Saturday, August 07, 2010

Dowry still determines a daughter-in-law’s place

Schools of thought IE: Saturday 07 August, 2010 Shruti Ravindran
Most urban people would like to think of themselves as mercifully distanced from the sort of petty sagas that spur on the subplots of K-serials and their many regional variants — such as vengeful sisters-in-law who foist household chores on new dowry-less brides, or the barely concealed show of hierarchy within the gift-wrapped present from a newly affluent relative. Should you want a field guide to navigate the thorny thickets that lie before the upwardly mobile middle-class, you ought to read Middle-Class Moralities: Everyday Struggle over Belonging and Prestige in India, by Minna Saavala (Orient Blackswan, Rs 495).
Saavala, a Finnish social anthropologist, gathered most of the material for the book from the personal experiences, opinions and habits of a circle of acquaintances — “informants”— that she met during a stint in Hyderabad for a previous dissertation on fertility. The book begins with the fraught, fiercely contested realm of courtship and marriage, pointing out that despite the illusion of choice and flattening of hierarchy that urban life might promise, factors like dowry still determine a daughter-in-law’s place in the household pyramid, and “free choice” or “love” marriage continues to get “camouflaged” within the curious label of an “arranged-cum-love-marriage”.
If you’ve marvelled at the real-estate advertisements that promise some gilded “lifestyle” and the geographical nowhere-ness we aspire to amid the landscaped gardening we like to surround ourselves with, you’ll especially enjoy the chapter on “Imagined Worlds”. This takes us on an excursion to the “heterotropia” of Ramoji Film City, “a mirage out of nowhere”, of mud villages, the Wild West, and Mughal palaces favoured for film shoots in the outskirts of Hyderabad.
In an arid, rocky land, rolling lawns and luxurious fountains are the most potent form of conspicuous consumption, points out Saavala. When one of her friends, who seemed indifferent to the spectacle, later professed great enthusiasm for it to her friends, Saavala observes that more than the excursion, she’d valued the consumption of indicators of the “West” — hygiene, efficiency, predictability, in a vendor-less, beggar-free environment. In other words, Ramoji Film City and your sparkly, new neighbourhood mall are “a huge stage… to be gazed at, and to prove [one’s] middle-classness.”
None of this upward mobility and aspiration-fulfilment would be possible without modern capitalism or the free-market economy, as its tireless evangelist, French columnist Guy Sorman will remind you in Economics Does Not Lie (Global Full Circle, Rs 495). “During the current crisis, it’s especially important to remember the unprecedented benefits that free markets have brought mankind,” says the blurb. Accordingly, the book marches along to this jaunty neo-liberal tune, telling us how the best measure of a good economy is its growth, how competition is desirable and the welfare state ineffective, and how complex financial markets have ushered in progress.

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