Interview with Asian Age: ‘A fresh perspective on marriage’

(This is the full-text of an email interview, which was used for this article in The Asian Age)

How would you describe your book in a few words?

Hitched is a non-fiction book on young, urban, educated women from across India, belonging to various religions, and working in different professions, who have chosen to have arranged marriages.

What made you want to write a book on arranged marriages? Is it autobiographical in any way?

Well, before I started working on Hitched, I was writing a novel on marriage, and the pressure society puts on young people to get married. The impulse that drove it drew from personal experience, but the novel was not autobiographical. But Hitched was commissioned by Random House. It’s non-fiction, and I’ve written about personal experiences in it – some are my own, and some are those of my interviewees. I loved the idea of doing the book because I was curious about modern arranged marriages.

How difficult was it to find a middle ground, balance out the happy stories and the sad ones?

I wasn’t consciously trying to find a middle ground or balance the stories. I wanted to look at whether arranged marriages are relevant, and whether they make sense in today’s India. I think the overall tone of the book happened to be positive, because people are more transparent about the sort of life they are looking for, and the honesty keeps most relationships healthy. There are, of course, some truly depressing accounts too.

Did you conceptualise the book with an idea of the kind of people whom you are going to talk to? And also a definitive structure of your book – was it pre-decided or did you mould the book according to the people you spoke to?

Yes, I conceptualised it with the idea that I needed to speak to people belonging to a certain grid – women from largely liberal families, who are well-educated, but from different demographic groups in terms of ethnicity and religion.  I wanted people who had been married within the last ten years, ideally. And I wanted people at different stages of marriage, who had done different things. As for the structure, the book fell into place as I spoke to more and more people. I’d initially planned to look only at the issues that crop up in an arranged marriage, but the temptation to include personal narratives from my interviewees changed that idea.

Do you think it was easier for you, as a journalist to meet more people and help them narrate their experiences better?

I think any interview is a matter of trust and empathy. If people trust you and feel like being honest with you, they will be. Obviously, one has to reciprocate it by being ethical. I made sure my interviewees knew exactly what was going into the book. I suppose these are the same traits that journalists should ideally have too. I knew a lot of these people because I’ve worked in several industries across the country. With the people I didn’t know, I made sure they knew they could trust me, and knew they could withdraw any statement at any point. My interviewees are all very intelligent, coherent people, so I think they naturally narrated their experiences well.

What is that one reason, do you think, that even in the present day and age men and women still choose marry the arranged way?

Not everyone falls in love. Not everyone has a relationship that makes them sure that they can spend the rest of their lives with a particular partner. I don’t think arranged marriages are obsolete. There is a lot of leeway now, and parents usually respect the decisions of the couple. I think people go in with a sort of what’s-the-harm attitude, and often find matches. Maybe the driving forces are age, the need for companionship, the fact that younger siblings are waiting to get married too, and so on.

What are the changes you observed in the arrange marriage scenario while researching on the book? Are women given the freedom to choose? Has the groom’s family learned to move beyond the “convent educated, fair and beautiful” stereotype?

Yes, I think men and women are given a lot of freedom to choose, in the socioeconomic class that I’m looking at. Marriages and the process of spouse-hunting is constantly evolving. To answer the second part of your question, let’s face it, everyone would like a good-looking partner, and many women want attractive husbands too. But I think the stereotypical requirements are changing, both for men and women. Let’s not forget that a lot of brides’ families have also been asking for “US-settled” grooms, or men earning a certain minimum salary. I think this, as well as the “convent-educated, fair and beautiful” tag are becoming less important than compatibility.

Were the experiences of women and men any different from what you had thought them to be, when you had started out with the idea?

I can’t say I’m a stranger to arranged marriages, since several of my cousins and friends did take the arranged route, and I’ve known how their relationships worked. The idea that did change in the course of writing this book was my perception that arranged marriages are, by definition, a last resort. I came round to thinking of it as one possible avenue to meet a partner – but, of course, it has its restrictions.

What do you personally like about arranged marriages and what irks you about them?

I suppose I like how pragmatic they are, and how well most people in the urban, modern set-up who enter arranged marriages seem to know themselves. What irks me about them is the narrow-minded approach with regard to horoscopes and the caste system, and the fact that there’s so much pressure that people are not allowed to be themselves. They have to act in a certain way that’s considered eligible. And they never have enough time to make up their minds.

Semi-fiction, as a genre, is really picking up in the country. What do you think is the reason?

My book is non-fiction, not semi-fiction. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘semi-fiction as a genre picking up in this country’.

Being a woman, how difficult was it to lend an unbiased take to the idea of arranged marriages?

That’s a loaded question. No, it wasn’t difficult to be unbiased, because the biases come from my interviewees as much as from myself. And having a large number of accounts is bound to cover several perspectives. I don’t think being a woman has anything to do with bias. If you’re speaking about point of view, the book is called The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage, so the views are tilted mostly towards women.

What are your future plans? Another semi fictional book maybe?

Again, this is a work of non-fiction, not semi-fiction, so it won’t be “another semi-fictional book”. I have three novels and two more non-fiction works in mind right now.

 

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