Stories from the shaadi mandi – interview with The Hindu

(A shorter version of this appeared here: http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/stories-from-the-shaadi-mandi/article5186002.ece)

 

How many women did you speak with and how did you pick the stories that ended up in the book?

I must have spoken to around 30 women and 10 men in all. Of these, 16 of the women’s stories and 2 of the men’s stories evolved into chapters in themselves, and the rest were incorporated in sections that deal with various issues that crop up in marriage, and specifically arranged marriage.

As for how I chose them, I was already familiar with some, and thought them to be interesting – for instance, the one where a couple decided to go ahead despite horoscopes not matching, and the one where the husband and wife are from different castes, but had a pucca arranged marriage.

I also wanted certain profiles – women of different religions, from different parts of India, in different professions, with different stories. So I spoke to women who had migrated to other cities or countries after marriage, singers and dancers and writers who had had arranged marriages, and women who had had both happy and unhappy marriages. And all of them had to be modern, urban, westernised women who’d had the same sort of privileges their brothers did.  

The book is a series of personal narratives. Why did you choose this format for the book? As the writer, were you tempted to include more of your views and opinions?

The format chose itself. See, my first interviewee was a divorcee, and she told her story so beautifully and so poignantly and with so much strength and humour and irony that I gave her a big hug – actually, several big hugs – after recording it all. When I transcribed the interview, I didn’t feel like changing much, or summarising it. And I didn’t feel like breaking up her story into smaller pieces and fitting them into chapters on things like ‘Living with the in-laws’ or ‘Your space, my space’. And I find this sort of creative non-fiction – nicely-told real life stories – engaging to read. So I decided to divide the book into two parts – personal narratives, and then issues one may have to confront in an arranged marriage.  

And no, I wasn’t tempted to butt in, except when I had a point to make. A lot of my reflections are certainly in there, because I’m a sort of filter through which the women’s stories reach the reader. In this sense, being an outsider to marriage helped, because I don’t have any prejudices or opinions that draw from the actual experience of marriage. As a reader, I prefer non-fiction books where the writer is a reporter, staying passive but involved. So, that’s what I aspire to as a writer.

You count yourself among the women for whom arranged marriage, or groom hunting can be a ‘series of traumatic experiences’. Did speaking to all these women change your views about arranged marriage?

Well, that’s a bit of a loaded statement. I’ve said I’m among the women who believe ‘groom hunting can be a series of traumatic experiences’, but I haven’t said anywhere that ‘arranged marriage can be a series of traumatic experiences’. For me, personally, the groom hunt happened when I was much younger and far more polite than I am now. Three of the men I spoke to scared the daylights out of me, and the last one was nice enough, but I couldn’t relate to him at all. I always knew, or knew of, women who were in happy arranged marriages, and who had finally met men they got along with in the shaadi mandi. Maybe the view that did change was my understanding that arranged marriage is necessarily a back-up option. I began to feel that it genuinely does suit some people, and may be their first preference, you know.

As the title of the book suggests, most of the women you spoke to were ‘modern’ and most of the characters were rooted to tradition like Zainab Haider who didn’t want to marry out of religion or Vijaya who was concerned about horoscopes. How would you define the modern Indian woman?

First up, I wouldn’t say that Zainab was rooted to tradition – she didn’t want to marry a non-Muslim, but she certainly didn’t want to marry a Muslim who was conservative. One of her main concerns was that her in-laws should be liberal. And in Vijaya’s case, she didn’t care much for horoscopes, but her husband did set some store by them. Eventually, he overcame his reserve with regard to that.

The way I see it, one can’t really define the ‘modern Indian woman’. Someone asked me, after the book was published, why I didn’t look at women from rural India, because there are modern women there too. My friend’s maid, for instance, stopped working at the house of a woman who said something about how sons were preferable to daughters. For the purpose of the book, ‘modern’ refers to urban, westernised women who have had a privileged upbringing. And the reason I wanted to look at a cross-section of women is that, even within this narrow bracket, you can’t find one single definition of the ‘modern Indian woman’. Which part of India, or the world, one grows up in, what language one speaks, which culture(s) one identifies with, and one’s religious beliefs (or non-beliefs) are all influencing factors.

Did you find that most of the aversion towards arranged marriage was on account of the usually unpleasant process of ‘groom-hunting’ rather than the desire to find someone you love?

