Arranged Marriage is a debut collection of short stories by Chitra B Divakaruni, an Indian-American award-winning author, poet and teacher. She is also the author of One Amazing Thing, Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, Palace of Illusions, Conch Bearer and Oleander Girl. Her books have been translated into 29 languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Bengali, Russian and Japanese. Several of her works have been adapted into movies and plays. Divakaruni also teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
Arranged Marriage contains eleven short stories. With the exception of the first story “The Bats”, the rest of the stories portray Indian girls and women in America who struggle to balance old Hindu values concerning marriage and love with new desires. All the stories are exquisitely written and emotionally moving. The three most poignant stories (for me, at least) are “The Bats”, “The Word Love” and “Affair”.
In “The Bats”, the protagonist is a young girl who witnesses her mother being constantly abused by her drunkard father. Temporary reprieve comes when her mother decides to leave her husband and Calcutta, and move to another village to stay with an uncle. At the new place, the protagonist learns to live her life without fear. Unfortunately, her happiness does not last long as her mother decides to return to Calcutta after receiving a letter from her remorseful husband. I’m not saying how the story will end as I don’t want it to be a spoiler.
In “The Word Love”, the protagonist, a young Indian woman studying in the US, falls in love with a white American man and decides to cohabitate with him without informing her mother who is living in India. While she is in that relationship, she feels guilty about deceiving her mother, as well as going against Hindu traditions and values regarding pre-marital sex and marriage.
In “Affair”, the protagonist, Abha, questions her eight-year-old arranged marriage with her husband, Ashok. Both have different expectations of their marriage. Abha, being the more conservative one from India, finds it hard to accept Ashok’s westernised ways. To make matters worse, he shows no respect for her personal values and thinks of her as old-fashioned, often belittling her during their frequent quarrels or mocking her in front of their friends. The situation reaches a climax when Abha discovers her best friend, Meena, is having an affair with a white American man. Meena’s decision to file for a divorce forces Abha to make certain decisions of her own, too.
Arranged Marriage explores themes of immigration, identity and the challenges of living in a multicultural society. With globalisation, traditional Hindu values regarding marriage and pre-marital sex are constantly being challenged. It’s inevitable that younger Indians (especially those born outside of India) will naturally be influenced by other cultures concerning love, romance and marriage. For instance, in “Affair”, Meena justifies her actions for a divorce to Abha:
“You’ve always been so good … A good wife, a good homemaker. Perfect at all the things I didn’t want to do but knew I should. Like a mother, kind of. I wanted your approval. Needed it. For a long time I told myself, I’ve got to stay with Srikant. What will Abha say otherwise? … But I just couldn’t keep on. Our marriage – there was nothing left in it – if there had ever been anything. I felt I was slowly drying up inside, my blood turning to dust.”
And in “The Word Love”, the protagonist faces internal conflict as she struggles to uphold traditional values with her new desires. She finds it hard to break the news of her American live-in lover to her mother knowing it would upset her:
“You want to tell her, but your heart flings itself around in your chest like a netted bird, and the words that you practiced so long are gone.”
Although all the stories are well-written, there are a couple of drawbacks. Most of them have been narrated from the first-person perspective which may put off some readers. Further, one of the stories is written from the second-person perspective. I’ve to admit it was a little confronting for me initially (faced with the “you” pronoun) as I’ve always preferred to read from the third-person perspective. Thank goodness the stories are gripping enough so I stopped fretting after awhile.
The other drawback is the use of Indian terms in the stories. Although such terms do lend an authentic feel to the stories, some readers may find it annoying having to refer to the glossary (provided at the back of the novel) as this may interrupt their reading process and takes them out of the fictional world.
If you can put up with these setbacks, it’s well worth reading the book. The stories told beautifully in a light, simple style give great insight into the Indian culture for both the non-Indian and Indian readers.