Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Book of the Month: Marrying Anita (Anita Jain)

In 2005 Anita Jain, a second generation Indian in America, published an article in the New Yorker magazine, in which she described her attempts at striking a balance between the New York dating scene and the arranged-marriage set-up that is prevalent amongst the Indian Diaspora spread across the globe. Jain, a graduate from Harvard, wrote:

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that shaadi, the word for marriage in many Indian languages, is the first word a child understands after mummy and papa. To an Indian, marriage is a matter of karmic destiny. There are many happy unions in the pantheon of Hindu gods—Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radha.’

Following the publication of the article, Jain was approached to write a book. Jain proposed doing a book that would take her to India, the country of her ancestors. The result is a rollicking, no-holds-barred, memoir, Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in New India.

Jain’s father, a graduate with a degree in engineering from one of the prestigious universities in India, left the country of his forefathers in search of a better life-style. He immigrated to America, where, after years of hard toil and several dead-end jobs and failed money-making schemes, he gained entry into the social class Karl Marx described as petit bourgeois. But, as they say, you can take a man out of India, but you can’t take India out of a man. Having escaped the bucolic town of Meerut (from which he hailed) and several dozen relatives stuck at the lower rungs of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Jain’s father saw little reason to visit India in the decades after he moved to America. He also held the country of his birth, based on his experiences in the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh (Northern Province), the most populous state in the Indian Federation, in withering contempt (‘India will never change,’ is his verdict when he visits his daughter in India). However, in his thinking he would appear to be very much an Indian of his generation in at least one aspect: very keen for his daughter to be married to a ‘nice Indian boy’, preferably vegetarian, although—Jain wryly observes—he was prepared to slack the rules if the boy earned more than 200,000 dollars a year. Throughout Jain’s twenties, her father put advertisement in immigrant American newspapers such as India Abroad which went like: ‘Match for Jain girl, Harvard-educated journalist, 25, fair, slim.’ ‘Jain’ is the author’s surname as well as the name of the relatively less known Indian religion to which she belongs. Jain—that is the author— informs us that her religion began its life as an offshoot of Hinduism, but has been absorbed over the millennia by the all-encompassing Hinduism. Although accorded the status of a religion, it is treated, by most Indians, including, perhaps, its followers, as very close to Hinduism. (In literature, ‘Jainism’ gets a mention in American Pastoral, my least favourite Philip Roth novel, where the daughter of the novel’s narrator converts to Jainism and becomes a vegetarian, news the narrator receives as if she has contracted a deadly communicable disease. ‘Jainism’ is a militantly vegetarian religion and its strict followers, Jain informs us, do not eat root vegetables such as carrots.) If he was in a magnanimous mood, Jain’s father would add the line, ‘Caste no bar’. Jain’s brother who, incredibly for someone who grew up in America, never had a girl-friend before he married a girl his parents chose for him, was, happily married with a kid; but his precocious sister was altogether different cup of chai. She refused to settle down into matrimony. Equipped with her Harvard degree, Jain, throughout her twenties, worked in different continents: South America (Mexico City), South East Asia (Singapore), and Europe (England and Spain), and returned to New York just when she turned thirty; single and in search of Mr Right. The problem for Jain was she was leading a life out of the Sex and the City, but harbored notions of love and romance that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Bollywood potboiler. She had had enough of commitment-phobic Americans (and Europeans and South Americans). She did not want to wake up alone in the morning (or in the bed of a man she had no recollection getting in bed with). She was no longer in the first flush of youth and felt that time was running out for her. She wanted a husband, pronto. In a journey that was the reverse of that which her father undertook when he was roughly of the same age as she, more than three decades before, Jain decided to emigrate to India. Her father left his homeland in search of a better job; Jain decided to return to her ancestral homeland in search of a better husband; or a husband.

What follows is a highly entertaining and readable account that is part travelogue and part memoir.