Hmm. There are several reasons for this aversion. One, of course, is the unpleasantness of the spouse-hunt, both for brides and grooms. Everyone meets freaks. Another reason is that many people feel like it’s an admission of defeat, that they simply couldn’t find love. Or that they may be seen as doormats by friends, for listening to the ‘elders’. I think another important reason is that the thrill of falling in love, the rush when you see that person, the mutual awkwardness when you both sense the spark but are shy about admitting it, and finally the moment when it’s out in the open, are all such wonderful experiences. If you’ve had that once, you want it again. And people who have had relationships, which is most people of our generation, find it difficult to say, “Okay, I’ve had my turn and it didn’t work. Let me look at other options.”

You mentioned that even people with arranged marriages often like to think of romantic back stories. Does this mean there was a certain degree of mediation in what they narrated to you? Did you view this as a hindrance to finding out the real picture?

No, no. This takes off from what I said just now, about how it may sometimes be seen as an admission of defeat. We all treat arranged marriage like some kind of lottery. When someone absolutely gorgeous and intelligent and talented, man or woman, decides to go in for an arranged marriage, we all frown and go, “But why arranged? You can easily find someone, no?” So, there are those who’ll tell you openly that it was a ‘proper arranged marriage’, which began with a newspaper ad. And there are those who will make up these stories, like “Oh, this alliance came in and then I realised we were in the same school, and always had a crush on her/ him, but nothing happened back then…” Maybe it’s a way of fooling themselves a bit. Or maybe it’s to tell the world they’re not ‘old-fashioned’ enough to settle for an arranged marriage. What I’ve said in the book is that some of the people I spoke to told me they were going to make up (or had made up) such stories. That was a very ironically honest admission – they basically told me that they were going to lie to the world. Many of my interviewees are friends, so there was as much truth and transparency as one may reasonably hope for.

Do you think men do the same (make up romantic back stories)?

Oh, yeah. And perhaps more of them do that than women, because the reaction to an arranged marriage for a man often is, “Dude, you couldn’t find one girl who would go out with you?!” And for women, it’s like, “Yeah, it’s so hard to find a decent guy who isn’t just looking for sex, someone whom you actually want to live with…” I think women tend to have the upper hand in the arranged marriage market. One of my unmarried male interviewees told me how he planned to come up with some story of this kind if things worked out, but he was quite open with me about how all the women he’d met had been through the arranged marriage circuit.

A lot of the women, like Shreya Gopal, put down a list of things she wanted in a man. Are such negotiations a luxury reserved for those who go the arranged marriage route?

I’m not sure it’s like that, entirely. I think all of us have a sort of mental check-list, and while there are those people with whom we have crazy chemistry and whom we get into relationships with against all odds, most of them do fit our ‘requirements’ as it were. So, when you’re ‘in love’, maybe you’ve just processed all of that at lightning speed and decided this is the guy for you. Or, you’ve been with someone for so long that you’ve beaten each other into the moulds you like. The first time I fell in love, I think it hit me when he and I both came up with the same sidey pun at the same time. And then I realised I was so narcissistic that I could only fall in love with a (taller and deeper-voiced) version of myself. Weirdly, we all like to think we fell in love helplessly and hopelessly, whereas we pride ourselves on being pragmatic in an arranged marriage. But I think both are hybrids – there is a certain degree of calculation and a certain degree of instinct involved in both.

People choose to get an arranged marriage for many reasons. For some it is parental pressure, others believe it is the best way to find a groom. What was the most common and convincing reason for getting an arranged marriage you came across?

Very often, it was age. Sometimes, it was the need to be in a familiar milieu. And, in some cases, people felt they didn’t want someone who worked in the same field. Now, whether you’re in the media, or a writer, or an IT professional or an actor, chances are that you’ll only meet people from your field.  I won’t say I find any of these reasons ‘convincing’, because I can’t relate to any of them personally. But I do understand why these may be important for some people. And they didn’t have to convince me; they only had to convince themselves.

Lastly, having spoken to so many people on the subject, how would you react to the ‘love or arranged’ debate?

I don’t see why there is so much debate about it even now. I think it all boils down to personal choice – for parents, it’s like “Do you have someone in mind, or do you want us to find someone for you?” I don’t know of many parents in the socioeconomic class I’m writing about, of this generation, who would actively oppose a love match – even if it goes against all their preferences, in terms of religion or even race, they tend to eventually come around. For people who want to get married, again it’s a personal choice – “Is it important to get married within a certain age, and to someone who fits certain parameters, or is it important to wait for The One even at the risk of never finding him or her?” The only thing that irritates me is the constant pressure in our society to get married, and the fact that people don’t realise they’re intruding on personal space when they ask about it.

 

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