BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Reflection on arranged marriages
, December 8, 2012
by Sushi Das
(Sydney: Random House Australia)
Paperback: 304 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
A number of recent murder/suicides have drawn attention to issues of marriage, family life and domestic violence within Australia’s Indian community.
Inevitably, the matter of arranged marriages (an exotic and bizarre concept in the eyes of most Australians) has come up in the discussion, though with a careful avoidance of any postulation of direct causal links with any of the tragedies.
Sushi Das has been a journalist with Melbourne’s Age newspaper for the last 20 years. Born in 1964 to a Hindu family in Punjab, she grew up in England, and emigrated to Australia in 1991.
This is her autobiography, dominated by the leitmotiv of arranged marriage — hence the title. Almost everything in her life — education, friendships, racism, politics, the immigrant experience, career, and above all her relationships with her parents, siblings and relations, is dominated by this central theme of the book.
Das grew up with the expectation on the part of her community that her father and mother would organise a “suitable boy” (for which she helpfully provides a list of criteria) as her husband.
The expression “suitable boy”, incidentally, is the antithesis of the expression “undesirable elements”, i.e., non-Indian young men with whom an Indian daughter living in the West might be tempted to pursue casual friendships.
From the start, Das was determined that she would not submit to such an arranged marriage, even to the point of planning to run away from home, but was distressed at the thought of the offence to her family’s izzat, or honour, which her intransigence would cause.
A “love marriage”, of the sort considered normal in the West, was and is considered shameful by many Indians, and not just the illiterate, conservative, rural poor. When I worked in India during the 1980s, one of my students, a Westernised, well-travelled young woman from a wealthy family, spat out contemptuously: “Love marriage, lust marriage!”
Das clearly loved, and continues to love, her parents who in so many other respects were determined to conform to British culture, and her exasperation at their insistence on this (to her) outmoded convention, and their hurt at her refusal to conform, constitutes an intensely moving interaction.
In the end, they came to terms with her marriage to an Englishman, to her divorce after she moved to Australia, to her remarriage to an Australian, and to the birth of her first child when she was 41.
(Actually, her mother initially expressed disappointment that the child was a girl, which reminded me of our buying, while in India the biggest, most garish congratulations card we could find for a poor couple on the birth of their daughter, and also of the response of my fellow recruits when my daughter was born while I was doing National Service: “Better luck next time!”).
Das is not opposed to arranged marriages as such. She has no problems with a daughter’s voluntarily trusting her parents to find a good husband for her, on the understanding that the daughter is quite free to reject, without any recriminations, any candidates which they present to her.
On the arranged marriage spectrum, such a procedure is situated at one end. At the other end is forced marriage under threat of assault or even murder. In the middle is the reluctant, fatalistic acceptance of the parents’ wishes, under intense emotional blackmail and cultural pressure.
Das warns against Australian authorities’ toleration of the less acceptable forms of arranged marriage as a result of their possible perverted understanding of multiculturalism.
From a conservative point of view, the institution of arranged marriage has a lot going for it, in that it recognises a wedding as a solemn contract involving the whole community, and not merely a couple’s celebration of their current infatuation with one another.
Not that an arranged marriage ignores the element of love. In an arranged marriage, the couple are required to work at learning to love one another in their life together after the wedding ceremony, which is not nearly as unrealistic as many Westerners appear to imagine.
For those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is difficult to avoid the fact that the Old Testament appears to regard arranged marriages as the norm.
Do arranged marriages “work”? Well, they certainly can. My wife and I have known many couples, both in India and Australia, who are apparently happy in arranged marriages.
Divorce seems to be a less common fate for arranged marriages than for love marriages; but, as Das warns, this could be because arranged marriages take place in societies in which there is still tremendous cultural opposition to divorce no matter how appalling — even dangerous! — the couple’s relationship.
This is a stimulating read at many levels, and I strongly recommend it. Although written consciously and ostensibly as a reflection on arranged marriages, as a “memoir” it comes across in a deeper way as the record of a search for identity.
Das rebelled against the constrictions of her Punjabi community; was rejected as a foreigner by English racist thugs; and in Australia is homesick for London.
Just how Das’s daughter will work out her identity lies in the future, but one thing at least can be confidently predicted: the process will not be complicated by the issue of a mother trying to pressure her into an arranged marriage!