Expired spicy masala types need not apply

May 2, 2010 § 2 Comments

I was a tad apprehensive about reading Anita Jain’s Marrying Anita. I’ve long known that I’ve wanted to read it, but its bright pink cover with its close-up image of hennaed hands put me off for some time. Plenty of reviews gushed over the book, but these were reviews largely coming out of American and British press. I was afraid that the lurid cover combined with the instant approval of white folks meant that this was another one of those Indian books – the kind that trots out modern-day Indian exotica for a Western/WesternExpised, liberal audience oohing and aahing from across the globe.

But it just so happened that every time I went to Kinokuniya, I saw the book, even though I wasn’t looking for it. Finally I told myself to just shut up and buy it, and the result, dear reader, is that I’m very glad I did – at least for the first half of the book.

The premise of the book is simple: Anita Jain, American by birth, Indian by ancestry, thirty-something in age, successful, sophisticated, independent, is prodded by her own misgivings and her parents’ haranguing to do something about Getting Married. Having lived in various cities around the world as part of her job as a journalist, Jain is currently living in New York when it hits her that “something was wrong – deeply, heart-wrenchingly wrong – with the Western dating system.” She sees her own parents’ union – a successful product of arranged marriage – as the template for what an arranged marriage could be, if done well. So Jain uproots from New York and heads to New Delhi to find love the Indian way.

But anyone who thinks that this book is all about one woman’s search for a man will be dead wrong. It’s a memoir of one woman’s attempt to get married, sure, but Jain is a much too intelligent and curious writer to simply rely on herself as the book’s sole subject. But I suppose any memoir that does that is dead from the start. Her training as a journalist comes across here, as she probes into the lives and details of the various people she meets (and there are many), the places she sees, the social situations she comes across.

Jain explains in this interview with Sepia Mutiny that the memoir form is rather uncommon among Indian writers, especially female ones. She would be right. That probably has something to do with the fact that Indian women are compelled, from a young age, to constantly think about themselves and how they present themselves to the world, but never to draw attention to themselves. Being an ‘Amrikan’ lass, however, Jain has inherited her country of birth’s penchant for forthrightness and aptitude for ‘putting it all out there.’ As a result, her writing can sometimes be awkwardly honest, but is all the more captivating because of it (but as the book goes on, it’s clearly a charm that can start to wear thin if not used well.)

Jain’s ability to extract humour from a situation, to gently ridicule something or someone while at the same time taking it very seriously, is one of the strengths of the book – and possibly one of the main reasons why I couldn’t put it down. As such, none of the characters here come off as one-dimensional. And I will shamefully admit to having a similar crush on one of the men who made Jain all nervous-tingly – Mustafa of Kashmir – because she described him so enticingly. He seems typical of the type of emotionally-unavailable yet exquisitely refined and intelligent men that gets me all swoony.

I was fascinated by her accounts of the rapidly changing New Delhi, and India in general, and I found it somewhat similar to Malaysia in many ways. Particularly the part where she writes: “In the same way that India has leapfrogged all the intermediary technology of the seventies, eighties, and early nineties, moving directly from antiquated telephone circuitry to cutting-edge mobile phone platforms and wireless Internet, the country’s urban twentysomethings plugged directly into the rampant casual sex, or hookup, culture of the West without bothering to travel through the intermittent stages of dating and romance.”

While that bit about bypassing the ‘dating’ stage for ‘hook-up’ stage does ring fairly true, one does wonder if that has less to do with cultures, specifically (‘culture of the West’) and more to do with economics. Urban youth in major cities all over the world behave the same way because of increasing exposure to higher-income living. Along with this comes the commodification of culture and, well, everything else. Anything the market can get its hands on, it transforms into a commodity. This seems like Western culture simply because the West was the first to wholeheartedly embrace capitalism, then attempted to enforce it to the rest of the world through colonialism – and now, neo-liberal imperialism.

No?

Also, her conclusion of the Indian need for marriage is rather superficial. I would have appreciated it if she had done a bit more research to tell us exactly why Indians are so obsessed with marriage. Is it simply because there is “just no concept of living alone” in India, as she says? Why is that the case (as is the case with most Asian societies?) Do cultural norms simply dictate that one MUST live amongst other people – through marriage and extended relations – or is economics also a key factor?

Historically, one can say that Indian parents wanted their daughters married off because daughters were typically not educated, and were thus unable to enter into the workforce and live an economically-independent life. If a daughter chose to remain unmarried, she’d be dependent on her family forever, as it were. Nowadays, Indian women in urban cities are able to forge an economically autonomous existence once they enter the workforce. But Jain doesn’t really delve into how much the pressure has shifted, in modern cities like New Delhi, on the issue of marriage. Sure, she tells us how Indians are still as keen as ever to get married, registering themselves on websites like shaadi.com in order to find a suitable partner. But how much of this is just routine – automatic gestures that are the detritus of a long-standing tradition – as opposed to a real need or desire to be married?

Tellingly, she writes: “In India, where marriages are routinely by parents and extended family, marriage is not a choice. It just is. There is simply no concept of living a life alone. It happens here and there, but as a mistake, an unintentional slippage in society. In the West, people do it all the time, even relish it, saying things like, ‘I would rather live alone than live with the wrong person.’ But spend ten minutes with most of these people and it becomes apparent that they are lonely.”

Are they? How can she tell? It’s clear throughout much of the book that it’s Jain who feels alone and incomplete when she’s out of a relationship. No matter how flimsy or tenuous its base, Jain seems to find her life more purposeful when she’s in one.

