For Hitched, you have interviewed women (and their families) who have had arranged marriages. So tell us, what is the most endearing aspect of an arranged marriage in India?
That’s an interesting word, ‘endearing’. I don’t know if there is any particular aspect I find ‘endearing’ about arranged marriage. There are times when I feel the way a marriage is arranged is the very opposite of endearing. The idea for the book started with a conversation with my editor at Random House about how arranged marriage is great fodder for comedy of manners. There are so many aspects on which generations clash, where people of an older generation say things that are unintentionally politically incorrect. There was a time when I used to find it hilarious, even endearing. But in an India that is becoming so much more casteist and communal, I find a lot of this abhorrent now.
You also say that ‘Everything in an arranged marriage is a shade different from a love marriage.’ Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I think it partly has to do with the speed at which things move, and partly has to do with other factors like family, mindspace, perspective, and societal norms.
The way we behave in romantic relationships is very different from the way we behave in an arranged engagement. A first date with someone to whom one is physically attracted is very different from a first meeting with someone to whose matrimonial eligibility one is attracted.
When one is in a relationship, one has days and weeks and months and years of privacy to mull over one’s chemistry with one’s partner; the only pressure comes from oneself, one’s partner, and occasionally, unsolicited advice from people in the know.
In an arranged marriage, the pressures are multiplied. Families feel responsible when a marriage is not going well, and try to “save” the marriage, especially when the marriage has produced children. Sometimes, the only way to salvage the lives of two people is to let them gauge where the relationship is headed; breaking up a marriage is better than living in a broken home.
What insights did interviewing all those couples give you about relationships in general?
Most of those insights are in the book. In the three years since I completed it, I’ve been wondering about the gaps in truth, especially in the relationships whose statuses have changed. How much do we lie to ourselves about how happy we are, especially when we are telling our stories to the world?
I’ve also been thinking about how spontaneous our relationships are. Do we truly fall, helplessly, in love, or are all relationships a hybrid between logic and emotion, instinct and circumspection? We often speak about how we should stop playing games; but we hesitate before we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We wouldn’t think twice before telling someone he or she is a wonderful friend, or that we are glad we met him or her. We think several times, over several days, before saying the very same thing to a partner.
Maybe our lives would be a lot less complicated if we were unapologetically ourselves, instead of trying to constantly put our best feet forward, constantly seeking to please someone else, constantly altering our personalities and tastes to suit partners. Someone who is perfect for you will like you for being yourself; you shouldn’t worry that anything you do will scare him or her off.
You discuss a lot of finer nuances about marriages - living with in-laws, changing the surname, sharing passwords, deciding when to have children...Tell us about one incident/experience that a couple shared with you on these matters - something that has stayed with you ever since.
The word “hope”. It was a one-word answer to a question I asked a divorcee whom I interviewed. She had been through a lot of trauma, from living with controlling in-laws to opening a joint bank account which was eventually emptied by her husband. She told me she had known the marriage was over six months into it. But it took her years to file for a divorce. Why? Hope.
To me, that word defines our interactions with the world, not just our romantic or sexual relationships. However cynical or pessimistic we may claim to be, or believe we are, we all hope for something every day.
What are the relationship rules you swear by?
Honesty, fidelity, gentleness, and unconditional love. If you’re not inclined to be honest or faithful or kind, or if your love turns conditional, you should probably say goodbye before you hurt your partner irreparably.
I emphasise gentleness and kindness because honesty can often be brutal. It is important to ensure that your thoughts are filtered through considerate words.
I think the test of how committed one is to a relationship is the answer to this question: Would you want your partner to raise your dogs with you?