As many ladies will testify, getting a man to propose marriage is no cake walk. In India, if the girl happens to belong to a poor family, it can be almost impossible. The villain of the piece is the insidious dowry system – legally outlawed but widely prevalent. As the government here has learned the hard way, passing a law cannot overcome centuries of tradition.
The dowry system is not restricted to the poor, of course. In most ethnic societies in India, if you have a daughter you are expected to pay through your nose to get her married. A little clarification would be appropriate at this point. The term “India” actually refers to a loose confederation of diverse ethnic groups – ranging from the fair skinned in the North to the almost black in the South – with various shades of brown in between. There is even an unofficial rate card for eligible bachelors. Doctors command a bride price of $100,000; it is $75,000 for an engineer and so on. As an engineer, I was eligible for big bucks but, being an idealistic idiot, I settled for a King bed and a dining table.
Naturally, the dowry demands are less exorbitant among the less affluent, but most are still in excess of an average father’s ability to pay. Most families have no option but to take loans from unscrupulous money lenders (they can’t go to banks because dowry is “illegal”) at outlandish interest rates. It usually takes a lifetime of financial scrounging to pay it back.
The alternative is to lower your expectations dramatically. Girls from very poor families are often married off to known undesirables. Not surprisingly in such unions, drunkenness, illicit affairs and even beatings are par for the course. Divorce is not an easy option and, indeed, would make little practical sense; since the girl would either have to spend the rest of her life alone, or repeat the whole tortuous process. Most wives bear it stoically as their karma.
Hope is not entirely lost, however. Once in a while, a Good Samaritan emerges: one who has genuine empathy for the helpless women and does his bit to help. One such is 80 year-old Shanti Patel, who lives in Bombay. He has single handedly ensured that hundreds of poor folk have found the joy of marriage – well, at least, they have got married. Patel is now confined to a wheelchair, after an accident left him with an iron rod in one leg, but that hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.
Patel does his homework meticulously. He gathers information on young, unmarried underprivileged girls whose families come to him for help. Then he digs out information on prospective matches. When the couples have been paired, he starts hounding his affluent friends and corporations to make donations – either in cash, or in the form of household items like kitchen utensils, furniture and so on. These are then used to make the girls more acceptable to the families of the prospective grooms. For the really poor, who cannot even afford to pay for the wedding ceremony, he arranges mass weddings – often ten to twenty couples at a time. He pays for the priests conducting the marriages, as well as basic decorations at the wedding venue.
What makes a benefactor like Shanti Patel so special is that he does not have to do what he does. There is nothing in it for him – at least, not in the material sense. But maybe he is wiser than most of us. He is building up a lot of good karma. As a Hindu, he believes in reincarnation. His good deeds in this life are going to ensure the next one is going to be pretty darn good.