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Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni | Book Review

As you know we like to explore authors writing stories that span across cultures and view the world from the kaleidoscope of their experiences around the world. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one such powerful and prolific author whose work we have admired for a few years. We have published our views on The Mistress of Spices in 2012, and since her new book re-interpreting Sita’s life is being released in 2019, we thought we would share a few posts discussing some of her other well-loved books.

Book Title : Arranged Marriage
Author :
Publishers : Transworld Digital (8 February 2011)
RHUK (1 February 1997)
Doubleday (1 June 1995)
Transworld Digital (8 February 2011)
Anchor (May 1, 1996)
# of Pages : 320 (Paperback)
307 (Hardcover)
431 KB 323 (Kindle EBook)
# of Chapters :
Purchase Link(s) :

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a first generation immigrant who put herself through American universities with part-time jobs and brilliant academic work in the ’70s and ’80s. She has taken up teaching creative writing and lives with her family in the USA.

Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni | Book Cover

Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni | Book Cover

Her first publication, a collection of short stories published in 1995 with the name ‘Arranged Marriage’ made her visible to the readers and also the critics. She won the ‘American Book Award 1995’ for this collection. We have an old copy of this book published in 1997 by Black Swan and on behalf of team ThinkerViews I had a chance to re-read it…

Storylines:

The collection consists of following stories:

The Bats

The Bats is a simple story, told by a young girl living in Calcutta with an abusive father and a long suffering mother. One morning, the mother has had enough abuse and they leave the grimy metropolis to go to a Grandpa-uncle who lives in a small village and works at looking after an orchard. The little girl enjoys the life here and its small pleasures including the gruesome duty of poisoning the bats that have been ruining the mango fruits. She cannot understand why the birds keep coming back even though the farm so clearly is going to be the place where they die.

But it is not only the Bats, sometimes humans can’t seem to escape the prisons they create for themselves either, by returning to their abusers repeatedly, whether it is from loneliness, or peer-pressure or a glitch in the brain that doesn’t allow us to see the reality until all things precious to us are lost in the darkness…

Clothes

Clothes are something we take for granted. They are the most fundamental requirement for our modesty as well as our vanity. They are also symbols of transition through different stages of life, reflect our mood and mindset on daily basis, are part of the personality that we project to the world and still can be treated as a throwaway when the mood strikes us. It is via clothes that we learn Sumita’s story – through the pink sari, she is to wear when she would be husband Somesh first comes to see her or the blue sari that is the symbol of possibilities as she travels on a plane to America.

Here are the hidden pleasures of trying a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a brown skirt and cream blouse, a black nightie, all in the intimacy of their bedroom while she wears Japan nylon saris around her in-laws during the day. And one bleak day, when suddenly all she is left with for rest of her life is a white sari of the widow – a symbol of the life of a dove without wings… But will she accept this?

Silver Pavement, Golden Roofs

How many times we have described the foreign lands as the land of opportunities where possibilities are endless and fortunes are yours only if you can make it. How many young girls have been given the promise of

Will I marry a prince from the far-off magic land, where the pavements are silver and the roofs all gold?

And although it is to attend a college and not to marry a prince that Jayanti travels to Chicago, her eyes are filled with the glitter of this faraway country where everyone and everything is different. She has come to live with her once beautiful aunt Pratima and her husband Bikram, who is supposed to own an auto garage. From a wealthy family in Calcutta, Jayanti soon finds that her aunt and uncle’s lives in America are limited to their small apartment. And in one desperate bid to expand this, Jayanti and Pratima go out for a walk in the neighborhood only to become victims of a racist attack.

The land of silver pavements and golden roofs has not been kind to Pratima and Bikram, will it be any different for Jayanti?

