Negotiating a Brave New World

Written by Havovi Cooper  •  August 2008 PDF Print E-mail

Author:  Anne Cherian
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company (May 7, 2008)
Pages: 320 pages, Hardcover
Price: $23.95
ISBN-10: 0393065235
ISBN-13: 978-0393065237

Even though boasts that it is the largest and the most successful matrimonial website in the world – with over a million unions, most marriages in India even today are arranged. This however does not negate the rising sense of independence amongst the youth who often times seek cyber gravitation. But when it comes to love and family, bachelors and bachelorettes are constantly negotiating their place in a society traditionally governed by the will of parents, caste, community, religion, and thus are gradually changing the face of arranged marriages.

As an increasing number of people move to the cities in India, the arranged model of marriage is changing in this highly diverse country. North Indians are attempting to boldly tie the knot with the women of the South, a Brahmin man could end up with his Sudra sweetheart and in some odd cases Muslims and Hindus are uniting as a couple where they could not as a country.

According to the 6-C's of a happy marriage are compatibility, chemistry, commitment, community, communication and compassion. Anne Cherian's novel highlights how one of the C's: community, takes precedence over all the rest. A Good Indian Wife is not about bridging cross-cultural differences but about how difficult it was for the generation who grew up in the '70's to challenge the authority of their parents even where the most important decision of their lives was concerned.

The novel's plot is akin to a Bollywood movie, where disastrous circumstances surround the protagonists. But as fate would have it, a fairy tale ending is never too far away.  Dr. Suneel Sarath is a suave South Indian doctor practicing on the West Coast of the United States, and who wants to fit into the dry white American society and forget everything about his sweaty homeland.  On a trip back home to visit his ailing grandfather, Suneel is trapped into marrying a good South Indian girl, Leila, who at 30, is willing to settle with any man her mother chooses for her. 

After a whirlwind wedding, Suneel and Leila head back to California and Leila soon finds out that the Suneel she has married is a Neel to his American friends, an Indian who hates his identity and wants to have very little to do with anything or anyone as Indian as herself.  Leila emerges as a strong character who silently takes on the challenges marriage throws her way in a foreign land. Cherian's language though simple is quite expressive, her use of the local dialect, Malayalam, adds to the authenticity of the situation she describes. The reader is transported to the corners of the world where Leila's dwells and where Cherian seems to have wandered as well.  In the end Cherian's Leila wins the battle of the Eastern woman versus the Western girlfriend and Neil and Leila embark on a new journey as partners in life.

Suneel's character seems to be pumped with stereotypes that follow Indians into this country, and perhaps Cherian tries to prove a point by blending such extremes into her novel. The Indian who immigrated to the United States 30 years ago, was almost always a doctor, almost always changed his name to suit an Americanized version and almost always went back to India to get married, yet always torn between their American girlfriends and Indian wives.

Neil's character is a little more complex in that he makes an effort to resist his parents, a weak and unconvincing effort since he ends up getting married anyway. Neil dabbles between his 2 worlds in California, however, juggling a wife and a girlfriend is not what this anesthesiologist is suited for.  Predictably the night that Neil sleeps with his wife, is when his heart starts changing its direction and he begins to notice his wife for what she's really worth – a smart and beautiful Indian woman.

Cherian's book not only draws attention to the institution of marriage in India and it's fate as it crosses the Atlantic, but it also sheds light on the life of the once colonized Indian immigrant to the US, who is constantly struggling to prove himself. Neel feels his Stanford education, his life as a successful anesthesiologist, his American accent; are all inadequate as they do not validate his American-ness the way a union with a white blond haired, blue eyed woman would. That to his colonized pysche would be the ultimate stamp of approval, better than a green card or American citizenship as well. Sadly the character Cherian builds in Neel can extend itself to many South Asian men today, who still hold the gora sahab in esteem and who look for fair skin as an attribute above any else, in their search of a bride.

Apart from the stereotypes and the fairy tale ending, Cherian's book is worth a read as it forces the reader to understand and confront the multifaceted social and psychological forces, which still persist today for immigrant communities still trying to negotiate their tradition and past, all the while trying to carve out an identity for themselves in this brave new world. 

Havovi Cooper is a regular contributor to BusinessWeek and Friday Times. She is also the Pulitzer-Moore fellow at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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