August 2003

When my wife, Malathi, and I tied the knot a few years ago, no one in our families mentioned dowry, though many people in our native India still practice the traditional but illegal system of paying to have a daughter married. I didn't demand any money, appliances or property, not because I didn't need them, but because it was against my principles to have Malathi, as well as her parents, laugh hysterically in my face. "You want dowry? You're a writer, not a doctor. You should be giving us dowry!"

My parents-in-law did give me a gold bracelet, but that's nothing compared to what some grooms get: loads of cash, color TVs, computers, refrigerators, ovens, washers and dryers. A few lucky men even get cars, scooters and motorcycles. While American grooms find themselves humming "Here comes the bride," Indian grooms find themselves singing, "Here comes the ride."

Friend: "How was your wedding night?"

Groom: "It was wonderful, just wonderful ? until I ran out of gas."

Friend: "Really? Was the bride disappointed?"

Groom: "I don't know. She didn't come along."

Yes, the dowry system can be a windfall for grooms and their parents, but it has a dark side, sometimes resulting in violence against brides whose families can't satisfy the demands. Dowry was rightfully outlawed in 1961, though someone apparently forgot to tell the masses, many of whom practice dowry so openly and steadfastly that some tourists are led to believe that it's required by law.

But recently, one brave bride decided to take a stand against her greedy groom, setting an example that could inspire many others to challenge the dowry system. Nisha Sharma, 21, of Delhi, had her groom, Munish Dalal, hauled off to jail after he and his parents allegedly demanded a car and about $25,000 just before the wedding. A car and $25,000? Dalal must have thought he was on an American game show. "Munish Dalal, this is your lucky day. To win a new car and $25,000, all you have to do is act like a piece of money-grubbing scum."

Sharma has not only become a national icon, she has received dozens of marriage offers from eligible men, many of whom are willing to settle for "just the car." Actually, the men don't want any dowry at all, don't want to share a room with her former groom.

But Sharma, wisely, has decided not to get married for now, but to complete her education. Marriage may be a great institution, but it's a lot cheaper to get into Harvard. An educated woman can support herself ? and look for a groom who values her, not the big-screen TV.

"My message to all young girls, is to resist dowry demands," Sharma told UPI. She has already inspired at least two women to walk out on their marriages and many more may follow. Who knows, if this continues, the dowry system may crumble. And Munish Dalal and his ilk will just have to find another way to get a car, such as saying "I do" to a special person ? the loan officer at a bank.

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