Their letters go unanswered, their phone calls unreturned, and the new wives wait in vain. In the tragic world of India’s abandoned brides, the women ask the same question: “Where is my husband?”
As she peeked through her richly woven golden and red veil to catch a glimpse of the revelries, 18-year-old Tanveer thought to herself: "This wedding is a dream come true."
She had been asked by her parents to marry 30-year-old Gurdeep Sidhu, a fellow Sikh who had emigrated to Cyprus. "This was a God-sent match since he was well-established abroad, and we thought that Tanveer would lead a secure and luxurious life," remembers her mother, Harminder Kaur.
The family, who lived in Hoshiarpur, a remote town in the Indian province Punjab, were so impressed with Gurdeep that they borrowed money to meet his hefty $40,000 dowry demand.
Gurdeep left India a week after the wedding, promising to send his new wife the documents she needed to get a visa for Cyprus.
Tanveer waited for the documents to arrive. And waited. And waited. Finally, after nearly six months, a family friend broke the news: Gurdeep had used most of the $40,000 to sponsor his longtime Indian girlfriend to Cyprus.
Three years later, Tanveer is still waiting for her absconding husband to accept her and take her with him to Cyprus. The family has been forced to move to a larger city in Punjab.
"We had to leave our home in Hoshiarpur to save us from all the humiliation caused by her broken marriage," Tanveer's mother told France 24.
Escaping the disgrace wasn't the only reason: the whole family is slaving to pay off the debt they incurred to host the lavish wedding and pay the dowry. Tanveer's father has come out of retirement to help make money, and her 16-year-old brother has had to give up school.
Thousands of Cases Reported
Tanveer isn't alone in her suffering. Lok Bhalai Party, a small political organisation, says that it has registered at least 20,000 cases of abandoned brides in Punjab. But party activists say the real number is probably much higher because many victims worry that complaining could bring shame on their families.
Every year expatriate bridegrooms, popularly known as NRI's (Non Resident Indians), come from Canada, Britain and other European countries to Punjab's interior villages seeking Indian brides. Surinder Singh Mundi, a district lawyer from Punjab who is dealing with at least 400 cases of abandoned women, says that many of the NRI grooms come for the dowry money. "Getting married in India means getting a huge dowry," he says.
A Second Wife
While a majority of these women have been waiting to hear from their husbands, 23-year-old Paramjeet did manage to make it to the U.K, but didn't end up living happily ever after.
In 2001, Paramjeet married an NRI groom living in the British town of Luton. When she stepped into her new husband's home, she had a rude shock: she was greeted by her husband's British wife and their two children.
"His parents had threatened to disown him if he refused to marry an Indian woman," says Paramjeet. Sikhs are only allowed one wife, and her husband's family would later say they knew nothing about his marriage to the British woman
"He told me that things would work out and that he would eventually find me a better match," Paramjeet recalls. She stayed on in the U.K for almost a year before returning to India. The naïve newly-wed hoped that things would change. "I didn't want to come back and be a burden on my parents."
Now Paramjeet is back in her village, living with her parents. Having little realistic hope of finding another husband, the 28-year-old woman moved into the servants' quarters because she wanted to be alone.
Young Indian men living abroad often come under pressure from their parents to come back to India to find a bride. While Indian parents living abroad insist on importing traditional Indian daughters-in-law, their sons find it difficult to accept these women due to cultural difference.
"Most women from India come from very reserved backgrounds and find it difficult to integrate within a new system," says 35-year-old Gurkaran Thakkar from Mississauga in Ontario, Canada. He brought a 21-year-old bride to Canada earlier this year, but he sent her back to Punjab within three months because "she just wasn't my kind of a woman."
Most of these village brides are uneducated and come from poor backgrounds. Even though local aid organisations have tried to spread awareness of the potential dangers, the often-desperate desire to move overseas lures the girls and their families to take risks when they come across a prospective NRI groom.
Mundi says that more and more women are falling prey to dishonest suitors, but little is being done."The issue is repeatedly being raised in the Parliament, but the Indian government is still sleeping over it."
Married to a Photograph
In a recent case reported in the Indian press, Kiran, a 24-year-old woman from the village of Nabha in Punjab, was pressured to marry a man's photograph under the pretext that he was too busy in Canada to make it to his own wedding.
Her mother-in-law left shortly after with a dowry worth $35,000, promising that her son would soon come to India to claim his bride. After waiting for a few months, Kiran and her family realised that the wedding was a hoax.
In a case like this "a corrupt government registrar can be given a few thousand rupees, and he will register any kind of wedding, even one without a groom," says Mundi.
The lawyer says there should be laws requiring that NRI grooms wanting to get married in India provide proof from the country they are living in that they are unmarried.
[Note: Tanveer and Paramjeet are pseudonyms. The families asked that France 24 not reveal the women's names to protect their reputations.]