There is nothing much left to be said about the Rizwanur Rehman case that has not already found mention in all the Orkut communities, blogs, email forwards, online petitions, media coverage and government sound-bytes regarding the administrative shakeups (the removal of the Police Commissioner and transferring of concerned police officials) that the tragic case has brought in its wake. [For those of you who do not know what I am talking about, this wikipedia page gives you a brief overview of the case that has rocked West Bengal for the past month or so.]
In this day and age when we claim to have become “modern” (where modernity has sadly been defined as wearing skirts, talking in English and downloading ringtones), the fact that such a positively medieval thing can actually happen in a supposedly progressive city like Calcutta has left many of us in the educated middle-class elite angry and surprised.
Angry at the violence and the futile loss of life. Understandable. Angry at the police openly claiming to be able to bend the Constitution as they pleased. Again understandable.
But should we really be so surprised?
Growing up in Calcutta, I always heard cautionary stories, from various quarters, of what happened to people who crossed economic boundaries and got married. Stories like “Did you hear about that rich girl marrying into the poor family and the family members then exploiting her to bring money from her loaded dad?” Or ” I knew it ! That girl from the shanties then brought her whole family over to the rich guy’s house and kept on sucking money —a plot all along”. Or the one about that girl from a “decent family” who got forced into performing “chi chi” acts with strange men by her piss-poor husband who lived across the “railway line” among “them.”
While many may have been exaggerations and some patently false, there were more than a few of these tales which were actually true. In telling us these stories, “society” hammered it into us that the rich-poor successful romance, an oft-repeated theme in Bollywood/Tollywood movies, was merely a fantasy sold to us by the dream-merchants and that in real life what happened after the end credits rolled was not a “happily ever after” fairy tale but a ceaseless nightmare of endless wrangling born out of a failure on the part of both sides, often in spite of their best intentions, to adjust to an environment radically different from what they were born into.
In other words, if the families were woefully maladjusted economically, then the union was doomed to ultimate failure.
Because marriage after all, as your grandma would tell you, is not just between people, but between families and their attendant social contexts.
Ashok Todi is a product of this above mindset, the father of a daughter brought up in the lap of luxury (Priyanka Todi tells her mother-in-law that she has tried to prepare herself for poverty by not turning on the AC for the last few days —an indication of how little Priyanka knew about the real issues of being poor), a stupendously rich man with a monster ego and the smugness that comes from knowing that he can make the law bend to his will. He comes into Rizwanur’s home, first tries to buy him and his family off (based on the assumption that a rich-poor relation is but the opening gambit in an extortion game) through the totally “filmi” brandishing of a blank cheque book, then threatens to finish them off, then brings in the cops, unleashes his extended family, resorts to emotional blackmail by claiming to be ill and then does something, which as long as investigations are pending, we do not know for sure but can surely be suspicious of.
Also a product of the same mindset are many of the anguished email forwarders and petition signers, who suddenly have discovered the elephant in the room. Now here’s a rhetorical question to the shocked aunties and anguished uncles: if the same thing that had happened to Todi had happened in their family (i.e their daughter eloped with a man who lives in a shanty in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods), would they accept it with smiling acquiescence? I would think not. Would they put a contract out on their son-in-law? Perhaps not (and for some that might be because they don’t have the police force to act as their personal gunda army) but they would at the very least sulk and emotionally blackmail and at the worst, cut off all social contact with the offending couple.
Does that make them as bad as Todi? Definitely not. Because they are not accessories to murder, like Todi in all probability is. But the sanctimonious finger-wagging does expose more than a little of “middle class” hypocrisy, even more so when people express shock about the “divisions in society” as if they themselves are totally oblivious of it in their own lives. And for all those who in the spirit of self-flagellation would say “Indians are the biggest hypocrites”, I suggest you watch the classic movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” [where the story centers around the character of Spencer Tracy, ” a lifelong fighting liberal who loathes race prejudice” getting all upset and suspicious when his daughter reveals her fiance (Sidney Poitier) to be black], to be convinced how universal this hypocrisy is.
So was it only about poverty? What about religion? While in my middle-class upbringing, caste and religion were never defining distinctions but “poverty” (and the closely-related word: “low culture”) definitely was, things would be different in a conservative family where it is conceivable that the Islamic faith of Rezwan was no less an obstacle for parental approbation. When Ashok Todi was asking Rezwan whether he would convert for his daughter’s stake, he was articulating the most potent fear in inter-religious marriages—-the perceived humiliation inherent in a religious conversion for the family that has “lost” one of its members to another religion. However in my opinion, the biggest obstacle in this case was not the religion of Rezwanur (and people may disagree with me here) but the economic condition of his family: between a Muslim scion of a 250 crore business empire and a Hindu version of Rezwanur I can bet that Ashok Todi would gladly prefer the cash-rich son-in-law.
Or was it all about one and only one thing– fear? The fear of being slow-bled for money. The fear of being ostracized by your supposed friends and relatives. The fear of having people whom you snubbed coming back to snub you. The fear of your offspring being hurt. Or tortured. Or simply the fear of the unknown, the people whom we do not understand, the people whom we cannot connect with.
Is this fear justified? Perhaps it is. Parents are always fearful for their wards and there will always be real-life incidents that feed this fear. But the most important thing that Indian parents have to realize is that no matter how convinced they are that their adult children are taking wrong decisions about their romantic commitments, at some point of time they have to stand back and let them “make their own mistakes”. Unless this happens, the Hum Aapke Hain Kaunkian “Dhiktana Dhiktana” ideal of the great Indian family will continue to remain a noose around one’s neck, catching in its strangulating knot as it has in this case–a well-liked upwardly mobile professional of humble origins, his family, a young girl and yes even the father of the bride.
[Incidentally, this is my 400th post according to WordPress]