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Arranged Marriage by Chitra Banjerjee Divakaruni.

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Title: Arranged Marriage.
Author: Chitra Banjerjee Divakaruni.
Genre: Literature, fiction, short stories, bildungsroman, cultural studies, romance.
Country: U.S.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 1990, 1993, 1995.
Summary: This volume includes 11 short stories that subtly chronicle the accommodation—and the rebellion—Indian-born girls and women in America undergo as they balance old treasured beliefs and surprising new desires. In The Bats (1993), a young woman and her daughter flee an abusive marriage in Calcutta to a "grandpa-uncle" living poorly in a remote village, where the girl forms a strong bond with the old man. In Clothes (1990), Mita comes to America to live with her new husband Somesh, and his family, while he saves up money part-owning a 7 Eleven, but the couples' hopeful dreams and plans for the future are shattered with a shocking act of violence. In Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs, during a visit to her Aunt and Uncle in America, Jayanti, a girl from a wealthy Indian family, is shocked to find that everything, from her aunt and uncle's marriage and relationship, to her uncle's success, to America's infamous welcoming acceptance, is not as it appears. In The Word Love, a young woman with a complicated relationship with her mother has to come to terms with her mother's complete rejection of her when she finds out her daughter is living "in sin" with a man while studying in America. In a Perfect Life, Meera, a successful woman with a well-organized life, an American boyfriend, and a rejection of typical Indian expectations of marriage and family, has her life turned upside down when she finds a homeless, traumatized boy on her doorstep. The Maid Servant's Story is a tale told by an Aunt to her niece about a family with a young expectant mother hiring a maid on impulse, which brings horrible misfortune on the household. In The Disappearance, a young man has to come to terms with the disappearance of his wife, and his gradual realization she had left him. In Doors, Preeti, an Indian girl brought up in America and Deepak, a man recently arrived from India, marry, and have a successful marriage, until Deepak's childhood friend, Raju, visits their home and brings to light some stark cultural differences. The Ultrasound is a story that parallels the lives and experience of pregnancy between two best friends - one moving to live in America with her business-man husband, and one becoming the head wife of a traditional Brahmin family. In Affair, Abha's proper world of being a dutiful Indian wife is turned upside down when she learns her best friend Meena is having an affair, and she suspects it's with her own husband. In Meeting Mrinal, Asha, recently left by her husband and in a tense relationship with her rebellious teenage son, is weary to meet her childhood best friend Mrinal because she is single, but much happier and more successful, but quickly learns how sometimes very different lives lurk behind appearances.

My rating: 8/10.
My review: Arranged marriages have always fascinated and intrigued me.

What I really enjoyed about this book is the lack of any bias. It never leaves you with the feeling that the author is trying to form your opinion on arranged marriages, or make a point. She simply show-cases all of the angles, all of the possible outcomes, at the same time leaving the success and failure driven by the Indian cultural norms an enigma, while explaining with enough compassion and understanding to illuminate some aspects for a person coming from a completely opposite and different culture and practice. Even though it's not my own belief, I have great respect for the traditions and reasons behind Indian customs. I also really enjoyed how this book is really about women, and it's quite empowering. There is courage and progress and a human, relatable feel to every woman you get introduced to.


♡♡♡ The Bats. (8.5/10)

♡♡♡ Clothes. (7.5/10)

♡♡♡ Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs. (8/10)

♡♡♡ The Word Love. (8.5/10)

♡ Perfect Life. (7.5/10)

I enjoyed The Maid Servant's Story the most out of the collection. It was just such a well-told and well-developed tale, that touches so poignantly on matters of class and caste

♡ The Disappearance. (7.5/10)

♡ Doors. (8/10)

♡♡♡ The Ultrasound. (8.5/10)

♡♡♡ Affair. (8/10)

Meeting Mrinal was interesting and carries a great message, but it's a little typical. I could see the big "twist" of grass always looks greener from almost the very beginning, and while I heavily resonate with the message, the story was not the strongest in the collection due to its over-used subject matter and predictable outcome.


♥ We sat in silence under the broad reddish-green leaves of plantain tree and watched the water for a while. Dragonflies flitted from lotus leaf to lotus leaf, the scent of champa blossoms lay lightly on the air, I leaned my head against Grandpa-uncle's shirt with its pungent tobacco smell, and my whole chest ached with the wish that I could spend the rest of my life just like this.

