Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fathers, daughters and dowries

Fiona Ledger

OCT 29 - Kathmandu Post
Nearly every successful woman I know attributes her success to a loving and supportive father. But the tenderness between a father and a daughter is a story rarely told. All too often the love a father has for his daughter is a private love. It stands in distinct contrast to the very public and ritual celebration that parents shower on their sons. After all, the son is guarantor of a comfortable old age and at death facilitates the journey to the after life. The daughter is seen as the plant that ends up growing in another family’s garden. 

But what if there is no son? What if there is no wife and the relationship between father and daughter is intensely caring? And what if that happens in a traditional Tarai community? These are questions that BBC World Service Trust writer Bhabasagar Ghimire pondered on when he sat down to write the  latest story in the BBC World Service Trust’s radio drama, Katha Mitho Sarangiko.

The story he wrote—Manika’s and Kishan’s Tale—features a father whose love for his daughter cannot overcome pressure placed on him by the community. Stretched financially and stressed emotionally, he eventually marries his beloved daughter off. The marriage is against his will and hers, but it appears as the ‘safest’ option. Once married, Manika is cut off from her father. Her position within her husband’s family becomes fragile, as they become increasingly discontented with the dowry she brought. Manika’s mother-in-law bullies and criticises her every day. Things get worse after she gives birth to a daughter.

Having established the story so far, one obvious route to go down could have been murder or attempted murder of Manika. Every month, at least one woman dies or is attacked by her in-laws or husband in dowry disputes. Like the honour killings of Afghanistan and India, these crimes are repulsive; they are hard to make sense of, but they need to be brought out into the open.

Dowry disputes provide some very extreme examples of gender-based violence. But death and attempted murder need to be handled carefully in drama. In my career, I have read countless dramas where the tale ends with the main character dying a violent death, the playwright mistaking the awfulness of death for good drama.

Good drama relies on carefully-drawn characters and plenty of suspense.Bhabasagar tried to achieve this by getting into the mind of the newly-wed Manika, isolated and alienated in her husband’s home. Her father’s love for her cannot save her. So great is her tenderness for him that she is unable to tell him what she is suffering for fear of making him unhappy; every time he calls her, she says she’s fine and he believes her.

But she’s not fine. She is not just suffering from her mother-in-law’s sharp tongue; she is also tortured by her own imagination, haunted by the fate of other daughters-in-law who failed to bring adequate dowry. Her anxiety about what might happen reflects the paralysing fear of violence that pervades many parts of the Tarai. This fear is almost as destructive as the violence itself.

In a series of small but poignant scenes, Manika sees the possibility of her own death lurking all around her: the vegetables she buys are wrapped in a sheet of newspaper containing an account of the death of a bride burnt alive by her husband’s family; on the radio, there’s a report of the hanging of a young bride. Most terrifyingly, her father-in-law starts bringing into the house extra supplies of kerosene, and she comes cross her mother-in-law making a rope. Reality—bad as well as good—has its own limits, but the imagination has none.

There are innocent domestic explanations for the images that haunt Manika. The kerosene is needed because the price of gas has gone up; the rope is needed for the cow. Manika’s father-in-law is greedy, grumpy and irritable; her mother-in-law is jealous and aggressive, but neither of them try to hang her or burn her alive. And as for her husband, Kishan, he is thoughtless rather than cruel. He doesn’t understand this fearful wife of his, who hates being married to him and would rather study; he does anything he can to avoid conflict with his parents and is preoccupied with job prospects, so is in no position to protect her.

Rakesh’s love for Manika underpins the whole drama, but in the context of traditional Tarai society, Rakesh is powerless to help. A father’s love for his daughter can much more easily be translated into practical support for her if the setting is modern and urban. Katha Mitho Sarangiko is a drama that tries to be realistic, so in this case the locus of power remains with the in-laws. They are the obstacle to Manika’s happiness.

In the early stages of writing the drama, Bhabasagar and I turned over different solutions: perhaps the parents-in-law could be blown up in a gas explosion, perhaps they could be jailed for trying to kill her, or perhaps—least satisfactory, Manika could forfeit her position as a wife and run away, or get a divorce. 

None of this was plausible, nor did it resolve the dramatic conflict. Bhabasagar eventually found a solution by linking the self-interest of the in-laws to Manika’s wellbeing through two other family members—Kishan’s sister and her husband. They hatch a cunning plan to jolt the thinking of Manika’s parents-in-law.

By the end of the drama Manika is still alive and married. But her husband’s family sees her differently and sees themselves differently. The story serves as a reminder that a father’s love is vital to daughters but has its limits in a traditional community; the parents-in-law are the gatekeepers, who decide the quality of their daughter-in-law’s life, and it is they who need to be engaged if the situation of young brides is to be improved.

Manika’s and Kishan’s Tale doesn’t mark a seismic shift in gender relations—Manika is no feminist activist. She and her father don’t have the choices which fathers and daughters have in a modern urban context. But I hope our story shows it is possible to loosen the straitjacket of patriarchy without compromising the integrity of a family, and the sense of honour that lies at its heart.

Katha Mitho Sarangiko is funded by the UNFPA and can be heard every Friday at 8:15pm on 103 FM and its companion programme, Sarangiko Bhalakusari, goes out the following evening at the same time. You can hear it online at

Ledger is the drama editor for BBC World Service Trust Nepal.

Posted on: 2010-10-30 08:23

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