In the wedding video of Vismaya Nair and Kiran Kumar posted on Youtube, Vismaya looks like any other Malayali bride of recent times, beautifully made up, her petite figure draped in the auspicious, shining red-orange wedding saree and purple silk blouse, long black braid adorned with a bouquet of flowers and face, neck, arms, and hip displaying the expected shimmer of gold jewelry for the occasion. She is the beautiful bride. Demure and prayerful, she sits with folded, supplicating hands as Kiran Kumar ties the traditional thaali around her neck ending her status as a single woman.
The video does not look like an original; the posting date is 22 June, the day of Vismaya’s alleged suicide by hanging at her husband’s house at the age of 24. Vismaya and Kiran were married just over a year ago, on 31 May, 2020 in a small ceremony in Vismaya’s house due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Seven months prior, the families had celebrated the couple’s engagement in pomp and splendor with over nine hundred guests.
Social media is rife with loud debates about who or what is to blame for Vismaya’s alleged suicide. The case has touched the nerve of the people of Kerala, probably because there is a misguided confidence bordering on arrogance among Malayalis that the Kerala society is beyond the criminal culture of dowry deaths. And yet, two other women–Archana (24 years old) and Suchitra (19 years old) having allegedly died by suicide in Kerala at the heels of Vismaya’s death made news for the same reason: insufficient dowry. Suffice to say, Malayali women are not immune to dowry deaths.
Vismaya’s case is also particularly compelling because she had vocally and visibly asked for help several times in her short married life. Her husband, now in custody, was a known violent batterer and abuser with a police case against him for the same. Interestingly and ominously, the wedding video starts with a lingering image of the infamous “car” at the center of this young woman’s life of hell as a married woman: the Toyota Yaris that was part of the family’s “gift/dowry” for Kiran Kumar. Kiran Kumar, an assistant motor vehicles inspector for the Kerala State Transport department, apparently did not like the car. The initial beatings that Vismaya suffered were in the name of this car.
In all media interviews, all commentators–family and the public–make it a point to stress that the car is worth at least twelve lakh rupees in the current market. It is certainly clear that the car was a financial asset knowingly and intentionally offered to Kiran Kumar as part of the dowry/gift at the time of the marriage. In addition to the car, Vismaya’s parents gave 100 sovereigns of gold jewelry and over one acre of land in the transaction. Kiran Kumar evidently did not marry Vismaya for her worth as a human being. She was merely a spectator to the monetary transaction between her parents and her future husband.
Vismaya’s short married life as a victim of domestic violence reveals the confluence and conflation of Kerala society’s deep-rooted misogyny where women are deemed inferior to men, overt and covert domestic violence, and the giving and receiving of dowry as a “gift” as a communal code to endorse and normalise the savage mistreatment of women. A dowry by any other name is still dowry.
Vismaya’s many text messages to friends and family, several of them photos of her physical bruises and wounds, had documented the raging beatings and kickings she had endured at the hands of her husband. Her parents and brother had witnessed him beating Vismaya in front of their own eyes. He had beaten Vismaya’s brother which had resulted in a police case. Vismaya had informed them that Kiran Kumar had blocked the telephone numbers of her father and her brother and had forbidden her from ever contacting them, a standard strategy of all batterers to isolate their spouses from all sources of support.
The standard response, however, of the parents or well-meaning public to the flagrant commercial basis of Vismaya’s marriage underscored by the contentious dowry/gift is one that accommodates the practice of dowry. In most media discourses, this accommodation is phrased as “following cultural and social expectations” or “tradition”. Dowry is an “expectation,” about which Vismaya’s parents and the larger Kerala society, by extension, are unable to do anything. That is how the narrative goes.
This is a patently false position to endorse for several reasons at this late point in our civilisation.
- Dowry is the only 500-pound gorilla in the room. You cannot look away or deny that. Kiran Kumar did not beat, kick, and harm Vismaya for no reason other than dowry.
Is “dowry” really a “social expectation”? As a parent who chose to bring forth your children into this world, your only responsibility is to provide your children with a life and a future they may enter with self-esteem, confidence, education, and the ability to think for themselves. As a parent, there is no social contract that says that you have to push the jewelry business, the sari business, the auto business, or the land business. The social expectation that has schooled you, the parent, into “adding value” to your daughters with hundred plus sovereigns, land, and a car is the worst manifestation of patriarchy that sees women as inferior and intrinsically worthless. You, the parent, can stop your part in this “value-added-daughter-industry” today. Boldly refuse to “gift” anything at all to your daughter as an enticement to men to marry her.
- Kiran Kumar’s alcohol and drug intake are also touted as the reason for his violent conduct towards his wife, implying that the sober Kiran Kumar was the paragon of loving husbandhood.
There is a honeymoon period in the life of every battered woman. Whether under the influence of alcohol and drugs or not, it is not excusable behavior for a 29-year old man to beat, kick, and choke a 24-year-old woman because he did not like the car he got as dowry.
As a society, you have to stop accommodating violence against battered spouses by brainwashing yourselves into believing that their batterers were under the influence when those acts were perpetrated.
- When a battered woman tells you that she does not want to live with her husband, do not encourage her explicitly or implicitly to reach for a “compromise,” as Vismaya’s parents and well-wishers did. There is no “compromise” after a woman has been kicked in the face, beaten, dragged by her hair and thrown across the room. There simply isn’t.
Your daughter is not Draupadi and there is no Krishna coming to her rescue as she is beaten and kicked in the back of a car as Vismaya was, in the words of her own father. Your words of compromise ultimately condemn her towards hopelessness, entrapment and suicide, or even homicide, when she returns to her batterer. It is your duty as a parent to protect the life of your child that you brought forth into this world, and not to find excuses for “social and cultural expectations.”
- Finally, since big, showy weddings are a big business in Kerala, here is a business idea with revenue for the state government: make every couple planning to get married apply for a domestic violence awareness and prevention license. There should be a fee for this license. Officers trained in domestic violence intervention, social workers who manage battered spouses caseloads, sociologists and psychologists could get together and create a curriculum on domestic violence awareness and prevention.
This curriculum can be deployed at the panchayat or corporation level. The bride, the groom, and their immediate families must be mandated to attend the course for a stipulated time period before the wedding on what domestic violence is, its causes, effects, symptoms, and resources to immediately end the marriage in the case of domestic violence.
The word “compromise” should not appear anywhere in this curriculum.
The first module in this course should be about the role dowry plays in domestic violence in Malayali Kerala culture.
The second module should be on the ways and means to empower young battered wives to safely leave their batterers at the first instance of domestic violence. The longer they stay, the more endangered their lives become. A battered spouse is most in danger of being killed when they finally decide to leave after prolonged exposure to domestic violence. Early intervention is critical.
Additional modules may be added as needed.
Since this is a revenue making proposal, the proceeds from these licenses should go to help battered women secure housing, employment and other needed supports and resources to restart their lives after the hell of their marriages.
Vismaya’s death is an indictment of the whole of the Kerala society with its silent endorsement and normalisation of violence against women. By adding value to your daughters with jewelry, money, land, and vehicles for her marriage, every parent gives their implicit and explicit consent to make marriage a site of potential mistreatment and even murder of their daughters. Just stop it. Stop it today.
Featured Image Credit: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism In India