Planet Bollywood
An Indian who made it to Oprah Winfrey Show
- Siddharth Srivastava           Let us know what you think about this feature article

When an Indian is flown specially from India to feature in the Oprah Winfrey show it becomes an occasion of celebration and re-visiting all that she stands for. Such is the case with 22 year-old Nisha Sharma.

She has been described as India’s Jessica Lynch, though she did not fire a gun at the enemy or brave a volley of enemy bullets; she is not the first woman prisoner of war ever to be rescued. But, Nisha did something similar. Nisha dared to be different and fought back when threatened with possible death, a dowry death. Ever since, she has become the symbol of the new Indian woman.

She called the police when the family of her husband-to-be demanded extra dowry on the day of her marriage, and turned into an overnight heroine in India, last year. Nisha chose to stand up to a man who was to be her husband, and also took on his family. In India, this can be close to staring death in the eye. For such behavior, girls have been ostracized by their own families and killed by their husband’s family. According to government figures, in 2001, angry husbands and in-laws killed over 7,000 women over small dowry payments. Nisha’s not-to-be husband has been quoted as saying that if he had ended up marrying her he would probably have thrown her off the terrace.

In Nisha’s case, events unfolded as dramatically as in any Bollywood potboiler. The irony is, just as in the movies, it was the mother of the groom (the emphasis here being that she is woman), who masterminded the plot. It did not matter that her son was just a lowly paid teacher, who probably would have lived off his software-professional wife’s income, or even that of her father, from the successful business he runs, if not tortured or killed her.

He was born a man, and that’s often enough in this country. There was already plenty on offer, arranged by the bride’s family. Photographs of Nisha with the dowry were splashed across the media --- fridge, air-conditioners and TV. She was to drive off in a new black Maruti Esteem that costs Rs 5 lakh ($10,000), bought by her father for the use of her husband’s family, the rights duly transferred in their name.

But, they wanted more. The baraat (marriage procession), with the groom’s mother as master of ceremonies, asked for cash (Rs 15 lakh- $30,000) to be hand-delivered at the reception area itself, before her son, who followed on a traditionally bedecked horse, would condescend to alight. The father of the bride demurred, and was therefore pushed, abused and finally slapped by the groom’s mother.

When Nisha, in her traditional finery and mehendi heard the commotion, she reached for her cell phone and called the police. The rest is history and the reactions similar? An outpouring of emotion, support, commercial interest and now Oprah. Bollywood bigwigs and television producers wanted Nisha’s story; politicians of every leaning lined up at her house to congratulate her, inviting her to join their party. TV news channels ran a ticker to accommodate the thousands of salutations from a fan club that has cut across class, geographic and gender barriers. Many men have written letters offering their hand in marriage.

In circumstances such as Nisha’, many in the past have chosen to keep quiet, forced by circumstance, and not lived to tell the tale. In this case, the groom’s family is in jail.

But, the script could have gone the other, more usual way. The father would probably have died of a heart attack or worse begged the boy’s family to go ahead with the marriage allowing him some time to somehow arrange the money. He would have gone to any extent to save his izzat (honor), as nobody would marry his daughter after they found that she was to be married to someone else. The girl, to protect the izzat of her father would marry, then be tortured, probably killed. Nisha had other ideas.

Nisha, now married to software engineer Ashwini Sharma, considers the invitation to the Oprah Show as a opportunity to be heard on an international platform. She, along with her husband and brother, are in Chicago for the next few days for the recording.

As expected, Nisha was excited and said, ‘‘I am happy I have a chance to be heard internationally. No one should submit to social blackmail, anywhere in the world,’’ she said. ‘‘I agree with her basic message and will be honored to help spread it,’’ her husband said.

Two things stand out in this episode. One, it was purely Nisha’s decision to do what she did, and she did so with her own cell phone, a modern gadget used as a window to the rest of the world that she had access to and knew about.

Women and cell phones… The commercials portray them incessantly, in big cars and at board meetings. They aren’t seen being beaten by prospective husbands. Nisha called the police without alighting her bridal seat, without seeking anybody’s advice. Given the delicate situation, she might have been stopped had she sought advice. Her mother, like many mothers in the past, could have said, “Beti (Daughter), think about your father, the husband is like god, you have to learn how to keep quiet, who will marry you.” With a cell phone, however, it was a matter of seconds.

Indeed, Nisha is the new face of the Indian woman, exemplified by the cell phone she carries and the software degree she is studying. She must have faced a dilemma before she took the split second decision? The thoughts inside her turbulent mind must have been sharply divided into two? Of a life in which she could probably never SMS her friends again, with her new home a dungeon she could never escape. Or, another of an independent woman, a successful professional and a husband who deserved her, respected her for what she is.

Second, Nisha, a software professional also knows that she has the power to emancipate herself through her skills. Her family has stood by her, but it was they who need her strength, not she. Her father did what he has been brought up to believe, his daughter did what she thought was right.

The strings of tradition did tie her down in the beginning. As she said in an interview, she kept quiet while the initial demands for dowry were being made. She knew her parents considered it their duty to marry her and she did not want to make the job difficult for them.

In the end, Nisha chose the right path. Many have gone the other way; probably they didn’t have a choice. Some might have had, but didn’t or couldn’t exercise it. Nisha did. Now the world salutes her.


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