♥ I wanted to tell her how, as the train picked up speed, Grandpa-uncle had become smaller and smaller until he was no bigger than a matchstick doll. And then he had disappeared. But Mother was frowning, biting at her lower lip and rummaging through her purse for something, so I didn't say it. Instead, I looked up at the sky. It was full of monsoon clouds, black and crinkly like bats' wings. That was when I knew she had deceived me, that nothing was going to happen the way she said it would.

~~The Bats.

♥ Besides, wasn't it every woman's destiny, as Mother was always telling me, to leave the known for the unknown?

♥ I grope for something to hold on to, something beautiful and talismanic from my old life. And then I remember. Somewhere down under me, low in the belly of the plane, inside my new brown case which is stacked in the dark with a hundred others, are my saris. Thick Kanjeepuram silks in solid purples and golden yellows, the thin hand-woven cottons of the Bengal countryside, green as a young banana plant, gray as the women's lake on a monsoon morning. Already I can feel my shoulders loosening up, my breath steadying. My wedding Benarasi, flame-orange, with a wide palloo of gold-embroidered dancing peacocks. Fold upon fold of Dhakais so fine they can be pulled through a ring. Into each fold my mother has tucked a small sachet of sandalwood powder to protect the saris from the unknown insects of America. Little silk sachets, made from her old saris—I can smell their calm fragrance as I watch the American air hostess wheeling the dinner cart toward my seat. It is the smell of my mother's hands.

I know then that everything will be all right. And when the air hostess bends her curly golden head to ask me what I would like to eat, I understand every word in spite of her strange accent and answer her without stumbling even once over the unfamiliar English phrases.

♥ That's when I know I cannot go back. I don't know yet how I'll manage, here in this new, dangerous land. I only know I must. Because all over India, at this very moment, widows in white saris are bowing their veiled heads, serving tea to in-laws. Doves with cut-off wings.

~~Clothes.

Home, I whisper desperately, homehomehome, and suddenly, intensely, I want my room in Calcutta, where things were so much simpler. I want the high mahogany bed in which I've slept as long as I can remember, the comforting smell of sun-dried cotton sheets to pull around my head. I want my childhood again. But I am too far away for the spell to work, for the words to take me back, even in my head.

♥ The snow has covered the dirty cement pavements, the sad warped shingles of the rooftops, has softened, forgivingly, the rough noisy edges of things.

...When I finally look down, I notice that the snow has covered my own hands so they are no longer brown but white, white, white. And now it makes sense that the beauty and the pain should be part of each other. I continue holding them out in front of me, gazing at them, until they're completely covered. Until they do not hurt at all.

~~Silver Pavements, Golden Roofs.

♥ "I love her, Rex." I will not feel apologetic, you told yourself. You wanted him to know that when you conjured up her face, the stern angles of it softening into a rare smile, the silver at her temples catching the afternoon sun in the backyard under the pomegranate tree, love made you breathless, as though someone had punched a hole through your chest.

Mistake, says the voice, whispering in your mother's tones.

Sometimes the voice sounds different, not hers. It is a rushed intake of air, as just before someone asks a question that might change your life. You don't want to hear the question, which might be how did you get yourself into this mess, or perhaps why, so you leap in with that magic word. Love, you tell yourself, lovelovelove. But you know, deep down, that words solve nothing.

♥ You walk out to the balcony. The rain runs down your cheeks, the tears you couldn't shed.

♥ Coming toward you is a young woman with an umbrella. Shoulders bunched, she tiptoes through puddles, trying hard to stay dry. But a gust snaps the umbrella back and soaks her. She is shocked for a moment, angry. Then she begins to laugh. And you are laughing too, because you know just how it feels. Short, hysterical laugh-bursts, then quieter, drawing the breath deep into yourself. You watch as she stops in the middle of the sidewalk and tosses her ruined umbrella into a garbage can. She spreads her arms and lets the rain take her: hair, paisley blouse, midnight-blue skirt. Thunder and lightning. It's going to be quite a storm. You remember the monsoons of your childhood. There are no people in this memory, only the sky, rippling with exhilarating light.

♥ And a word comes to you out of the opening sky. The word love. You see that you had never understood it before. It is like rain, and when you lift your face to it, like rain it washes away inessentials, leaving you hollow, clean, ready to begin.

~~The Word Love.

