‘Men are a lot worse off in the arranged marriage market’

(A shorter version of this interview was carried on Sify.com: http://www.sify.com/news/men-are-a-lot-worse-off-in-the-arranged-marriage-market-imagegallery-0-features-nj1hw7jihej.html)

After so many conversations, what did you learn about the institution of arranged marriage?

Essentially, that people care enough about the institution for me to make a profit from writing about it. If you want a less mercenary answer, well, whatever I learnt is in the book, really – obviously, the women whom I spoke to each had different sorts of cultural identities and upbringings; so, while they may have agreed with each other on the broad general issues that come up in an arranged marriage, each had her own distinct wish list, and her own way of dealing with problems and differences.

I think I would sum up my main takeaway as this – it’s best to get into an arranged marriage having some idea of what one wants from life and from marriage, and also of what one would do if things don’t quite work out that way.

It’s also an institution that will never really wind down, I think. If you look at what these wedding portals have evolved into, it’s not a whole lot different from the dating websites in the West. I know of people who met on Shaadi.com or Bharat Matrimony, and went on to talk to each other for months before deciding to get married (or to break up).

And though some of us think that this eternal craving that old people and middle-aged people and everyone else appears to have, to see us all married and multiplying, will die with them, I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, I don’t think that will die with their generation. All my married friends want to know when everyone else is getting married, or why someone is not getting married, or whether someone has intentions of ever being married. They’re often “worried” about their younger siblings not having got married yet. Several of them, even those younger than I or not much older than I, call me “dear” and advise me and all other unmarried vagabonds like me on the things we’re missing out on.

How open were the conversations you had for the book? Were they comfortable discussing their marriage for a published work?

Oh, very open. I think I was more squeamish than a lot of my interviewees, because I tend to be very protective of my private life and assumed they would be of theirs. I discussed the issue of using pseudonyms with my publishers even before starting work on the book, and they were fine with it, because it doesn’t really matter – they just asked that the names the interviewees go with give the reader some indication of where they’re from, and what socio-cultural markers they carry.

So, when I told my interviewees they had the option of not using their real names, they lost their reserve. Some of them were fine with using their actual names, and so were their spouses. Most opted to change them. Of course, within their circles, people may guess who they are. But then, there’s no proof, and there’s no way in-laws will be able to march up to them with the book in hand. It’s also a good way of making sure their spouses aren’t embarrassed or annoyed by the whole thing. Interestingly, many of them chose to use names that they had some sort of affiliation with – either a pet name, or name of a close friend, or pseudonyms they had used before, or derivations from the names of people they had crushes on.

People’s willingness to talk so openly about their marriages did surprise me, despite the fact that the names were going to be changed – because, I at least, would know their identities. In fact, several people volunteered to speak to me when I casually mentioned that I was working on such a book. It’s nice to think that people trust you enough to tell you the truth. But, to be honest, there was one interviewee whom I knew was fictionalising her account, and I ended up not using it.

Five quick tips for people entering an arranged marriage based on these conversations?

Why, so they can avoid buying the book? I’ve got only one tip – “Read the book”. I get royalty on every copy sold. And it’s bad enough that in this country, some twenty people will share one copy. I’m not giving tips and all in an interview that’s available for free, ya. Anyway, I’m not the one giving tips in the book – it’s women with varied kinds of experience, and they speak about everything from sex to IIM. That’s as good a sales pitch as I can make.

Which one was your favorite story?

I have several favourites, and I chose them mainly because I was already familiar with them – a lot of my interviewees are also friends of mine. But then, if I had to pick one, I think I would go with Zainab Haider’s and Vaidehi Raman’s.

The first because, as a journalist who read it pointed out, it sort of breaks the mould of what we expect from a Muslim arranged marriage. Let’s face it, we all tend to associate arranged marriage with a conservative outlook, and conservatism among Muslims with the subjugation of women. Zainab’s marriage is interesting to me because both she and her husband have made an effort to accommodate each other’s careers all through – she was willing to move from Delhi to a small town after marriage, and then her husband made an effort to get a job in Delhi so that she could resume her work in television. Again, he was promoted and had to shift to a city with no opportunities in journalism for her. Eventually, she moved back alone to Delhi with the children, and he would visit every couple of weeks. Finally, he got a transfer to Bombay, and she relocated there. I think their marriage works as well as it does because of how considerate they are of each other, both in terms of personal and professional growth. And they’re both willing to make the effort.

I find Vaidehi Raman’s story inspiring because she continues to survive in a bad marriage. I’ve spoken to some women who have walked out of them, and some women who have found coping mechanisms or given their husbands ultimatums. Since you’ve read the book, you know that she didn’t have these options. Many readers told me that they were very disturbed by her story, because every other narrative has a distinct finish – hers ends like, she’s still there, in that marriage. That takes a lot of strength.

You have stayed away from the darker side of marriage in India – dowry, societal and family pressure, murders.  Any particular reason?

