Bride Barter by Divya A

Savita Devi is in a fix today. It is the day her only son, Sukhdev, is getting married, but she is more worried about her fifteen-year-old daughter. Should she let her go through what she herself had to undergo more than two decades ago? Will Reena be another Savita?


While Savita oversees the arrangements, dressed in a faux silk orange sari, wearing gold-plated silver jewellery, she is torn apart by the conflict that is eating into her. Reena is the youngest of her three children. Between Sukhdev and Reena is Rani, nineteen, married into a nearby village and with a one-year-old daughter.


Savita arranges marigold flowers at the main entrance of the house, and her mind darts back to her own wedding, twenty-three years ago, when she too was fifteen. Her father was a rich farmer in Sisana, a village near Sonepat. She was never sent to school, nor were her brothers. Most of the girls in the neighbourhood used to wonder how, in spite of being a girl, Savita wasn’t made to feel unwanted. They thought of Savita’s life as that of a princess in contrast to theirs, where they had to cook, clean, sweep and do the other menial tasks – and were served leftovers after the males in the family were fed.


All was fine till Savita turned fifteen and a bride could not be found for her eldest brother who was twenty-five. The family was worried. They had three more sons to marry off in a village where most girls did not survive beyond a few weeks. The elders had suggested a way out – bride barter. Savita was to be given away in order to buy a bride for her brother.


‘How I wish they had understood what they were getting me into,’ Savita muttered to herself, still arranging marigold flowers. Just then, Reena came running up with two pairs of earrings in her hands. ‘Ma, which one shall I wear tonight?’ she asked, visibly breathless and excited. ‘Ma, tell me, na. You are only worried about Bhai. You don’t care about me. It’s not just his marriage tonight, it’s mine as well … Ma! Ma!’ she almost screamed.


Marriage! The very mention of Reena’s marriage jolted Savita back to the present. She smiled at the fifteen-year-old’s innocence, and selected a pair for her that matched well with the wedding sari she was going to wear tonight.


O god! Savita thought. How similar their lives were – getting bartered at fifteen so that the elder brother could get a wife, the same innocence, the same excitement … and the same pink sari. Like the twenty-three-year-old sari, twenty-three-year-old memories came back to Savita. Within a week of the elders embarking upon the bride barter plan, things were fixed for both Savita and her brother. There was this family from the neighbouring village that one of her seven uncles had found – they needed a groom for their nineteen-year-daughter and more desperately, a bride for the son, Ramesh, who had turned thirty-eight.


And that is how fifteen-year-old Savita became Savita Devi. ‘Why do they fix devi to a woman’s name after her marriage? Is it because it gives everyone else a licence to extract sacrifices out of her?’ she had asked her mother a year after her marriage. The excitement had waned by then, and she was beginning to understand what she had been pushed into.


Did her mother also feel the dilemma Savita was feeling today, to be giving away her young daughter to get a wife for her son? Have all the other women who have done this felt equally torn  between their son’s happiness and their daughter’s future?


‘Ma, Reena is almost ready for the haldi ceremony. Where shall I make her sit? With Bhaiya in the aangan or in the room inside?’ This time it was Rani’s voice that brought Savitha back to the present.


Making Reena sit outside, in the aangan, would expose her. Sukhdev’s marriage was the main show, her marriage had to be kept discreet. ‘Is this a question to ask? I hope you remember what happened during Rinki’s wedding last month. Her poor parents had to spend a night in jail and call off the wedding as well. Now, who will marry that unfortunate girl?’ she almost snapped at Rani.


Then, cooling down a bit, added, ‘These days, the collector has become very strict against marrying off minors. And, what about those nari sanstha women? Uff, they have to get into everybody’s family problems and give big lectures. As if we don’t know! Aren’t we concerned about our own children? They should step into our shoes and realise how it feels to see your grown-up son remain without wife till so late in his life. And we are poor people; we can’t buy brides from Assam and Kolkata by paying lakhs of rupees.’


Rani understood her mother’s predicament. What if her daughter had to be given away in case a boy from the family couldn’t find a bride? What would she do? She had no answer. Fortunately, her own marriage had happened in normal circumstances. Although once, when she was fourteen, it looked like the family would marry her off, but after the intervention of her schoolteacher, they agreed to wait till she turned eighteen. Despite that, she was married off a year earlier and delivered her little one a month after her eighteenth birthday.


