The Dowry Bride, Shobhan Bantwal’s debut novel, throws light on the tradition of the dowry, an age-old custom that is still prevalent in India, in spite of being outlawed decades ago. Megha, the eponymous protagonist, is married off to Suresh Ramnath immediately after completing her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. Unhappy with her father’s decision and choice of groom, she tries her best to convince him about letting her pursue her education further….. and fails. She quickly accepts her marriage as fate, stops dreaming about a career in journalism, and settles into the routine of domesticity. But it turns out to be harder than she bargained for – long hours of cooking, cleaning, washing and other chores, a mother-in-law determined to make her life miserable, and a cold and insensitive husband. Her father-in-law is the only person in the Ramnath family who is kind and respectful towards her, but too weak-willed to stand up to his wife, Chandramma.
More than a year passes by, and to her rude shock and horror, she overhears her mother-in-law and husband planning to kill because her father is unable to pay the dowry instalments. With no one else to reach out for help, she seeks refuge at her husband’s cousin, Kiran’s apartment. Kiran, who has nursed a crush since the first time he met her, protects and takes care of her. Touched by his affection, Megha reciprocates his love , thereby convoluting an already messed up situation.
I tried really hard to like this book, but this book reads so much like a desi soap opera from the previous decade that I found the similarities unintentionally amusing – A newly-wed bride. A mother-in-law from hell. A father-in-law without a voice in the house. A husband tied to his mother’s apron strings. And a knight-in-shining-armor brother-in-law.
We are repeatedly told that Megha is fair and beautiful, the Ramnaths are dark and plain. Kiran is tall and well-built. Suresh is short and puny. Chandramma is evil and ugly.. very ugly. And we are reminded of that very frequently. Hence, everyone is reduced to caricatures, both in terms of physicality and personalities. The writing is too wordy and descriptive, even when not required. It honestly felt like an overkill at times.. and a bit silly:
Sample this :
Taking a deep breath, Megha braced herself to run for it. Her only hope for escape would be to dart quickly past the unsuspecting stranger, fly down the stairs at lightning speed and disappear into the night before he knew what hit him. She’d have to count on the element of surprise to help her along. With any luck the person would be too stunned to react instantly. Clenching her fists, she readied herself for escape.
Her large, dark eyes opened wide with alarm. She was going to be killed! Realization struck her like a punch in the stomach. Terror replaced numbing shock, sending her heartbeat soaring.
I found the turn that the story took and its conclusion quite unsatisfying. The author spent most of the pages in establishing Megha and Kiran’s love story. Occasionally, we see Megha fuming about the injustices heaped on her and swearing revenge on the mother-son Ramnath duo. But she doesn’t actively make any decisions and go beyond just words. Her reliance on Kiran for everything got a bit cumbersome to read. I wish we got to see more of her personal growth, career aspirations and new-found independence. But all we get is a hint of everything wrapped up in a rush in the last few pages; almost as a footnote. I loved the title and cover of the book, but sadly the rest of the pages just didn’t live upto the expectations I had. A book addressing the issue of dowry system deserved better storytelling.