Americans are learning more about the culture of India these days, thanks to the widespread success of Indian immigrant artists. Writers like Jhumpa Lahiri are winning literary prizes and top spots on the U.S. best seller list, while "Monsoon Wedding" was a huge film hit in the United States. Arranged marriages, where parents help their sons and daughters find a mate, has also inspired a novel from a new voice in Indian immigrant literature. Kavita Daswani is the author of For Matrimonial Purposes, the story of a young woman living on her own in New York, while her parents back in Bombay struggle in vain to find her a husband.
Kavita Daswani based her novel on her own experience moving among different cultures. She grew up in Hong Kong, the daughter of Indian immigrants, made frequent trips to visit relatives in Bombay, and eventually worked in Paris as a fashion reporter. She seemed so self-sufficient that people were surprised at her answer when they asked if she had a boyfriend.
"I would say, 'Well I am looking, or at least my parents are looking. They're trying to find me somebody.' And people had some idea that this whole arranged marriage thing existed, but they thought it was girls in braids who didn't speak any English and had just got off the plane," said Ms. Daswani. "And so they were intrigued by this and kept saying, 'You need to write about this at some point.' And it eventually happened."
Her heroine, Anju, is 33 as the story begins. She'd lived in New York, has a successful career and a happy life. She goes back to Bombay where she is a failure, essentially. By American standards, being unmarried at 33 is fine. Why this such a disaster in India?
"Indian parents don't feel their lives are complete until all their children are married," explained Ms. Daswani. "It's just such an ingrained part of the culture."
It's also part of the culture to have your parents arrange your marriage, says Kavita Daswani, even if you've lived outside of India for many years. For Matrimonial Purposes flashes back to her main character's early twenties, when the search for a husband begins. Over time, the pool of candidates starts to shrink, Anju rejects some of the young men her parents pick, while others reject her, worried she's too independent to make a good wife. As the family's desperation grows, they resort to time honored rituals from wearing magic charms to beseeching the gods to fasting once a week. Kavita Daswani reads from her novel.
"It was soon determined that the Monday fast wasn't powerful enough," she wrote. "Within three months I had been coerced into taking on a weekly Thursday ritual. Subsequently I tagged on a special super duper Friday fast, one in honor of the great goddess Santoshi Ma, the grand dame of all goddesses. Plus, I had to wear the marriage-inducing accoutrements, the black thread on my right wrist assigned by one guru, the silver talisman that hung from my neck, given to me by another. Each morning, I watched my mother do prayer rituals in our small temple at home. Like my mother, I too prayed for some resolution."
Anju eventually convinces her parents to let her escape the shame of unmarried life in Bombay and go to school in New York. She gets a business degree and finds work as a publicist. But she continues to travel home to Bombay, where her parents are still searching and worrying. Kavita Daswani says she went on a similar quest to Bombay when she was in her twenties, and when her parents failed in their efforts to find her a husband, she felt devastated.
"I know the book can be quite amusing," she said. "But there were moments when I thought, 'what is wrong with me, am I so hideous I can't find a husband?'
"And my parents didn't want to blame me, but they kind of thought that maybe it was because I had a career, or perhaps it was planetary, and I just happened to be born at the wrong time," she continued. "I went through some really tough years feeling very alienated from everyone else in my community, because they didn't make me feel it was okay to be single."
For Matrimonial Purposes ends on a happy note, as did Kavita Daswani's own search for a husband. At the age of 36, the author married a man from India, whom she met through a friend living in Los Angeles. She now lives in Los Angeles herself, and believes her story points up the common dilemmas facing young Indian women trying to preserve their heritage in a new place.
"I think this generation has changed more than any generation before it," said Ms. Daswani. "All the Indian women I know here are very well educated and they have established careers and they're not too dissimilar from their American female counterparts. There is still I this expectation that you will marry, that you'll hopefully marry within the community, and you will almost certainly marry someone the family approves of."
Kavita Daswani says many young Indian immigrants today take a more active role in choosing their mates. But she likes the fact that families often continue to guide the process.
"I think it's quite nice to have the help of aunties and uncles and cousins," she explained. "Everybody kind of gathers around and says, 'Let's help the person find someone that she might be happy with.' Sometimes there's too much concern. It's a little interfering, but if you look at it the right way, it can be quite lovely."
Kavita Daswani drew on her ties to both India and the fashion industry to write her novel, mixing colorful descriptions of Indian saris and jewelry with references to the latest designer shoe and handbag labels. "At least I could make it relatable, so it wasn't just about being Indian, but could be informed by pop culture or cool fashion brands," she said. "And I think when it came time to show it to people, they got it, because that's the milieu they're in."
Her new life in the United States influenced her writing in another way. Kavita Daswani says moving Los Angeles motivated her to write the novel.
"I don't think this whole book would have happened had I not been living here," she said. "I would read about an author doing something wonderful, and I'd think, 'I could do that.' You do feel it, this drive to do something quite unusual and unique with your life."
Kavita Daswani is now working on a second novel, this one set in Los Angeles and New Delhi.
For Matrimonial Purposes was published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.