Could some schoolteacher convince her parents, especially her father, not to marry off her younger sister at the age of fifteen to facilitate Sukhdev bhaiya’s marriage? ‘First you kill girls, and then, when you don’t find brides for your sons, you sacrifice the ones that survive.’ She almost shuddered at her own conclusion. Her in-laws also wanted her to abort the foetus when they found out she was carrying a girl. But since doctors had advised against it, saying it would be unsafe for Rani, they had relented.


Just then, Reena came out dressed in a yellow salwar-kameez. Savita smiled at her and took her inside for the haldi.


Inside the other room, Ramesh was busy sipping tea and talking to the guests about how happy he was. Today, he would heave a sigh of relief after fulfilling the responsibility of marrying off all his three children, especially the two daughters, he was also happy that he didn’t have to spend a pie as dowry on Reena’s marriage, as opposed to Rani’s marriage, when he had to pay rupees twenty thousand hard cash to the groom’s family.


‘Yes, Ramesh babu, you are lucky,’ remarked Kamlesh, his distant cousin who had come from the neighbouring village. Girls of marriageable age were so few in Kamlesh’s village that his two sons were married to the same girl. He had no daughter in the family to barter.


Listening to all this made Savita cringe. But she couldn’t think of a way out either. She had tried to convince Sukhdev’s in-laws that she would marry both her son and daughter on the same day but would delay the girl’s bidaai till she turned eighteen. But everybody had laughed at her idea.


Sukhdev’s mother-in-law had responded, ‘Behenji, you know well that I am getting old. Since we are giving away Rekha, I need someone to help me in daily household chores. And what is it that you don’t know. Our son is already twenty-nine. It’s time we should see the face of our grandchildren.’


That was the fear which was topmost on Savita’s mind – the pressure to bear progeny as soon as you enter your in-laws’ house. She herself had conceived two months after her marriage. She remembered how she used to be so scared of Ramesh for what he did to her body every night. And when she mustered up courage one day and confided in her mother, she had said, ‘He is your husband. Now, don't talk such things to anyone ever again.’


Did her mother not understand her? Was she so hardened by the society that she couldn’t think about her daughter’s feelings? Savita had always wrestled with that thought.


The final moments were nearing. After the haldi rituals, Reena took a bath and came out of the bathing area in a pink petticoat and blouse – shivering, coy and blushing. Savita's heart skipped a beat. No, she couldn't let this happen. Giving away a daughter to buy a daughter-in-law was fine – at least, it was better than buying a bride for money – but giving away a small girl to buy happiness for her aging son was not.


And who would know it better than me. I have myself suffered it; it would be a big shame if I would do it to my own daughter now. Clutching the pallu of her sari, she decided. She will talk to Ramesh and save her daughter. She will insist on delaying the bidaai. And if that doesn't work, she will inform Reena's teacher.


With the determination and bravery of Jhansi ki Rani, she started walking towards her husband. I will do it, come what may. She is my daughter, she needs to be protected from this atrocity. Even if Ramesh kills me today, I will do it, she repeated to herself as she proceeded towards the courtyard, where he was now receiving the guests.


She was just about to step outside, when she heard whistling and singing from Sukhdev's room. The would-be groom sounded overjoyed at the prospect of finally finding a bride. She stood there for a moment, trying to look inside from the window slit. The twenty-seven-year-old was dancing like a teenager – freshly shaven, his new clothes strewn all over the cot, spraying  perfume on his armpits.


Savita froze. O god! What was I going to do? I have to think about my son also. How can I ruin his happiness? She went back to the room and started helping Reena with draping the pink sari.




This short story came out of Divya’s experience of travelling to villages in Haryana to report on women-centric issues. Divya says, even though the ‘Sabse Aage Haryana’ mantra is proclaimed day in and day out on radio and television, the state has ironically retained its No 1 position in weeding out daughters and is marred by regressive phenomenon such as gotra barriers, honour killings and female foeticide. The story was inspired by a front page report by her that appeared in The Times of India.



Divya A is a special correspondent (Features) with The Indian Express in Delhi where she is part of the team that writes on art, culture and lifestyle. She also writes news features and social stories for the paper's weekly magazine, Sunday Eye. Prior to the Indian Express she worked for more than five years at The Times of India where she reported extensively on rural and development issues, besides writing social features for the Sunday Times of India. She started her career nine years ago with Khaleej Times (Dubai) and has also worked with the India Today Group.