As she states in her preface, Subhadra Butalia's book is a memoir of her experiences with the dowry system and its victims. It is not a memoir of her life, though that would have also been a worthy undertaking given the glimpses of it seen in this account. Nor is it a critical exploration of the dowry system in India, as it is not intended to present facts, figures and hard analysis. Rather it
is a memoir of how dowry deaths catalyzed her (as she herself describes the process) towards a life of activism on behalf of women in India and particularly in
the movement against dowry death and indeed dowry itself.
We learn of the suspicious burning death of a neighbor she hardly knew started her on her activist career in addition to being a mother, wife and teacher. Butalia describes the difficulty that families and women's groups faced in trying to seek justice for the victims of dowry death including the callousness of police, the indifference of politicians and the audacity of murderous families. It was a deep desire for justice and identification with the victims that pushed her
to what sometimes seemed like a futile fight against the dowry system.
For those who are unfamiliar with the routinized corruption of the Indian bureaucracy, the book's descriptions are infuriatingly accurate. And even for those of us who are familiar, we are reminded of how daunting it can be and are doubly
impressed that women's organizations that must depend on government support can
manage to exist at all. Given how entrenched the idea and practice of dowry is, we feel the frustration and anger of someone who is in the society trying to change it. That point of view is what gives this book its resonance, which would
not be the case in a more scholarly approach to the anti-dowry movement.
That the title of this book is The Gift of a Daughter, reflects a desire for what should be and not what the dowry system implies is the worth of daughters. Sadly, dowry makes women objects that families must pay to dispose. The saddest aspect of Butalia's accounts is the complicity of families of victims and their unwillingness to question the system of dowry rather than mere sadness at the death of a daughter or sister. The absurdity of the claim that dowry is a quaint cultural practice is not lost on the reader when we learn that a young woman's life is worth less than a shiny new motor scooter. Unfortunately, traditional dowry has been updated by the new consumption-driven India. Modern day materialism and consumer culture makes an ancient practice that much more dangerous to women.
To those who are unfamiliar with Indian society, the book lacks enough explanation to understand the nuances of contemporary dowry practices. However, the power of the book comes from Butalia's straightforward prose style and her very personal point of view, which sets this work apart from scholarly works on women's activism in India. At no point does the book seem self-serving and instead we are left wanting to know more about a woman who, at great personal risk to herself and her family, worked so hard to seek justice and to improve the lives of women in her society.