued that it was also the birthplace of Ram, their most important deity, but India’s first prime minister put an end to the dispute in 1949 when he closed the mosque. That settled the issue until the 1986 when a district judge reopened it and a new party, known as the BJP, began to use the issue of the mosque as a way to cut across class lines and attract Hindu voters. Hindus compose 80 percent of the country, compared to the 13 percent that identifies as Muslim.

On that December morning in  1992, the BJP gathered  600,000 Hindus near the mosque to call for building a Hindu Temple. A dozen Hindu activists broke through the police barrier around the mosque and others soon followed. Within hours, the mosque was destroyed. The wave of violence that followed ended with 2,000 deaths and the appointment of the Liberhan Commission.

The original mission for the Liberhan Commission was within two months to report on who are responsible for the destruction and how and why it happeneds. Fifteen years later the unpublished report still sits on Judge Liberhan’s desk. I wondered how the report failed to come out and a centuries old religious feud could arouse such passions. I went to India to try and to understand Ayodhya and its aftermath.

There I was at the station, anxiously expecting my destination, Ayodhya. Each year the town attracts over 500,000 pilgrims, ten times larger than its population. Why? Thinking about it, I saw a faded blue train approached the platform. As the train pulled in, the crowd rose and chased it. Passengers jumped into the dark carriages looking as if they had been swallowed by a  magician’s box. I held my train ticket but had no idea what carriage was mine.

The crowds suddenly pushed me into the carriage in front of where I stood. It was dark inside. Minor light came through tiny windows with iron bars. Others scrambled through touching  each seat and reading the numbers. I knew I had a sleeper, but had no idea where it was. I tried to get out but too many passengers were pushing in. As I looked through the bars, I thought we must look like animals trapped in a cage.

I finally squeezed out and found help from one staff in red-cap. He led me to a board stuck with a forest of papers filled with hundreds of names. Miraculously, he found mine.

Inside my car, white bulbs dangled above each cabin; the rectangular block with six bunks on either side that were separated by a narrow aisle. Dark blue curtains covered every bed and cut the whole space into smaller parts. The air was stuffy; a child cried from behind one of the curtains.

This was completely opposite experience when I took a train days ago to Chandigarh I thought. The first class air conditioned I boarded had coffin seats, food and drinks served during the entire journey.

I went there to visit Anupa Gupta, the commission’s counsel and only lawyer. He lives in that city   planned by the French architect Le Corbusier in 1950’s. Four hours south of Delhi, it’s known for its civilization of the western layout of wide, tree-shaded avenues where traffic runs in an orderly fashion.

Gupta, a lawyer in his early 40s, met me at the gate of his two story house. He is of medium height, slim and was dressed in a gray suit, white shirt and a traditional British, 18th century style tie. He smiled, looking like a character in a movie as he welcomed me into white stone house. We walked through the small garden in front and up to the second floor office. There, the walls were lined with books including a collection on the American Constitution.

“Ayodhya is an extremely dangerous issue,” Gupta said.

How, asked Gupta, could the passions of an old argument incite a million people?

Interested the issue, Gupta joined the commission in 1999 when Judge Liberhan had struggled early on and ended up firing his lawyers at that time. Immediately, the pace picked up and by 2001, Gupta began interviewing L.K. Advani, the head of the BJP party, which came into power by trumpeting Hinduism—a religion practiced by 80 percent of the country compared with the 13 percent who practice Islam

Advani is considered core to what happened to the Babri Mosque because he was the prime minister at the time of the incident. When Gupta’s questioning offended Advani, he heard from Judge Liberhan who  asked him to tone down his questions to the the former prime minister.

“I said I’d rather quit the commission,”said Gupta. “After this he (Advani) was very wary of me.”

Gupta wrote 200 pages on his deposition of  Advani. In the following nine years he also heard the testimony of nearly a hundred witnesses. His understanding of the Ayodhya issue, he said, got deeper and sharper. The last witness to testify was Kalyan Singh, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the state where Ayodhya is located. After Singh’s testimony, Gupta filed a 400 page report defining Singh’s role in Ayodhya incident. He said these reports are important evidence for what happened in Ayodhya.

“The complete truth has to be told,” he said.

When asked why the report has been delayed so many times, however, Gupta and says simply that it’s incomplete and mentions his lack of a computer and a staff of only 20.

“Was this really how such an important report stuck? And the passion still drives the pilgrims to travel on a tough trip I am enduring?” I asked myself. The train was running fast. And the next minute I fell asleep in the darkness.

I finally arrived 14 hours later. Unexpected, my interpreter took me to the Faizabad district police station where the police head wanted me to register as a foreign reporter. I was told Ayodhya is highly sensitive place and I would be accompanied by a police guard to make sure I’m in a safe area. I noticed even the women police there were armed.

My guard in green uniform nodded me and sat silently at the front of a van my interpreter booked. I sat in the back with my interpreter. We slowly drove on the stone paved road. The van trembed and made noises, while other cars, bikes, people and donkeys passed us.

This is Ayodhya,  typical of those cities built by India’s Muslim rulers in the 15th century. Low-slung houses and shops filled the narrow streets. The only thing that makes it unique is that every five to 10 meters there’s a uniformed police officer, similar to my guard. The local residents appear to be quite comfortable with the police and chat with them at ease.

