A few weeks back, I got a call from Neha, a friend of mine from school. She told me her engagement had been called off.
This news shocked me because I knew Neha and her boyfriend, Aryan, had been together since our school days.
They had been on trips together, explored new countries, tried new cuisines, broken several (minor) laws and gotten away scot-free. It was a joyride, their time together.
Of course, they’d had their fair share of lows too, which only helped them bond and grow closer to each other.
He had seen her lose a job, held her hand when she had stayed at home for several weeks despairing that she would be poor forever, cheered her on till she found another one and finally started chasing her passion.
She was with him when he lost his pet dog who had been his constant companion for 13 years. She was his sole support on those dark days when he used to break down at the most random of times and cry about how much he missed his Tyson.
Neha and Aryan were the dream team, the couple the rest of us referred to as “goals” whenever we talked about romantic relationships.
And that is why none of us (except Neha) was surprised the day Aryan asked her to marry him.
When she said yes, it felt like the stars in the sky shone a little brighter that night just to complement her smile.
They had been engaged for two months when Neha called and told me out of the blue that their wedding had been called off.
I took several seconds to process the information that this dream couple had broken up. It was too much for me to digest. “How did that happen?” I asked.
This is Neha’s story of why she let her love go.
The Ages-Old Tradition
Neha and Aryan’s families met about a year ago. Her father was already cracking father-in-law jokes with him. You know, stuff like how women (especially Neha) take so long to get ready, ha-ha-ha.
His parents treated her like a daughter. His father gave her chocolates every time she visited his shop to say ‘hi’. His mother kept on inviting her for dinner whenever she made her special Andhra-style fish curry.
It was all good. Better than good, in fact. It was perfect.
And just like all good things, it had to come to an end.
When the two families got together to finalise a date and venue for the wedding, his parents called hers aside to a corner of the room and told them (with a wide smile on their faces) that he was their only son, so they (Neha’s parents) should take care of him. After all, all the money would go to the newly-wed couple anyway, and their daughter would also be happy.
At first, Neha’s parents didn’t understand what they were saying.
And then it hit them.
Money. They were asking for money for their son to marry her.
Seventy-five lakh rupees ($100,000) was their demand.
“It’s a small amount,” they said. “Nothing compared to what you’ve saved till now.”
When Neha got to know this, she walked up to Aryan and asked, “Your parents asked my parents for dowry. Do you know about this?”
“I- uhh, can we talk about this after the wedding?”
The look in his eyes was admission enough. He not only just knew, but he also approved of the dowry.
He had probably encouraged her would-be in-laws for it.
She blinked back tears and tried to comprehend the meaning of it all. “Why?” she asked him.
“Darling, the money will belong to us after marriage, won’t it? We can go for a nice honeymoon and get a beautiful house in the suburbs.”
The smile on his face was winsome. He ran his fingers over her hand like everything was going to be okay.
But she wasn’t going to let bloody old-fashioned patriarchy write the first sentence in their journey together.
She wasn’t going to pay a man to marry her.
No matter how much she loved him. No matter how much of a history they had.
This was it. Her “Fuck this, I’m out of this relationship” moment.
It didn’t happen overnight. She told him about her conditions. He said if money was the problem, they could negotiate. “I am sure my parents would settle for fifty lakh rupees,” he assured her.
“It’s not about the money,” she told him. “It’s about the unfairness of it all. How can you expect my parents to pay you money to marry me just because you are a man?”
“This is what’s been happening for ages. What you call dowry is a custom our country has been following for thousands of years.”
Neha was already tired. His excuses were the final nail in the coffin.
She was done.
True Love Does Not Conquer All
“And so, three weeks later, here I am,” she told me over the phone. “Unmarried, heartbroken, but at least my sense of self-worth is intact.”
“I am so sorry for you,” I told her, at a loss for how their great love story ended on such a bitter note. “But, I am proud you. Not everyone has the courage to do what you did. I am here for you, just know that.”
“Thank you,” she said, and I could hear the weak smile in her voice.
“Neha, are you — I mean, I hope you are not too sad?”
“Am I sad because I lost the guy I loved? Yes,” she breathed. “Would I go back to him if I could? No."
That is the story of my friend, Neha, who had the courage to give up the man she loved for so many years because he chose to let an ages-old tradition come above the wishes and dignity of his fiancee.
My friend was brave, but not every woman in India has the will and freedom to choose herself over a system designed to make women feel inferior.
According to this news report:
As of April 2020, India has an alarming trend that sees 20 women die every day as a result of harassment over a dowry — either murdered, or compelled to commit suicide.
Although the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 makes a man and his family punishable for up to five years, millions of families still threaten and torture their daughters-in-law if their fathers paid a meagre dowry. A simple Google search reveals shocking data of how many women die in India each day because of dowry-related incidents.
Of course, not all men ask for dowry. But if an educated and well-rounded men like Aryan did that, what is to say this practice will stop any time soon?
The only way to stop such a shameful act is for women like my friend Neha to step up and say that enough is enough. Yes, it might be a part of the country's rituals and traditions, but if it has misogyny at its core, dowry has to go.