AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Child marriage is illegal in India, but it still happens to girls in rural areas. NPR has been following one family in northern India over the past year. There are three child brides in that family. And today we bring you the story of the eldest daughter, Durga. Like her little sister, she's been able to delay moving in with her husband by going to a boarding school. But Durga's situation is dire. She wants to end her marriage entirely. And as NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports, the man who's trying to help her is the same man who got her into the marriage - her father.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Lumbaram is fretting over his eldest daughter, Durga, like a mother hen.
LUMBARAM: (Foreign language spoken).
AIZENMAN: "Did you take a water bottle," he calls out. "Here, take this one." She's a college student, and she's heading into the city to take a final exam. Ugh (ph), says Lumbaram, she was up studying till 3 a.m.
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) Every exam. She does this for every exam. Finally, I told her, now you have to go to bed so you're not exhausted for the test today.
AIZENMAN: Durga turns to him. Papa, is it time to go, she says. Yeah, says Lumbaram. He watches as Durga steps into their open-air kitchen for a quick drink, dipping a metal cup into a clay pot. Then he walks her out onto the dirt road, where his brother is waiting on a motorbike to drive her.
LUMBARAM: (Foreign language spoken).
AIZENMAN: "OK, child, go," he says. "Do well, and may God help you succeed."
But as he watches Durga disappear in a cloud of dust, Lumbaram's eyes fill with emotion. This test she's about to take is one of the final steps in a plan he's been laying for the last six years because Lumbaram has been on a quest to rescue Durga from a terrible mess that he got her into. Back when Durga was 15 years old, Lumbaram forced her to marry a man who was way older, had barely been to school and had a reputation as a heavy drinker.
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) My parents were putting so much pressure on me.
AIZENMAN: They were having a hard time finding a wife for Lumbaram's younger brother. In the village, all marriages are arranged, so they got Lumbaram to help out by making a trade with another family. That family gave a girl to marry his brother; Lumbaram gave Durga to marry one of the men on their side. It's a typical setup. Durga, she says she went through the whole ceremony in a state of shock, too upset to brush her hair, to change into her dress, so they just pulled it on her over her regular clothes.
DURGA: (Through interpreter) I told my father I won't do it. Papa said, no, you have to. And then my grandparents came in the room, and they said, you don't have a choice. Everyone gets married like this. You're not special.
AIZENMAN: They said to you, you're not special?
DURGA: (Foreign language spoken, laughter).
AIZENMAN: "Yeah," she says, "I'm not special." Talking about it, it's suddenly too much.
AIZENMAN: "Please," she says, "I don't want to remember."
DURGA: (Foreign language spoken).
AIZENMAN: Sometimes she thinks, how could a betrayal like this happen? But it did happen. And Lumbaram, he felt the same way. Something about the way Durga's husband was touching her hand during the ceremony - it seemed sleazy.
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) This man was not to my liking.
AIZENMAN: As soon as the wedding was over, he took Durga aside.
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) I said I will fix this.
AIZENMAN: You made her a vow. You said, I will figure out a way to get you out of this.
AIZENMAN: Lumbaram's a bookish guy, loves reading Indian philosophy. But he'd had to drop out of middle school to work as a construction laborer. So when it came to his eldest daughter...
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) I always wanted to find a way to educate her.
AIZENMAN: And a few months before Durga's wedding, this charity - it's called the Veerni Institute - had offered the answer, proposing to put up village girls at a boarding school in the city. Every other father in the village said, no way.
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) But I said never mind. I'm sending Durga.
AIZENMAN: Now the school gave Lumbaram at least a temporary way to save Durga. He's told her husband, as long as she's getting a free education, I'm not sending her to live with you yet. And he's kept this up through Durga's college studies, which the charity has also paid for. But this is just a delaying tactic. Lumbaram's end game is to break the marriage, and that's requiring some delicate diplomacy that includes a dress. It's already pitch dark by the time Durga and her uncle ride back in from her exam. Lumbaram appears carrying something in a plastic bag, a surprise present for Durga. It's a dress, but not one of the hip city outfits Durga likes. It's the kind the village women wear - skirt down to the ankles, long, sheer veil to cover her hair and face.
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) She need to wear this through summer break because now that she's older, people won't appreciate it if she wears modern clothes.
AIZENMAN: Lumbaram wants to be extra careful to show respect for village ways because very soon, he's going to be seeking permission to completely upend them. Specifically, he's going to go before a group of elders known as the panches. Legally, they have no say. Child marriage is outlawed in India. Still, if Lumbaram were to try to end the marriage without the panches' OK...
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) The community would ostracize me for life. If my wife were to go to the well, no one would even help her get the water. It would be like being dead while you're still alive.
AIZENMAN: The panches' power is on display the day after Durga's exam at a memorial ceremony for Lumbaram's father. He died a week ago. Hundreds of people have come to pay their respects. Lumbaram spends most of his time tending to a tight circle of a dozen older men in white turbans. They're sitting on a carpet, smoking clove cigarettes, sucking on opium balls. These are the panches. Lumbaram makes a point of keeping their cups filled with water, but not once does he actually speak to them.
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) Oh, I'm not of the same level. They are panches. I can't even sit with them.
AIZENMAN: Still, the day is coming when he'll have to approach them about Durga. She's 21. There's only so much longer he can keep her from her husband. Lumbaram says he'll pull the trigger this fall, once her final exam results come in, because here's Lumbaram's bet - by waiting until Durga could get more schooling than anyone in the village, he's hoping the panches will have to agree it would now be ridiculous to hold her to the marriage.
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) Everyone can see that she's educated and he's not, that this cannot stand.
AIZENMAN: And he also thinks the panches will go for it because he's already accomplished something remarkable for rural India. The proof - well, you can see it in this procession of women who are now making their way past the panches.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing in foreign language).
AIZENMAN: They're headed to a wedding in a house next door, and the bride is not a child. They don't do that in this village anymore. All this time Lumbaram's been holding off his daughter's husband he's also been making the rounds of other fathers, convincing them to send their girls to the boarding school, too, essentially getting them to rethink their entire attitude about girls. His village has now sent more girls to the school than any other in the area. And earlier this year, Lumbaram persuaded a bunch of the dads to publicly declare...
LUMBARAM: (Through interpreter) We will no longer marry girls underage. The mistake that I made, no one else will repeat it.
AIZENMAN: In other words, in his quest to save Durga, Lumbaram has already saved untold numbers of other village girls. And it's not just the girls being saved or Durga.
How will you feel the day that you get her out of this marriage? How will that feel?
LUMBARAM: (Foreign language spoken).
AIZENMAN: "I'll be liberated," he says. "I will be free." Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.