This is the transcript of Nandini Krishnan’s conversation with bestselling author Ashwin Sanghi, at the launch of the former’s first book, Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage, published by Random House India.
Ashwin Sanghi (AS): Nandini, honestly speaking, this is one of the most enlightening books that I have read, and I’m sure that it’s a book which a lot of people are going to pick up and say, “Hey, you know, I’ve been through that! The stuff that she’s talking about, it seems to resonate in some ways, in certain ways, with me”. And what I noticed is that, whether it’s horoscopes, or in-laws, or changing maiden names, or dealing with rejection, there’s virtually no angle that you’ve left out. And it seems to be more in the nature of a series of personal narratives, from a lot of different and varied individuals. The question I want to kick off with is, how has writing this book altered your own perception of marriage?
Nandini Krishnan (NK): Well, first of all, I have to say that I’m very, very flattered to hear you say that, you know, because I’ve read all your books, and I’m a big fan of your writing. So you don’t know how thrilled it makes me to hear you say that you found this book enlightening. As to your question, I don’t know how it’s altered my own perception of marriage, but I spoke to a lot of people, and now I don’t know whether I’m any clearer on whether arranged marriage is the way to go for most people, or whether the idea of arranged marriage has altered over time, but I know that it can work out either this way or that, you know. I think there are lots of factors, and all these topics that came up were not topics that I designed myself, but they came up in conversation with people, and I realised how important these are, and how everybody – I’m sure you’ve been through it, I’ve been through it – I mean, these are the things which you think of, and you’re not able to put a name on it, but you know that something is missing, or you know that something is clicking, or that some areas are not quite working out, and that some areas are. So, when I spoke to friends of mine, and friends of theirs, who have had arranged marriages, these were the issues that came up constantly. Especially with things like maiden names, because many of them are journalists or dancers or singers or writers or sportspeople, and they have a certain identity. Let’s say Sania Mirza, for instance, is known as Sania Mirza. So, would you change your name? Or, when it comes to the issue of living with in-laws, when you have two people who are working, how do you deal with it? On the one hand, having a home that is taken care of is a good thing, but what about your privacy and stuff? So, issues like that would constantly come up. And maybe it altered my perception of marriage in the sense that it chipped away at some of the romanticism of it all, and made me think of a bridal profile in terms of a job application, almost – you measure out the factors, you have a checklist, you see whether the atmosphere of the place fits in with your personality, and all of that – but the only thing is that this is a job you have for life, that you can’t leave, or at least one that you should ideally not want to leave, you know! I’ve wandered off a bit on a tangent, have I answered your question?
AS (laughs): No, the question that I want to slightly pin you down to is that every author starts with a certain set of preconceived notions about the topic that they are covering. And the question really was, did some of those preconceived notions change during the process of writing this book? Was there some reformation, was there some catharsis, was there some transformation in yourself, as a result of having heard and written these stories. So I was wondering whether you could address that.
NK: Oh, okay, yeah. There certainly was a transformation, in the sense that I had always thought of arranged marriages as an unpleasant thing, or as a last resort, or as something that I would not prefer. But when I spoke to friends who have had arranged marriages, I would often wonder about this point, that you can’t figure out whether it’s a love marriage or an arranged marriage when it’s working. And you see people who fit so well together, and then you figure out that they met looking at all these criteria, and it doesn’t seem like that. I think my notion of arranged marriages has become a little more romantic in that sense, and I’ve realised there can be love in an arranged marriage.
AS (laughs): Yeah? Interesting. You know, I think it was the Canadian playwright Raymond Hull who said “All marriages are happy; it’s the living together afterwards that causes all the trouble”. What’s your view on this, after having heard the accounts of so many different individuals regarding their own personal narratives around marriage? Would you agree or disagree with that?
NK: Well, I think it really depends on the individual, you know. I think some people know for sure what they want, what they’re looking for, and what kind of partner they would be happy with. So, the people who go in with that conscious decision, that they want to get married and they want to settle down, I think they are happy anyway. But then people who are maybe emotionally blackmailed into marriage, I think they are unhappy in any marriage. So, I think it depends on the person, and how well these individuals know themselves.
AS: I would seem to second that view. That comes across quite clearly from the wide-ranging personal narratives which form almost mini-chapters within your book. Let me then ask you that question which is almost timeless – love marriage or arranged marriage, which one is better? Or do all marriages lie somewhere in between? Is there no thing any longer like a purely love marriage, or purely arranged marriage? Are all marriages a hybrid that lie somewhere in the continuum between these two extremes?
