Navigating the marriage minefield: Interview with The Ladies Finger

(A shorter version of this appeared in The Ladies Finger. This interview was done by Shruthi Padmanabhan, whose awesome blog can be found here.)

Take us through the process of how you found the women to be featured in this book. Any reason for them to remain anonymous?

I was looking for women who fit specific blocks in a grid within the broad description of “urban, educated, and modern”. I wanted people from across the country, across religions, and also who were in various stages of marriage – looking for a husband, newly-married, women with children, and divorced. Then, I wanted to speak to artistes, such as dancers, singers, and writers, whose professions and eccentricities and, umm, special needs the families they marry into will have to accommodate. And then there’s the other side – women who will need to accommodate their spouses’ professions – and this is why I’ve spoken to a woman married to an army officer, and one who is married to a mridangist. I wanted to look at both happy and unhappy marriages, and also issues like moving abroad after marriage, marrying across cultures, dealing with infertility, and whether there is such a thing as the right age to marry. Mother of god, I sound like a crazy scientist scouting for lab rats, no? Anyway, fortunately, I’ve worked in several industries across the country, so I knew quite a lot of these women personally. Then, I started asking around for women who fit the categories I hadn’t found yet.

There were two reasons for most to go with pseudonyms – one is that, however happy a marriage is, it is private. I was asking intrusive questions about intimate issues. Even if they were comfortable talking about these things, or all right with their friends knowing who they were, I don’t think anyone wants parents and in-laws knowing about their sex lives or fights or coping mechanisms or exes. Also, many of these women are my friends, who trust me, and who may forget that these stories are going to be published, even when I’m carrying a recorder, because they’re so used to discussing their personal lives with me. I showed them their stories before publication, but I was aware that seeing an email from me would be different from seeing the content of that email in a book on a shelf. In the cases of marriages that are turbulent or have ended, the husbands were not consulted, and so it was important for their identity to be protected. Even so, some of my interviewees did use their real names.

Have  you met some of these couples? And what were your impressions of them? Did you, as an outsider, think “They're great together”?

I know some of these couples very well – I’ve met some even before marriage. There are those whom I haven’t met yet as a couple, and then there are those whom I met after the book came out. In some cases, I forgot that they had had arranged marriages because they fit so well together. In fact, with one of those couples that are so lovely together now, I remember attending their engagement and thinking, ‘They’re just so awkward with each other, how on earth are they going to live together?!’ But not all of them are straight out of Mills and Boon, you know. Some are still getting used to each other. With some, you can see that they’ve made adjustments. And, yes, there are some where the matchmaking has brought together a square peg and a round hole, and it’s obvious even to an outsider that they are barely able to tolerate each other.

A recurring theme is “the past” and this is an issue not just for married couples but for couples generally. I think except for the first relationship, every other romance in one's life has to go through this “can s/he handle my past” phase. Where do you stand on this issue?

It’s very hard to take a stand on this issue. It depends on you, your partner, your dynamic, and also the sort of relationship each of you has with your exes. If you’re not in touch with any of your exes, and don’t have any residual feelings for them (which is a tricky subject), maybe it’s all right to be open about it. But I think, broadly, it’s something of a Pandora’s Box. I doubt that anyone can handle one’s partner’s past well. At the most, we pretend we’re absolutely cool with everything, while hiding our insecurities and jealousies, and the fact that we’re constantly making comparisons, not just between us and them, but how our partners feel about us vis-à-vis how they felt about them. Aaaaargh! Maybe relationships work best when everything is on a need-to-know basis. That said, it’s not going to make your life easier if your ex decides to move in next door, and your partner has no clue.

At any point in writing this book, were you ever afraid that it might all read like a collection of 'samestories' gathered under one roof?

No. Is that the feeling you get? (Oh, dear!) I know most of these women very well, and while all of them are intelligent, and many of them are wilful, they have very different attitudes and outlooks. If I could meet Leo Tolstoy, I would tell him that was a very nice line, but he’s wrong – no two happy families are alike either. They may relate to each other’s happiness, just as unhappy families may relate to each other’s unhappiness; but they are not alike.

Each story has focussed on one aspect of finding a spouse and marrying him and the marriage thereafter and I keep running into bits of my own marriage in other stories. Was it a conscious decision to piece the book together like this?

Yeah, it’s all come together quite nicely, no? (Laughs) No, it wasn’t a conscious decision, really. The only part I assiduously planned was the sort of profiles I was looking at. And then, it worked like an algorithm (with a super-intelligent computer). It simply turned out that with each woman’s – and man’s – story, one aspect of the spouse-hunting took precedence, at least in their memories. I myself found that I could relate to a lot of their stories. I’ve never been married, of course, but things they said took me back to aspects of the relationships I’ve had. And then I thought, ‘It would be awesome if everyone can relate to this’. So, you’ve basically validated that wishful thinking. Consider this a verbal smiley.

