Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Chitra Divakaruni has written a wholly unexceptional, simple, and commonplace book. There are no dramatic overtures, no startling revelations, no sudden complications (mostly). And this is precisely what makes her such an effective writer, this is exactly what gives her descriptions of women in arranged marriages, a draconian element of common gloom. I have to say that this is one of the most depressing books I have read recently, because the mundane and universal tales of arranged marriage that Divakaruni weaves make one realize that all over India, hundreds of thousands of women live the lives which she has described. There are many in the book that begin and end so unexceptionally, that you wonder whether the writer is telling us a story, or merely describing a scene on a typical busy day at the market. And that is exactly what the lives of many women caught in Divakaruni’s (and India’s) arranged marriages seem to have become- uninteresting and cliché scenes of life that tread on their inevitable trajectory. Let me describe two:

‘The Bats’ tells us a story seen through the eyes of a small girl, whose mother is being ill treated by her husband every day. The girl’s descriptions of her mother’s sobs, expressed furtively at night so that nobody should hear, are described as if they represent the shackles that women wear all over our country, the supposedly inevitable trials that they bear without resentment. The silent suffering that the mother undergoes, the little girl’s painful bewilderment at her mother’s travails, and her mother’s futile attempts to answer her questions about what is happening, are harrowing to say the least. Finally, in order to save her own sanity and that of her child, the mother decides to surreptitiously go to her uncle’s place, far away in the village. The scenic descriptions of the countryside and the city, her uncle, and the rustic and nourishing life in a village that the girl recounts, could strike a chord only in the hearts of Indians or those who have visited India. Mother and child seek refuge in the kindly old man’s small house. The little girl is delighted by the hues that nature paints in the countryside, and she is enraptured by the fishing trips she undertakes with her grandfather. The story ends, on no certain note, with the girl’s father calling the two back to the city, and promising to be more tolerant the next time...

‘Clothes’ is a more interesting story and one that drives home a general point about the plight of women in arranged marriages, in a more general and distinct manner. It talks about a girl from a rural Indian town ('Roja' from the film with the same name comes to mind) who is about to be married to a man settled in the US who owns a gas station and the inevitable store next to it- quite a typical scenario in its general form. The story is again told from the perspective of the girl. She is at once excited, apprehensive, and fearful. This story is interesting because it has no elements of injustice or oppression. The husband is a good man, and he admittedly loves her and is understanding, and the girl’s in-laws are kind people, if somewhat strict in their demeanor. The girl’s in laws don’t even oppose her wish to teach in a school. Her husband dreams along with her about a life where they can earn enough money to live comfortably, buys new clothes for her, and enthusiastically shows her around the supermarket. The girl is happy to be with him, and happy with the life she is living. The end of the story, best not divulged, ends in a tragedy and also in a glimmer of hope.

The reason why this book seems depressing to me is because it again raises the question which is asked many times. Are girls in arranged marriages really happy? Or have they convinced themselves to be happy, because they have convinced themselves that this is the life they must inevitably live? In their readiness for ‘compromises’, apparently a condition that is frequently touted to be particularly essential for arranged marriages, have they compromised their will, and their sense of liberty and conscious thought? Admittedly, their husbands are frequently making much less of compromises, so one does get the feeling that the situation is not as ideally symmetric as it sounds earlier. Put another way, have they settled for whatever they have, because they think they cannot get something better? Do they even think they deserve any better? Notice that this question would not arise if the marriage is a love marriage. There we already know what's best for us. There, we know that we are happy. The girl in ‘Clothes’ seems innocently happy, but is the happiness really that emanating from a conscious evaluation of her situation, or is it a consequence of something that she has convinced herself, simply cannot be another way? Is the happiness her choice? In fact, she seems to have been brought up in such a way that her parents have almost unconsciously made her believe that not only will she be happy this way, but also that she should be proud of her happiness. Parents propose; daughters dispose.

