20080405

Jingle Of Gold In Wedding Bells

Great Kerala Dowry Bazar



The great Kerala dowry bazaar sends gold prices soaring, and turns marriage into a very hard bargain for women. KA SHAJI reports



IN KERALA, marriage is worth its weight in gold. On January 20 this year, though, a bridegroom-to-be’s happy hopes of a windfall met with a rude shock. In a small village near Kollam, 26-year-old Sreekala walked away from the marriage venue, and later filed a case, when the groom’s family insisted that the entire dowry including 100 sovereigns of gold be paid before the knot was tied. Despite several social reform movements and decades of “revolutionary” Left rule, Kerala remains plagued by dowry.

It’s amidst this widespread sense of humiliation among the state’s women that the Class X-educated Sreekala has quickly grown to be an icon of self-respect. Though the groom’s family later adopted a more conciliatory stance, Sreekala refused to withdraw her complaint under the Dowry Prohibition Act. A week later, on January 27, her cousin Ramesh married her in a ceremony that saw hundreds of cheering attendees from across the district. Sreekala’s example was soon taken up in Thrissur district by Flitty, a junior scientist with a research institute in Bangalore. She called off her marriage just a week ahead of it because the groom’s family demanded Rs 6 lakh deposited in the bank and the receipt be produced before them, apart from 136 sovereigns of gold. But such acts of courage are few and far between in a state where the craze for gold in dowry has sent bullion rates soaring.

The price of 10 grams of gold crossed Rs 10,000 recently. The steep rise not only led to a slump in gold sales, it multiplied the woes of thousands of families at the time of the traditional marriage season for the state’s Christians, Nairs, Ezhavas and Muslims. “Just four years ago, the price of a gold sovereign (weighing eight grams) was Rs 3,000. An ordinary lower class marriage in Kerala involves a minimum of 10 sovereigns in dowry. But a very large number of families would have promised 100 to 300 sovereigns,’’ says K. Jayaram, a Kozhikode-based social worker. Agrees women’s activist K. Ajitha: “Gold has been an inevitable part of weddings in Kerala. Apart from the ceremonial thaali (a leafshaped gold plate), gold is offered by several communities as the main part of the dowry. Also, gold is the major status symbol in the state, and the bridegroom’s family extracts the maximum ornaments at the time of marriage.’’

NO WONDER Kerala accounts for 15 to 20 percent of gold sales in the country although the share of the state’s population is only 3.1 percent. S. Abdul Nazar, spokesperson of the All-Kerala Gold and Silver Merchants Association, says online trade in gold has been one of the main reasons behind the rising rates. Within the last one-and-a half months, the price of a sovereign climbed to Rs 9,960 from Rs 7,200. Writer and social activist Sarah Joseph says marriages are seen as an opportunity to enhance a family’s financial and social standing. Families are increasingly seeking help of professional “marriage consultancy bureaus” to negotiate the dowry. Air-conditioned marriage halls are mushrooming even in rural areas, as are jewellery and bridal wear shops.

In recent years, such businesses have become the biggest advertisers in the state’s print and electronic media. Brand new cars, white goods and even “pocket money” for the honeymoon have become an integral part of wedding transactions. Statistics bring out the pattern in relief. In 1993, Kerala registered 380 complaints of cruelty by husbands and in-laws in the name of dowry. In 2002, the figure rose to 2,774, and is now close to 4,000. Father Paul Thelakakttu, a spokesperson of the Roman Catholic Church, puts it succinctly: “These are present-day Shylocks, greedy for the last pound of flesh.” Perhaps what Kerala needs is
more Portias.

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