The worst country to be a woman
Some years ago, I went to visit my housemaid Ranjita in hospital, where she had just had her womb removed.
In the next bed, an attractive young woman had just given birth to a baby girl. I could not help but admire the baby, who was particularly beautiful, so I went over to take a closer look.
The mother failed to respond to my admiration. Not even a smile of acknowledgement. When, on the next visit, I remarked on her cool manner (the mother had been discharged by then), my housemaid provided the explanation.
"Her husband and in-laws came to see her. They were furious that the baby was a girl. They were shouting at her for producing a girl. When they left, she was in tears," she told me.
The mother was educated, spoke fluent English and had, judging by the hospital where she had given birth, married into a middle-class family. Yet the scene I used to think was confined to rural India had been played out in the Indian capital.
I walked out of the hospital filled with dismay at the mother's heavy heart. Her joy at giving birth to a healthy baby girl had been poisoned by the people who should have shared it.
When she took her baby home, how would she endure the stony welcome? How many battles would she have to fight for her daughter as she grew up?
The findings of a recent poll of G20 countries by the Thomson Reuters Foundation that India is the worst place for women (Canada was the best place) comes as no surprise to me or many people in India, though I must say it was shocking to find India a notch below Saudi Arabia - the standard bearer among nations for treating women as less than human.
From the time they are in the womb, women have a hard time of it. If they survive female foeticide, they get less nutrition than boys; they are less likely to be sent to school than their brothers; if they are, they are the first to be pulled out if there is a family crisis; they suffer child marriage; they are a burden to their parents because of the dowry that must be given when they marry; even if their parents give a dowry, they can be killed by their husband and in-laws for more dowry; and as for when they are widowed, god help them because society treats them like Pandoras.
The exceptions are deceptive. India has Sonia Gandhi as the president of the ruling Congress Party. The President of India, Pratibha Patil, is a woman. Parliament is full of women MPs.
Outside politics, women run companies, fly planes, work as doctors and engineers, drink, dance, live alone, wear what they like, move around freely and enjoy a host of freedoms.
But for the majority of Indian women, the reality is that their function in life is as housekeepers, mothers or foot servants to in-laws. Two things make them a burden: dowries and the link between their sexual behaviour and family ''honour''.
The ''honour'' business is complicated and rooted deep in the culture - or psychopathology - of Asian societies. I have no idea how or when it will change. But extirpating the custom of dowry should be more feasible if only Indians could summon up the will and if the elite could set an example.
Dowry is such an albatross it can almost make you understand the preference for boys.
Take Ranjita's 19-year-old niece. The girl's father works as a driver on a salary of 8000 rupees (NZ$182) per month.
He must marry her off before society starts muttering about how she's missed the bus. Several families have shown an interest in her but are demanding a $6800 to $9000 dowry and that's on the lower side.
He will have to sell his tiny plot of land, borrow from every single relative and even then it won't be enough. "Luckily", it's his only daughter. Imagine if he had two or three.
Profoundly repulsive though his words were, you can grasp the desperation of the man in Bangalore who was in the newspapers for killing his three-month-old baby girl recently.
His wife told police that, when he visited her in hospital, he said: "For her wedding, we will require US$100,000 (NZ$124,500). If you can get that amount from your mother, then keep her, but if you can't, then kill her.''
As long as dowries continue, baby girls will be cursed. If, in the developed world, giving a dowry meant parents ended up homeless and in hock, scrounging a living from busking, would girls be welcomed with love?
Only when dowry becomes extinct will the birth of a girl fulfil a popular Hindu saying that it is akin to the arrival of Lakshmi, the four-armed goddess of wealth, often depicted holding lotus flowers and an overflowing pot of gold.