I believe that the illusion of happiness and satisfaction that women in arranged marriages have is an insidious and tormented crack in the foundation, and just like Noam Chomsky’s famed ‘manufacture of consent’, is much more dangerous to women’s liberation than outright oppression. Just like Chomsky describes the thought control that a ‘democratic’ government imposes on the unconscious psyche of its citizens, do parents impose a life of preorganised order and happiness on their daughters’ lives, sometimes themselves doing it unconsciously? In Chomsky’s model, the people are made to believe all their life that they are free and happy, and it is exactly on this sense of satisfaction that the government preys through subtle means. Similarly girls are made to believe (many times by ‘allowing’ them access to higher education) that they are in control of their destiny, and that even an arranged marriage is essentially a decision of their volition
This crack is truly damaging. That’s simply because, a lot of times, on the face of it, it is not visible, because everybody appears happy. But what many women have done is form their own little world, and resign themselves to be happy within its constraints. In fact, I fear that they form this happy little world precisely because they don’t want to face an alternative, damning reality. I always have this complaint against even well meaning middle class parents who are apparently well educated. The fact that they allow their daughters to get engineering and medical degrees is not enough. Do they actually turn their daughters into independent thinkers, who could, and should, even defy them, when necessary? Maybe they need to define being well educated again. I have no complaint against girls who ‘willingly’ entered into an arranged marriage, as long as they are supremely confident of this ‘will’ of theirs. But there are so many marriages, in fact arranged and otherwise, where looking back ten years down the line, almost as a revelation, we see that the girl has made many more sacrifices, many times the only ones. By that time, she has had kids, nobody wants to have an altercation and damage an enduring marriage, and so everybody is again happy. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they seem to have it all...I believe that they may have foresworn all of it.

This scenario of enforced happiness that seems to leave everyone smug and satisfied, is sickeningly more striking and depressing than all-out and vociferous arguments about marriage and women’s equality. Such scenarios abound in Divakaruni’s book, and it is precisely their commonplace, uninteresting, matter of fact ethos which screams at us to lift the veil and see and know better. It is their trivially obvious nature that alerts us to the zombie like existence lived by many girls in our society. Of course, like the beings inside the Matrix, they never know what they miss, so they might as well continue this blissfully unaware way of life. But then their behavior defeats every cardinal feature of human idealism, our capacity and vision to break free and see beyond our condition. If this is what these girls wish to do, then their plight is no different from the slaves in Southern American plantations, who happily used to sing songs during the night around a fire- definitely an exaggerated analogy, but an analogy nonetheless (Actually the condition of slaves was probably better, because they were aware of their condition and simply indulged in festive events to stave off the depressing feeling)

Of course, philosophically, the general question about the bourgeois concept of happiness is unresolvable (Me: Of course I am happy. You: No no, you only think you are. Me: No! I insist that I am happy. You: No! That's exactly where the illusion lies...). But no amount of philosophical cogitation can get rid of what 'is'.
Maybe girls in arranged marriages will object to my descriptions. But if I ask them if they are happy and if they have always consciously been happy, can they dare to answer otherwise? More importantly, are they capable of answering? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it does not matter anyway, because as Gibbon said, "The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous"...


Blogger Tejaswi said...

I liked this post. Verbose, but still worth reading.

But there is a fundamental difference between Chomsky's Manufacture of Consent model, and the brainwashing model that works with Indian women (I am still to read that myth of the free American Woman, which someone commented about to one of your posts). The difference being: In the Chomsky case, there is actually an agent who is interested in keeping the public blind. This agent or a very small group of agents are at work doing the self-censorship. In the arranged marriage context, the entire community is involved in brainwashing. Movies, books, TV, parents, immediate relatives, family friends, peer, neighbors, teachers, etc.: all of them are involved in this act. How is it possible that an entire people have developed consensus on how to influence women? I find it a very interesting situation. Isn't this what is defined as culture? What a people collectively do on an issue?