NK: I think you’ve put that so well I don’t know how I can top your own answer to that question! Because you see couples, and sometimes, let’s say they’re college sweethearts, you wonder what drew them together – was it physical attraction, or did they get along because they figured out they had the same interests, and would hit it off as a couple? And in that case, can you say "love is blind", because you're obviously aware that you're getting along with this person for some reason? So many of your friends may have that same sync with you. And sometimes, you find that you’ve been friends with someone for 4-5 years, and then maybe when both of you are single at the same time, you feel suddenly drawn towards each other in a different way. Where does that come from? And again, with arranged marriages, people say they felt something click, or they are just comfortable with each other. Or they tick off factors in a list, and they approach the whole thing pragmatically, but then they find that they really care about each other, that they are attracted to each other, that they eventually love each other. What induces that change in their dynamic? So, I think, as you put it so beautifully, both lie somewhere in that continuum between extremes, where neither is purely love and neither is purely arranged.
AS: I understand where you’re coming from. In fact, that idea comes through very clearly in your book – the way I see it, all marriages nowadays seem to be hybrids, and are a mixture of those two elements to a greater or lesser degree. And that comes across quite beautifully as a result of the personal narratives of so many individuals, who have had very, very different and very, very unique experiences. One thing that did come to my mind – I noticed that except for one particular chapter which talked about the other side, which was the male perspective, all the other chapters in the book revolved mainly around the female perspective. Was that a deliberate choice on your part, or was it something unintentional, that you basically happened to have more female friends from whom you could gather narratives? Or was it something that you simply wanted to tell the female side of the story, and use the male perspective as almost an aside?
NK: Yes, it was a deliberate decision to use the male perspective as an aside. It was meant to be from a woman’s perspective. I’d had initial discussions with Meru Gokhale of Random House, and I think maybe there’s another book in the pipeline which addresses the concerns of men and has the woman’s perspective as an aside. (Laughs) But this is mainly intended at bringing out the woman’s perspective.
AS: Mind you, even from the woman’s perspectives that you read, their stories, the male perspective does come through in certain respects, and the last chapter does try to adjust that. But, yeah, I seem to agree with you that there’s probably another book around the corner, and probably the two books together will give you a 360-degree view of marriage as an institution. Well, so, I remember there was one interesting chapter – I can’t recall exactly what it was called, but it had something to do with horror stories – and it dealt with rather terrible or humiliating experiences that people had had, and I was keen to know from you whether there were bits of stories that you actually left out? Sometimes, what is more interesting than what was in the book is what is not part of the book. So, were there stories about which you felt either that they were too depressing, or that for some reason you had to leave them out of your narrative? I was just wondering what remained outside the book.
NK: Ah, ok. I think the most entertaining stories, I did put in there. And a lot of these people are happily married now, you know, so the stories they told me were fun – or they may have been depressing when they happened then, but when they look back at them now, from their happily-married-homes where they live with the right man, they do seem funny in retrospect. There was only one story which an interviewee didn’t want me to put in under her name, because she said, “My mother’s going to read this book, and I don’t want her to know about this!” But, yeah, she’d met some guy who started asking her her opinion on premarital sex, and it was their first meeting, and she was like, “Oh, no, what’s happening, what is he meeting me for?” That’s the only one that comes immediately to mind.
AS: I understand. You know, one thing I did realise from a reading of your book was that, while in India, we talk much more openly about arranged marriage as an institution, in the West, you do have models which border on that – in the sense, internet matchmaking, or speed-dating, border on arranging a match, or hitching a person to someone else. Do you think that the Eastern and Western concepts are comparable? Do you think there’s any meeting ground there?
NK: Absolutely. I just did an interview, in fact, where someone asked me whether I think arranged marriages are regressive, and whether we should not be going more towards the West, and I said, I think just like with spirituality, the West seems to be moving more towards the East when it comes to arranged marriages. Because how is a dating website that different from a wedding portal, except for the fact that if you’ve met someone through a dating website in the US or UK, you probably wouldn’t want to bring up marriage right away? But I think eventually everyone hopes to find the right person and settle down. So, maybe it’s a bit slower as a process, as compared to shaadi.com or Bharat Matrimony, or any of the matchmaking websites, but I think you’ve got it absolutely right – there’s a hybrid happening there as well, and we are also moving back a little bit from top gear, you know. Like I know someone who spoke to a man for eight months before they decided to get married. That’s practically a relationship, right?
