Cross-cultural quest for personal freedom
Deranged Marriage: A Memoir
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.