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Life soured quickly for bride after wedding


ON THE DAY of her wedding to Viresh Patel, Alpna Amin looked beautiful and healthy - not at all like the woman on trial now. Her black hair was pulled back and crowned with a gold headband, her eyes were bright and perfectly lined, her dark skin smooth and radiant. She was adorned in a crimson sari and rose-petal garlands. All around her were cheerful women in colorful Hindu dress, flowers everywhere.

The groom, a scholar and a doctor-in-training from Buffalo, N.Y., stepped from a minivan as he arrived for the ceremony at the bride's family's house in Saskatoon, Canada. Viresh Patel was festooned in flowers, a big smile on his face. It was May 23, 1998.

Alpna and Viresh had talked for many hours in long-distance telephone calls and they'd spent only a limited amount of time together - most of it in the company of relatives - but on the day of their wedding, they declared themselves ready for a lifelong commitment to each other.

And never mind that this was an arranged marriage in the tradition of their Indian-born parents.

"I don't like to call it arranged," Alpna said that day.

In an arranged marriage - like those of her parents and Patel's parents - the bride and groom meet for the first time on their wedding day. That wasn't the case here. Besides, Alpna was a smart young woman who had grown up in Canada, not India. She was a dentist. She knew what she was getting into. Her mother and father might have had a hand in getting her and Viresh together - on her behalf, they'd taken out an ad in an Indian matrimonial newspaper - but Alpna was free to make her own decision.

"I'm glad this is all happening," Alpna insisted as she prepared for her wedding. "I don't feel, 'What am I doing? Am I crazy?' I don't feel that way at all."

But did she love this young man she was about to wed?

"I don't think passionate love is the only thing that makes a marriage survive or that marriage is built on," she said. "Being friends, I think, is definitely one of the things that is a plus to have in the beginning."

We saw and heard all this stunning irony yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, where Alpna Patel is standing trial - for the second time - in the stabbing death of Viresh Patel in March 1999. This time she is charged with manslaughter.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. had interviewed Alpna and her fiance and taped scenes from their three-day wedding ritual for a report on the Eastern Indian custom of arranged marriages. The report aired on Canada's national television network, and it ran for 11 minutes.

Yesterday, it became a defense exhibit.

It appeared on a large television monitor for the jurors. It appeared on a small monitor on the bench so Judge John Prevas could watch. Alpna Patel, her head bowed and her hair a stack of frizzy curls, sat at the defendant's table and did not watch. As the video ended, with a scene of the newlyweds dancing to a love song - "Truly, Madly, Deeply" by Savage Garden - Alpna Patel slumped deeper into her wooden chair and cried. One of her attorneys, Lynn Williamson, embraced her.

Her mother, Kanan Amin, sat sullenly in the witness chair.

She and her husband, Dev Amin, a Canadian physician, were summoned to court by the lead defense lawyer, Ed Smith, to paint a picture of their daughter's life after the wedding. It wasn't a pretty picture. In fact, the Amins both said, things got ugly fast.

First, said Kanan Amin, her daughter was not allowed to stay with her husband on their wedding night. Viresh's family forbade the newlyweds from consummating their marriage until after Alpna went to her husband's family's home in Buffalo and received the blessings of a priest there.

When he testified, Dev Amin was dismissive of such an orthodox dictate. "I thought it was very archaic and really, really old-fashioned," he said.

The next day, a Sunday, the Amins planned a breakfast reception at their home in Saskatoon. In Canada, people have "gift-openings" on the day after a wedding, Dev Amin said, with newlyweds and relatives attending.

But that was unimportant to Viresh's family. They refused to attend the breakfast or let Alpna go. "Until she [Alpna] set foot in her in-laws' home, she could not set foot again in her parental home," Dev Amin explained, a mild sneer in his tone.

Worse, Alpna's father said, the Patel clan seemed to insist on the "joint family system," a patriarchal arangement in which several generations live under one roof. His daughter was forced to live in Buffalo, in the basement of her in-laws' home, while her husband, Viresh, went to Baltimore for his surgical residency.

While the Amins realized that the Patels were more orthodox than they in the practice of religion, they thought their daughter's new husband would bring a more liberated outlook to the marriage.

"I thought Viresh would show some independence," Dev Amin said. "I thought he would show some gumption."

But, the defense suggests, Viresh was more devoted to his family than to his new wife, and that's what led to the tension and, ultimately, Alpna Patel's decision to drive to Baltimore to confront her husband with a list of grievances. It was March 23, 1999.

As they testified, both Amins betrayed a simmering anger about how their daughter was treated, the mother with her quivering voice, the father with his sneers and mocking mimickry of Viresh Patel's strident father. Their testimony - the mother's more than the father's - also betrayed understandable guilt about where the quest for a husband, a gesture toward Hindu tradition, had taken their daughter.

In the months before the wedding, Dev Amin gave a speech at a reception for both families. His emotions were mixed - happiness for his daughter, sadness at losing her. "You feel," Dev Amin had said, "that you are casting your daughter adrift on certain uncharted waters of the sea of life."

Alpna Patel sat low in her chair, looking every bit like a woman caught in a long, bad storm.

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