Jain is in a unique position to offer insights into what she described in an interview as the sexual revolution sweeping through the young people in the big Indian cities, very similar to the one the US experienced in the sixties (amongst other things). She is both an insider and outsider: an Indian born and raised in the USA, who has not severed the links to the country and culture of her parents. What she also has, as becomes increasingly apparent as the memoir progresses, is a refreshingly open mind shorn of preconceived stereotypes about India. In the year (that is described in the memoir) Jain goes out on dates with many men. Her tastes, when it comes to men, are Catholic. Ethnicity is no bar (although she meets more Indians than Westerners), caste is no bar, language is no bar (some of the men she agrees to go out with are referred to by the hip, English-speaking crowd as ‘vernac’—short-hand for ‘vernacular’, as they can’t speak English), background is no bar (some of her dates have escaped grinding poverty in India’s hinterland to come to the metropolis), religion is no bar (Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians—all are welcome), earning capacity is no bar (she ends up paying for some of her dates after realizing that the evening’s bill is probably equal to their monthly salaries), and, finally,  dietary habits are no bar (flesh-eaters have as much a chance as grass-eaters of getting to know Jain). It would be fair to say the girl is not picky. The young in Delhi, Jain discovers, are not all that different from their counterparts in New York. They wear designer clothes, smoke hash, drink alcohol (Old Monk seems to be the favourite in the circles Jain moves in), think nothing of pre-marital sex, and—this would surely shock Jain’s father—are prepared to end marriages and relationships on grounds such as they have fallen out of love. (In a dry tone—that raises its head from time to time throughout the book—Jain observes, ‘These days it takes a lot less than wife-beating to trigger a divorce; mere temperamental differences will do.’) They also have a very relaxed attitude towards issues like religion, ethnicity, and sexuality. Jain gets to know a vibrant gay community in Delhi. She makes friends amongst gay men many of whom, Jain would have us believe, are in happy, stable relationships. India, you get the impression from the memoir, has an ambivalent attitude towards homosexuality. Hinduism, the main religion of the country—the only surviving religion of the Antiquity—has no position on homosexuality; indeed, one of the names of Shiva, one of the Gods of the Hindu trinity, Jain informs us, is Ardhnarinateshwar— a Sanskrit word, the meaning of which is ‘half a man and half a woman’. So homosexuality is not a religious taboo, but it is definitely a cultural taboo and is rarely discussed openly in households. Indeed Jain meets gay men (she does not meet lesbians; all of her homosexual friends are men) whose families were prepared to turn a blind eye to their sexualities so long as they married and procreated. One of Jain’s acquaintances did not ‘come out’ until he was thirty, and spent most of his adolescence groping servant boys.

So much for the metropolitan city with its gaggles of young men and women for whom life is a mélange of parties, discos, and posh restaurants serving haut cuisine (at prices which would put you in the mind of a second mortgage). What about the mofussil? Jain discovers that outside of the emancipated (if that is the word) womenfolk in Delhi, things have not changed a great deal for women, if the life-stories of two of her cousins are anything to go by. Jain visits her mother’s hometown of Gaziabaad, a mere forty minutes drive from Delhi and described once by the Newsweek as one of the ten fastest growing cities in the world. Jain sees no evidence of that (although admittedly she does not venture outside of the area where her aunt lives). At her aunt’s place, she meets her two cousins who married when they were twenty-one—arranged marriages, of course—and have been living with the joint families of their husbands. They have to seek permission from their mothers-in-law in everything they do. They rarely leave homes and, inside of their homes, spend most of their waking hours in the kitchens. (We also learn that traditional ‘Jain’ households in which Jain’s cousins live, have interesting rituals around defecation and cleanliness, which they have to observe.) Their days (and lives) revolve around cooking, cleaning, and looking after their children and husbands. And both the women, bedecked in gold and jewelry from head to toe, are very happy with their lives. They are perplexed, amused even, when Jain tells them about the life she leads in Delhi, less than an hour’s drive from Gaziabaad—the life of staying out all hours most nights, drinking and smoking in bars with men—, but are not pitying or envious.

Jain is a sharp and non-judgmental observer of what goes around her and effortlessly throws into sharp relief some of the less well-known (or advertised) facets of Indian psych: such as the Indians’ preoccupation with the fair skin. This frequently manifests as what Jain describes as inward racism, and the goras (Indian colloquial—not pejoratives— term to describe the Westerners—literal meaning: ‘white’) get preferential treatment over their own. Jain recounts stories of two Australian girls who do not strike you as excessively burdened in the talent department, and who (funnily enough) start off by working in the Indian call centres (so that, for a change, when your call is answered by a person who introduces herself as ‘Amy’ is indeed ‘Amy’ and not, say, ‘Amita’), getting good jobs thanks to their skin colour.

