The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Re-enacting scenes from a grim human drama
Nishi Malhotra

Sita’s Curse: Stories of Dowry Victims
by Seema Sirohi. HarperCollins. Pages 292. Rs 295.

Sita’s Curse: Stories of Dowry Victims"DOWRY deaths became more common during the 1990s, ironically a decade that created a sense of progress for women`85Gains were made but the problems facing women did not lessen proportionately. Every major crime against women recorded a rise—rape, molestation, domestic abuse, trafficking, kidnapping, sexual harassment."

But more than that, says the author of Sita’s Curse: Stories of Dowry Victims, along with this "came an uneasy sense of acceptance—it happens—not among women activists but society at large. It settled like smog over the nation’s consciousness, absorbing the outrage. New crimes were rationalized by the old idea of fate."

Continuing into the 21st century, "the backlash against feminist ideology" has come from both the establishment and the media. India today is "energised in equal part by machismo, market and a new found masti of the soft drink culture and it rarely acknowledges ugly social problems," writes Seema Sirohi.

Seema’s journalistic skills have been honed for almost 20 years, during which her assignments took her to the Golden Temple in 1984, the war in Sri Lanka, several years in Washington DC as a correspondent for the Telegraph, as well as reporting from Eastern Europe and the UN headquarters. She spent three years researching Sita’s Curse and the effort shows clearly in her first book. Her sweep of knowledge is breathtaking, her perspective sound, and her ability to communicate her thoughts to the readers commendable.


The problem with this well-written revisit of a social evil, which has been steadily languishing and lessening in force in modern consciousness, is that it may not find its niche in the ‘reading world’ and therefore collect dust on bookstores’ shelves. Sita’s Curse is not entirely academic or journalistic; not fiction and not completely non-fiction either.

The introduction and end to the book have been written in the spirit of enquiry`85each paragraph jam-packed with tight comment and information. So much so that one has to slow down to take in the full implications of everything written in order to process it again.

The middle of the book re-constructs the stories of six women, all victims of men and families who demanded and got dowry but whose greed drove them on to commit more heinous crimes. One of these stories was researched in Chandigarh (the brief marriage and subsequent suicide of Tikka Preet, the daughter of a retired Army Colonel) and is included in the book. Seema embraces her subject or each character fully. The details are drawn from the three-year research, during which she met with victims, their families, the police and lawyers, etc. Why then do the stories fail to move and or inspire emotion? Perhaps, the author knows the reason`85in India, two decades of watching the news of burns and suicides and undue harassment of women get buried deeper into five-line stories worthy of bland reportage`85has inured us all to the fate of these victims. But it could also well be that the book fails to mesh the radically different styles of reconstructed stories sitting cheek by jowl with the journalism at the beginning and the end.

In Fight to the Finish: Mariam Bai ki Kahani, Seema explores the inner mind-state of Fatima’s drunkard of a husband: "Fatima soon had a thriving practice but Syed wasn’t happy. He resented the monthly payments to Maria. He didn’t like his mother-in-law’s strong and practical bent of mind. Besides she was always advising Fatima on what to do. He was jealous of the mother-daughter bond, which seemed to exclude him. It was as if he weren’t there. He felt the need to establish who the boss was." This kind of story-writing (Seema did not meet with Syed, the husband in the case) does not sit well with the meticulous research and sparkling journalism of the introduction.

Buy Sita’s Curse, not for the stories but for its author’s extraordinary commentary and breadth of knowledge about the degradation of dowry. As she herself says dowry deaths are a ‘down market’ subject to write about in an era when newspapers highlight the latest fitness and diet fads more than the stories of women who are being callously slaughtered at the altar of greed. "In the fight against dowry, there are no heroes, only soldiers." And one of those soldiers is the woman who has written this, her first book!