Few days ago, I read a newspaper story. On suspecting that bridegrooms is illiterate, the bride put him under an arithmetic test: “how much is 15 + 6?”. And when the answer given was 17, she called off the marriage. A few childhood memories popped up.
When I was a kid, my father asked me once: “how much is left when you subtract 2.75 out of 4.25?”. The question is hard when Hindustani is used to describe fractions. This question will read, ‘how much is left when you subtract pone-teen from sava char?’ He was pleased when I answered it correctly, “You’ll get married”, he said, “if you pass high-school, you might even get a scooter in dowry as well”.
It is well known that in traditional Indian system of marriage, would-be-bride and groom need not meet each other before marriage. Though this has been changing, albeit slowly, for a very long time. My father and mother did not meet each other, but my brothers and their wives surely did. When marriages are arranged, the family of bride usually hunts for groom. And they use all their social network to figure out any vacancy (if some family is planning to get their son married). They would visit the potential groom’s house and meet his father, and also would-be groom if he is available.
If both parties agree that marriage is possible then all important “dowry” is discussed next. Various things has been said about dowry. In my opinion, dowry is an instrument to buy status. The bride family has to pay much larger sum if the status of groom is higher than the bride. If the girl is earning and have a stable job, the dowry may not be needed or demand is relaxed. If the bride family is not able or willing to pay sufficient dowry then they prefer to marry their daughters into a family of same or lower status. It is a payment for status. And who knows an Indian who is not status conscious?
In my childhood, government jobs were most prestigious. And less you get to work in your job, better it is. And if you can manage some outside income (taking bribes) along with your salary then you are the man. If you had such a job, you can demand very high amount of dowry (plus a car). Next was land-ownership which has lost much of sheen these days; and followed by small businesses and other petty jobs in unorganized sectors.
The land-owning farmers need not any formal education. Education was not discouraged; but it was not encouraged either. There has always been some respect for it. There was no pressure on us (a farmer’s kid) to do well in school. Only thing he needs to know is simple math to answer few problems correctly. How much he spends and how much he earns. This much would enable him to deal in local market.
During these family meetings of marriages fixing, lying was (and still is) the norm. The groom family lies as much it can about land and education of would-be-groom. An illiterate would be classified as high-school and 1 hectare of land will be presented as 5. If they demanded to see the land-holding papers or the mark-sheets, the more enterprising one would arrange the the fake ones. Since the bride family is also from the same culture, they know what is going on. In all likelihood, they have done the same to others. They usually inquiry about the land by themselves, and some disgruntled enemy in the village will tell the truth, and often less than the truth, about land-holding. You can lie about the land-holding but not about the education. For that, you can do a math test on the spot.
For the groom family, the mathematics test was the most feared one. The would-be-groom was trained by best students from local primary school during the night before the bridge family interviewed him. I still remember training one. He was promised a scooter in dowry if he passed the interview. He cared little about money given in dowry. That would have gone to his father anyway. But loosing scooter, no sir no! There was little chance of riding a personal scooter after failing in interview. This guy showed remarkable interest in mathematics that night but failed nonetheless. He managed to get scooter anyway, by convincing bride-family that scooter is for the good of the bride. How she will travel to her remote village? In tempo and horse-cart?
The questions asked were mostly about fractions: how much is left if you have Rs. 3.50 and pay Rs. 2.75? Mind you, this question is trickier than its sounds. People use traditional fractional names for 3.50 and 2.75; they are not easy to remember. But those were old days when people spent money in fractions. These days, government has stopped minting coins less the 0.50, and you can’t get anything worthwhile in 0.50 anyway. Being practical people, this bride-family asked him much simpler integer arithmetic. And yet our elementary education system did not disappointed them.
The finance minister should definitely rethink budget cuts for primary education. Even when he thinks primary education is not necessary, he should consider raising the budget allocation anyway. Sure no hatchling of his or his colleagues, or of anyone on the twitter these days, ever going to government primary school for education. If not for the sake of the country, then at least for the sake of dowry — the birth right of every Indian bridegroom who has some status in this society.
Nothing should be more simpler than 2-digit integer arithmetic for any human being. And when our would-be bridegrooms start failing even these tests, we must be ashamed of our primary education system. Already our track record in primary education is nothing less than a scandal.