Jain does not speak much about India’s much reviled caste system, but maybe that is because explaining the complexity of it would have been beyond the scope of the book. (I once heard British author Louis de Berniers in a literary programme where he said that the Indian caste system was so complex that even the Indians probably did not understand it fully; the British class system, he said, was not a patch on India’s Byzantine caste system). However, here too, you get the impression that a big gulf exists between the urban areas and the hinterlands. In the cosmopolitan ambiance of Delhi, caste does not matter: when you are traveling in the overcrowded metro or gyrating to the latest Bollywood ditties or singing along to Simon & Garfinkel (It seems the artists who went out of fashion years ago in the West still captivate Indian youth; they even listen to Judas priest), you have neither the time nor the inclination to be curious about the cast of the person next to you. However, in the hinterland where communities are more closely knit and (for want of better phrase) traditional, these things matter a lot more. There are interesting titbits of information provided, such as Jain, although technically belonging to a religion different from Hinduism, which does not have caste system, also talks about her ‘Bania’ (Merchant) caste. Jainism, Jain informs us, started its life as an opposition to the hierarchical nature of Hinduism, but over millennia, has been reabsorbed into the parent religion. Those who converted to Jainism thousands of years ago belonged to the ‘Bania’ cast. And the modern day Jains consider themselves belonging to both their religion (which is anti-hierarchical) and ‘Bania’ caste, apparently without any internal contradiction. You get the impression that the origin of the caste system was probably socio-economic and dictated by what people did to earn their living before the system got fossilized.

Jain makes only oblique references to India’s Achilles’ heel, the festering secessionist movement in Kashmir, and is careful to be scrupulously neutral in her comments and observations. Muslims form almost a fifth of India’s population, and the relations between the Muslims and the majority Hindus periodically reach flash points, resulting in the kind of carnage that would leave Ashurbanipal speechless. Despite this, the two communities seem to have learned to live in relative harmony and peace, side by side (until riots break out). Certainly the attitude of the Hindus towards the Muslim dress code, to give just one example, seems to be far more tolerant than that of many in the West. 

All this is very well. Does Jain find true love in India? I will not give away the game by spilling the beans here. However, you might be excused for wondering, as the book progresses, whether Jain’s attempts at finding a soul mate aren’t desultory. Jain goes to India thinking that her options of finding a husband would be more plentiful there. She could, for example, go in for a strict arranged marriage, or an ‘assisted’ marriage, or she could merely date in a pool far more oriented towards marriage than the one she was dating in New York. As it happens, Jain, unsurprisingly, is not too keen on the first option. Indeed, when her increasingly impatient parents announce their intention to descend upon her in Delhi and ‘marry her off’ in their six weeks’ stay, she tries her best (unsuccessfully as it turns out) to dissuade them. However, when he turns up, Jain’s father is disappointed: firstly, when he is not flooded with offers from doctors and engineers—the only two ‘real professions’ in his books—wanting to marry his Harvard-educated daughter after he puts an advertisement in the matrimonial section of broadsheets; and secondly, by the attitudes of the men who do turn up. (In her deadpan style, Jain narrates an incident when she meets an executive, earning astronomical sums, who drives in a Mercedes to meet Jain and her father in a posh hotel. In the meeting, Jain’s father, an unsophisticated feminist, asks the man what he would do if Jain was unwell and could not cook. The man tells him that it wouldn’t be a problem as he has a maid. Jain’s father asks him what he would do if the maid too was unwell. Unfazed, the man replies that in fact there were two maids in his house. Clearly agitated, Jain’s father wants to know what the man would do if the second maid was unwell too. The man gives him a tolerant smile and says, ‘I shall order food from restaurants unless you think all the restaurants in Delhi close down simultaneously.’) Jain spends long hours on and meets a few men who answer her ads. Her (mostly gay) friends try to set her up with ‘eligible’ men (so it is a bit of a non-starter). Many of these men are simply not in her league (some of them cannot speak a word of English, and Jain is not very fluent in Hindi, which, you’d have thought, would be a tad problematic). Indeed she agrees to go out with some men, you suspect at times, not so much because she is romantically attracted to them as because she is interested in their life stories; they are good material for her book (she is in India not just to find a husband, there is a book to complete). She occasionally meets men whom she finds interesting to begin with, but these relations invariably follow the same pattern: either she loses interest in them or they lose interest in her.

Jain, who, we learn, has a degree in journalism, has a gift for spinning out gorgeous sentences that flow smoothly. The tone of the narrative is frequently drily acerbic, but never demeaning or condescending; the writing is witty but not slapstick. There are several memorable characters in the book, the most memorable of which, surely, is Jain’s father, the wheeler-dealer from Uttar Pradesh, who, by hard work, made a success of his life in America. The only book he has read, Jain tells us, is ‘How to Make Money’. When Jain gives him Bill Clinton’s autobiography as a present, she is informed by her mother, a few months later, that he just skimmed through it until he stumbled upon the salacious bits, which he read in detail. He is ‘money-obsessed’ and is convinced that doctors and engineers are the only two professions worth taking a note of. Jain is clearly very fond of him, and treats his attempts to ‘assist’ her in marriage not as irritating interference but as hilarious capers. 

Marrying Anita is not just a riveting story of a young woman looking for love in a country of her ancestors, it is also a refreshing and honest look at a country that is waking up from its decades of socialist slumber and modernizing at a breakneck speed. Recommended.