I haven’t stayed away from dowry or societal and family pressure. In fact, there is a chapter called ‘The many disguises of dowry’, in which I also speak about a groom’s family openly demanding gold. If you’re speaking about dowry-related deaths, that’s different. And I don’t think it’s relevant to the particular class of women I’m talking about – who are from not just middle-class, but mostly upper middle-class families, and mostly liberal families too. Of course, you can argue that not all upper middle-class families are liberal, and you’re right – but then they wouldn’t count as modern either. With dowry, in many cases, there was no direct demand made even in the previous generation. There’s a more insidious demand for ‘working women’.

Societal and family pressure is sort of a thread running through the book, I think, though there’s no chapter set aside for this. Both the unhappy marriages I speak of – Preethi Madhavan and Vaidehi Raman – put this down as a cause for their entering wedlock early. In the case of Uttara Singh Chauhan, I’ve spoken about how it was taken for granted that she be married early and to someone from her own caste because it would otherwise be difficult for her brother to make a ‘suitable’ match.

As for murders, I assume you’re referring to ‘honour killings’? I simply didn’t come across any case, and I don’t think it occurs in the stratum of society I’m looking at. When I lived in the UK, there was a spate of ‘honour killings’ in South Asian families, but I found that those had all happened in families whose patriarchs were illegal immigrants.

The sort of families I was looking at for the book would tell a khap panchayat exactly where its leaders could go stuff their decision.

Will you go for an arranged marriage?

I don’t want to answer that question for three reasons – one, because it would involve revealing my relationship status, which I don’t. Come on, we’re Facebook frands, you know that already.

Second, and now I will segue to Affronted Defensive Author mode, I’m not sure why I get asked this question so much. If I had been in a relationship already when I started working on the book, would that invalidate the credibility of the book? Or would I have to dump the poor bastard in order to move it off the shelves? On the other hand, if I had been single when I started working on the book and sporting sindoor and a baby bump and now-dormant profile on a matrimonial site around the time of its release, would it make the book more authoritative? My personal endorsement of arranged marriage really carries no value, and neither does anyone else’s. It’s a decision one has to make on one’s own.

Third, this is not an arranged marriage versus love marriage book. It looks at how arranged marriages work in a certain milieu, populated by people like us – urban, educated, westernised, pseudo-liberal and overpaid. Maybe someone who reads the book will see himself or herself in one or more of the characters. Or maybe he or she will spot his or her spouse in one or more of the characters. But even that wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, serve as recommendation for arranged marriage versus love marriage or vice versa.

Your work, as a columnist, is mostly to do with current affairs. What made you choose this topic for a book?

Like most journalists, I have the privilege of getting paid to do what everyone else in their spare time. So, I do a lot of different things that have nothing to do with each other. Everyone knows exactly how this country should be run, and cribs about how it isn’t, and that’s mostly what my columns are about. Everyone makes wisecracks during smoke breaks or a night out or a badminton game, or whatever else normal people do, and I just save most of mine up for stand-up comedy routines. Everyone watches bad movies and spews venom, and I write twice a week about why I hated whatever Rohit Shetty and his ilk imposed on the populace. So, it’s really hard to pick a topic I’m not interested in.

With arranged marriage, I was actually working on a novel about marriage pressure in general. All of us have these fat aunts or uncles or parents or grandparents who sigh and heave and gossip over what’s wrong with those of us who are not married, and how we could possibly not want their lives. Writing a non-fiction book on arranged marriage and the modern Indian woman was actually an idea that occurred to Meru Gokhale, Editorial Director of Random House. She asked me whether I would like to take it on. I’d already been thinking about the subject for the novel, and though I was hesitant to take on a non-fiction project, I got pretty excited putting down a template for it. And I honestly loved working on it.

Is there a second book in the works?

Several people have suggested that I do a prequel called Bewitched, and a sequel called Ditched. And then a book called Bitched that could look at longer marriages, or the marriages of the people who are a generation older than those featured in Hitched, those that have lasted decades. And together, they could be ‘The Itch Series’.

But, no, right now, I’m working on a novel, which is adapted from a play I wrote. And then I’ll get to work on the satire (I really need a break from thinking about marriage now, which is why I’ve put that novel on the backburner). I have another historical novel and two non-fiction books in mind.

Has there been any feedback from men regarding the book?  

Oh, yeah. The first question most of my male friends ask me when they look at the pink jacket is whether it’s available in any other colours. One said he would like to marry a girl who looked like the chick on the cover.

A gentleman I know told me it gave him an insight into what women want, and this book would perhaps be a lot more useful for men than for women.

Most empathise with one of my male interviewees, who says that for some reason, women never complete the process of understanding that belching and farting are natural processes.

The other men I know who have bought the book are waiting for their wives or sisters or mothers to finish reading it. (See, this is what I said, a lot of people share one book in this country, damnit.)

But it’s not a man-hating book. I, in fact, think men are a lot worse off in the arranged marriage market, because practically everything they do and everything they want is seen as chauvinist and sexist and all of that. Whereas a woman is perfectly within her rights in demanding that a man have a full head of hair and enough height to allow her to wear stilettos in his presence without looking like Olive Oyl.  

And whatever the inclinations of my interviewees may be, I’m not a feminist and I like gender roles because they’re so convenient. Sigh, it’s so nice when a male chauvinist insists on paying the bill and opening doors and ferrying one across town. I think feminism is the best thing that happened to men.

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