Although this might seem strange to many, she is only following an ancient village tradition, which includes accepting a mango tree as her guardian.
“Marrying a tree is a ritual villagers of Dharhara have to hold prior to the wedding,” who has made a documentary called Mango Girls about the story of Dharhara, where mango trees have changed the fate of its female population.
This bleak picture forms the premise of director Kunal and producer Robert Carr’s soon-to-be-released Mango Girls. As the film tracks the journey of fathers like Prabhu Singh in Dharhara, the idyllic village is shown to be a peaceful oasis in the otherwise turbulent state of Bihar.
When Prabhu’s second daughter Sneha’s marriage was arranged last year, he had none of the worries fathers across the country are usually plagued by.
The reason? A tradition that has been in practice in the village of Dharhara for 200 years. The mango trees provide vital funding for the lives of young girls and usually start paying off within a span of five to seven years when they start to bear fruit.
“The money collected from the sale of the fruit takes care of the girl’s wedding, education and well-being,” says Kunal.
Ten trees yield mangoes worth Rs2 lakh (approximately Dh13,300) every year – a huge amount in India – which is put into the girl’s name in a bank account.
“This practice is setting an example by saving the lives of girls, as well as creating a sustainable economy and a benefit for the ecosystem,” says Kunal.
The revenue the fruits give in three years is sufficient to conduct the wedding of a girl, says Prabhu.
Nobody can remember a dowry death incident in Dharhara, where the female/male ratio is an amazing 957 for every 1,000 males compared to Bhagalpur district as a whole, where the gender ratio is 879 for every 1,000. These figures prove how female-friendly Dharhara is.
Not only is the village going green, the economy is blooming too. “Mango trees are more profitable than traditional farming, and as the money flows into the families, it also provides for the education of the girls,” says Prabhu. “In fact, after girls marry, the orchards will pass to the boy’s family, their brothers or father. In this way, planting mangoes has become the base of the whole socioeconomic structure in the village.”
Prabhu is a small-scale farmer with a meagre income, but he was not worried about the high expenses Sneha’s marriage ceremony incurred. “When it was time for Sneha’s marriage, we sold off the fruits of the trees for three years in advance and got the money to pay for my daughter’s wedding,” he says. “The trees are our fixed deposits.”
Sneha, who gave birth to a baby girl last year, did not give up the tradition even after moving to her husband’s house in Dasharathpur, a neighbouring village.
While on a visit to her home in Dharhara with her baby, she planted ten mango trees among the trees that had helped her get married. “This has been done for generations before me, I am only continuing it and I’m sure my daughter will too,” says Sneha. She also plans to plant five trees at her husband’s village.
A happy accident
The story behind the film Mango Girls is as quirky as its subjects. Kunal came across it by accident in a newspaper report while researching a film on environment degradation in the region.
The 36-year-old had been working as an assistant director in the film industry in Mumbai since he moved there from Bihar ten years ago. “It more than piqued my curiosity, it sounded incredible,” he says. “I connected with it immediately, as gender bias and ill-treatment against women for dowry touches a core in every responsible human being. More so for me, as I have seen many of my relatives and close friends affected by this practice.
“Although I am a native of Bhagalpur I had not heard of this. I felt I must make it known to more people around the world. It seemed like a light shining in the middle of the dark gender issue. I wanted to do a film on the phenomenon and contacted Robert Carr, who was equally excited on hearing the news.”
Robert first came to India in 1966 on a spiritual quest to meet the famous Indian philosopher J Krishnamurti. Since then he’d been returning at regular intervals, during breaks from his career as a producer with bands like Pink Floyd and later in the TV industry in the US. He met Kunal in 2006 and they’ve shared a teacher-student relationship since.
“We decided to make a film on the village. We just had to, given the importance of the phenomenon,” says Robert. The story they uncovered is as strange as it is fascinating.
A touching story
There are now more than 100,000 trees across Dharhara. “Planting trees has also had a positive impact on the environment, as Bihar needs this extra green cover,” says Robert.
Kunal came across many amazing stories while shooting Mango Girls, but there was one in particular that touched him. “There was a middle-aged woman who, after hearing about a girl child found abandoned at a hospital in a neighbouring village, decided to adopt her,” he says. “We were there when she, with just a few yards of land around her humble hut, planted a few mango trees on her land for her adopted child. It was really wonderful.”
This tradition has benefited the people of Dharhara in more ways than one. “Now we’ve stopped doing traditional farming of wheat and paddy,” says villager Shyam Sunder Singh. “We plant as many trees as we can – they are profitable and dependable. One medium-size mango orchard is worth around Rs2 lakh every season. They have great commercial value.”
“This is our way of meeting the challenges of dowry and female foeticide,” says Vinod. “There has not been a single incident of female foeticide or dowry death in our village.”
The villagers take great pride in showing off their orchards and their pristine reputation, although they don’t shun the dowry system completely. “We look at it this way: it is serving the most honourable cause of stopping female infanticide and dowry death, educating girls, bringing prosperity to the village and even increasing the green cover,” says Vinod.
Mango Girls is still in the final stages of being put together. “I wish to take this film to every corner of the world to show how two vital parts of our lives like women and trees who generate the future generation can be woven together to form the most wonderful fabric of our planet,” says Kunal.
But for the villagers of Dharhara, it is a way of life. The village’s oldest resident, Shatrughan Prasad Singh, 86, has planted around 500 mango and lychee trees on his 25 acres of land. His granddaughters Nishi and Ruchi play among the trees, confident that their family will have no problem paying for their weddings.
“The world should emulate us and plant more trees,” says Prabhu. “It will not only save the girl children, it will also save our earth.”