There was one word that stood out in the entire book – train. It somehow made the whole process seem clinical, void of any kind of emotionality. Did you keep that in the book conscious of how it will read?

When the woman you’re referring to spoke the sentence – “You need to train your man like a dog with potential” – she said it in jest. When you put it the way you do, though, I see that it may have dark undertones, and sound cynical. I suppose that’s the problem with having just the words on the page, without the entire context that her face and voice would provide. I kept it in the book because I loved the sentence and her explanation for it – “See, I grew up with dogs. And the thing is, as long as they’re intelligent, you can train them. And because they’re intelligent, and so satisfied in their intelligence, they won’t realise they’re being trained. The key is to make them think they’re doing what you want them to out of their own accord.” She is hilarious, and says this sort of thing in front of her husband, who usually responds with a shake of the head or, you know, this long-suffering sigh. If I were to carry the simile further, I wouldn’t say training a dog, or even a baby, is void of emotionality, or even clinical. I think it’s quite cute how you can fool the brightest of kids and the brightest of dogs and the brightest of men, and yeah, the brightest of women too, into thinking they came up with something that you actually did.

Tell us a little bit about the stories themselves – why did you use so much variation – there's simple narrations of how they met and married, there are more nuanced tellings of life not having gone to plan – what was on your mind when you were writing these stories and piecing it all together?

A lot of these stories were in the women’s own words. My writing process is not that organised, you know. Sometimes, it’s whimsical. It depends on how I’m feeling at the time. So, the simpler narrations were inspired by less intense stories, and probably written when I was feeling light and happy, or in the sort of mood I’m in when these witticisms and tongue-in-cheek statements sort of roll out of my head. With the stories where life hasn’t quite gone to plan, I was drawn into a more melancholy and reflective mood. When I finally brought all of them together, I also had to pick out bits that each of my interviewees had said, which would go into the chapters that deal with particular aspects of marriage, such as living with in-laws, or changing names, or sharing passwords or deciding when to have children. It read all right to me, and I thought my editors would make sweeping changes and send me into depression. But they liked it, and it pretty much stayed that way.

There are women of all ages, faiths, and professions here, what did you think of interacting with such a diverse group?

Well, they all had one thing in common, and that was the socio-economic class they are from. I was curious about the extent to which the factors you mention here – age, faith, and profession – informed their choices, within the perspectives they had acquired through the way they were raised and their exposure to an urban lifestyle. While many of them might answer ‘Yes/No’ questions the same way, I found that each had very interesting insights into marriage as a whole, and this is probably because of the diversity of their labels, as it were.

The book has a “How I met my Husband” section and then divides itself into various other aspects – fights, language, culture, pasts – why did you structure the book in such a way?

Honestly, the book structured itself that way. Initially, I was planning to look at only specific aspects of a marriage, and use interviews as vox pop. But my first interviewee happened to be a divorcee. And she told her story so beautifully that I felt I was best off keeping myself out of it. With the next few people I interviewed, the same thing happened. So, the structure fell into place very organically. The book somehow became partly the stories of the women I spoke to, and partly what I had once intended to be the whole book – chapters on issues that come up in an arranged marriage. The ‘How I Met my Husband’ part also satisfies a certain voyeurism in all of us. Well, in me, at least. I like that sentence. I think I’m going to use it more often and pretend I knew exactly what I was doing all along – the voyeurism and then the self-help part.

You have also spoken to men and I found their confessions more candid – the words loo and gastric effluents come to mind. Why do you think this is?

For the same reason that men think it’s okay to, umm, spew gastric effluents in public, I suppose, while women pretend that having-to-go-to-the-loo is something that happens to other people. Generally speaking, men are just naturally less diplomatic and less worried about what others may think. Well, to be fair to them, I think they thought as much about marriage and the relationships they were getting into as the women did. Their turn of phrase makes it seem more light-hearted. Some are very close friends of mine. I’ve known the guy who speaks about the loo and gastric effluents for more than a decade now. And he says these things which sound hilarious, but are actually quite true. Another of my male interviewees was raised in the US, and he’s quite outspoken about what he likes and what he wants and what he doesn’t, and says as much in the book. He puts it down to the American way.

You've also featured your friends in this book, did you, at any point, think that it might dilute the objectivity of the narration?

