Book Review

Arranged Marriage

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

New York: Doubleday, 1995
320 pages
Price: $21

Reviewed by: C.J.S. Wallia, Ph.D.

Talking about her forthcoming arranged marriage, the woman narrator in Divakaruni's short story "Meeting Mrinal" says to her dissenting woman friend, "Your mother got married this way and so did mine. And they're perfectly happy." The friend responds, "Yes, but our mothers didn't even complete high school. Times have changed, and so have we."

How the changing times are affecting the cherished Indian institution of arranged marriage is the theme of the 11 stories in this anthology. Most of the stories are about Indian immigrants to the U.S. from the author's native region of Bengal and are told by female narrators in the first person singular point of view, often in the present tense, imparting a voice of intimacy and cinematic credibility. The stories capture the experience of the recent immigrants, mainly from the professional classes, electronic engineers and business people, and some from the lower working classes such as auto-mechanics and 7-eleven store clerks.

In "Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs," Jayanti, the narrator, comes to Chicago to stay with her aunt before beginning her graduate studies at an American university. When she last saw her aunt, Jayanti was only eight- years-old. The occasion was the aunt's arranged marriage in Calcutta with an Indian emigrant who the matchmaker had assured her family was the owner of an automobile empire in America. On arrival, Jayanti discovers that the man runs only a small auto-repair garage and the couple live in a dingy apartment in an undesirable part of the city. The aunt welcomes her warmly and at Jayanti's insistence both go out for a stroll in the neighborhood, which the aunt had long been forbidden to do by her husband. They are accosted by a gang of four white pre-teenage boys, shouting "nigger" and throwing slush at them. Badly shaken the two women find their way home. "Now the others take up the word, chanting it in high singsong voices that have not broken yet, nigger, nigger, until I want to scream, or weep. Or laugh, because can't they see that I'm not black at all but an Indian girl of good family? When our chauffeur Gurbans Singh drives me down the Calcutta streets in our silver-colored Fiat, people stop to whisper, Isn't that Jayanti Ganguli, daughter of the Bhavanipur Gangulis."

This is reminiscent of novelist Bharati Mukherjee's statement in a published interview: "I am less shocked, less outraged and shaken to my core, by a purse snatching in New York City in which I lost all of my dowry gold -- everything I'd been given by my mother in marriage -- than I was by a simple question asked of me in the summer of 1978 by three high-school boys on the Rosedale subway station platform in Toronto. Their question was, 'Why don't you go back to Africa?' "

The changing times -- the immigration -- made the arranged marriage without the customary verifications possible between the working-class impostor and Jayanti's upper-class aunt and also brought the couple into an extremely hostile social environment. Although the social environment that the Indian immigrants from the upper social classes to the U.S. come to is not overtly noxious, it exacts a poignant psychic cost -- by challenging their traditional self-concept as integral parts of an extended Indian family and pushing them instead into the American mold of autonomous individualism.

This psychological struggle is the focus of several stories. Mahesh, the narrator's husband, in "Meeting Mrinal," is struggling to leave her for his red-haired ex-secretary, Jessica, after a 20-year marriage (which initially had been of course an arranged marriage), a 17-year-old son, and a plush home in Silicon Valley: "I asked him again which outfit he wanted me to wear. 'I don't care,' he replied in a voice that didn't sound like his. 'I can't take this anymore, Asha.' All his life, he told me then he'd been doing what other people wanted, being a dutiful son, then a responsible husband and father. Now he'd finally found someone who made him feel alive, happy. He wanted the chance to really live his life before it was too late. ... 'Haven't you been happy with us, ever?' I'd asked my voice even. 'I thought I had,' Mahesh had said. 'I hadn't known what real happiness was then.'"

In "Affair," two temperamentally ill-matched Indo-American couples, whose marriages had been arranged on the basis of their horoscopes having matched "perfectly," divorce after many years of affluent living in Silicon Valley. For two months before Meena, a burgeoning and buoyant socialite, and Srikant, a nerd who gives his computer an adoring feminine name Lalita, split, Meena has been having an affair with a middle-aged Euro-American man in her office. Says the narrator, Abha, about Meena: "Perhaps it was because, in spite of her worldliness, Meena understood our Indian friends far less than I did. The men, for example, even the ones clustered around her, laughing at her jokes, they too would have things to say about her in the privacy of the men's room, things followed by winks and lewd, derisive laughter. For in spite of their Bill Blass suits and alligator-skin shoes and the sleek Benzes that waited obediently for them in the parking lots, they still belonged to the villages of their fathers. Villages where a woman caught in adultery was made to ride around the market square on a donkey, her head shaved, her clothes stripped off her, while crowds jeered and pelted her with garbage."

"Affair" an engrossing, 10,000-word story fully displays Divakaruni's narrative skills and keen psychological insights. The anthology Arranged Marriage marks the debut of a major writer of the Indo-American immigrant experience.

Dr. C.J.S. Wallia teaches in the Writing Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
Phone: 510-848-8200
Address: 216 Dwinelle Annex, U. C., Berkeley, CA 94720

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