More to come later.

Great post, once again.

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well i have only read "Clothes" so i will focus my response to this post on that.

You say that the girls taken into arranged marriages are "convincing" themselves to be happy. However, i believe that because being "happy" is a universally differing thing, we cannot actually DEFINE what it means to be happy. You can't go ahead and say that these girls aren't happy. This is how they were raised. Sure, a few might stray and find it to be unfair, but in the end, it all depends on your personality and the "happily ever after" you are exposed to growing up. Growing up in the US, my perception of happy was, for a time, being a princess and owning a giant palace along with a prince charming. This, unfortunatley and unaccuratley, is the definition of happy to many young girls. But that is just because this is what they have been exposed to, and this is ultimatley what they will choose to believe is desirable. However, when these girls are raised in a village where arranged marriages are an honorable thing, it is obvious that this will be what is most desired for them. This will now be their definition of happy. Sure, in America it may seem unfair, but this is just because that is not what we were brought up to think. However, it is very respectable to do so somewhere else, such as in India. This one story, of Clothes, was written by an author who came to America after the age of 19, so obviously after being exposed to American lifestyle, one can say arranged marriage could be "unfair" but this perception is only created with different interpretations of good and bad. For example, if i was a millionaire, I might find it good to go on a shopping spree to release some stress (one can only dream!) but it might be completely wrong to do so as a middle class worker, (you dont wanna go broke!!) so of course there are different perceptions of good and bad out there, and these will change with beliefs.

It is hard to uphold that these arranged marriages are unfair, first of all comparing divorce rates in the US and in India. While "happy" and "willful" marriages are conducted in the US, the divorce rate soars beyond belief. However, putting it in the perspective of an Indian woman, marrying a husband chosen by your parents, (or his) is like finally being able to show your master's degree. It is something you believe is truly right, in accordance to their customs.

Now im a hispanic catholic so really i wouldn't know much about arranged marriages, but this is what i believe. I think that everyone's outlook on life is different. Yes there may be some women who think their arranged marriage is completely unfair, but then again, you could also say they weren't quite raised to the standards set by their ancestors. Just like it is expected for teens to go to college in America, some might think this is a less than desirable course to take, because they can choose to do otherwise. (Bill Gates was a dropout!)

EIther way, no one is wrong. Your perception of fair and unfair may differ for who you are, but i truly think these women are not being oppressed, but they simply follow their beliefs, customs and religions.

Now when you bring in American customs through, say, military troops, forced democracy and constant application of the media's opinion of "freedom", then yes, their perceptions might change. This is when our kind will stomp theirs out, ultimatley leaving only one forced definition of "fairness", America's.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im sorry if that post up there was full of typos and grammatical errors and underdeveloped arguments, but im in a rush...im doing homework!!!!!!!!!!

5:54 PM  
Anonymous ILOVEDRAKE said...

@puppydoglaura: No, it's okay that your essay sucked shit and that it makes no damn sense or relation to whatever the author wrote.

"Bill Gates was a dropout." No one gives a damn that he was. He is a great person now and always will be.

About Nullius in verba:
Obviously, arranged marriage is not that interesting. This blog post is only scratching the surface of what I can call a well developed book. If the author of this blog actually took the time to analyze the book, he/she would get the deeper meaning of what was going on.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

so...whats going on ILOVEDRAKE? Or are you too busy listening to DRAKE to tell us that?

P.S. I hear through the grapevine that you might be a fan of Drake. Was wondering....

9:22 PM  
Anonymous ILOVEDRAKE said...

No, I'm just saying that the author of this blog did not take the time to analyze this book. He actually has to use his brain a little bit and not read the book like it's Harry Potter. Sometimes we have to go a little further than what we see on the paper.
I just wish that the blogger actually spent some of his/her life analyzing the content of the anthology, and that the people commenting would not just agree with the blogger for the sake of agreeing.

7:13 PM  

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