Monday, July 25, 2011

The marriage market


On the afternoon before his wedding day this fall, Faisal was sitting in an empty teahouse worrying a glass of tea between his fingers, his brow furrowed in concern. He confessed to feeling a certain anxiety at seeing his bachelor’s independence slipping away. But something else was troubling him, as well: the cost of his wedding. In kashmir, bride grooms are expected to pay not only for their weddings, but also all the related expenses, including several huge pre-wedding parties and money for the bride’s family, a kind of reverse dowry.

Faisal, a Junior Assistant in the department of social welfare ,who supports his six-member family on a salary of Rs 6,000 per month, said his bill was going to top Rs 5,12,000. And by Kashmiri standards, that would be considered normal, or even a bargain. “Sometimes it’s difficult to think about it,” said Faisal, 28, who requested that his full name not be published because his employer forbids him to speak to the news media. “It’s a lot of responsibility.” Extravagant weddings, a mainstay of modern Kashmiri life and an important measure of social status, were banned during the time of militancy , which also outlawed beauty parlours and the instrumental music that is traditional at wedding parties. But since the reduce in militancy, Kashmir wedding industry has rebounded and is now bigger than ever. The growth is reflected in the proliferation of wedding halls, hotels, homes of mirrored glass and blinking neon lights that glow incongruously among the valley’s dusty streets . This system has been a mixed blessing. While bridegrooms and their families are free to have the huge weddings that tradition demands, they are once again left with bills that plunge them into crushing debt. Moderate guest lists can top 700 people; the biggest exceed 2,000. The bridegroom is also responsible for jewellery, dry fruits, flowers, two – three gowns for the bride, two -three suits for himself, gifts for the relatives , a visit to the beauty salon for the bride and her closest female relatives, as well as a sound system for the wedding, a photographer and a videography team with a pair of cameramen. All that, plus the dowry, known as the bride price, can run a middle-class Kashmiri man on average Rs 1-2 lakhs, dozens of Kashmiris said in interviews . Even the poor do not scrimp. A laborer, for instance, making about Rs 150 perday income , may well spend more than 3-4 lakhs for his wedding, kashmiris say. Kashmiri bridegrooms say tradition and societal pressure leave them with no alternative but expensive weddings in spite of their poverty. Marriage is arguably the most important rite of passage for a young kashmiri man, and the luxuriousness of the ceremony reaffirms his family’s status. “It’s a way to solidify your position in the Society,” explained Dr. Showkat , a professor of law at Kashmir University.

The growth of the wedding industry has been enabled in part by the fact that more money than ever is in circulation in Kashmir. Lavish weddings have even made a comeback in some parts of the valley , where security concerns are greatest, though in areas where the militants are still active , the weddings have been moved back into private homes and have been toned down. For Faisal, like most kashmiris , a small wedding at home was not an option. Kashmiri custom dictates that all relatives, even distant cousins, be invited, and his house would not have been big enough. Further more, Faisal said, his fiancée and her family had expectations. As with all Kashmiri weddings, the style and size of faisal’s wedding was established in consultation between the families. But also following custom, the consultation was mostly a one-way declaration, with the bride’s family setting the terms. Fortunately, faisal said, his fiancée’s family has known his family for many years and had a sense of its finances,so her family did not push for everything to be top-of-the-line.

Still, like most Kashmiri bridegrooms, faisal had to empty his savings, borrow money and rely on the largess of an uncle. They had all saved in anticipation of the event, much like a modern family might prepare years in advance for college tuitions. “It’s a joint effort,” faisal said. After the wedding, he was going to be left with Rs 50,000 in debt, which he expected to pay off within five months. But it is not so easy for many other young Kashmiri men. Said Sharif, a 27-year-old taxi driver who makes about 5,000 per month, had to borrow Rs 1 lakh from relatives to help cover bill for his wedding last fall, as well as for four related parties. He does not expect to pay off his debt for at least two years.

Ask any Kashmiri man, and he will say that competition among brides is driving wedding expenditures up. Women who were interviewed did not disagree. “The unfair thing that is going on in Kashmir is the competition,” said Irfana , 20, a mass communication student at Kashmir University . “In 70 percent of the cases, the woman’s family puts pressure on the boy to pay a lot of money.” A result, she said, can often be paralyzing debt and an early, unwelcome visit by the debt collectors to the newlyweds’ new home. Faisal’s wedding unfolded at his home , in two vast (shamiyanas) tents , one for the men and the other for the women. Islamic custom dictates that the sexes be separated. About 600 people attended, in suits and evening dresses, and the local singers performing infront of the guests, along with some dancing boys . Dinner included with full Kashmiri wazwan — much more than even the enormous crowd could possibly eat served among 600 people sitting in a plate where four can eat jointly. Faisal was mostly absent from the men’s side and women’s side too, attending guests and receiving gifts etc. Dressed in a white suit, he was smiling and seemed happy. “In our valley, the wedding is a big problem until you’re done with it.”

Faisal’s father, a lifetime civil servant who makes Rs 5000 a month, also seemed relieved. Minutes earlier he had reached into an inside pocket of his jacket and handed over a stack of well worn bills worth about 30,000 to the wazwan cook. Neither man smiled. Few words were exchanged. It was pure business. After the transaction, Hamid’s father was joyful, and a little dazed. He was grinning, and his tie was slightly askew. Asked how it felt to hand over the equivalent of 10 times his monthly salary, he replied: “It was good! I’m extremely happy!” The payment, he explained, allowed the marriage to happen. “Only a memory is left,” he said. “A memory of happiness.