ON A CHILLY AUGUST EVENING, my host sat cross-legged, surrounded by boxes, on the lounge-room floor of her single-storey home in north Melbourne. Tall and willowy, she remained straight-backed as she flicked through affidavits and court orders that bore testament to a dowry dispute, a divorce and a property settlement. The documents are reminders of a time the 32-year-old Punjabi woman was loath to be reminded of. When I asked her to start from the beginning, she said softly that she would prefer for me to read her story, and brought up a brief autobiography on her laptop. She asked that I not reveal her name.
After completing her MBA in Delhi in July 2005, my host returned home to her village in Punjab to learn that her marriage was imminent. “We’re checking someone out,” her father told her, handing her a photograph and a matrimonial advertisement from a local newspaper. “Lives in Australia, IT graduate, looking for educated girl,” the ad read. She was then 25 years old, and had long accepted that an arranged marriage would be her fate. She protested, but without conviction. Her intended husband was in Sydney completing a master’s degree. After chatting a few times over Skype, the couple first met in the flesh in the Punjabi city of Bathinda in January 2006, on the day they were married.
A few days later, while still in India, my host learnt that her husband had yet to apply for permanent residency in Australia. The Australian government judges applicants on the basis of their education, English-language skills and employment prospects, and an immigration agent had advised him that he would not meet the criteria. But, my host was told, if her spouse could show a bank balance of 100,000 Australian dollars—then equivalent to about R33 lakh—to prove to the Australian government that he was a person of independent means, the newlyweds’ future in the country would be secure. She told me that no one asked her family for the money directly, but it was made clear that a hefty contribution was expected. “My mother-in-law would say, ‘What’s 100,000 dollars? When you are in Australia, you can bring over your brother and sister to have a better life.’” In the end, her parents contributed about 35,000 dollars, or roughly Rs 11.5 lakh.