There are different degrees of loneliness, and I would argue every damn person goes through it in varying degrees and at different stages in one’s life. You can be single and lonely. You can also be married and lonely. In her privileged position as an American-raised, well-educated and financially well-off position, Jain can conclude that marriage just is because people are not meant to live alone. But what of so many other people – men and women – for whom marriage is a trap, a cage, an institution forced upon them not by choice or desire but simply because marriage just is the right thing to do? Or the only thing to do? What of countless women being married off against their will and not having a say in the matter?

This is what grates on me most about this book. From her position as modern, urban woman living the cosmopolitan, jet-setting lifestyle that she chose for herself, she feels acutely lonely and sees marriage as this veritable garden of paradise where two people come together to forge a life and live unlonely lives. Yes, that’s probably true of some marriages. It’s also a whole garden of horseshit for many others stuck in abusive or unfulfilling marriages. For all that this book is about marriage, there isn’t much exploration or analysis about marriage as an institution.

Feminism doesn’t come into play in Jain’s analysis, except when she talks about her father being one. (Which, I must admit, is charming – the anecdotes she relates of her father are warm and rather touching. Indeed, her father seems to be more of a feminist than she is.) She boldly speaks of her need for love, of being the one among her friends to march headfirst into a love affair while they wring their hands in uncertainty and mistrust, steeped in cynicism after one too many failed romances. She confesses to not understanding what she terms “fear of intimacy.” Yet she talks of her desire for a younger Indian man, Aristu, who by all accounts is an emotionally-stunted jerk. She talks of chasing after the elusive dream of Mustafa.

No one’s faulting Jain for liking a jerk, or giving more weight to a dream than an actual person. We’ve all been there, and her honesty in exposing this makes the reader want to give her a reassuring hug. But her lack of awareness in these contradictions in her own character makes the book just a tad flimsier. Or perhaps that’s the inherent danger of a memoir. Perhaps none of us can truly know ourselves, even while plumbing the depths of our memories and experiences. Perhaps you’re only ever seen for you are by someone else. Or perhaps Jain was aware of her own inconsistencies, but chose not to highlight them.

Still, it would also have been fulfilling if she could have probed on a more expansive scale, then – to understand why many women continue to debase themselves in their own eyes in order to gain attention from a loser? Lots of women have done this, and will likely continue to do so, whether they come from relatively privileged backgrounds with relatively happy families, as Jain’s background seems to have been, or tortured backgrounds with nasty families. But it’s not as common among men.

It’s more permissible for women to do this, in society’s eyes – to give up their dignity in pursuit of an emotionally-unavailable prick, than it is for men to do the same for an emotionally-unavailable… prickette. Jain, being so much worldlier and educated (and I mean that in the sense of being educated by a dizzying array of life experiences as a by-product of her job) than the average Indian, or indeed American, woman – could have pursued this deeper. But she doesn’t. True, this is a memoir, and not an academic study, but a memoir focuses on a life – and an analysis of the social contexts that surrounds that life will never be out of place. (Not for me, anyway.)

Jain does this admirably in a lot of situations – especially in the old India vs. new India scenarios – that it’s somewhat disheartening that she doesn’t do this in her depictions of the relations between men and women. In this issue, she seems to shrink it to a personal microcosm and leaves it at that.

You got to hand it to her for being revealing and candid though. Precisely because this is a memoir of a real person, it’s far from perfect. The more time you spend in her company the more annoyed you are with her for what seems to be blatantly self-defeating practices (ie. wants ‘real love’, but ‘passes the time’ by hanging out with younger boys and girls, drinking in bars and nightclubs, dating men that she knows aren’t right for her). But the more time you spend with her, the more you do like her for being both annoying and interesting, and it’s a testament to her voice that I sort of missed Anita when I was done reading the book. No more episodes of drinking Sula wine while kind but broke dates drank tap water. No more descriptions of make-out sessions with bad Indian boys in the car, of Indian marriage ceremonies, of picnics in New York.

Marrying Anita brings to mind Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, but Moaveni’s book is the more nuanced, moving, and better-written one. Maybe that’s an unfair comparison, as Moaveni’s scope is more far-reaching than Jain’s, but Moaveni also had a greater appreciation for external influences and social conditioning and its influence on a person’s behaviour and choices, and a greater love of language that was apparent in her sentences. It’s a shame, because Jain’s intelligence and wit is constantly on display, yet the book starts to flail towards the end because she becomes a little too obsessed with herself and her romantic foibles – those same foibles she had mentioned chapters earlier and attempted to analyse. The very strength that got the book off onto a great start – her ability to dissect her behaviour and upbringing through a sharp microscopic lens trained both inward and outward – becomes less potent towards the end, and the reader is left with much navel-gazing.  I got the impression that Jain thought she would find some sort of glorious answer to her romantic troubles in India, where marriage just is and no one conceives of living life alone, only to run headfirst into the very same obstacles, perplexities, and confusions that peppered her romantic life everywhere else.

It could be that a marriage just is only if you’re willing to shut off that little voice inside that questions, demands, and expects (as in the case of plenty of intelligent and stalwart women and men Jain met along the way in New Delhi; smart, fizzing over with ideas and blossoming with hope for the future, but ever so willing to repress those very same parts of themselves in order to make a ‘good marriage’). I don’t know. I’ve never placed any trust in marriage as an institution, anyhow. Possibly that made me a doomed reader from the start.

At the end of Marrying Anita I felt a little crushed, as I do when a book that started out with tremendous promise and could have been much better simply falls a little too short. Despite that, I’d recommend it for its intimate look at how a “modern” Indian woman tries to find love in India the “old-fashioned” way, aided and abetted by contemporary technology. How’s that for a one-line summary? I should’ve just said that at the beginning and cut out the previous 2,000 words of this review.

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