The Word Love

This is an intense, emotional story of a young woman whose name we never learn. The author writes of her as “you”, a monologue. Torn between her binding attachment to her loving mother in India and her American boyfriend Rex, with whom she is currently living, the lead character goes through the pangs of guilt and remorse that every Indian daughter will understand but are completely alien to Rex. He has grown up shuttling between his divorced parents, and has no way to appreciate the bond between a widowed mother and her only child. How this bond becomes unbreakable chains, even though made mostly of love so strong that it breaks your heart one way or the other. But is every heartbreak an end?

My favourite lines from this story say it so beautifully:

And a word comes to you out of the opening sky. The word love. You see that you had never understood it before. It is like rain, and when you lift your face to it, like rain it washes away inessentials, leaving you hollow, clean, ready to begin.

A Perfect Life

Meera’s life is perfect – She is young, beautiful, holds an enviable job at a Bank, has a tastefully decorated apartment in a good part of San Francisco, an American boyfriend Richard who is neither possessive nor dull. And none of the messiness of a marriage or children, which seems to be chocking the life of most other women of her acquaintance. She is very clear on what she doesn’t want in life and yet is very aware that being a mother is such a primitive and strong force that it may change her life forever.

And so it does when a young, lost, child of unknown ethnicity shows up in her apartment. For reasons she can’t explain, she takes him in, names him Krishna and lets her life be taken over.

The reality, however, means she needs to adopt him officially, if she wants to be his mother. And reality has a way of turning into unforeseen tragedies, in spite of the best intentions of everyone involved…

The Maid Servant’s Story

This is one of the gems of this collection and will remind you of the poignant moments you also come across in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s full length novels. It starts simply enough with an interaction between Manisha and her aunt Deepa Mashi discussing her current living arrangements with a boyfriend in America resulting in a wedding. All her life, Manisha has tried really hard to get some reaction out of what seems her mother’s indifference to the world around her and Manisha herself. While perfectly amicable and caring, she can’t seem to show that passionate interest Indian mothers have for their daughters. It has always been Deepa Mashi who has interrogated her about her life and wishes.

But on this afternoon, the wedding discussion leads to a saffron silk sari and then unwittingly to a deeply moving story of two sisters and a maid called Sarla. It is an age old story as far as set-up and events go, but it is the feeling with which the story is told that will make you catch your breath. It is about people who approach life…

as though they embodied some unendingly futile human endeavor – a search for beauty, a belief in luck. A hope that happiness will endure…

But such people are also not designed for this world and it takes only but a moment to shatter them…

The Disappearance

This is a small story of an Indian couple living In the USA with a three year old son. One day the wife goes out for a walk and never returns. Theirs was a perfectly normal existence as far as the husband can think. She was a good, obedient, quiet Indian wife except for an inner source of joy and spirit that he only witnessed when she was with their son alone. The police try to find her with no luck. The husband’s mother comes over to America to look after her son and grandson and slowly life goes on. Until, almost a year later, the husband discovers that all his wife’s jewelry is missing. Did she actually walk out on him and the son she loved so much?

Doors

Doors can be so much – barriers, entry to a sanctuary, markers of privacy or symbols of protest when slammed. For Preeti, they are all of it. She has lived and grown up in America since she was twelve years old and so when she decides to marry Deepak who came to America only a few years ago to study, most of their family and friends shake their heads and pronounce that the marriage isn’t going to work. But it should work, right? Because it is a marriage based on mutual respect.

And so it seems, until an old friend of Deepak arrives from India. Raj has the Indian habit of making himself at home without the American respect for privacy and individual needs of others in the household, and he also seems to bring this side of Deepak out. Deepak agrees to Raj staying in their house for years without even consulting Preeti. Eventually, small things lead to a big, blowout until Preeti can all but feel her marriage crumbling around her.

The Ultrasound

This is the story of two cousins: Anjali and Arundhati, who grew up in the same neighborhood and have been best friends as long as they can remember. Their marriages, however, lead them to radically different lives – Arundhati or Runu ends up in provincial Burdwan as the eldest daughter-in-law of a traditional joint family while Anjali travels to the USA to live with her husband in San Jose.

