How poverty forces families to sell their daughters for petty sums, to those in Kashmir, who can’t find a local bride.
Srinagar: While walking by the Dal lake one evening, I suddenly heard a feminine voice speaking in Bengali.
As a fellow Bengali I wanted to enquire.
“Didi are you Bengali?”
The conversation began and very soon became revealing. She was no tourist. And there are many more like her in Kashmir.
I came to know that when these women were still little kids, they were taken from their village in West Bengal with the promise of a ‘trip to the mountains.’
Upon arriving here, they were forced into marriages with men with disabilities, a huge age gap or men who cannot afford the Kashmiri way of marriage, which is quite lavish.
All the women who have been duped into a life of marriage do it simply out of poverty. The transition from the plains to a mountain area, from a village in Bengal to war torn Kashmir, from ‘maach er jhol’ (the staple fish preparation in every Bengali household) to ‘Gosht’ (any meat preparation) is not and can never be easy.
These Bengali brides are born in acute poverty. The families they are born into have too many children to support surviving on minimum wage. Hence, they are forced to sell off their daughters. Most of the time, they are not even paid the amount of money promised for this. Many of the brokers are Bengalis, who are involved at this racket and some men are Kashmiris too, who at least tell them the ‘truth.’
These women, as infants are often sold for as much as Rs 5,000 to Rs 50,000. Forced to give up their dolls and the beautiful red soil of Bengal, they try to adapt themselves and learn a new language- else they would not even get food, not to mention the exploitation, torture, oppression they suffer.
‘Zulm’ (cruelty), as Pooja, the Bengali Bride, says is very common for them.
To escape their miserable situation, they often run away. But lack of food, money and refusal by their parents to take them back brings them back to the mountains.
In order to hunt for such similar stories, I reached Boat colony, a place where almost every house hold has a Bengali daughter-in-law.
Roohi’s muted anger
Roohi is someone who cannot remember much of her previous life. She remembers that she was brought here to Srinagar some 25 years ago from Nadia Zilla, accompanied by a person from her locality.
As far as she remembers, money was the reason her family sold her.
“They were in desperate need of money so they sold her,” says Roohi’s elder daughter.
Roohi, who was the youngest child in her family, cannot speak since childhood.
And the amount which was promised in exchange of Roohi, never reached her starving family in Bengal.
“Her mother-in-law had paid a certain amount. She came to know later on that it never reached the family. The broker had disappeared with it,” Roohi’s daughter recalls.
Roohi’s husband Abdul Ahmed Sheikh is a ‘kabadiwala’ (rag picker) and is seriously deformed. Almost half of his head is gone. On top of that he is 25-years older than Roohi.
Roohi’s elder daughter has not been able to complete her education beyond the 8th standard because of lack of money. When asked if she had any siblings, with watery eyes , she informed that she had two sisters- both dead. One died due to a brain hemorrhage and the other passed away two days after her birth.
“I had a brother as well. After seeing another person from our locality commit suicide, he came back home and imitated the same. Strangling himself from the fan, he died in excruciating pain in front of our mother,” she recalls.
Even today Roohi often looks at that room and cries.
Roohi had once tried to go back home but her parents had refused to recognise her. Ever since then she is filled with muted anger.
Due to that refusal, she actually likes her miserable life here.
“She is happy here as she can’t go back. Rather, she doesn’t want to go back now,” said her daughter.
Roohi had spent a few years in Srinagar and while walking down the road once she saw a familiar face. After staring at each other for some time, they realised that they were in fact cousins.
Her name is Salima – another Bengali living in Srinagar. Her husband had passed away a year back, Roohi managed to explain using sign language.
Rejected Waheeda accepts Kashmir
In the middle of this conversation, a few neighbours come to Roohi’s house. Among them was Waheeda, who was very excited to talk about her mother, who is from Bengal too.
Her mother, Jamila, is from Kolkata. She was 15 when her parents sent her to Kashmir with a shawl-seller, Ghulam Rashid Sheikh.
When Waheeda was married here, her father was very sick. Many days after her marriage she had come to know that her father had died after vomiting blood. Waheeda was bought for Rs 10,000 by her husband.
“I had thought that this money would reach my family and can be used for my father’s treatment. That did not happen,” Waheeda remembers.
She just went from one poverty stricken family to another. Seventeen years back her husband passed away from renal failure after being bedridden for a year.
Jamila never remarried. Instead, she joined work at a factory that manufactured pillows and mattresses.
