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Ravi paid for his brother's wedding -- with his freedom

The father who had bonded his 13-year-old son to a rich farmer had not told me the whole truth. He had said at first that he had traded Ravi for a loan of 500 rupees (about $55) in order to ensure the family's "livelihood." In fact, the money was used to finance his eldest son's wedding. What makes a father do that?

A stranger's first reaction is one of outrage that a bright, attractive child should be sacrificed to pay for a passing family celebration. But Dutta, Ravi's father, was puzzled by my questions. "Of course" he had to have money for the wedding. How else could you celebrate a marriage?

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I had to try another tack. How was the money spent?

"There were the clothes, of course." What clothes, why "of course"? He ignored the question. What else, then? They had to feed 60 guests. Why did they "have to," if they couldn't afford it? What about the simple marriage ceremony advocated by some of the social workers in the area? "That's not for us poor people." A rich man's son had been educated in the city, and then refused to have a "proper" wedding. His first child died.

Dutta was beginning to resent the questions, but the probing persisted. "All right, then, we had to buy the jewelry, too." What jewelry? Why? "How can I give you all these details." Now he was angry. "I don't remember. I don't know."

But the other villagers chimed in, lest the foreigner should think them thriftless. These had all been essential expenditures, they explained, incurred from time immemorial for weddings, to symbolize the lasting nature of the marriage bond, to ensure that it remained unbroken.

"Jewelry" was a misnomer. There was the golden thread -- well, the color of gold -- that was tied into a knot, performing the same function as a wedding ring in the West, but also acting as a charm. That certainly was an obligatory item.

Then there was the toe ring, to signify the woman's complete subjection to her man. Without it, the marriage would not be safe. Then the nose ring, the earrings . . . each with a wealth of meaning, such indispensable.

And for these cheap little trinkets Ravi had been enslaved? For a few glad rags, for a "feast" of rice, some vegetables, and some watered-down yogurt?

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To us, they may be trinkets.But they provide the woman's only material security, such as it is, if her husband leaves her. In some areas tradition commands that no wife should enjoy the respect of her neighbors if she fails to extract the customary adornments from the husband's family. No "jewelry"? Then , no wedding. Centuries of social evolution have brought about a system that compensates, however poorly, for the absence of alimony.

To understand is not to forgive. But it is necessary to understand before anything can be done about an evil system that condemns Ravi and 2 1/2 million others -- for that, conservatively estimated, is the extent of bonded labor in India -- to a life of servitude.

There are many varieties of bonded labor, differing from one area to another, sometimes from one village to the next. But in essence the father of the family bonds his son -- or, more rarely, himself -- in return for a loan and sometimes the interest on it. The borrower is usually illiterate, often an untouchable, or Harijan, meaning "Son of God," as these outcasts were renamed by Gandhi.The high rate of interest or repeated additional loans drag the borrower deeper and deeper into debt, and the bond is extended, passing sometimes from father to son.

The bonded laborer is always at his master's beck and call, must do any work assigned to him, lives either at home or with the master -- usually in the cattle shed -- and is not free to leave his village. Because bonded labor is illegal, records of the transactions are rarely kept. Because the laborer is usually illiterate, the master's often self-serving calculation of the extent of the debt cannot be gainsaid.

The government's efforts to enforce the 1976 decree abolishing bonded labor can make little headway in face of the subtle threats, even more compelling than the demands of tradition, which are used to perpetuate the system.

The talk with Ravi's father was repeatedly interrupted by a woman who sounded angry and afraid: "Do you remember what happened the last time? We don't want those times to come again." What did happen the l ast time? At first they wouldn't tell me.

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