Few days ago, I read a newspaper story; on suspecting that bridegrooms is illiterate, the bride put him under a arithmetic test: “how much is 15 + 6?”. And when the answer was 17, she called off the marriage! And few childhood memories cropped up.
When I was a kid, my father asked me once: “how much is left when you subtract 2.75 out of 4.25?”. He was pleased when I answered it correctly, “You’ll get married”, he said, “if you pass high-school, you can get a scooter in dowry as well”.
Well, it is well known that in traditional Indian system of marriage, popularly known as arranged marriage, would-be- bride and groom need not meet each other before marriage. Though this has been changing (at least in my village and neighborhood). 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. They use their social network to figure out the opening (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 party agree that marriage is possible (between the family, never mind the young would be couple) then what is discussed next is all important “dowry”. Various things are said about dowry. Dowry — in most cases — 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. The rule of thumb about dowry is: “it is a payment for status”. And who has known an Indian who is not status conscious?
When I was a kid, government jobs were most prestigious; and less you work in your job, better it was, 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 clerk jobs.
The land-owning farmers need not any formal education, even though there was respect for it. There was no pressure on a farmer’s kid to do well in school. Only thing he needs to know is simple math: how much he spends and how much he earns. This much would enable him to deal in local market. Surely, he is not sending his wife to buy vegetables in markets?
During these family meeting for fixing marriages, lying was (and still is) the norm. The groom family will lie 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 fake one would be arranged. The bride family is also from the same culture, they know what is going on. They will inquiry about the land on their own and some disgruntled enemy in the village will tell the truth about land-holding; and for education there was math test.
The mathematics test was the most feared one. The would-be-groom was trained by best school students in the night before the bridge family interviewed him. I remember training one. He was promised a scooter if he passed the interview. He cared little about money in dowry, that would go to his dad anyway. But loosing scooter, no sir no! There was little chance of getting a scooter after failure in interview from anyone else. That 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 her own good. 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 in 0.50 anyway. Being a practical woman, this bride asked him much simpler integer arithmetics; yet our elementary education system did not disappointed her. The finance minister should definitely rethink his budget cuts in primary education. If he thinks primary education is not necessary, he should consider raising the budget allocation anyway. Sure none of his or his colleagues children’s children ever going to go to government school. If not for the sake of overall future of country; at least for the sake of dowry — the birth right of every Indian bridegroom who has some status in this society.
Nothing is more simpler than integer arithmetics; and when our would-be bridegrooms start failing even these tests, we must be ashamed of our primary education system in which our track record in nothing less than a scandal.