Bride grooming

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 May, 2009, 12:00am

At her first meal in a restaurant with her fiancee and his family, Lakshmi Gupta shone like a star. As they fumbled with the unfamiliar Italian menu, she guided them. When the spaghetti bolognese arrived, she showed them how to twirl the strands against a spoon to make a compact mouthful.

Ms Gupta's mother and father shot pleased looks at each other. The fianc?s family were impressed. The meal - the first formal dinner between the two families since the engagement - was a success.

'They had been a little snooty before that meal because they are richer than us. But they realised that Lakshmi had something different. She had polish. She knew how to behave in a restaurant and the proper way to eat,' said her proud father, Atul.

Mr Gupta, a shopkeeper in Rohini, a northern suburb of New Delhi, feels that Lakshmi will now make a 'perfect' wife. He had, after all, just spent 55,000 rupees (HK$8,500) on sending her on a six-month course at a finishing school that turns out 'ideal wives' for Indian husbands.

'My parents socialise mainly with relatives. We don't eat out much and haven't travelled outside India. Because my fianc?works for a multinational, they wanted me to learn how to entertain, groom myself, and cook nice meals for him and his family,' said Lakshmi, 24, an investment analyst.

Increasingly, the Indian middle class and the rich are sending their daughters to schools for 'good wives'. In India, young brides-to-be can have MBAs from Harvard and fly planes, but they must still also be good wives and daughters-in-law.

The favourite euphemism for describing what Indian women must do after marriage is 'adjust'. This little word - far nicer than 'submit' or 'obey' - conceals the massive feat that is required, namely bending to the will of the husband and his parents.

Lakshmi attended the Lifelong Learning Academy in Pitampura, which offers young women a broad foundation for married life. Launched a year ago on the first floor of a nondescript office block, it has 180 students on its books.

Amid the noise of workmen finishing a new office near the reception area, immaculately groomed, attractive young women walk around in stilettos clutching folders and arranging the next session.

They are the trainers for grooming, etiquette, cooking and table manners. In the cooking course, among other things, women are taught how to prepare tasty and nutritious packed lunches for their busy husbands-to-be.

Other parts of the course, such as understanding relationships, and home and financial management, are taught by outside experts.

'Life is more complicated than before. Women have to work but also have to run a home and be good wives and mothers,' said trainer Anjali Bhalla. 'They have to help their husband decide where to invest, everything. We fill in the gaps ... to give them social confidence.'

The course also teaches women about their rights. 'If a woman is being unjustly treated by her in-laws, we tell her to recognise that - that it's something she should not accept. We tell her to realise when she has no choice but to raise her voice in protest,' Ms Bhalla said.

Other training schools couch their objectives in more traditional terms. At the Manju Sanskar Kendra in Bhopal, central India, its founder, Aildas Hemnani, a retired government employee, teaches his female students that it is their behaviour that will make or break their marriage.

'I was upset at the fighting in families and the growing rate of divorce. I feel that modern girls are responsible for this conflict because they have too much ego, too many opinions,' Mr Hemnani said.

'Parents don't bother to train their girls properly these days so we help by teaching them to create a happy marriage but putting their egos to one side for the well-being of their family.'

Mr Hemnani is an unabashed traditionalist when it comes to a woman's role in society. He insists on teaching his mainly middle-class students sewing, cooking, and prayer. The curriculum includes a section on 'wifely manners', which covers how to greet one's in-laws, to eat only after everyone else, and how to control one's sex drive in a joint family home that has only limited private space.

He believes that men build society and women build homes. 'It is crucial that wives show respect and obedience in their marital home and control their anger. If they don't, there will be endless friction and strife,' he said.

For women's groups, such talk is repugnant and regressive. 'It's the same old argument. If a woman is raped, she must be responsible for having aroused the man. If a marriage is in trouble, it's the wife's fault for not putting everyone else first,' said Akansha Dutt, a voluntary worker with a women's helpline.

Ms Dutt says she has no problem with women respecting their husbands and their in-laws, and caring for them, but not at the cost of suppressing their own personalities.

And why is there no school for 'ideal husbands'? According to top author Mukul Kesavan, who recently devoted a book to the topic of The Ugliness of the Indian Male, there is a huge need.

Kesavan writes with disgust of the average nose-picking, crotch-scratching, spitting, unwashed Indian male. 'Indian men are not born ugly,' he writes. 'They achieve ugliness through practice. It's their habits and routines that make them ugly. Hygiene, hair and horrible habits ... I think it comes from a sense of entitlement that's hard-wired into every male child.

'That, and the not unimportant fact that, despite the way they look, they're always paired off with good-looking women.'

While nothing is expected of Indian men, Indian women are taught to be 'Superwomen' - a good cook, good in bed, a dutiful daughter-in-law, a great hostess, a good mother who helps the children with their studies, a good manager of the servants and the house, always impeccably groomed and a successful career woman.

Asked why Indian men are not equally busy working to become ideal husbands, Dinesh Chugh, regional manager at Lifelong Learning, smiles sheepishly.

'I agree that we should also run these courses for men but there is no demand. You see, the hard fact is that Indian men have the upper hand and so it is women who have to try to please them, not the other way round,' he said. Mr Chugh says he plans to open similar schools in small towns all over India. The fad for acquiring a glossy 'finish' to one's personality and acquiring all the wifely skills that a new bride could ever need runs across the board in India, from small-town ing?nues to the daughters of the elite destined to marry very well.

Outside Priya Warrick's Finishing School in New Friends Colony in south Delhi, elegant beauties learn how to carry themselves, heads held high, in salons around the globe. The school offers a special course for brides and caters to rich young women whose marriages have been arranged with diplomats, chief executives and tycoons.

'They have had no shortage of money but they still need to know how to entertain, what to wear to a cocktail party, or the table manners expected in European homes,' said Priya Warrick, a product of a Swiss finishing school and a former beauty queen. Ms Warrick's business is booming. There is no shortage of brides who are affluent but come from conservative Hindu families.

For example, they may have been discouraged from drinking alcohol and therefore need to learn the basic rules of wine drinking. Others have no idea what piece of cutlery to use for what course.

For Balwinder Hothi, a hosiery exporter in Punjab, there is nothing to differentiate Mr Hemnani's training from the more sophisticated courses at the Priya Warrick Finishing School.

Mrs Hothi is a rebel. She is 38 and married, smokes and drinks and has decided not to have children. A commercial pilot, she loves scuba-diving and mountaineering. Her sister is a trainer at a school for brides in Punjab and she is familiar with the curriculum.

'Call it what you like, it boils down to the same thing - subjugation,' she said. 'Women are trained to be doormats.

'The sad thing is that it doesn't even work. No matter how submissive a wife is, has that ever stopped a husband beating her?'