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This is the sordid tale of an ill-fated girl who died an untimely death. She looked for happiness, but was sacrificed by a patriarchal society on the altar of marriage.
This is neither a figment of imagination nor pulp fiction, but a personal anecdote involving a family member. The tragic incident occurred about 25 years ago. She was my first cousin. Daughter of my father’s brother. We were born a few months apart, and became bosom friends since infancy. Her identity is best concealed. I shall refer to her as Polly.
Polly was a star-crossed child. The oldest of three siblings, she lost her mother at 18. From then on she had to shoulder the burden of housekeeping and care giving to her sisters. Quite naturally academics took a backseat. Anyway her academics were poor. My uncle who had a brilliant track record and held a prestigious government post, was aghast to find that studies were no longer a priority. He kept pestering, nay, humiliating her; she suffered in silence.
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After a good deal of coaxing and persuasion interspersed with threats, Polly took up her books again, managing to scrape through her grade 12 exams in three attempts. Lest it slips my mind, Polly had a melodious voice. Right from childhood she took to singing just as a duckling takes to water. Music runs in the family and she trained at several reputed music schools in Kolkata. But for the obdurate parent this skill was zilch.
In retrospect, I rue our social circumstances. Why below average students forced to study against their wishes? Simply because it was a matter of prestige for their clan? Why can’t there be more scope for young boys and girls to adopt music as a lucrative profession?
By this time Polly was into her early 20’s. She quit studies again. So the only option left, according to her family, was matrimony. There was a hurdle there, again. She was not pretty by accepted standards – “wheatish complexion, a little on the heavier side” and not tall enough. Only her looks were considered; her singing skills and efficiency in housekeeping were considered immaterial. I recall how the poor girl occasionally wept on my shoulders, confessing her agony and a sense of dejection.
Finally our paternal aunt found a match for her. The prospective groom was a junior Indian Air force officer, based in Ambala. He looked a decent sort of chap. So one fragrant spring day the wedding took place. For Polly paradise seemed to be near…
Polly’s in-laws hailed from a small village some distance away from Kolkata. When her spouse Sam began packing their bags to go back to his workplace, the imperious mother-in-law kicked up a row. She blatantly refused to let go of her bahu whom she wanted to groom and mould as per the family’s requirements. Without demur, Sam left.
Now Polly’s life took a nightmarish turn. She was assigned all rigorous chores: wash clothes and utensils at the house pond, fetch coal from the coal scuttle, sweep & mop the entire house day in and day out. Despite our family’s disapproval of dowry, uncle gave her all the basic stuff required for a home. However the avaricious folks were disgruntled. They nagged her for not bringing in adequate dowry. No dowry no food seemed to be their maxim. Indeed her meals were frugal; she got her portion only after everyone else had eaten. Nevertheless the poor girl put up a brave face and went about dutifully playing a good bahu. It was only when she came home for short stays, that she would let her hair down and confide her woes to our grandmother.
So it went on for about six months. It was October. Sam was home for Diwali. His mother had finally relented about Polly’s relocation. On that fateful day, after dusk, lamps had been lit all over the place. Polly had gone up to the terrace to bring in the dried clothes.
Now there appears a twist in the tale. Minu, Sam’s sister, reportedly saw her rushing down the stairs screaming help, help! my sari is on fire. Minu quickly tore off all her clothes, but by then the damage was done. Her long braided hair too was singed. She was rushed to a Kolkata hospital.
Though the family screamed that it was sheer carelessness and /or suicide attempt, yet my uncle was not convinced. In fact having personally examined her (on her hospital bed), he noticed a dark deep round burnt spot at her waist. Looked like a lamp /candle had been forcibly thrust there. It could not be the handiwork of the victim.
Some vital questions: Was someone lurking on the terrace, knowing that she would come up for an errand? If yes, who was it? We shall never know. Because my foolishly sentimental uncle refused to get even a routine police enquiry done.
After 12 days of an agonizing battle (with 70% burns) Polly breathed her last. She had turned 25 eight weeks earlier. In her death, the poor mite must be glad that she had achieved her goal of being married, which ironically is the summum bonum of the lives of hundreds of Indian girls. I implored with the distraught father to file a case against the offenders, but uncle would have none of it. He lamented, “My daughter is gone…what the point of seeking justice for her now?”
This is not an isolated incident. Every day, hundreds of nameless, innocent girls are sacrificed at the altar of being married. Our women are crying for succour; is anybody listening?
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