NEW DELHI — On a hot and dusty day last month, 25-year-old Meera Bai was doused with kerosene and burned to death in a New Delhi suburb.
On the same day, thousands of celebrating Hindus gathered in a small Rajasthan desert village to honor Roop Kanwar, 18, for climbing onto her late husband's cremation pyre to die in flames, rather than face life as a widow.
The two events happened about 100 miles apart on a map. They were different in many respects.
One took place in a crowded housing project on the outskirts of the Indian capital. The other occurred in a village that has more camels than cars.
Police believe that Bai, the mother of three young children, was murdered--set ablaze by her mother-in-law and sister-in-law in another of the terrible dowry deaths that are almost commonplace in urban India.
Kanwar's death was a suicide, nominally voluntary. At least she walked under her own power to the sandalwood pyre and placed her dead husband's head in her lap before she was ignited in the centuries-old Indian tradition of sati.
Yet in both cases, young women were consigned to flames. They died, feminists say, as modern martyrs to the medieval rules of domesticity that still dominate the lives of many Hindu women.
"One of the truest measures of a nation's advancement," Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in a speech shortly before his death in 1964, "is the state of its women."
Little Has Changed
For much of the time since then, India has been ruled by a woman, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter. But, if the events of that hot and dusty day in September are any evidence, little has changed at the lower levels of society to improve the lot of the nation's women.
Neighbors say that Bai, the mother of children aged 4, 3 and 18 months, lived for much of her life by the selfless Hindu code of marriage outlined in the ancient religious texts.
According to one of these texts, the 11th-Century "Padmapurana," even if a woman's husband "is offensive in his manners, is choleric, debauched or immoral; if he is a drunkard or a gambler; if he raves like a lunatic, . . . whatever his defects may be, a wife should always look upon him as her god and should lavish on him all her attention and care. . . ."
"She never complained about her husband--even when he was bad," said a middle-aged woman who lived across the street from Bai's apartment in the Dilshad Garden housing project. Bai's husband, an automotive mechanic named Tulsi Ram, had a reputation as a drunk.
But then, suddenly, Bai broke with the code. She quarreled with her husband, to whom she had been married for five years. The next day, Sept. 16, she was dead.
Her husband and his family say her death was a suicide. Investigators from the Crimes Against Women Division of the Delhi police classified it as a "dowry killing," one of the homicides or "forced suicides" that take the lives of young wives in the Indian capital at the rate of almost two a day. Her mother-in-law and sister-in-law have been arrested but not formally charged.
Often a Dowry Dispute
Such deaths are called dowry crimes because they sometimes occur in the course of a dispute over the outlawed but still prevalent dowry, the money paid by a bride's parents to her husband's family in nearly every marriage. But, as in the case of Bai, they are usually rooted in a complicated mixture of poverty and the lowly status of the wife in Indian families.
"Small houses, living in only one room, frustration, competition, poverty--these are the main causes of what we call dowry deaths," said Jai Kumari, an assistant police commissioner assigned to investigate Bai's death.
There are few secrets in the hive-like housing complexes that ring the Indian capital. Large families live in one-room apartments stacked like matchboxes. Kitchens consist of a slab of concrete, a porch or a balcony exposed to the sun, where the wife spends much of her time bent over a kerosene stove. Water is available for two hours a day from a community tap. Electricity is a sometime thing.
Nevertheless, these modest dwellings are treasured in housing-starved India. Most of the several thousand inhabitants of Dilshad Garden waited years to get one. They paid the equivalent of $25 to get their names on a government housing list and $300 to move in when their names came up.
Once they own the apartment they can resell it for about $4,000, a small fortune in India, where per capita income is less than $300 a year. The temptation to take the money preys on the families, and the possession of an asset so instantly redeemable makes them vulnerable to loan sharks and hucksters.
Because there are few secrets, everyone in Dilshad Garden soon knew that Bai's husband had sold the couple's tiny apartment without consulting her. He had accepted a down payment.