Band Baaja Baaraat just found a sequel. And, it promises to be a blockbuster. Rajwinder Kaur—from Tarn Taran district, once the hotbed of Khalistan militancy—has scripted her version of the big fat Indian wedding. There is the band, baaja and baraat, of course. Five, to be precise. Baraats with different grooms. And, Rajwinder is always the bride, never the bridesmaid.
She is not the only one. In a marriage-obsessed country, a growing tribe of women have found a way to turn the tables on the oldest institution. They are not interested in domestic bliss or the trappings of a marriage. These women are on a mission to run for fun and money, of course. Rajwinder, Punjab's NRI bride, left a series of broken hearts—the kind that heroines aspire for. Arrested in May, she had married five men, duped several of them and, in the last instance, did the vanishing act with Rs 5 crore. She is a kalakar (artist), claims the prosecution lawyer. Once the police put out her photograph in the newspaper, people from as far as Patiala flocked to Ferozepur to make claims that she had conned them.
Sangeeta alias Rachna alias Pooja from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, set the bar only slightly higher—seven men, reportedly. Shahanaz Ismail from Kerala, too, duped seven men in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. At 25, she even convinced one of her husbands to let her live in a hostel so that she could prepare for the civil services exams.
Sonal Tadvi from Vadodara was set up with Dinesh Bhai by ‘matchmakers' Usha and Teeni Ben. They allegedly accepted money from Dinesh. Sonal was apparently unaware of what was happening and fled when she felt something was amiss. Dinesh and his relatives followed in hot pursuit, Hindi movie style, on a rickshaw. The traffic in Vadodara proved to be her undoing. They caught her at a red light.
In Barmer, Rajasthan, early this month, groom Anjuram's family arrived with the baraat to find that the bride's relatives were not waiting outside anxiously with thalis. They had locked up and left. The broker who had fixed the wedding for Rs 3.6 lakh was missing, too.
There are many such women across India. Women on a mission to run from socially accepted fairy tale endings. Marriages for them are the perfect con. Some are part of gangs that loot and scoot, some operate solo. It really is the perfect crime as most men, as the police claim, refuse to come forward, as they can never live down the humiliation of being dumped.
Like in all crimes there are various explanations. In parts of the country with a skewed sex ratio, these women represent, the other side of the marriage picture. Sometimes the girls are the victims—they are sold, and running away seems to be the best idea.
“I had a friend from Saurashtra who was duped by a girl in Vadodara,” says a police officer. “But he refused to come forward. No one wants anyone to know that they could not get married and needed to ‘buy' a bride.” This is especially rampant in the Patel community, where boys get married late. The girls from the community prefer to get married outside.
In Indore, Madhya Pradesh, the police recently arrested Dinesh Jain, who ran a marriage bureau. Some of the marriages he brokered ended all too abruptly. After a short honeymoon the brides fled with as much valuables as they could gather. Dinesh had apparently arranged two such marriages in Rajasthan, too.
The Vadodara police say there are many such gangs in the business, and Gujarati men seem especially susceptible to the con. H.M. Alsika, inspector, Raopura police station, Vadodara, has cracked three such cases. In one, Sushila had been fired from a marriage bureau and decided to fly solo. She used the data from the agency to set up weddings, says Alsika. “A few days later, these women [in Sushila's gang] would come and say that their husband did not like them or that their mother-in-law was threatening them. Harassment cases can be serious. There is no bail. The boy's side had no choice but to let them go.” It took the police three months to track down the ‘matchmaker'.
Heroines or not, these women represent a different side to the 25.5 billion dollar ‘band, baaja, baraat' industry that is growing at 25 per cent per year. They represent the desperation of some men to get a slice of that fairy tale ending. It is the darker side of this sunshine industry, where men are forced to take loan just to find a wife. It is not then about love or companionship, it is simply about buying a bride.
These are then the stories of some women who choose to go down this path. The story of love in small town India, where women are thinning in numbers and romance sometimes comes at a price.
Kulwinder Singh put in a matrimonial ad in the newspaper and found the woman of his dreams—Rajwinder Kaur, an NRI from Canada, the land over the rainbow where Punjabi dreams come true. In true Ekta Kapoor bahu mould, she could turn out round chappatis, the way to a mother-in-law's heart. They seemed destined to live happily ever after. Till the bride did a Julia Roberts four months later. The only rub was that Singh wasn't the only Richard Gere. He was the fifth.
Kulwinder was deserted with his extended khandaan (family) in Bangkok. His brand new wife had convinced him that in Thailand they could magically get five-year visas to Canada. She then disappeared—along with all the money she had collected for the visa. A whopping Rs 5 crore. It is safe to say that Kulwinder—“now clean shaven,'' a friend smirked—is not on the top of the list of invitees at family functions.
