Cross-cul­tural quest for per­sonal free­dom

De­ranged Mar­riage: A Mem­oir

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ni­colle Flint Ni­colle Flint

By Sushi Das Ban­tam Aus­tralia, 304pp, $34.95

INa re­cent col­umn for this news­pa­per, au­thor Nikki Gem­mell shared some ad­vice from her men­tor, nov­el­ist Glenda Adams: ‘‘ The hard­est thing is to get the reader to keep turn­ing the page, to not bore them.’’

Sushi Das’s mem­oir, De­ranged Mar­riage, cap­ti­vates from the short open­ing pro­logue. Das, who is opin­ion page ed­i­tor at The Age news­pa­per in Mel­bourne, is once again 12. She is In­dian and she will have, like her mother and an­ces­tors be­fore her, an ar­ranged mar­riage. The prob­lem is, this is not what the In­di­an­born, Bri­tish-reared Das wants.

With that, the ten­sion is per­fectly set: will the in­tel­li­gent and wil­ful Das suc­cumb to an ar­ranged mar­riage, the thought of which fills her with dread, or will she defy the hefty, sti­fling weight of fam­ily and so­cial ex­pec­ta­tion, not to men­tion cen­turies of tra­di­tion, and refuse? I’ll leave it to read­ers to find out for them­selves.

Das’s book is a de­tailed con­sid­er­a­tion of the in­tri­ca­cies of In­dian ar­ranged mar­riages and the chal­lenges in­her­ent in main­tain­ing such cus­toms in a West­ern con­text.

She re­flects on the mean­ing of mar­riage and grap­ples with whether a West­ern mar­riage is bet­ter than an ar­ranged one.

Con­tem­po­rary statis­tics and poli­cies on ar­ranged mar­riages more broadly are briefly pro­vided half­way through the book, the only time Das’s per­sonal story breaks stride.

The in­for­ma­tion raises ques­tions per­ti­nent to mi­grant coun­tries such as Bri­tain and Aus­tralia: How far should cul­tural re­spect ex­tend? Whose cus­toms should pre­vail? If, when or how should government in­ter­vene to pro­tect in­di­vid­u­als?

Th­ese are im­por­tant ques­tions but they do present an un­wel­come in­ter­rup­tion as Das has just bravely re­jected one suit­able boy, only for an­other, even more suit­able boy, to ap­pear.

As she notes wryly, he is a ‘‘ suit­able boy for an un­suit­able girl’’, a girl who is now a young woman with plans for univer­sity and free­dom, not mar­riage to an In­dian born and reared doc­tor.

De­ranged Mar­riage, how­ever, is not just about mar­riage. It also of­fers in­valu­able in­sights into In­dian cul­ture and the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence, par­tic­u­larly for girls and women.

If there is a theme that de­fines this book, though, it is courage. Writ­ing such a deeply per­sonal ac­count of your life, let alone of the lives of your fam­ily, who are part of a par­tic­u­larly strong, close-knit com­mu­nity, is a coura­geous act.

A few ex­am­ples: Das’s non-English­s­peak­ing mother leaves her fam­ily and mi­grates to Eng­land with a new baby to join a hus­band she has barely seen since mar­riage; her fa­ther strug­gles to nav­i­gate and rec­on­cile his love for his chil­dren with the bonds of com­mu­nity and tra­di­tion; Das and her sis­ter Vin make brave, though dif­fer­ent, de­ci­sions re­gard­ing mar­riage. And the en­tire fam­ily is coura­geous in its re­sponse to reg­u­lar in­ci­dents of racism.

The teenage Das’s courage in fol­low­ing the Reader’s Di­gest Fam­ily Health Guide and Med­i­cal En­cy­clo­pe­dia ad­vice to ‘‘ slap then hug’’ her hys­ter­i­cally up­set mother pro­vides one of many lighter mo­ments. In­deed, at times De­ranged Mar­riage is rem­i­nis­cent of Ju­dith Lucy’s The Lucy Fam­ily Al­pha­bet: an in­tensely per­sonal fam­ily ac­count laced with hu­mour and sor­row.

But Das’s book also re­minds me of an­other page-turner, al­beit a work of fic­tion: Anna Fun­der’s All That I Am. What ren­ders both books great is their ground­ing in fact and the ques­tions they di­rectly and in­di­rectly pose for our so­ci­eties. Where Fun­der asks: how do and should we treat our refugees, Das asks: how do and should we treat our mi­grants? Where Fun­der asks: are we guard­ing our democ­racy and free­dom of speech, Das asks: are we guard­ing the free­dom of our women?

Notably, both Fun­der and Das por­tray strong women in what has been a mem­o­rable year for Aus­tralian fe­male au­thors and characters (con­sider also Gil­lian Mears’s Foal’s Bread and Frank Moor­house’s Cold Light). But the true power of their work lies in chart­ing the com­pli­cated in­ter­play be­tween women and men, pre­sent­ing the sto­ries of peo­ple. Das’s jour­ney is not just hers but also her fa­ther’s and her fam­ily’s.

In a year marred by ugly and ill-founded de­bates over al­leged sex­ism and misog­yny in pol­i­tics, and on­go­ing claims of women’s un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion in lit­er­a­ture and the­atre, it is re­fresh­ing to re­flect on books, in­clud­ing De­ranged Mar­riage, which tell the sto­ries of women — and men — so re­spect­fully and so well.

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