Monday, April 29, 2013

"The Bride Who Would Not Burn, A Play on Dowry Deaths in India" by Rajesh Talwar

Title: "The Bride Who Would Not Burn, A Play on Dowry Deaths in India" 
Author: Rajesh Talwar
Genre: Play (Comedy)
Length: 223 estimated pages
Naja's decency rating: (PG-13) for sexual content and adult situations
Setting: Contemporary India 

I wasn't going to review this indie since I don't know much about the culture and history of India and I also had very mixed feelings about the play. A week or two later though, I was still thinking about this play and because of it, I've been awakened to something I wasn't aware of before. That doesn't always happen when I read a piece of literature. Often, I turn the last page of a piece of fiction, and if I ever come across the book again, I might not even remember having read it.

Let me be specific about what I mean when I say I'm ignorant about India. Like many or most Americans, all I know of India aside from beautiful clothes at fair trade stores and belly dancing is a smattering of sensationalistic melodrama gleaned from old movies which point out the evils of burning a bride alive along with her dead husband's body. I had always assumed that bride-burning happened centuries ago (actually  this practice of burning a bride alive on her husband's funeral pyre was called "Sati" and became illegal in 1829). I expected this play to be a historical play about Sati- not a contemporary play about something that happens now once an hour to a woman in India, and has ever since the early 90's.

The play follows a lawyer, a prosecutor and a judge discussing a modern bride-burning case. One family tries to extort the most amount of money from their son's bride (the girl in this play is only nineteen), and the bride's family tries to "sell" her off to the wealthiest family. Everybody involved drops their heart-felt sense of right and wrong in the process. Unfortunately, my brief research confirmed that this is a common real-life scenario in these dowry murder cases! Not a whole lot of fiction is here!

As the play opens, we get to know the judge and the prosecutor as they wait for a late lawyer to join the discussion. Almost immediately, we come to a major challenge and also (arguably) one of the major appeal s of this play for a Western audience: differing cultural assumptions.

The two narrating characters are discussing confiscated "blue films," which I eventually assumed meant pornography, because I don't automatically associate either the color blue or films with pornography. Many Indian cultural issues are implied throughout the play- concepts which are sometimes  quite different from Western culture. A reader who is not familiar with contemporary Indian culture will be obligated to do a fair amount of background research. For instance, I also had to assume that pornography is illegal in India, and that traditional assumptions about sexual boundaries must therefore be dramatically different from the default mode of thinking about sex that I developed.

I did a Google search and yes, pornography is illegal in India. Herein lies the beauty of ebooks: immediate Googleability. I found that the strange feeling I get from discovering these things about a totally different way of life lingers with me well into scenes in which I'm supposed to be getting to know the characters and their struggles. I wasn't focusing much on the characters because I was still working on what I think of a cultural thing I just looked up that I wasn't sure yet was even correct. I'd carry a lot of assumptions with me throughout the narrative that would superimpose a lot of different meanings onto the text until later on in the story when I might start seeing a pattern and realize my assumptions were right, wrong or still indeterminate. And of course, it's hard, as an outsider, to know how people in local milleus and subcultures tend to think about the popular culture surrounding them. This aspect to reading this script put it out of the easy reading category.

There are two distinct morals to the story. One: you're going to get a mess when you mix the ethics of consumerism with certain traditional practices. Two: it's nearly impossible to successfully legislate deeply ingrained behavior. Personally I would argue that you can and perhaps should legislate beliefs for long-term change. Lincoln's anti-slavery law didn't stop abuses against African-Americans for decades, but it slowly and steadily improved human rights after many generations. Similarly, it seems that women in India continue to struggle with abuses influenced by a world in which the dowry system ruled.

It's written as a comedy, so how funny this play actually is would be mostly in the hands of the actors and the director. If the actors played it well, it would almost be a comedy of manners (the prologue does quote Oscar Wilde).

The most important thing you will take from only reading this ninety-nine cent play is learning about the real-life plight of many women in India. (Spoiler alert: there is a plot twist in the end that weakened my experience of the story quite a bit. It made the already challenging aspect of delving into a world with so many different customs and different terms of respect or affection for authority figures even harder to assimilate, because the judge, the lawyer and the prosecutor launch quite a lengthy and vicious ad hominem attack against Poonam, the bride. And you are definitely under the impression that these men are united in their negative opinions of her until they stop removing the speck in someone else's eye and start criticizing each others' sex lives. Perhaps the playwright did all this end-twisting in order to avoid completely turning off people who think more conservatively about women's sexuality in India, or to offer up a more well-rounded perspective on the situation- to make it funny that these men are putting down a sexually open woman when they themselves are out-of-control... sort of like how amusing it is to hear Aunt Augusta in The Importance of Being Earnest discussing in all seriousness how "...we live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces," when she is so interested in money. She's dead serious. This reflects the attitudes in the social sphere of that setting, but it's also hilarious to watch her behaving so judgmentally. I do not know if this kind of comedy is how the playwright intended all of this to play out. I do know that the playwright seems to be quite bright in the prologue, has already put on this play before live audiences and has gotten feedback from it. What's more, he has a better command of properly written English than most Americans do. But most importantly, he has an agenda with this play: to protest these dowry abuses- even if the argument is not necessarily one that stems from feminist ideology. This aspect to the play seemed like it could be open to interpretation.)

In the long run, what will haunt you the most about this play is the sense of helplessness that you feel for these dowry-burdened women half-way around the world, living in a situation that's very hard to comprehend in the West.

The following links open in separate windows:

Bride-burning as acceptable murder in India. puts together a list of "bride-burning for dummies:" restrain the girl in the kitchen, douse her in kerosene, and light her on fire. 

Dowry deaths are on the rise in the 21st century at the rate of one bride-burning an hour (written from New Delhi).