Kulwinder came back home to find that the woman of his dreams was as fake as a botoxed smile. She wasn't Amandeep Gill as she had claimed. Her name was Rajwinder Kaur alias Satti. And she was certainly not from Canada.
“The only thing he had was photographs of the wedding,” says investigation officer Navin Sharma. It took the police three months of raids across the state to track her down. Arrested this May, Rajwinder had by then zeroed in on husband number six. “She was living in a farmhouse lavishly,” says Sharma.
The police have recovered Rs 19 lakh from her. She has stashed away the rest of the money, they believe. She also had two passports. The godown is full of clothes. “Her bags were stuffed with wads of cash,'' says a woman constable.
No newbie to the world of crime, Satti was particularly good at the oldest duping trick in Punjab—the promise of foreign shores. She, along with her uncle—who worked as an agent—used to take money from people with the promise to send them aboard but they failed to keep the promise. She had also been to prison twice for cheating. In fact, in 2010, she even conned visitors who came to see her fellow convicts.
“They thought she could really send people abroad,” says Superintendent of Police Jasjit Singh Siroha. “Satti was in jail serving a sentence, but they happily gave her money so that she could send their relatives to greener pastures.” It was there that she met husband number four, Jaskir, who became her accomplice, the police believe. His relatives had been conned by her in jail.
After zeroing in on Kulwinder as her next victim, Satti met him posing as Amandeep Gill, an NRI looking for Mr Right. Jaksir, who called himself Satnam Singh, went with her as a cousin and chaperone. She met Kulwinder again but this time she was alone.
“She told him that she was ready to marry him but her family, interested only in her money, wanted her to marry her cousin,'' says Sharma. Kulwinder succumbed to the offer. It was a grand wedding. Even the local minister attended it. “She was so beautiful,'' says Balwinder Singh, the sarpanch of Kulwinder's village Kotwal. “She had been married before, had a child and been to jail. But on her wedding day, she looked about 24.”
Soon Satti became a favourite of Kulwinder's relatives and friends. “Everyone fell in love with her,” says the sarpanch. “She got this young cousin of Kulwinder a scooty because she used to go to college that was far away. She would go to the gurudwara and offer Rs 25,000. You need a special kind of person for that.”
This public display of wealth convinced everyone that she was, indeed, rich and didn't need any money. Satti would promise every person she met that she would send their child to Canada, but they shouldn't tell anyone. “They flocked to her, insisting that she take money,'' says the sarpanch.
And they believed her when she told them that their best bet at going to Canada was to fly to Thailand where they would get a five-year visa. They all arrived—about 20 of them—in Bangkok. “She was staying in another hotel,'' says Ravinder Singh, Kulwinder's cousin who was among them. “We were booked in another. She told us one day that she needed to go somewhere for work. She had her bags with her.” As Hitchcock's movie went, the lady vanishes. Her phone was switched off. Kulwinder soon realised that they had been taken for a ride.
Her story became part of folklore in a state known for holiday wives. It isn't every day that a 30-year-old woman, who is a “class 8th fail'', as a police officer put it, makes a fool of so many people.
She had even convinced Kulwinder that she was pregnant. The family was overjoyed. “They threw this huge party to celebrate,'' says Sharma. “She went to a pir [holy man] and offered Rs 11,000. However, during the interrogation she told us that she had a hysterectomy years ago.”
Satti was like any other girl from a small village. Her sister Ranjeeta Kaur claims she was terrified of her uncle and used to stay at home. “She never left the house without permission,” says Ranjeeta.
Ten years ago, Satti got married to driver Succha Singh and even had a son in that marriage. But she hasn't seen him for years. The boy stays with his father. “She left the house and never came back to even see how her son was. He is a shadow of a boy,” says Ranjeeta.
In 2004, the family publicly disowned Satti by filing an affidavit in the panchayat. “She would con people promising them that she would send them abroad. They would give her money. When the scheme failed, they would knock on our doors with the police to recover the money,'' says Ranjeeta.
Succha, who is now ill, hasn't recovered from Satti's desertion. “What kind of a woman marries five times?'' he asks. “I saw the story on television. Can you still call her a woman then?” Ask him why he thinks people believe her so easily, and he says, “She was always a sweet talker. But you could never trust her.”
Her family may have disowned her. But most men who have met her are half in love with her. Police officers, sarpanches, even jailers—one was so smitten that he gave her VIP treatment that included a ride in his jeep.
“At the end of the day, she took these people to Bangkok and fed them well. She splurged on them. She may have been using their money on them but, so what?'' asks the sarpanch. Succha—with whom she stayed the longest—is still pining for her.
Her victims, the police believe, are hiring lawyers for her. “She failed class 8. But she managed to get 05 crore in three months,” says the sarpanch. “We can spend our whole lives but we won't be able to get this kind of money. People came and happily handed it to her. She didn't ask. People say women are weak-hearted. It takes guts to carry out a scheme like this. She deserves a medal.”