DELHI-This International Women's Day, nothing says "I love you" like a kerosene shower.
Yup, Bride Burning is alive and thriving in 21st century India. Beneath this country's progressive Nehru-era gender laws lingers a Brahaminic code in which the only good feminist is the one running screaming through the village streets dripping flesh like nacho cheese sauce.
Actually politics has nothing to do with the practice. Bride burning is about cash money. Gold. It's about dowry.
If the concept of a dowry sounds primitive, it is. You have to go all the way back into the mists to find its origins, in Vedic decrees enforcing that a woman arrive at her wedding bed with as much of the other kind of booty as her family can afford. Probably the oldest and most influential reference to the dowry is in the Ramayana, a central epic Hindu text, in which the lovely Sita is rescued by the monkey-faced superhero god Hanuman, who jumps from India to Sri Lanka in one bound. And you thought the Bible was stupid.
This is how Bride Burning works: When a dowry is deemed insufficient by a groom's family, the woman is burned alive. It's that simple, that vicious. Performance anxiety is the least of the rural bride's wedding night worries.
An estimated 5,000 Indian women die like this every year. Exact numbers are elusive, as many burnings are reported and registered as "kitchen accidents." You know, you're making some toast, one eye on your favorite soap-the next thing you know you're on fire from head to toe.
Just as many Bride Burnings are more accurately reported as suicide. The burnings are often preceded by mutilation and torture, leading the woman to take her own life as quickly as possible. Sometimes the brides are boiled alive. There is even a (let's assume defunct) Vedic custom called purushamedha, in which the bodies of the brides are cooked and their flesh consumed by the pious Hindu family of the bridegroom; a trick that both gets rid of the body and, according to certain ancient texts, "gains the groom's family merit." This kind of thing helps explain why Buddhism and Islam got so popular so fast on the subcontinent. Forget hatred of the Hindu caste system-people were ready for a religion that didn't condone eating your wife.
The burning doesn't always occur just after the wedding. Often the initial dowry is accepted, then a month later the groom's family threatens to go Wacko Hindu on her hostage ass unless the bride's family coughs up second dowry/ransom. It's sort like that Mel Gibson movie, except the woman usually dies in the end and it's unlikely that any of the players in this real-life rural drama would know how to dial a telephone.
Since all of these cases are basically cut from the same sad cloth, I'll forgo a litany of recent blotter material and simply relay the story of Sunita Bhargava, who survived her brush with burning and now lives alone in a New Delhi slum.
"My mother-in-law used to say that my husband was too educated for me, that he didn't get a fair dowry," Bhargava told a reporter.
The abuse eventually turned physical, Bhargava said, when her husband and his mother scalded her with boiling water. Desperate and in pain, she tried to hasten her inevitable death by dousing herself in kerosene, severely burning 40 percent of her body before being rescued by neighbors.
Old sub-sets of the Bride Burning phenomenon include jauhar-the mass burning of a town's woman to prevent them from falling into the hands of enemies. Jauhar was especially prevalent in Rajasthan, the "Princely state" which is both India's most touristed state and its most backward. Forced child marriage-we're talking 8 year old kids-is still so prevalent that a massive government billboard campaign was just launched to remind parents that 18 is the legal age for marriage. The American version would have announced something like, "No tying knots for tots!"