It was one of the worst moments of Durga’s life: the morning her father suddenly announced that in about a week’s time she would have to get married.
She was 15 years old. Her husband-to-be was in his 40s, had barely been to school and had a reputation as a heavy drinker. Even by the standards of their village in Northern India — where child marriages are still commonplace — this was a singularly bad match.
“I told my father, ‘I won’t do it,’ ” Durga recalls. “Papa said, ‘No, you have to. Then my grandparents came in the room. And they said, ‘You don’t have a choice. Everyone gets married like this. You’re not special.’ “
Talking about it — it’s all suddenly too much for Durga. She buries her face in a pink scarf she’s wearing and stifles a sob.
“Please,” she finally whispers. “I don’t want to remember. Sometimes I think, ‘Did that really happen?’ “
The whole ceremony felt like a bad dream, she says. She was too upset to speak, to brush her hair — even to change into her dress. “So they just pulled it on me, over my regular clothes.”
And she was so angry at her father. “I thought, ‘How could a betrayal like this happen?’ “
But what she didn’t fully realize at the time was that her father, Lumbaram, felt he had betrayed her as well. Watching the ceremony, he was overcome by a growing sense of guilt. In keeping with village custom, Durga and the groom had been introduced to each other only hours before. Yet when the moment came for their hands to be clasped together and wrapped in a cloth, this man seemed to be taking advantage of the ritual to feel Durga’s hand in a way that struck Lumbaram as just … sleazy.
“He couldn’t even join hands with her without being creepy,” Lumbaram recalls. “I thought, ‘This guy is bad news.’ “
As soon as the festivities were over, Lumbaram pulled Durga aside and made her a vow. “I will fix this,” he said.
That was six years ago. Ever since that night, Lumbaram has been laying the groundwork to break Durga’s marriage. Now his plan is nearing completion. Along the way he has already helped spark something of a revolution in his tiny, impoverished village.
“My parents were putting so much pressure on me”
“My parents were putting so much pressure on me,” says Lumbaram — a lithe, sinewy man who, like many Indians, goes by only one name.
They were having a hard time finding a wife for one of Lumbaram’s younger brothers. In the village virtually all marriages are arranged. And girls are scarce in this part of rural India, which is located in a state called Rajasthan. Many parents view girls as a burden — someone you’ve got to waste precious resources feeding and raising a dowry for, all so she can marry into some other family and look after somebody else’s parents in their old age. The prejudice is so strong that families often check the sex of a baby during pregnancy and abort if it’s a girl. In the most extreme cases they may kill an infant girl right after she is born. Even in the best of circumstances, girls in poor families are often given the least amount to eat and the most burdensome work — chores like carrying heavy pitchers of water from the well.
So to secure a wife for Lumbaram’s brother, Lumbaram’s parents insisted he make a trade with another family: That family would give a girl to marry his brother, and Lumbaram would give Durga to marry one of the men on their side. It’s a typical setup in the village.
Lumbaram’s wife says she was heartbroken to see their eldest daughter sacrificed this way. But her voice in family matters had been diminished over years of poor health. And even if she had been a more forceful presence, according to village culture, this decision was strictly Lumbaram’s to make.
As for Lumbaram, he says he felt bound by duty. His father was a respected elder in the village. But failing to arrange a marriage for one of his sons would surely cause him to lose status. Already, says Lumbaram, “people were starting to talk.” And as the eldest of his brothers, Lumbaram had a special responsibility to safeguard the family’s reputation.
Durga wasn’t the only one to pay a heavy price. Once Lumbaram agreed to the match for Durga, he felt compelled to marry off his two younger daughters the same night: Wedding celebrations are so expensive that in the village when you marry one daughter, you generally marry the rest in the same go.
Lumbaram’s middle daughter, Nimmu — whom NPR profiled in a story last fall — was only 10 at the time. His youngest daughter was 6. But Lumbaram consoled himself that he was at least able to match the two of them to husbands close to their own age — boys with educational prospects. In short, boys who were nothing like Durga’s husband.
“Never mind. I’m sending Durga”
Durga’s predicament was all the more stunning because, of all the fathers in the village, Lumbaram had seemed the least likely to put a daughter in this position. He can’t quite explain why — perhaps because he never had sisters and had wished for them — but he never agreed with the view that a daughter is less worthy than a son.
He is also a bookish man who loves reading Indian philosophers and speaks wistfully about how his parents made him drop out of school in eighth grade to work as a construction laborer. “When I would sit with other people who were more educated than me,” he says, “I would often think, ‘I don’t seem to be able to understand what they’re saying. It would be so nice if I had studied further.’ ” When it came to his children — including his daughters — “I always wanted to find a way to educate them,” he says.
He wasn’t sure how. The village school offers only bare-bones instruction and stops at fifth grade. Traveling to the closest middle school — let alone high school — is considered dangerous for a girl, given the risk of banditry and rape along the area’s isolated rural roads. And in any case, Lumbaram couldn’t afford the fees.
But incredibly, a few months before Durga’s wedding a charity called the Veerni Institute had offered a solution. The charity works to improve the lives of girls in the area and proposed putting up girls from local villages at a boarding school in the city of Jodhpur free of charge.
Every other father in Lumbaram’s village had refused, he recalls. “But I said, ‘Never mind. I’m sending Durga.’ “
Now that he had pushed Durga into the marriage, the school gave Lumbaram a temporary way to save her from her husband. Lumbaram has told the groom, “As long as she’s getting a free education I’m not sending her to live with you yet.” And now Durga is enrolled in a college that the charity has also paid for.
