My mother started collecting my dowry since I was born. Her logic was factual. Unlike my younger sister, I was dark, ugly, and was not good in studies. It was an impossibility that anyone will take me off my parents’ hands without a bribe.
My mother didn’t actively buy my dowry. She didn’t want to spend money for me. She just stored the extras—gifts, or anything she wanted to throw—in the master-bed box. We had a custom-build three and half feet high California king size bed; the space underneath was a storage box. In 1984 New Delhi, middle class people didn’t have the money to custom design their furniture. My mother calculated the cost of construction vs the cost of buying my dowry. The storage space bed won.
There was a lot of free stuff in my parents’ home: thermos, trays, plates, glasses, sarees, salwar-kameez’s fabric, hairpins, etc. My father received the non-apparel stuff as dividend in shareholders’ meetings. Everything wearable was a gift my parents got whenever they attended a wedding.
I eyed everything. All the stuff was saved for my future, by screwing my present. Sometimes, I wanted to get inside the box and breathe the pretty stuff. My favorite was a thermos. Its body was light pink plastic, shaped in a lotus flower; its cap was dirty white in color. My father received two of them. My mother kept one on the dining table to taunt me. She would say that if I behaved like a ‘good daughter’, she would give the other thermos to me, not to my twenty-years-away-future-to-be-husband-and-in-laws.
I tried to be a good daughter. It was difficult to be nice when your mother doesn’t let you eat the food she cooked; I lived on bread and jam for two years. Even today, I can’t look at jam, especially the pineapple flavor. Despite her attitude towards me, my mother continued gathering free stuff for my dowry. My beatings at home became directly proportional to filling of the master-bed box. By the time I was sixteen, there was barely any space in the master-bed box.
I had hated my to-be-future husband and his family since I was five. How nice my future in-laws could be, if they had to be bribed to marry me? My mother made sure to keep me updated with stories. Story of a husband burning his wife, because the wife didn’t get adequate dowry. Tale of a mother-in-law torturing her daughter-in-law because she couldn’t birth a male heir. Common saying was that in-laws throw out the bride from their home because the bride’s family didn’t send enough gifts on Diwali.
I learned early in life that if you are born a dark color girl in 1970’s New Delhi, then your life is nothing more than serving your parents, followed by serving your husband and his family. I knew that even if I were to get married, I would surely be burned or thrown out of my husband’s home. I studied in an English medium school, so from an early age I was taught that a female is not responsible for a child’s gender. I also knew that once I leave my parents’ home, they would never visit me. There will not be any Diwali gifts for my husband and his family. I would have an unhappy married life, only if I was not burned.
I accepted my destiny. I accepted that my being born when I was born, in the country and culture I was born into, to the parents I was born to, and the physical attributes I was born with, that I will always be chasing my survival.
Over years, I got a undergrad degree; I earned money; I moved to US for a graduate degree; I stayed in US. I met a man who wanted nothing but me. Today it is more than a decade that I have visited my parents’ home. I know that the pink lotus thermos is still in the master-bed box. I used to want it. Now, it is just a reminder of what my life could have been, had my parents not thrown me out of their home when I was sixteen and half.