As part of her charitable activities, CAI donors help very poor girls beat India’s dowry scrooge by paying up to US$500 in marriage assistance. When I lived in India, Mir Mohammed Mirza, a father of two girls seeking such help approached me. His application was rejected, as he did not meet CAI threshold of ‘poverty’. His reaction, in me, struck a very emotional cord; he stated daughters were a curse to the poor of India. I narrate, here, his dilemma and path to possible solution he chose; you may find it informative. All names and locations have been changed, obviously. All data is accurate, leave only for my presentation style, which relies on my (sometimes over-creative) imagination.
Mir Mohammed Mirza studied himself in the fading, dull mirror that extended all round the dingy restaurant. This must have been a fancy feature for a restaurant once, but now looked tacky. He was fascinated by the image of his face, as if he was seeing it for the first time, was startled to notice numerous grey strands of hair that had made home among the all-black not so long ago. The volume of hair too, was much thinner, with pale bare scalp visible if he looked closer; he exhaled a deep breath of resignation. The background noise of customers eating breakfast, talking, clattering of dishes and racket of waiters barking and giving orders for chai, masala omelets or bajee puri was overwhelming; he decided to leave. It was rare for him to eat out; today was an exception. He had insisted his wife sleep in this morning, after the upheaval of last night, not get up and make the usual two roti and a cup of tea breakfast.
He sighed again, paid for chai and maska brun pau with malai he had half-heartedly consumed to an uncaring waiter and walked to his office a short distance away. He sat at his desk and studied the pile of fading files in front of him, files full of bids he would usually approve or reject all day long, bids for goods and services that the Railway Corporation in the city he lived in and worked for procured for its extensive network. But Mirza was only going to be approving today, especially larger contract bids that had most fat, ones that he could negotiate the biggest kickback.
Mirza was born and brought up in Hyderabad, India to lower middle class parents, very devout Shia Muslims. They educated him and his siblings of both gender to the best of their ability and disciplined them to an upbringing of honor, dignity and a life of piety. But the pains of watching his father agonize through the dowry process of Mirza’s two elder sisters steeled his heart and to loathe the system. He resolved never to succumb to it for his own two daughters, no matter what, he was not going to bid for a son in law. In turn, he educated his daughters at prime Hyderabad schools, sacrificing much disposable income towards fees and tuition for this and that, depriving himself and his wife small luxuries, even. To him, there was no greater joy in life than seeing his girls smile, it contracted his heart in agony whenever either one of them was sad or cried.
All through his thirty-two years service, Mirza had stayed clean, away from the sleaze and kickbacks so rampant at work. Through a quality MBA, grit and hard work, he had risen to the post he now held, one of three in the department. He analyzed vendor bids and approved or rejected them based strictly on merit, no hanky-panky with him. He never met bidding vendors nor entertained their phone calls. When one of them showed up at home with a fat envelope one Sunday afternoon, Mirza slapped him and disqualified him from ever bidding in his allocated portfolio. His two peers mocked and jeered him, calling him a first-class idiot; not respecting Lakshmi handed on a golden plate, accusing him for making things difficult for others. The boss, too, opined Mirza was out of touch with the times, that he should relent, live and let others live. When Mirza resisted, bigger and more lucrative bids went to Mirza’s peers, who made even more money, guaranteeing the boss his cut.
Mirza had, however, changed his mind about ethics and morals, felt this way since last night’s family tiff. It had all begun with wife’s worried revelation a few weeks ago that his eldest daughter had fallen in love and the couple wanted to marry. Soon. The boy’s parents had come over to ask for her hand and discuss a possible wedding date within a month. Why the hurry? Well, the boy had been hired by a global US company, chosen to represent his first ever employers for a two-year research stint in the United Sates and had to depart within a month.
Sugra was an educated beautiful twenty-year old; she had met Alireza Bandeali, from an upper crust family of Hyderabad, at management school. From primary reports, the boy was fairly decent, a namaazi, had no blemish of record in the opinion of some friends Mirza had made discreet inquiries with. Yet, he felt apprehensive, fearful even; unions of such mismatched couples in terms of wealth did not have a good record of stability, in his experience and opinion. Yes, there were some fixed deposits and some gold accumulated for exactly this eventuality, but that was no match to the business clout of the Bandeali’s, dealers in imported cars and motorbikes.
When the Alireza’s side arrived for first meet, it was an evening of much laughter, food and talk. Sugra and Alireza could not keep eyes away from each other; the father, a tall, lanky man with sharp features laughed much and was genial but it was the mother that gave warning vibes to Mirza. She had sharp eyes from a distance, all sugar and honey from up close, a frozen smile on her lips. She took up everything with her small probing eyes, from the house furniture to the clothes the Mirza’s wore. Forty lacs, she kept on emphasizing, we spent on Alireza’s MBA, education is sooooo expensive, no? But who can put a price on ones own son, nai? When she noticed Mirza had paled at the exaggerated sum mentioned, she leaned forward to extend a tray of sweetmeats to him, who reluctantly took one and bit on it, and made a face. He found it very greasy and too sweet, not complimenting his current mood at all.
The misgivings Mirza had about this rista being a mismatch changed to reality, literally from the next day. A sari each for Sugra, his wife and sister Aamena and a shewani for Mirza all smartly packed in Sheetal boxes and a gold set for Sugra from Motiwala; he felt palpitations just estimating the value of such gifts. The next two weeks were a blur of meeting with Alireza’s relatives and friends; chachas, mamas, masas, fuas…all piling gifts on the couples to be. And Mrs. Bandeali piling on blatant hints all gifts were expected to be reciprocated, either in equal or superior value.
A week later, the family sat around a cleared dining table after dinner to discuss the upcoming wedding and draw up a budget and plan of action. The impossibility of the situation grew by every entry Mirza made on the notepad in front of him. No matter how thin Mirza sharpened his pencil, there was no possible equilibrium to the two columns of numbers on the pad, even if they liquidated all their assets. And there was the younger daughter, Aamena, a year younger than Sugra, surely a rishta could not be too far behind? Arguments flared between them, increasing in volume and intensity, ending in tears from all three women with Mrs. Mirza insisting the engagement be terminated, better now before marriage than later, when Sugra might have to return knocking at the door with a bulging stomach and accompanying suitcase. The tears on his daughter’s cheeks melted Mirza’s knees and he quickly stiffened his back, hugged the girls and confidently announced he would meet all commitments, come heaven or hell.
Now, sitting at his desk, for the first time in his life of fifty-one years, Mirza felt utterly lonely. And very afraid. After a life committed to honesty, integrity and self-esteem, there would be a blemish in the history of solid ethical conduct, he would cave in to the ways of his peers and demand ten percent from all bids he approved. He opened a few files and studied the bids. Yes, there was enough in these to more than make up the deficit. All through the day, he felt weak, his heartbeat raced and slowed, beating at a pace of a wayward tabla but he approved the bids, falsifying justification for the proposals. When it was time for him to call the vendors and set up a meeting to discuss his share of contract, he felt a drop of sweat splatter on the brown cover of a folder and wondered if he was having a heart attack, but he dialed the first number anyway.