ON DECEMBER 1, Suresh Kumar received a marriage proposal through a distant relative, Sushila. The 27-year-old had lost his father three months ago and his mother hadn’t been keeping well since then. “I work in the fields all day and was struggling to run the house alone. I thought a wife would take care of the household,” says Kumar, a resident of Kharkhoda tehsil in Haryana’s Sonepat district. “So, I agreed.”
But the proposal came with conditions: he couldn’t meet or see the bride until the day of the wedding, he had to travel to an ashram near Delhi’s Tis Hazari courts for the ceremony and pay Rs 45,000 for solemnising the marriage.
“Sushila told me her ‘sister-in-law’, Anita Mariam, works for a Christian organisation in Delhi where there are several poor, orphaned girls looking for grooms. I was told I would get to pick my bride from a group of 10-12 beautiful girls… I am a farmer and make Rs 7,000 a month. I didn’t have the money but I borrowed from relatives. On December 4, Mariam came to the village and I gave her the money,” he says.
But on December 26, a day before the wedding, Mariam couldn’t be reached on her phone. “I panicked. The house was teeming with relatives, the bhaat function was underway… dhol bhaj rahe the, geet gaye ja rahe the, naach gaana ho raha tha (there was music and dance),” says Suresh, sitting on a cot in his kuchha two-room house in the village.
“I rushed to Sushila’s house, but she wasn’t there. Later, someone picked up Mariam’s phone and said she had suffered a heart attack. Around 10 in the night I, along with a few others, rushed to Narela in Delhi where she said she lived. The house was locked,” he recalls. “The neighbours said she had left after celebrating Christmas on December 25… I realised I had been cheated.”
Kumar wasn’t alone in his ordeal. The same day, 32 other men from Sonepat, Rohtak and Jhajjar districts had been duped by Mariam. They had all paid her between Rs 45,000 and Rs 90,000 for their marriages, made arrangements at home and were waiting for the big day to arrive on December 27.
On Saturday, Mariam surrendered and was sent to five-day police remand. Sushila and Monu were arrested earlier.
“The accused, Sushila, her accomplice Monu and Anita Mariam have been booked under IPC Sections 406 (criminal breach of trust), 420 (cheating) and 120(B) (criminal conspiracy). About 12 men have been duped in Kharkhoda. These are poor men, most of them are daily wagers. They believed the woman without conducting any checks,” says Vazir Singh, SHO, Kharkhoda police station.
“When I returned home at 1 am on December 27 and told my relatives about what had happened, everyone broke into tears. I was scared my mother would die, too. Itni baizati hui hamari (We were insulted),” he says. “The signs were everywhere. The wedding was first supposed to take place on December 17, but Mariam came to the village and said that there had been massive snowfall in Canada and the international members of the organisation couldn’t make it and so the wedding had to be delayed. I believed her.”
Stepping inside a newly built room in his house, that has heart-shaped paper cutouts on its shelves, he says, “I borrowed another Rs 35,000 from relatives and got a kitchen made for my wife. I got the entire house painted. I also booked a banquet hall, a photographer and a DJ for a reception party on December 28… I don’t know how I will now pay back all the money. It is embarrassing to even step out of home.”
A kilometre away, 45-year-old Sanjay Singh had also borrowed Rs 45,000 from friends to pay for his wedding. Divorced 10 years ago, the factory worker who earns Rs 8,000 a month, had been living alone. “I would sleep on an empty stomach after returning from work… there was no one to wash my clothes or clean the house. A wife would have helped,” he says.
Singh gave Mariam the money in October last year. “She kept delaying the wedding date. She said some files had to be cleared from Canada. Finally the wedding was scheduled for December 27. She said over 100 men would get married the same day and the Rs 45,000 would be used to get the bride’s clothes and jewellery. She also promised that the grooms would get a sherwani and a gold ring,” says Poonam, 28, Singh’s sister, who came from a nearby village for the wedding.
“There is no ashram near Tis Hazari Court. I went and checked,” says Singh.
A day before the wedding, he says, he bought a shirt and a trouser for Rs 800 and a pair of new shoes for Rs 300. “I wanted to look good. Shaadi ka din tha (It was my wedding day). I was very anxious and woke up at 4 am on December 27 and rushed to get a shave. Since my younger brother and father were against the wedding, my guests included my two sisters and their families. I was told a vehicle would come to pick us up from our homes at 10 am. When I didn’t receive a phone call till 11 am, I rushed to Sushila’s home. She wasn’t there. I then went to the police, and found out that several others had been duped,” says Singh, who is also the complainant in the case.
“Na biwi mili, na sona, aur paise bhi gaye (I got neither a wife nor gold, and lost money too),” says the 45-year-old who has since returned to work at an indigo factory in the village.
He says that since Sushila had been living in the village with her two daughters for long time, and was related to several people, no one doubted her claims. Her husband had passed away a few years ago. When The Indian Express visited her home in Kharkhoda, it was locked and the neighbours refused to talk about her.
Sandeep Kumar, another resident of the village, had paid Rs 90,000 to Mariam. “I had to get two of my nephews married. They had come here from another village. They had not been able to find a bride yet… But now all the money is gone. I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he says.