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Kerala Dowry Death: How The Stigma Of Divorce Trapped A 24-Yr-Old In A Violent And Abusive Marriage

Reported by KA Shaji and Betwa Sharma  Days after Vismaya V Nair’s alleged dowry death on 21 June triggered outrage across Kerala, Arunima Mandapathil, 24, shared memories of her friend and classmate, describing her as “joyous”, “bold” and “driven.” Recalling the Valentine’s Day 2020 celebration on their campus, Arunima said that Vismaya wrote a “beautiful poetic… Continue reading Kerala Dowry Death: How The Stigma Of Divorce Trapped A 24-Yr-Old In A Violent And Abusive Marriage

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Vismaya V Nair was found dead in her husband’s home on 21 June, 2021, in a suspected dowry death. (Photo credit – Facebook)

Reported by KA Shaji and Betwa Sharma 

Days after Vismaya V Nair’s alleged dowry death on 21 June triggered outrage across Kerala, Arunima Mandapathil, 24, shared memories of her friend and classmate, describing her as “joyous”, “bold” and “driven.”

Recalling the Valentine’s Day 2020 celebration on their campus, Arunima said that Vismaya wrote a “beautiful poetic letter” for movie star Kalidas Jayaram, winning the love letter writing competition that day. As they dealt with their own grief at her untimely and shocking death last week, Vismaya’s friends emailed Kalidas the letter that she wrote for him in 2020.

“Kalidas told us that it deeply moved him,” said Arunima.

Three months after the love letter writing competition at the Mannam Memorial Ayurvedic Medical College in Kollam district, where Vismaya was pursuing her Bachelor’s in Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS), she was married to S Kiran Kumar, an inspector in the state’s Motor Vehicles Department. It was an arranged marriage. Her mother, Sajitha Nair, said that Vismaya picked him from a popular matrimonial website. Her father Thrivikraman Nair, an activist with the Communist Party of India, who said he had “slogged” as a supermarket supervisor in Saudi Arabia for 25 years, gave 800 grams of gold, 1.25 acres of land, and a car — a Toyota Yaris — worth Rs 11 lakh, for which he took a loan from a nationalised bank, as dowry.

One year on, in May 2021, Arunima found herself speaking with a woman who sounded very different from the “joyous” person that she had known for almost five years. A few hours after she sent Vismaya a message congratulating her on her first wedding anniversary, she received a chilling phone call from her friend.

“She said that she was phoning in secret after Kiran had left the house. She said that she wanted to forget the marriage anniversary. She said that she was trying to adjust with Kiran only to protect the pride of her family. She told me not to marry before completing the Ayurveda course and finding a job of my own,” said Arunima. 

She told me not to marry before completing the Ayurveda course and finding a job of my own. 

Vismaya’s friends told us that even though she was fearless and progressive, she was also intensely private, rarely sharing anything about her personal life. The 24-year-old Keralite was determined to shield herself and her family from ridicule, even if it meant staying in an unhappy marriage. 

Her friends say that she only told them about the “physical, mental and emotional torture” that she was suffering for the first time after she reached her breaking point, this summer. But even then, Vismaya ruled out divorce because of the shame and stigma that came with it. Instead, her plan was to earn her degree in Ayurveda, find work, and become financially independent as soon as possible.

J Aswathi, a “best friend” and classmate, said that Vismaya was “bold and courageous,” but she did not want people to know how unhappy she was in her marriage. On the one night she stayed with her during their exams in April, Awasthi said that Vismaya broke down.

“When I asked her why she was suffering in silence, Vismaya said that she could not shame her family. She told me that a divorce meant extreme humiliation for her brother and father, who had paid a huge dowry,” said Awasthi. “She told me to think of marriage only after I become financially independent.”

She told me that a divorce meant extreme humiliation for her brother and father, who had paid a huge dowry.

A death in Kerala

On 21 June, Vismaya was found hanging from the ceiling of the bathroom in her marital home in Kollam district. The Kerala Police has arrested and booked him under section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — dowry death. So far, the evidence suggests that Vismaya committed suicide, but the police is also investigating the family’s allegation of murder, Harshitha Attalluri, the police officer who is heading the investigation, told us. The role of his mother, father, sister, and brother-in-law is also being investigated, Attalluri said. 

Her family’s version of events suggests that Vismaya’s husband was upset about the car that he had received in the dowry, the model and mileage, and the abuse started shortly after she was married in May. Vismaya’s father, Thrivikraman Nair, said that her husband broke her phone when she tried phoning him on Father’s Day in June 2020. 

While she may have been slow to share her ordeal with her friends, Vismaya was quick to confide in her family, sending them WhatsApp messages with accounts of the abuse in her marital home. 

Following her death, some of these messages surfaced in the public domain. In August 2020, Vismaya wrote about her husband showering her with abuses, using filthy language against her father, calling the car he gave him an “idiot car,” pulling her hair, slapping and beating her. 

