Stove Bursts or Dowry Deaths?

Experts have taken from the Book ‘Wise and Otherwise – A Salute to Life!” by Sudha Murty.

We have a saying in Sanskrit: Ethra naryasthu pujyanthe, ramanthethathra devatha (God exists where women are respected). In real life, this is not true. Very few women in our country have economic independence or the freedom of choosing their husbands. Most of our women are oppressed. One of the reasons for their misery is the lack of education, which in turn leads to a lack of economic freedom. If a woman is not economically independent, then her life is quite difficult.

Once a doctor friend of mine was discussing the problem of female infanticide. Being a gynaecologist at a government hospital, she had first-hand information on this terrible subject. She asked me, ‘Do you want to see the greatest misery a woman can face? Come. Let’s go now and I will show you.’

She took me to the burns ward in the hospital. To negatively paraphrase the saying: ‘If there is hell on earth, it is this.’ The whole atmosphere was deeply depressing. Almost all the patients were female. The majority of them were in the age group of eighteen to twenty-eight years and from fairly poor backgrounds. They were all in agony, suffering from severe burns. All had the same story to tell—I wanted to cook; I lit the stove; the stove burst; the pallu of my nylon sari caught fire; this is my mistake; my husband is very good; the in- laws are like my parents.

In our country, many young married women die every day because of alleged ‘stove bursts’. Why is it that nobody sues the stove manufacturer? We all know the answer. These are not stove accidents, but dowry killings. Isn’t it sad that in a society where Durga is worshipped and women are called Shakthi, our sisters


are burned like brinjals without any mercy? It makes me cry.

In the middle of that hellish ward was a woman who was pregnant. She was in bed number 24 and was supposed to be a ‘stove burst’ victim. My doctor friend told me that she might not survive. She asked me whether I wished to talk to her. I did not have the courage to face that poor girl writhing in agony. It was a difficult sight to witness. Something urged me to talk, but I did not know what to say. She sensed that I wanted to talk to her. In the middle of her pain, she took the initiative.

‘Amma,’ she said, ‘I do not know how long I will live. But I want to tell you something. If only my parents had educated me, if I had a job, if my parents had fewer children, I would not have come to this position.’ She couldn’t speak any more. She screamed and flinched as the pain tormented her. Unable to witness her suffering, I came out and sat on the steps of the staircase. I was blank.

After a few minutes, I noticed an old woman crying silently in the corner. She looked tired, harassed and poor. She was all alone. I went to her and asked her what the matter was.

‘I am the unfortunate mother of the patient you were just talking to. I am praying to God that she should not survive.’

Was that mother’s pain any less than her daughter’s when she begged God to let her daughter die? Silent tears gave way to unabashed weeping. In the hope of calming her, I asked, ‘How did the stove burst?’

‘There is no stove in their house,’ the woman said. ‘It is all lies. We have five daughters. She is the eldest. When she was in the ninth class, we stopped her education. She was a good student, but we had no choice. I wanted someone to help me in the kitchen and look after the younger children. So, she had to leave school to take care of her little sisters though she herself was a child. After a couple of years we thought of her marriage. In our neighbourhood, girls get married early. If we do not perform the marriage early enough, what will people say? We gave her a proper dowry and a grand marriage to the best of our ability.’

How typical it all sounded! And, how predictable was what followed!

The hapless mother went on, ‘They were not happy. Her husband and mother- in-law would beat her for more money. Then she would come back. We used to tell her to go back to her husband’s house even though we knew that they were ill-treating her. We have unmarried daughters. If this daughter came back, what


would their future be? Moreover, a girl’s place after marriage is in her husband’s house, isn’t it?’

Who would disagree with that time-honoured principle? I asked her, ‘What is your husband’s job?’

She said he was a carpenter. ‘He believes that we must have a male child.

Only a son can make our lives better, he says.’ Another light on the notions that govern the lives of many in our country.

Her sorrow seemed to abate a little, but I could see anger in her eyes. Her story continued along predictable lines. ‘We thought that when she had children, things would become better. But that didn’t happen. When she became pregnant, her mother-in-law came to know that it was a baby girl. Then they decided to kill my daughter. My daughter gave a dying declaration. It said that her sister-in-law had tied her hands in the middle of the night, that her useless husband had poured kerosene over her and that her mother-in-law had lit the match. My doll- like daughter burnt like camphor in no time.’

Inconsolable grief burst forth from that helpless mother, tears flowing like a river. I didn’t know what to say. I just mumbled, ‘Do not worry. The law will take its course and they will be punished.’

But it turned out that that possibility also had been taken care of. The husband had threatened that if she told the truth, he would harm her sisters and ruin all their hopes of marriage. So she had taken back her dying declaration. Thus the culprits were safe and one more girl was sacrificed on the altar of society’s greed. I could now understand the poor girl’s words. If she had been educated, she could have taken up a job and left her husband. If her parents had fewer children, then they could have kept and cared for her. Her parents were more worried about how people talked about them than the fate that awaited their daughter.

The case of this pregnant girl would end like any other ‘stove burst’ story. Her husband would go free. He would marry again. And similar incidents would be repeated. The problem continues because there is no immediate punishment of the offenders. Even when cases are registered, they drag on in courts for years.

The greed for material things is growing, so people go for easy dowry money.

Ethra naryasthu pujyanthe, ramanthe … Those words came back to me.

Without my knowing it, tears welled up in my eyes.


The duty sister came and announced expressionlessly, ‘Patient in bed number 24 is dead.’