We met Amar Ujula, a local political reporter who has followed the Ayodhya issue for a long time.

“Will the Liberhan report fail?” I asked the question stuck in my mind since I started my journey.

“The Liberhan report will come out either in current government under BJP’s time,” he said.

He explained that the government and BJP are both responsible for the destruction of Babri. Neither of them will be interested in exposing their fault. The major public complaint is that the government failed to prepare enough police in advance to prevent the destruction. The BJP is most eager to bury the report since it planned the gathering which lead to the mosque’s destruction, he said.

A person I later met had a different view was more critical on the Liberhan report.

“The Liberhan report is a joke. 15 years? I don’t think it will ever come out,” said Capitan Afzal Ahman Khan, a 90-year-old Muslim activist, who lives nearby the destroyed mosque.

Captain Afzal was almost killed by BJP in Dec 1992, days before Babri was destructed. Friends and relatives helped him flee, but his house was set on fire. When he heard the Babri mosque had been destroyed, he said, he cried till fainted. “When I woke up, I just wanted to die with Babri and ran toward that direction. Many people stopped me,” he said.

He paused in the dark of his house. His eyes shone. Behind him hung a poster of the Babri Mosque, this tall white building, which reminded me of the gorgeous Taj Mahal.

For him, the government report hasn’t come out because it was a shame for them as their police failed to protect the mosque. As a result, Muslims like him lost their holy mosque and had to fight for it until today.

“I’ll die after the first pray at the rebuilt Babri Mosque,” he said continuing. “The government should build a new Babri Mosque, looking exactly the same as the old one.”

He recalled the experience of praying in the Babri when he was young. To him the memory was as vivid as it was yesterday.

Captain Afzal thought of praying in Babri again almost everyday. “I believe there will be a new Babri,” he said.

Today eight family members of Captain Afzal rolled in a small house the government rebuilt. Although he survived the incident in 1992, the Government ordered body guards to protect him since he’s an figure in Ayodhya and in case similar incidents would happen to him again. So, a guard armed with an  AK 14 stands outside. A color-printed board hangs over his front door—a mark of government protection.

Five minutes away from his house there was the Babri site which rose the passion made Captain Afzal want to return to the mosque and drew the pilgrims who boarded the train with me. But, they can see as little as I did.

Stone walls have been reinforced with two layers of iron fence and arrow-shaped top point to the sky.  These surround the area that is about the size of a small stadium. No trace of the poster I saw in Captain Afzal’s house.

Only a few people are authorized by the government to be able to enter the site and these are generally researchers. Many Ayodhya residents have never visited the destroyed site.

As my trip went on, I got eager to know what Ayodhya means to BJP. Back in Delhi, I surprisingly discovered that the BJP party of Ayodhya has been building a temple five miles from the site of the mosque.

At his house in a wealthy area of south Delhi, I meet Swanpan Dasgupta, a scholar and columnist who has worked closely with BJP leaders since 1989. Dasgupta talks with me in his basement study room. Three walls are lined with bookshelves. At one corner there is one long table where each of us sitting at one end.  Dasgupta’s dog sits next to the table watching us.

To him Ayodhya represents a brazen and brave act by Hindus. “A new political identity was therefore formed,” he said, because it cut across caste lines. “There is a creation of political Hindu. That is the significance of Ayodhya to me.”

For the BJP party, this meant that the poor who had traditionally voted with the ruling Congress Party, began supporting the BJP, which had always been known as an upper caste party but one that also appealed to Muslims.

Dasgupta said that when the Muslim King Babur ruled India in the 15th Century, many Hindu temples were destroyed and converted into mosques. For decades, Hindus have wanted their temples rebuilt Ayodhya  captured this issue and made the rebuilding of the temples a political issue.

After Babri’s destruction in 1992, the question of whether there was ever a Hindu temple at the site became a charged legal and academic question. In August 2003 the Allahabad High Court accepted a report from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that offered evidence of an earlier Hindu temple beneath the Babri Mosque. Muslim archaeologists  have appealed the decision and the dispute is now stuck at the Allahabad High Court.

“It does not matter whether we’ll build it in 20 or 50 years,” said Dasgupta.  “It’s a victory for the Hindu.  We have reclaimed the site.”

The temple being built nearby, he says, is nearly 60 percent complete and will be moved once the courts say it is okay to do so.

“Ayodhya marked the beginning of Hindu militancy. The Hindu now hit back far more aggressively,” Dasgupta said. “It could become very dangerous.”

“Will there be an closure to Ayodhya?” I asked.

“It’s only one issue,” he says. “It’s never the last word. The energy Ayodhya has thrown out will go on.”

“What about the Muslims? Will they forget Ayodhya?”

“They’ll eventually get over it,” said Dasgupta. “The Muslim never ruled the country very long. They will not lead on the issue either.”

But, I’m not as sure.

The night before I left Ayodhya, I sat in my interpreter’s courtyard waiting for my train. My ears began to catch the sound of men murmuring. It was very low at first, but then it got stronger and clearer. I suddenly realized it was men praying. He said yes. It was the evening time for Muslims to pray.

The sound was like the waves of the ocean, raised and fell, went higher and higher, and finally flooded the whole town. It was a ritual that had last for years and years and seemed likely to last for decades and decades to come. Because Ayodhya is on people’s mind.