AS: Interesting, very interesting. Tell me something – I recall reading one particular chapter in your book, which really sort of stood out for me, because it typified the conflict between traditional, conservative customs and the modern, contemporary outlook, and that was about a couple that wanted to get married, but their horoscopes didn’t match. I found that extremely fascinating. That was one of my favourite chapters in the book, in fact. And I was wondering, do you see this conflict playing out, or do you think that there’s a rift here? Because, there’s a part of India that is moving forward very rapidly, in terms of technology, in terms of education, in terms of outlook, in terms of nuclear families, in terms of urbanisation, and then there’s this entire traditional side of us that says “Hey, look, in case the nakshatra doesn’t match, or in case the girl is from this particular nakshatra, or uske mool raashi mein there is something wrong, then we honestly can’t allow the boy and girl to get hitched!” Do you see this rift becoming narrower or wider, as we progress?
NK: I think the rift is becoming wider, because there are people who…you know, there was this one person whose story I didn’t include in the Horror Stories chapter, because it’s not really a horror story, it's just a frustrating one – but, anyway, I do know of one case where the people would have got along quite well, they liked each other on paper, seemed similar enough, but the prospective mother-in-law said “I want to see the horoscope first. If it were a love marriage, I wouldn’t bother. But since we’re going through the arranged route, I want to check the horoscopes.” And it seemed quite crazy to me, because if it doesn’t matter if it’s a love marriage, why does it matter if it’s an arranged marriage? And these people could have made a good couple. And they both are still unmarried, and they liked each other from what they saw of their Facebook profiles. But they weren’t even allowed to meet. So I think when you have that sort of rigid conservatism, it would take a lot for somebody to say “Okay, I’m not listening to my mother. I am going to meet this girl.”
AS: Yeah. I was just wondering, Nandini, and you don’t have to answer this if you feel uncomfortable about it, but I was wondering, among the various narratives that you covered, why did you leave out your own? Or did you think your own narrative wasn’t interesting or exciting enough? Or was that again a deliberate choice, that you’re simply a medium to get other people’s stories out there, but your own story will not be covered?
NK (laughs): Oh! Well, I think there are bits and pieces of my story scattered in the book, but I haven’t had the most exciting arranged marriage story at all, you know. I mean, first of all, I wasn’t brought up to believe that I would only have an arranged marriage, so I would date people, and I do date people. And my mum’s pretty cool about it, so she was always in the know when a relationship had started or ended, or was in some stage of disintegration. So, every time that happened, she would say, “Should I look?” and I would say, “Well…why not?” (Shrugs) So it was a very casual approach (Laughs). So I think there was nothing that was dramatic enough or exciting enough to merit a chapter in itself…Maybe if there’s a future edition and I do have an arranged marriage – or if I don’t – I can put in a chapter speaking about my own life.
AS (laughs): Nice! We will all look forward to that, Nandini. You know, there’s an old American proverb which says, “The most dangerous food that you can possibly eat is wedding cake”. And I was just wondering what your view on that is, after speaking to so many people who have had happy marriages, not-so-happy marriages, arranged marriages, love marriages, and people who have decided to make their marriages work, and even people who have walked away. Now, based on all these stories, do you think wedding cake is really that dangerous?
NK: It depends on who’s baking it, I think!
But, your question about wedding cake reminds me of other dangers involving wedding food, you know. Especially where I come from, and I’m Tam Brahm, sometimes I walk in and these dining halls look like soup kitchens, where you’re sitting in a row and people are dumping food on your plate. And then sometimes there’s a queue, and people are standing and willing other people to finish and go off. It’s like those restaurants where you really need to struggle to get a place. So, the first thing everyone across India seems to ask about weddings is, “When will you get to eat at your wedding?” I know of this in Bengali, Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil, and of course, our Indian English. So, clearly everyone is very interested in eating the wedding cake, dangerous or not. I suppose you have to queue up for it early enough!
AS: Based upon the large number of people that you’ve met, have you come to the conclusion that there is something like chemistry, or do you think it’s an overrated concept?
NK: I don’t know. I’ve often wondered about this, because even in relationships, you know, I wonder where the chemistry comes from. Because, some people you date and you immediately know there’s a spark. Or, even if you’re not dating, you sometimes feel a spark – even if it’s somebody who is, let’s say, not available because he’s dating someone else or because it would be a doomed relationship for some other reason, you do feel a kind of immediate attraction to some people. And then there are other relationships, where one person is really into the other and the other thinks, “Oh, well, okay, no harm in giving a shot”, and then somehow they find a spark. I guess with arranged marriages too, some couples hit it off immediately, and the others go by the concept that between any man and woman, there can be chemistry. I would go with the latter idea, that any two people can get attracted to each other, and more so if they get along on an intellectual level, or in terms of their perspectives on various issues. And so I do think the idea of chemistry is overrated.
