Marriage is still held to be the Holy Grail in a sub-continental woman's life. All else is merely insignificant rites of passage. While a woman's place in our society has gone through systole and diastole phases like the pulse of creation itself, the significance of marriage has been much the same over the centuries. Liberation and independence do seem skin deep in that context. More so when you consider how marriages happen today.
We follow the trails and tribulations of in the life of Anamika, our nameless and faceless protagonist who was born and raised in India and chased the American dream like the rest of her middle class brethren. Though she did not know, what she really sought is the right to freedom and the right to be respected as a human being - the two things that she had been taught never to expect in the country where she was born.
She must have been a little over six when her father decided that she was too old to go up to the friendly neighborhood grocery store to buy her mother a box of matches. The decision left her puzzled. She wondered what could have changed so much between yesterday and toady. She sensed that she was in some odd way different from the boys she played with - they could go to the grocery store and beyond. She also realized that there were limits to what she could do. For a while she was upset but consoled herself knowing that other little girls had it much the same. She was old enough to know that being a girl she could not equal the boys.
The math teacher always looked at the boys when she taught and expected no answers from the girls. Math was somehow masculine and anyone who was good at it was supposed to be clever. Little Anamika was good with numbers but the passion was just not there. She did not feel a sense of oneness with the subject and somehow it was related to being a girl. She could not even begin to explain how she felt. This feeling stayed with her, an enduring legacy from school days - a subtle handicap in her college years.
Soon after her tenth birthday, her parents started to look for a suitable boy for her sister, Mallika. They were concerned about her dusky complexion and how that would affect her prospects in landing a good catch in the marriage market. Anamika looked at her picture perfect Didi with new eyes. She looked just as lovely to her. Mallika was a commerce graduate with a degree in Hindustani Classical music. But she was so much more than that. She was dreamy, imaginative and full of joie de vivre. An ad was placed in the newspaper and the responses were disappointing. Her mother thought Mallika deserved much better than the petty bank officer husband she ended up getting. With the dowry they could afford that was the best they could do.
Mallika was resigned to her fate. She cried like her heart would break when she left home to join her husband. Anamika wondered if those tears came from the stinging disappointment over what had happened to her life. He was just not right for her. The new son-in-law wore the smug look of a man who had successfully made a poor father significantly poorer by taking away the best part of his life's savings and his daughter too for good measure. Mallika had to quit her music lessons and her job as a kindergarten teacher after marriage. Her in-laws would not have any of it. Over the years Anamika saw her beloved Didi grow a pale shadow of her former self and become a mother of two non-descript kids besides being a wife of a very non-descript husband.
Didi's wedding etched a deep mark in Anamika's mind. She was going to have more power and choice in marriage. She would not watch herself being sold like a commodity, her worth fixed by arbitrary male whims. She saw dowry as the root of all evil in Indian society. To meet the absurd demands that a groom would make a man with a daughter had no choice but to resort to corrupt means to acquire the money. If he had a son, he would try to make good his loss by claiming a hefty dowry in his marriage. It was a vicious circle.
An unmarried daughter in this society was like a ticking time bomb. After thirty no one would marry her and every man out there would treat her as easily 'available'. Officious friends and relatives would not tire of enquiring 'Did you not find a match for her yet ?'. They would make the parents of the hapless girl infinitely miserable. The whole deal of marriage was to grant one man exclusive rights over a woman so that everyone else would keep off his turf. Besides it made a woman acceptable in a chauvinistic society. Ensuring a woman's security was the prime objective of marriage. Anamika was not sure that was all she expected from her marriage. She would empower herself. She hoped for companionship, friendship and understanding.
Anamika went on to become a computer engineer and her parents began to express concerns about finding a compatible husband. They could not jolly well marry her to a petty bank officer. With the money they had left after Mallika's marriage that was probably all that they could afford. Her father often regretted his decision not to have a third child who might have been a boy and could have been the cash cow he so desperately needed. There was not much scope for under the table money in his line of work. If only he had become Income Tax officer like his other friends.
Her father was as nice a man as any other but he was a creature of circumstance. In her college days Anamika saw the girls sending out desperate feelers to all eligible bachelors. It took very little to qualify as 'eligible'. She empathized with them. Their fathers would never be able to afford an engineer at open market rates. If a 'love' angle was introduced the amount of the dowry would probably be much lower and thus within reach. In the ideal world the dowry would probably be 'written off'. It made perfect sense from everybody's point of view. The parents of the girls were only too eager to make the 'love' match work out.
Many of these 'eligible' bachelors ended up marrying these girls and they went out of the marriage market. When the matrimonial ad was placed for Anamika, the not so eligible 'losers' responded. At the far end of the spectrum were the ambitious types who had to conquer the master's from an American university and entry into corporate America. Some of this variety
responded too. A whole bunch of other unsuitable boys came in between these two categories. There was really not so much to choose from.
Anamika had decided to go beyond the narrow confines of caste and creed much to the consternation of her parents and she would not talk to anyone who asked for a dowry. Her mother failed to see how she could possibly get married with such preposterous pre-conditions. A newly liberated, young and confident woman with a career ahead of her it was futile to try changing Anamika's mind and her parents knew better than to try. They believed that they had failed Mallika and in doing so lost their privilege to decide Anamika's future for her.
She many interesting experiences with the 'prospective grooms'. After going through the process of 'getting to know each other' for a few times, Anamika could easily tell the category in the first fifteen minutes of conversation. There were the 'Ineligible Losers'. 'Compulsive Liars', 'UBI (Unfortunately Born in India) but now happily NRI', 'Clueless but Crazy about Marriage' and 'Willing to be more than Friends but Commitment Shy', 'Mamma's Darling Boy', 'Parents be Damned'. A guy could have attributes of more than one category but one trait always shone out the brightest.