Lumbaram is using the same approach to keep his younger daughters from starting married life with their husbands until they’re at least 18.
But while he ultimately does intend to send the younger two to their husbands, in Durga’s case the school has merely been a delaying tactic. Lumbaram’s endgame is to secure a divorce for Durga. And that requires a delicate balancing act that was on full display one day in late spring.
“May God help you succeed”
It’s late morning. Lumbaram is standing in the dirt courtyard of his concrete block house, fretting over Durga like a mother hen as she gathers supplies for a trip. “Did you take a water bottle?” he calls out. “Here, take this one!”
She’s a young adult of 21 now, slender with delicate features. A second-year student in college, she is heading into Jodhpur for a final exam.
“Argh!” exclaims Lumbaram. “She was up studying till 3 a.m. last night. She does this for every exam. Finally I told her, ‘You have to go to bed so you’re not exhausted for the test today.’ “
He walks her out to the dirt road, where one of his brothers awaits on a motorbike to drive her.
“OK, child,” he says briskly. “Go. Do Well. And may God help you succeed.”
As he watches Durga disappear in a cloud of dust, Lumbaram’s eyes fill with emotion. For weeks he has been doing everything he can think of to ensure she gets top marks — warning her brothers and sisters not to bother her while she studies, excusing her from family gatherings that most Indian fathers would insist a daughter attend.
And yet, it’s a different side of Lumbaram that emerges several hours later, when Durga and her uncle drive back into the village from her exam.
The sun has already set and the village is pitch dark. Lumbaram appears at the gate, carrying something in a plastic bag. A surprise present for Durga.
It’s a dress — but not one of the hip, city outfits Durga likes. It’s the kind the village women wear — skirt down to the ankles, long sheer veil to cover her hair and face.
“She’ll need to wear this through summer break,” Lumbaram explains. “Because now that she’s older, these are the social customs here. People won’t appreciate it if she wears modern clothes.”
Lumbaram wants to be extra careful to show respect for village ways because he is soon going to be seeking permission to completely defy them. Specifically, he is going to go before a group of elders known as the panches.
“There’s a big meeting,” says Lumbaram. “Each side gets a representative to make their case. Kind of like in a court of law.”
Normally the panches require a father who wants to break his daughter’s marriage to pay a fine to her husband that is unaffordable — more than $7,000.
Technically he could end the marriage without paying the fee. The panches have no formal power and child marriage was actually outlawed in India years ago. Still, says Lumbaram, if he were to end things without the panches’ OK, “They would say that I have to be completely ostracized for life. My brothers would stop talking to me. If I were to go into a shop, nobody would sell me anything. If my wife were to go the well no one would help her carry the water. It would be like being dead while you’re still alive.”
“Oh, I’m not of the same level. … I can’t even sit with them”
The panches’ power is palpable the day after Durga’s exam — at a memorial ceremony for Lumbaram’s father.
He died a week ago. Hundreds of people have come to pay their respects. Lumbaram spends most of his time tending to a tight circle of a dozen older men in white turbans. They’re sitting on a carpet, smoking clove cigarettes, sucking on opium balls. These are the panches.
Lumbaram makes a point of keeping their cups filled with water. But he does not speak to them.
“Oh, I’m not of the same level,” he explains. “They are panches. I can’t even sit with them.”
Still, the day is coming when he’ll have to approach them about Durga. Now that she is 21 there is only so much longer he can keep her from her husband. Lumbaram says he will pull the trigger this fall, once her final exam results come in. Because here’s Lumbaram’s bet: By waiting until Durga could get more schooling than anyone in the village, he is hoping the panches will have to agree it would now be ridiculous to hold her to the marriage.
“Everyone can see that she’s educated and he’s not, that this cannot stand,” he says.
And Lumbaram also thinks the panches will go for it because he has already accomplished something remarkable for rural India. The proof is evident in a procession of singing women who are now making their way past the panches. They’re headed to a wedding in a house next door. And the bride is not a child. They don’t do that in this village anymore. All this time Lumbaram has been holding off his daughter’s husband, he has also been making the rounds of other fathers, persuading them to send their girls to the boarding school too — essentially getting them to rethink their attitude about girls.
At first, he says, the resistance seemed insurmountable. “The fear is that if a girl studies she’ll have a mind of her own,” says Lumbaram.
Lumbaram would counter that with a little schooling, your girl can earn money. She could get a job as a community health aide or a teacher or even a police officer. And, Lumbaram tells the other fathers, she’ll gain a sense of self-confidence that is actually good to have — for example if her husband turns out to be an abusive drunk, an educated girl would not be afraid to speak up for herself. She would know her rights; she would tell you what’s happening — even go to the police if need be.
The head of the charity that runs the boarding school, Mahendra Sharma, says Lumbaram has become an invaluable recruiter. “He is a kind of role model for his community,” says Sharma.
This village has now sent more girls to the school than any other in the area — 35, all of them child brides. And earlier this year, Lumbaram persuaded a bunch of the fathers of young girls in the village to publicly declare that from now on they won’t marry off any more underage daughters. “The mistake that I made,” says Lumbaram. “No one else will repeat it.”
Sharma never thought that could happen. “It’s unbelievable for all of us,” he says. “It’s a miracle kind of thing.”
In other words, in his quest to save Durga, Lumbaram has already saved dozens of other village girls. And it’s not just the girls being saved — or Durga. I ask Lumbaram how he will feel the day he gets her out of her marriage.
“I’ll be liberated,” he says. “I will be free.”