AS: I would imagine that we need to wind up our chat now, and move on to some questions from our audience.
(The following questions were sent in to Flipkart from the audience and moderated by Caroline Newbury, VP of Marketing and Publicity for Random House India.)
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: How were your approached to write this book, and did you have to do something to prove that you were the best person to write it?
NK: I think I had major doubts about whether I was the best person to write it. It was a commissioned book. I had basically been working on a novel which is a satire on arranged marriage within my community, within the Tam Brahm community. And I’d been speaking to Meru Gokhale of Random House about this. And she said, you know, why don’t you write a serious book on arranged marriage, because it is a crucial issue? So, you know, speak to people who have had arranged marriages and write a non-fiction book on the subject for women in India. So I said, but how am I qualified to write it, because I haven’t had an arranged marriage, what do I do, I’m not even married. And she said, well, figure out, make a plan, draw up a template, and we’ll see. So, then, I thought about how a lot of my friends have actually had arranged marriages – many of them have had relationships before that, and then they decided that it was better to go in for arranged marriages. And many of them are very happy. Some of them have had to walk out of marriages, and they’ve either found other people, or they’re happy being single. So I thought it was a very interesting subject, and it could work with an insider-outside perspective. All my interviewees would be in the insiders in the marriage circuit, and I’m the outsider, probing them about these issues.
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: What were people’s reactions when you asked them to be interviewed for the book?
NK: Most people were very happy to talk. The people I approached initially were friends of mine, because I was hesitant about approaching strangers and asking them to speak about something so personal and intimate. As far as I recall, there was only one friend of mine who said she didn’t want to speak about her marriage. I was quite surprised by how forthcoming people were, actually. Many were quite eager to share their experiences. I’d anticipated that people would be rather more protective of their personal lives. But I suppose everyone has been through something of a struggle in coming to terms with a marriage, and either making it work or facing the fact that it isn’t going to work, and I suppose people are looking to share what they have been through, and maybe find out whether these strike a chord with other people. Eventually, I moved beyond my own circle of friends, to acquaintances, and friends of friends, and acquaintances of acquaintances – people who were strangers to me, and had no sense of obligation towards me. I found that most people were quite open, and quite happy to talk about their lives. In fact, there were some people who even went with their own names, and didn’t even want pseudonyms. So, that’s how open they were.
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: And did you show the interviews back to people before they were published? Did you get their approval?
NK: I did, I did. Because the other tricky part of it is that a lot of my interviewees are my friends, and they are used to sharing confidences with me. So, it becomes difficult for them to draw the line between me-the-journalist, and me-the-friend. And sometimes, they would forget that they were being interviewed, and would simply start chatting with me-the-friend. So, I made it a point to show it back to them, and there were several of them who said, “Oops, I think you should strike this part out, you know.” And often, they were the best bits. And I’d say, “Oh, noooooo! Don’t make me take that off!” (sinks head into hands) Then, I would try to find middle ground and negotiate. But how much ever I loved a sentence, in the end, it had to be the interviewee’s call – because, at the end of the day, these are their stories and their lives, and they’re entitled to their privacy. It is an ethical issue. So I made sure that every word that has been printed was printed only after having been sent back to the speakers for their approval.
QUESTION FROM THE AUDIENCE: Ashwin spoke about a chapter in the book that has been written from the male perspective. Did you find that men were as willing to talk as females, less willing, more willing? Was there a difference between interviewing people of both genders?
NK: Well, I guess they were as willing, or perhaps more willing. The men were certainly more willing to go with their real names. In one case, I asked my interviewee whether his wife would be all right with his going with his actual name. And then he got back to me and said she didn’t want their story in the public domain, so they would go with pseudonyms. So, I had to actually be more careful myself, to make sure I didn’t end up ruining their marriages! I think the men were quite happy to be heard. Many of them took it all rather more lightly than the women, and they said some really funny things. I also spoke to some bachelors I know, and they had the most outrageous expectations of their future wives – they claim they’re being absolutely serious when they say things like, "She has to be a gamer", so who’s to say? But after the thoroughness of my conversations with the women in the book, I think what the men had to say was something of a release, something that helped it end in a lighter vein. They aren’t all being funny or sarcastic, and some of them have very keen perspectives, some of them made me think about factors I hadn’t quite considered. Speaking to the men was a lot of fun for me, really. And in some ways, endearing too. (Laughs)