Death by Fire, Mala SenThis is the story of Mala Sen’s exploration of violence against women and girls in modern India, which centres around her investigations into a number of individual women’s stories, and interviews – often informal ones – with key people involved in their cases.

First and foremost among these women is Roop Kanwar. She was an 18-year-old woman whose husband died shortly after their arranged marriage. She thereafter became sati, burning along with her husband at the village cremation ground in rural Rajasthan. The year was 1987. The perpetrators were tried for murder and acquitted. We will never know exactly how Roop Kanwar’s death came about and to what extent it was voluntary, but what is certainly clear is that it stemmed from a culture in which women have less than no value, and in which a widow is the least desirable kind of woman possible.

Roop Kanwar is the main subject of Sen’s investigation, but the book also tells other stories.

There is Selvi, a woman burned by her husband who barely escaped with her life and whose burn wounds will never fully heal because she feared to seek treatment at a proper hospital. Whether the “reason” – rather, the excuse – for this atrocity was a dispute over dowry is never altogether clear. But then, when a man burns his wife because the dinner is late again, we don’t split hairs over whether dinner actually was late, do we? The problem, again, is a culture in which violence against women for trivial perceived transgressions is so utterly normal that an event like this can take place without consequences. Selvi never even reported the event. Nor did anyone else. Her husband had to leave the village, but later took up a new wife and never faced any real consequences for his actions.

There is Bhanwari Devi, who was gang-raped by respected men in her village as retribution for having the temerity, in her role as a government-sponsored activist for women’s issues, to protest about a forthcoming child marriage. After her rape – and the beating of her husband – the humiliating and slipshod police investigation (on which she herself had to insist, with the police refusing even to examine her for several days) led to an acquittal of all the men involved, principally on the ground that they were respectable men and as such could not credibly be accused of rape.

There is Karrupayee, a mother accused of killing her infant daughter. She had two surviving daughters, and a girl and boy baby who had each died in the first few days of life – when her fifth baby, a girl, was born and died soon afterwards, she was charged with infanticide. She seems to admit the crime, and her husband (who faced no charges despite his initial arrest) seems to admit complicity. Yet this is not the whole picture – for female infanticide is common. The male to female ratio in India is something like 1000 to 917. Rich people have scans and legally abort the foetus if it is female. Poor people continue to practice illegal infanticide if the baby once born is female. Midwives are paid more if a girl baby dies than if she lives. A crackdown on infanticide harms the poorest people without doing a thing to resolve the underlying causes of the problem.

Doing away with daughters is rife, and is an obvious and horrific consequence of the dowry system. When a daughter can only marry if her family pay a substantial fee to the husband’s family*, a fee beyond the means of many parents, why not do everything in your power to avoid having girls in the first place? And in a culture where female life is of so little value, why not simply do away with a daughter? Billboard adverts for foetal sex screening say things like – “Pay 500 rupees now or 500,000 later”. It is the practical thing to do.

[* And woe betide any woman whose dowry is found wanting, for she faces all manner of violence and even death at the hands of her in-laws once she is in their power, even if the agreed money or property has already been handed over. And why not, given how little she is valued and how much could be extorted from her family by threatening their daughter?]

Sen paints a horrifying picture of women’s position in modern India. The dowry system is at the heart of it all, coupled with a universal callousness towards women and girls, a universal failure to treat them as having equal value and humanity with men. The evils perpetrated against girls and women all spring from the dowry system in the sense that this system creates the conditions where such violence can seem to be an inevitable, even a sensible, course of action. Yet the dowry system alone would not create these evils if Indian society had not failed in so many fundamental ways to recognise and appreciate the humanity of women and girls. It is not just the violence against women which stirs the blood, it is the indifference of the government and politicians, and of men in general.


PS – A final quibble.
The book was as much about the author’s own experiences and her own voyage of discovery as it was about the women whose lives and deaths she explores. This at first seemed like a powerful way to bring the reader really in touch with the stories, to really get involved. Yet, perhaps because I could not warm to Sen as a person, in the end I found her narrative approach to be irritating and self-indulgent rather than truly engaging. Which is a shame, because the women whose stories are in these pages deserve a clear voice.