Vismaya’s death has sparked widespread outrage across Kerala, a state that has the highest literacy rate in the country, but where the dowry system is thriving despite its progressive moorings. Pressure from families and the fear of social stigma — perceived and real — prevents women from leaving abusive and violent marriages. 

As per the State Crime Records Bureau, 66 dowry-related were recorded  between 2016 and 2020 in Kerala, and 15,140 cases were registered between 2016 and April this year under the category of “cruelty by husband/relatives.” In the same week as Vismaya’s case, two more alleged dowry deaths were reported in Kerala. 

“As dowry is officially banned in India, families are not leaving behind any evidence proving the exchange of dowry. So, the number of cases are less and the accused are managing to escape,” said T.V. Anupama, director, Women and Child Development Department (WCD), Kerala. 

When we asked Vismaya’s family why they gave dowry, Vijith Nair, her 27-year-old brother, a marketing manager at a private company, said that it was necessary for anyone who wanted to have any standing in Kerala society. “In Kerala, dowry is rather substantial. The social stature of the family depends on it. We just wanted to give her whatever we could,” he said. 

J Devika, an academician, writer and one of Kerala’s leading feminist thinkers, said that Kerala’s political leadership had done little to change the dowry system. “The functioning of the political parties in the state are patriarchal to the core,” she said. 

The functioning of the political parties in the state are patriarchal to the core.

Teachers speak 

Binil Kumar, principal of Sabarigiri English School, Anchal, where Vismaya studied till class 12, remembered her as an “energetic girl” who excelled in Kerala’s traditional dance forms Margamkali and Oppana, representing her school in state and district level competitions, and was a junior under-officer in the National Cadet Corps.

“A smart and intelligent girl who was liked by all,” said Kumar. 

A R Archana, an associate professor at the Mannam Memorial Ayurvedic Medical College, called her “bold and cheerful,” and someone who mingled with people irrespective of their gender. Her husband, Archana said, did not want her speaking with other men. “Now, we understand that was also a reason for the domestic violence,” she said. 

A smart and intelligent girl who was liked by all.

Role of the family 

In conversations with us over the past week, Vismaya’s mother, father and elder brother spoke of the abuse that she had suffered, some of which they had even witnessed. They said that her husband would beat her under the influence of alcohol. They said that her husband broke her phone many times. They said that she would hide in a toilet and call them from a second phone that he did not know about. They said that they filed a police complaint against him in February 2021, but later withdrew it because senior officers in the Motor Vehicles Department, where he worked, intervened and said that it would ruin his career. They said that he gave a written apology, saying that he would not beat her up again. 

“We believed in his promise and I lost my sister,” said Vijith. 

When we asked Vismaya’s mother why she did not tell her daughter to leave the abusive marriage, Sajitha said that her daughter was worried about what people would say if they knew about her troubled marital status. 

J Devika, the academic and feminist, said that Vismaya’s family deserve “ no empathy”  having done little or nothing to extricate her from an abusive marriage. She said that politicians visiting the woman’s family, including former Health Minister K Shailaja, were sending out the wrong message. 

“While going deep into the intricacies of the incident, we can reach the conclusion that the family had cruelly and deliberately abandoned their daughter for the sake of what they call the social respectability,” said Devika. “That  family is not to be considered as victims but as perpetrators.”

Sajitha said that one day before Vismaya was found dead in her marital home, she had asked her for Rs 5,500, the fee for her last semester’s examination to get her BAMS degree, because her husband had refused to give it. 

She wanted to finish off the course somehow and start practicing. I promised to transfer that amount to her account on Monday. But I received the news of her death by early morning on Monday,” she said. 

That  family is not to be considered as victims but as perpetrators.

Friends speak 

Vismaya’s death has had a profound effect on her friends and classmates. 

Karthika Ajil, 24, said she could not understand why a woman like Vismaya — educated, bold and with a mind of her own — had been so secretive about the abuse that she endured and why did she not out of an abusive marriage. “Her death is an eye opener for me. She seemed so concerned about what others would think that she became a martyr to the dowry system in Kerala,” said Karthika.

P Priyanka, 24, said that Vismaya’s tragic death was making her think about how carefully she would choose her own life partner. 

“The one thing that I can say is that families must evolve and teach children to respect themselves and not what society thinks about them,” she said. “Let society think what it has to.”

J Awasthi, who knew Vismaya since she joined college, said that her “best friend” believed that once she finished her Ayurveda course and started earning, she would find a way to end her suffering and live a meaningful life. 

“The loss is immense. My heart is  heavy,” said Awasthi. “She was bright, beautiful and promising. She left this world without realising her dreams.”

She left this world without realising her dreams.

KA Shaji is a journalist based in South India. He writes on human rights, environment, livelihood, caste and marginalised communities.

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