A lot had changed in fifteen years or maybe Anamika had been an agent of change rather than a mute spectator like Mallika. Unlike Didi, she had a strong voice in the decision that would affect her life and she had the confidence to be able to live on her own without needing a man having to prop her up. After all she earned more than a lot of those 'Ineligible Losers'. She often told her outraged mother she could hire a bodyguard for security - if that was all marriage could give her.
After her parents had spent a couple of years trying to locate a match, Anamika decided that she was wasting her time in India. All of her friends were now in the US - getting on with their lives. Her best friend ,Reethika was engaged to someone who looked great in the pictures that she had mailed. It was a Diwali party in Denver, Colorado. Everyone was wreathed in smiles and freedom hung about the air like fresh morning mist. Sonali was in graduate school and seemed to love everything about it. Friday nights were a riot and sometimes the parties ended only in the wee hours. She had gone camping with her new friends. Everything about America seemed to say 'Come Hither'.
The day her H1-B papers were approved, her mother had cried disconsolately. She had lost all hopes of seeing her little Anamika ever getting married. Her father wore a sullen look. He had failed as a father in his duty towards his daughter and she was perhaps within her rights to seek her own fortune. They saw her off at the airport filled with a sense of foreboding about the
Reethika and Atul had come to Boston to receive her and Anamika felt so happy to see them. Her employer had made arrangements for her to share an apartment with another girl. The weekend was unlike any other - so much was new about it . She had met Reethika after three years and she was getting a glimpse of the country that she had dreamt about for so many years.
In a few months she had settled down to a routine not much different from what it had been in India. Except the evenings were totally empty and she always got the voice mails of her friends rather than their real voices when she called them. The craving for some real human company continued to increase with time. Marriage was the only thing her mother could talk about when she called home and somehow that set a raw edge to her acute loneliness. Was it her fault that they had not been able to find a suitable match in two years ?
She had been in America for a year now. Anamika was twenty six. She had spotted her first gray hair. A lot of other changes had taken place too. Atul and Reethika had broken up. After spending three years with her, Atul had figured they were too incompatible to get married. Sonali was not having any luck with her job hunt and was thinking of returning to India. But she had specialized in some arcane field that no one had ever heard about back home. Besides being unemployed did not improve her prospects for marriage her parents had said. Her younger sister had got married to a guy working in New Jersey and seemed to be quite content being a housewife on the lookout for the best 'deals' in town. She was the only person Anamika knew who would actually pick up the phone and chat for an hour. There was little else on her horizon expect husband and domesticity and Anamika felt a void in her own life when she spoke to her.
Anamika was now there in words of her own rather than those of her father along with a picture on a number of matrimonial sites around the internet. Reethika , Sonali and her room mate were there too. The responses this time were a lot worse. She was past that 'ideal' age for marriage that her mother would not cease harping about. Guys flew in from around the place over the
weekend to 'get to know her'. She usually picked them up from the airport and went on to have lunch somewhere. The conversations filled her with a sense of d'j' vu. The categories were all still the same. Nothing had changed. E-mails were exchanged a few days after the visit until the
goodbyes and the nice-knowing-you's were said.
The boy's parents were often not comfortable with the idea of getting their precious and innocent son married to a woman staying independently (she must obviously be worldly wise) in the US. Interestingly the very same parents would have said something quite different had they had met Anamika in India. ' Of course we simply adore you but we can't decide before he meets you. If it were up to us we'd get you married right away. But our son has a mind of his own. Everything would have been so much easier if you had been in the US. He does not plan to come home anytime soon'. This was a perfect catch-22 situation.
At twenty nine, Anamika got married to a thirty five year old man. The wedding took place in Boston as neither of them had enough vacation time to take a trip to India. Her parents came to the US to solemnize the occasion. Her mother was relieved but did not know what to make of her taciturn son-in-law or his spaced out parents who seemed to be guests at the wedding. Would her feisty Anamika be happy with this man ? Was this a bigger disappointment than Mallika's marriage?
Today, a year into marriage, Anamika has the look of one who has been there and done that. Life holds no surprises. The marriage has had its advantages. Her husband is a US citizen which takes care of all the legal tangles in her life. She has never asked any questions about his past and he has never volunteered any information. They live in harmony of a kind in a largish townhouse and own two cars. He has a bachelors degree in a vague subject from a vaguer university and his job description never made any sense to Anamika. She does not even care anymore.
Sometimes, as she flips over her old family albums, she wonders if she fared any better than Mallika. She had these grandiose illusions of power, freedom and choice. All of that did not amount to much in the long run. She hankered for the social security and acceptance that comes from a wedding ring and a husband to show to the world just like sub-continental women have for centuries. She would grow used to her marriage in time just like Mallika and those long-suffering heroines in the old Hindi movies. She would learn to adapt her dreams and expectations to the reality of her life.
From the time of Kalidasa's Shakuntala up to the present day Anamika, not much has changed. The sub-continental woman is still a seller in a buyer's market when it comes to marriage. Men still call the shots. Education and financial independence has allowed her to dream bigger and better in marriage but they do not guarantee that those dreams shall be fulfilled.
As long as a woman is born and raised to feel handicapped because she is a woman, as long as she is vulnerable to society because it does not respect her womanhood the equation is unlikely to change. Empowerment comes from true freedom. The day a woman in India can live on her own terms without fear, and not see her womanhood treated as sign of weakness she will see the balance improve in her favor when it comes to marriage. Anamika's dreams will come true.