♥ Sharmila had pressed her cheek to the baby's wrinkled one, to that skin translucent and delicate like expensive onion-skin paper, and looked at me with eyes that shone in spite of the hollows gouged under them. "I'd never have thought I could love anyone so much, so instantly, Meera," she'd whispered. And this from a woman who'd always agreed that the world already had too many people in it for us to add to the problem! So I knew mother-love was real. Real and primitive and dangerous, lurking somewhere in the female genes—especially our Indian ones—waiting to attack. I was determined to watch out for it.

♥ I lay there watching the shadows thrown onto my wall by the street lamp outside, thinking how strange the nature of love is and how strangely it transforms people.

~~Perfect Life.

♥ I take refuge in platitude. "Times have changed, Mashi."

Mashi waves away the intervening decades with a beringed, dimpled hand. "Oh, you Americanized girls! The really important things never change."

♥ At the airport she'd pressed a cool, dry cheek to mine (while all around us parents clung to departing children and let fall torrents of tears) and said, "You know I want the best for you."

The worst part was, I knew she did. She watched over my life carefully, vigilantly, if from afar. All through my childhood, everything I wanted—everything material, that is—was provided for me, often before I needed to ask. But what she thought, what she longed for, what made her cry out in her dreams (for I'd heard her, once or twice), I never knew. It was as though she'd built a wall of ice around her, thin and invisible and unbreakable. No matter how often I flung myself against it, I was refused entry.

♥ Finally one day the maid presented to her mistress the slate across which was written, in crude and barbaric letters, yes, but clearly enough, her name. The wife stood up and pulled her close for a hug, saying, "Sarala, that's beautiful, I'm so proud of you." The slatted sunlight from the window illumined the faces of both the women, the tears glistening on their lashes, and the sister, whose eyes had filled too, felt blessed, as though for a moment she had been allowed to look into the heart of grace.

♥ But sometimes in the heat-encrusted afternoons when the wife looked up from a piece of embroidery to stare through the window bars at the blank yellow sky, the sister felt that something was gone, irrevocably, from her face. How much had she guessed of the maid's story? It was impossible to tell. A patina of hardness that kept the sister from looking in had descended upon her. Over the years it would thicken (though no one except the sister seemed to notice) into a burnished mask that gave away nothing. Watching, the sister would shiver, as though she felt the cold hardening of her own arteries. She would grieve silently and, yes, guiltily (no matter how often she told herself that it wasn't her fault) for that eager embracive grace which had once made her sister a rare and magical being.

♥ But there's something more. I feel it in the uneasy silence that has gathered in the corners of the room, among the houseplants and knick-knacks and wall hangings that look suddenly dusty and sad, as though they embodied some unendingly futile human endeavor—a search for beauty, a belief in luck. A hope that happiness will endure. My aunt's beleaguered world is not the simple one I have always taken it to be.

♥ I know she will not tell my any more. It's how we survive, we Indian women whose lives are half light and half darkness, stopping short of revelations that would otherwise crisp away our skins. I'm left alone to figure the truth of the story, to puzzle out why it was given to me.

♥ I wonder if the story (though not intended as such by my aunt) is a warning for me, a preview of my own life which I thought I had fashioned so cleverly, so differently from my mother's, but which is only a repetition, in a different raga, of her tragic song. Perhaps it is like this for all daughters, doomed to choose for ourselves, over and over, the men who have destroyed our mothers.

~~The Maid Servant's Story.

♥ From the master bedroom, Preeti could hear his awkward bed-making efforts, the muffled sound of pillows thrown on the floor, the creaking bedsprings. A part of her cried out to go to him, to apologize and offer to have Raj back. To fashion her curves to his warm body and let his lips—so familiar, so reassuring—soothe her into sleep.

Instead, for the first time, she lay down alone in the big bed they'd bought together the week before their marriage. She closed her eyes and tried to recall the happiness of that day, but there was only a black square filled with snow and static, as when, while watching the video, one comes across a portion of the tape that has been erased by accident. She lay there, feeling the night cover her slowly, layer by cold, clean layer. And when the door finally clicked shut, she did not know whether it was in the guest room or deep inside her own being.

~~Doors.

♥ Even the night before we were to be married, we have gone up to the roof together at Runu's urging.

"Oh, I do hope there'll be a midnight star for us to wish on," Runu had whispered.

I didn't believe in shooting stars anymore. I knew they were merely burning meteors that had no power to help anyone, not even themselves. But I heard the longing in Runu's voice and I hoped there would be a star for her.

♥ But of course I was being adolescent, melodramatic. Four years have passed since and we are happy enough. Our husbands are kind and dependable and take good care of us. In the Indian culture, that is the same as love.