As luck would have it, both women are pregnant at more or less the same time and so they connect to each other over the phone once every week to discuss their lives and dreams and hopes. They are both eagerly waiting for the ultrasound that will confirm if everything is ok.

The ultrasound day comes and for Anjali, it is full of good news and hopes. But far away in Burdwan, Runu’s life falls apart. The baby is a girl, you see, and her family wants her to get an abortion. When Runu decides to leave her in-laws, even Anjali’s husband supports the idea of abortion and Anjali’s life is not so perfect anymore either as she is forced to think about how well we know the people we think we love.

But life also teaches us a way to fight, and what better cause to fight for then a new life?

Affair

Focused on two couples, this story highlights how arranged marriages don’t always focus on personality matching. Families are matched, horoscopes are matched, and the bride’s beauty is evaluated, but not the minds. Abha and Ashok are married, and Abha has focused so much on being a good wife that she has forgotten about the necessity of love in the marriage. Meena and Srikant are in the same boat, with Meena being svelte and glamorous and alive while Srikant feels like a penguin lost on the land. When a rumor spreads that Meena is having an affair, Abha assumes it is with her attractive husband Ashok. And while this rumor may not be true, the unhappiness of both marriages remains a fact. What can they do? Is it too late to renounce the duties they took on when they did not even understand what those duties were?

Meeting Mrinal

Asha and Mrinallini grew up in Calcutta, studying together, always competing with each other for better grades. But as is the way of life, Asha got married early and moved to America. Her life since has been limited to caring for a husband and a son Dinesh. Mrinal on the other hand, became a successful career woman and never got married.

After twenty years of gap, now they have a chance to meet as Mrinal is travelling to San Francisco for a conference and is only too eager to catch up with Asha. Asha’s life at the moment though, is in pieces. Her husband has left her for a young woman and her son is going through a state of teenage rebellion cum transition to American adulthood that she is struggling to understand.

But the old competitive genes die hard. So when they finally meet for a short time over dinner, Asha lies about her life to match Mrinal’s perfect life. But perfection is only a mirage after all….

Views and Reviews:

Arranged marriage is such a controversial concept in modern times, and although it is seen as most associated with cultures like India, it has existed in every society and every culture for as long as the concept of matrimony has been alive. And yes, it has a lot stacked against it, and most stories here highlight how the women lost the choice in the matter over time in most Indian households.

For many generations, women had no choice but to get married to their family’s choice and be a strange man’s wife and the mother of his children, try to make the best of it and put up with the worst of it in a hope to survive. But in these stories, it also represents more than that, it represents everything unknown, a new country, a new man, a new family – and while in the Bats, the wife never escapes the cycle of suffering, in Clothes we meet a young bride turned widow who is ready to make her own life on her own.

And what options are there our of an arranged marriage: walk out like the wife does in The Disappearance, or live through the choking weight of an unhappy marriage as Abha does, or come to terms with changes in their relationship as Anjali does? In The Perfect Life and Meeting Mrinal, the story also brings out the unhappiness, loneliness, and frustration of missing out on filial joy, when the women do not get married.

Almost all stories create that twilight world of women spanning across a few generations where everything seems to be made of light and shadows but no substance. Where their existence is never quite real because their identities are through the men and their families. Where daughters are raised to expect from their husband only kindness and responsibilities, but not to love and passion. They don’t seem to have the power to choose and even when they think they do, it is an unending cycle of choosing uncaring, implacable men like Manisha does:

Perhaps it is like this for all daughters, doomed to choose for ourselves, over and over, the men who have destroyed our mother…

But these are not the stories of sadness and defeat. Life may not be a fairy tale but every marriage is a battlefield and all women and men need to find their strength and their happiness with what they have and what they can make of it…

Summary:

A thought provoking collection indeed and we can recommend to all of you to read…
You’ll definitely find something to your liking here…

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