I think objectivity is overrated. I wonder if it actually exists, because even your objectivity is gauged by someone’s subjectivity, no? God, I sound like a teenager on dope who’s just discovered Jack Kerouac. See, the only way you can be objective is to be duller than an NCERT textbook, and that’s the last thing I wanted. I think subjectivity makes things interesting. Some of the women I know were very open about their stories, and some jazzed them up a bit, I think, and some highlighted the better or worse aspects of their lives. So, it brought two levels of subjectivity into it – theirs and mine, which is obliquely reflected in the way I write about them, or the things I write immediately after putting down their stories.

Share one of your horror stories with us – who he was, what he said wrong, and why you almost murdered someone after having met him?

Well, I didn’t meet any of them, really. I only had four arranged-arranged long-distance encounters. And then there was this one guy whom I ran into at work, who said he was in love with me after three conversations about business, and I asked him to talk to my parents. That’s the sort of stupid thing 22-year-olds do. Thankfully, I moved cities almost immediately after, so that became long-distance too, and allowed me to discover he was a psycho on the loose. As for the four, I didn’t interact with two – I called them Toad and One-and-a-Half-Eyes, based on their photographs, and asked my mum if she would honestly like to see those wedding photographs and then the mutant babies. Another guy was nice enough, but we had absolutely no common interests, and wanted completely different things from life. My horror story would have to do with the one whom I stored on my phone as ‘Vijayakanth Lookalike’. His parents were sensible enough to not send me the photograph till my mum gave them my number. First, he’d plastered powder all over his neck. And he was wearing a blue silk shirt. And a porn-star moustache. I couldn’t bring myself to answer his first call. Then he texted, saying, ‘Hai. Plz tel ur convenient time. I shall cal u then.’ I called my mum (I was living in Delhi at the time) and said I’m turning lesbian. She asked me to be polite, call him and finish it off. Her exact words were, I think, “You’re a writer, di. Come up with some creative, believable lie and make him decide you’re incompatible, no?” I couldn’t bring myself to text, so I called Vijayakanth Lookalike back. He didn’t pick up, and texted saying, ‘Hai, sry, I’m gymming. Wil cal in 10 mts if dat’s ok wt u.’ Fail only. So, he called and asked, “So, you’re enjoying in Delhi-aa? I use to louwe Delhi.” He asked me if I read, and then said, “I’m a woracious reader.” I said, “I read, yes.” He asked, “What are you reading, actually? I’m a big fan of Taam Clancy. But my all time fawourite book is Alchemist.” I overcame my seizures, and managed to say, “Well, I’ve been reading Orhan Pamuk lately.” “Sorry, yaar?” he went. So, I repeated, “I said I’ve been reading Orhan Pamuk.” He said – wait for it – “Oh, I’ve never heard of that book.” Khatam. Khallas. Need I say more?

Why is your first full-length book non-fiction?

Well, after finishing some really terrible teeny-bopper books that make me recoil twice over now, I started writing a novel. It was a satire on marriage in the Tam Brahm community. I was telling Meru Gokhale, the Editorial Director of Vintage Books India, about it when I met her at a book launch. I’d just casually mentioned it. I was still plodding along with the novel, when she had this idea for a non-fiction book on arranged marriage among cosmopolitan Indian women. She asked me if I would like to write it, since I was already thinking about the subject, and I was quite thrilled – aside from the fact that she has been the editor for almost all my favourite writers, I saw that this would be my big chance to avenge the arranged marriage market ordeal I’d been put through. I put the novel on hold to write this book. Now, I’ve got three other ideas for novels, and I think I’ll do one of those first, before I become the person you go to for a quick sound bite on marriage. Your equivalent of Carrie Bradshaw for sex, if you will. Wait, you didn’t ask me what’s next. I should stop plugging myself like this.

After having gone through several 'fail' matchmaking attempts, and after having met and interviewed the women in this book, where do you stand on the new-age arranged marriage process?

You know, at some point, I realised that my idea of a perfect man would look like Arjun Rampal, write like Vikram Seth, have Jerry Seinfeld’s sense of comic timing, and behave like Kishore Kumar in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (with the vocal acrobatics and finesse too, naturally). God, I start dancing every time I listen to, “Ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si.” Anyway, problem is, none of them is Tam Brahm. I think, for all its pretensions of modernity, the arranged marriage process has several antiquated parameters. The worst of these are caste confines and this obsession with horoscope-matching. Of course, two women feature in Hitched who broke both norms. But that’s not usually how it works. I didn’t see myself having an arranged marriage, ever, and it was something I half-heartedly allowed myself to be talked into between boyfriends. It isn’t for everybody. I think one really needs to decide whether an arranged marriage will suit one, based on what one wants from life. I’m not ‘between boyfriends’ right now, so I’ve sort of distanced myself again. Also, I’m 29 now, and even if I stay 29 for as long as Sridevi stayed 49, I think I’m pretty ineligible in the arranged marriage market.

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