“To me, my family was of primary importance and whatever little I earned, I spent it raising and educating my three daughters and one son,” Waheeda said.
Waheeda says that her transition, like others was not easy however her sister-in-law provided cushion.
“She really helped me out with the local language, lifestyle and food,”Waheeda recalled.
Throughout the conversation one thing was clear- all these women resented their Bengali roots vehemently as they were not even recognized by their real familes back in Bengal. That hate, has made these women actually love their lives in Kashmir.
From Meenu to Farhida, Haseena to Marjina
Another such Bengali woman Farhida, a mother of two sons and one daughter, came to Kashmir 20 years back.
She doesn’t remember anything about her family.
Later a neighbour informed that after the 2014 flood, she suffers from split personality after being deeply hurt by trauma. She could only remember that her name was Meenu.
How did she become Farhida from Meenu of Kolkata’s Peyarabagan slum, she herself doesn’t know.
Roohi was quite energetic and helpful throughout. She even went and called in two other women.
Marjina comes in, hands me the phone and asks straight away, “Can you call on this number? Would you ask them why they left me here?”
Marjina had a very happy family in Murshidabad. After her mother passed away she took over and acted mother to her two siblings. Her father was a bus driver and earned very less. When she was 16, she came to Srinagar with her cousin’s husband. Her cousin had informed her that if she got married, then her family would not suffer from poverty anymore.
The 16-year old got married to a person of her father’s age. She was sold for 15,000 but her family’s poverty remained. Her siblings couldn’t even manage a square meal.
Babu Ali, was the name of the person whom Marjina had never been able to forgive and blames him for everything that has gone wrong so far. She was married to Gulzar, who is a manual labourer and faced domestic abuse at the hands of her in-laws.
Marjina is not alone. There are lots of women like her who have no home to return to and no escape from this domestic violence.
“I wasn’t allowed two meals a day until I had learnt Kashmiri,” Marjina informs and starts crying.
Over the years her situation has improved slightly. She works from home and earns by spinning thread.
Marjina says that sadness follows her everywhere. “When my daughter Khushboo was born, I was very happy that in this place I would have someone to call her own,” Marjina said.
“But she has autism and is completely dependent on me.”
Marjina hollowly asks, “What do you think of the name Haseena?”
She had this name as a child. She still loves it and the memories associated with it.
Marjina brings in another 22-year old girl Sabina who was once Dolly.
She just wants to go back to Joynagar, her home in Bengal.
“My husband is as old as my grandfather, have you seen him?,” she asks. “He drinks a lot and hits me at night”, says Sabina who misses her name Dolly a lot.
Her husband Abdul Salam is a fruit seller. When she had just become a mother, she was still made to do all the domestic work of the house, despite the family having eight more members.
“Every day I used to wash clothes, clean the house, cook food and then I used to be beaten at night which still continues,” she said.
Since Rs 10,000 was spent in purchasing her, a fact that has earned her in-laws to hit her whenever she fails to deliver any given work.
“I do not want to stay here,” she stresses a number of times in her 45-minute long conversation.
All she wants is to go back home.
Mafooza’s ‘better than others’ life
Mafooza is old now. She doesn’t remember her age. A visibly old woman, she gets her Aadhar card and says that the age is mentioned there.
One thing Mafooza remembers quite well. She was twelve years old when she came to Kashmir on a ‘vacation’ from Katwa in Bengal.
“I was stolen and brought here,” Mafooza states.
However, she was the luckiest among the lot mentioned in this story. Mafooza was married in a good family.
“My father-in-law taught me to write and even allowed me to go visit my home in Bengal two three times,” she said.
When Mafooza went back for the first time that is when she came to know about her sale.
“In my case too, no money was received back home,” said Mafooza.
She is more settled though her husband is currently jobless. Mafooza used to work as a domestic help however she has stopped now. Her three sons work really hard to support the family.
Her sister lives in Pulwama. I no longer know how she is. I haven’t been in contact with her for many years.”
Another woman Shaheena, who was brought here as a 12 year old, unlike Mafooza wants to run away whenever she gets her chance. However, the bus she has ran upto a number of times didn’t take her to Buharrampur back in Bengal.
Most of the women have accepted their fate. They have adjusted and have families. Some of them are so ‘Kashmiri’ that given their skin tone no one would have judged that they are non-locals.
However, all of them don’t want to see more like them. They want this practice to stop.
“We don’t want little girls to go through what we had to,” says the old and experienced Mafooza.