♥ Before we sleep, we make love. When Sunil kisses the curves of my breasts and hip and thigh, I cry again. In spite of my bloated body, I know I am beautiful. I cannot remember how unhappiness feels.

~~The Ultrasound.

♥ The couple were walking along the edge of a swimming pool now, tall and unself-conscious, while the reflected light from the water shimmered over their nakedness. The woman dived into the pool and the man followed. Unhindered by clothing, their limbs cut cleanly through the blue, and when they came together bubbles broke and rose around them like silver beads. I knew intuitively that they weren't married. Their mouths and hands explored the curves and hollows of each other's bodies with a frank delight that was very different from our awkward, furtive movements in the darkened bedroom. When the man's lips closed around the tight pinkness of the woman's nipple, I watched carefully. A part of me was surprised that I felt none of the same that would have ordinarily overwhelmed me. Perhaps the dim blue swirl of water in which they rocked, suspended, gave the act a softness, a sense of surreality. Or perhaps shame is something you feel only when someone is watching you watch.

♥ For that was what I came to realize in the banquet hall of the Taj with the broken light from the mirrored spheres lying around me: I hadn't loved Ashok all these years, not really, though I believed I had. I'd been too busy being a good wife.

♥ "Abha! What are you doing here?"

I almost laughed. They were just about the same words I'd used when Srikant showed up at my door. In all our different lives, perhaps, there were only a few situations that repeated themselves over and over, and only a few responses we had for them. I wondered how many women were lying sleepless like me through the night-dark, eyes burning from tears that wouldn't come, because their husbands were having affairs with their best friends.

♥ "But I just couldn't keep on. Our marriage—there was nothing left in it—if there had ever been anything. I felt I was slowly drying up inside, my blood turning to dust." She looked into my face doubtfully. "I don't think you can really understand."

But I did. It came to me that the marriage she was describing was my own. If I slip open my wrists right now, I would find only salt powder.

♥ "It's not wrong to want to be happy, is it? To want more out of life than fulfilling duties you took on before you knew what they truly meant?"

The face of my own mother—disappointed, sorrowful, shamed—filled my vision for a moment.

"No," I said, speaking as much to myself as to Meena. I took the edge of my dupatta and gently wiped the mascara streaks from her wet cheeks. "It's not wrong. This way you both get another chance."

~~Affair.

♥ But sometimes I call his name and he looks up from whatever he's doing—not with the what, Mom, that I'm used to, but with a polite, closed stranger's face. That's when I'm struck by fear. I realize that Dinesh is drifting from me, swept along on the current of his new life which is limpid on the surface but with a dark undertow that I, standing helplessly on some left-behind shore, can only guess at. That's when I fix salads, lots of salads, as though the cucumbers and celery and alfalfa could protect him from failing grades, drugs, street gangs, AIDS. As though the translucent rings of onions and the long curls of carrots could forge a chain that would hold him to me, close, safe forever.

♥ But most of all I'm crying because I feel like a child who picks up a fairy doll she's always admired from afar and discovers that all its magic glitter is really painted clay. Somehow believing in Mrinal's happiness, thinking that unregretful lives like hers were possible, had made it easier to bear my individual sorrows. What would I live on, now that I knew perfection was only a mirage?

♥ Slowly an image takes shape somewhere behind the stinging in my eyes. It is so disconnected from what's going on that I think I'm hallucinating from all the carbon monoxide. It's a fired clay bowl, of all things, simple and unadorned, its glaze the muted brown of fallen leaves. For a moment I'm confused, then I recall that I saw a slide of it in my spring Art Appreciation class. I've forgotten the time period and the potter's name, though I know he was someone old and famous. I turn the bowl around and around in my mind till I come upon what I'm looking for, a small snag on the paper-thin lip, and I hear again the teacher's nasal New York accent telling us that this was the master potter's signature, a flaw he left in all his later works, believing that it made them more human and therefore more precious.

♥ The glasses glitter like hope. We raise them to each other solemnly, my son and I, and drink to our precious, imperfect lives.

~~Meeting Mrinal.
Tags: 1990s - fiction, 1st-person narrative, 20th century - fiction, 2nd-person narrative, 3rd-person narrative, abuse (fiction), american - fiction, cultural studies (fiction), family saga, fiction, immigration (fiction), indian - fiction, literature, my favourite books, race (fiction), romance, short stories, social criticism (fiction)
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