For centuries, there has been a regular trade from east to west in stories of Indian women oppressed by tradition. In the 19th century, tales of suttee or sati, the burning of widows on their husbands' funeral pyres, provided readers in Britain with romances of eastern women as the victims of ancient rites and western women as the more liberated citizens of an enlightened modern state. In 1987, the reporting of Roop Kanwar's death by sati, in the small town of Deorala in Rajasthan, replayed the same motifs. Much of the outrage in the British and Indian press centred on the failures of traditional rural society to modernise. Other, more complex accounts from Indian feminist activists were drowned out. Voices that emphasised the complicity of state officials, pointing out that dowry deaths occurred unreported on an almost daily basis in cities such as New Delhi, remained largely unheard. Tales of everyday gender inequalities were consumed by the spectacular image of the death by fire of a "village girl".
Mala Sen's book takes us beyond the fascination with sati. She places this rare tradition against a background of more pervasive modern practices such as the selective abortion of female foetuses, the middle-class greed over dowries that commodifies women in the marriage market, and the indifference of the state. Sen reminds us that the death of Roop Kanwar is no easy morality tale relieving everyone (that is, except the villagers of Deorala) of responsibility. She implicates many people: the judges, who after nine years released the defendants in this case without charge; state politicians, who patronise sati celebrations to win control of vote-banks; the police, known for their corrupt inattention to the claims of the poor; and the middle class, who wash their hands of a "backward" working class without examining their own practices.
As Sen suggests, her book is "not an exclusively Indian tale", and she mentions very briefly her experiences of British racism. Such analysis makes readers in Britain feel less distanced from the political issues facing contemporary Indian society. Alliances can be built not from a moral high ground, but with the understanding that both countries have problems of social exclusion.
Sen's personal account takes us behind the familiar headlines. While researching a Channel 4 documentary on successful Indian women, she reads of the sati in Deorala. Drawing on her own experience of relationships with what she calls "colonised" and "traditional" men, she begins a quest to find out more about the lives of Indian women touched by violence. We follow her attempts to enter the worlds of Roop Kanwar, Selvi (a friend burnt by her husband) and Karrupayee Kannan, the first woman sentenced to life imprisonment for killing her female baby.
The most successful of these stories emerges from Sen's intimate conversations with Selvi, who, with no help from the police or her community, manages to rebuild her life. We learn of Roop Kanwar - before she became frozen into a symbol - as a lively city-girl who attempted to negotiate her own path. Kannan remains a shadowy figure, but Sen reveals the economic and social constraints that may have led her to take her daughter's life. Along the way, we meet many lawyers, NGO workers and social activists who challenge the apathy of the government. By the end, one can have only admiration for their and for Sen's resolve.
However, at times this book, as with all attempts to come to terms with violence, seems to collapse under the weight of its subject. Looking for rational explanations for horrific acts, Sen inserts long paragraphs from other, more academic works as well as statistical tables, which jar awkwardly with the personal narratives. Sometimes she abandons explanation altogether, attributing India's problems to the centuries-old psyche that continues to oppress women, forgetting the complexities of Indian religion and history. This contradicts her own argument about the very contemporary shape of injustice. Her case would have been helped if she had included an interview with a "respectable" New Delhi family involved with a dowry death or selective abortion.
However, this book should be read, if only because it interrupts the usual traffic in tales of persecution by tradition. Sen tells us that hair, shaved from the heads of widows who have been rejected by their families and sent to live near a temple at Tirupati in southern India, is exported to make wigs in Europe. This hair, because it is apparently prized here, earns the Indian government foreign exchange and boosts the profits of the temple. Like Sen's book, this story reveals the intermingling of vanity, indifference, greed and modernity that is usually erased in accounts of violence against women in India.
Laura Roychowdhury's The Jadu House: travels in Anglo-India is published by Black Swan (£7.99)