Arranged Marriage: Stories, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The eleven stories in Arranged Marriage reveal Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s gift for chronicling female cultural dislocation and the compound identities that come with leaving one place, its engrained customs and beliefs, for another. An acclaimed poet and novelist, Divakaruni portrays Indian-born women and girls, characters who encounter jarring, and sometimes life-changing moments. In “Bats,” a young girl is entranced by the unfamiliar world of a revered uncle, discovered when her mother flees her husband’s physical assaults. “Clothes” concerns a young wife who follows her husband to America, harboring dreams of modernity—college, fashion, independence—until he’s murdered in the course of a robbery at the 7-11 he owns. In “A Perfect Life,” a fastidious, successful young woman, certain she does not want the traditional life of marriage or children, is changed forever when she takes in a young boy, left nearly feral by neglect.
Divakaruni, whose 1997 novel Mistress of Spices, was an international bestseller, was born in India, and arrived in California in 1985 to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Many of her stories are set in Northern California, and the suburban locales of Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, and Mountain View add a wonderfully idiosyncratic and rich milieu. The settings of empty streets, apartment buildings, and green lawns contrasts with the traditions and ideals that challenge so many of her characters. There are stories too, set in the close-knit communities of India, especially around Calcutta, that show the inequities and strictures, the comforts and cloistered worlds of girls and women. These Calcutta stories, such as “The Maid Servant’s Story,” work as a kind of backstory to the California stories, showing the weight of history so many of these women carry.
A lone story is told from a male point of view. “The Disappearance” shows the cultural lens through which women are seen, but considers the collection’s thematic drift from a darker position. An unnamed husband learns his wife has disappeared, having vanished on an otherwise uneventful day after running errands in Mountain View, a Silicon Valley enclave. In hindsight, we learn the husband questions whether or not his wife was happy. Though he made every effort to provide for her in traditional ways, his view is an old-world, male-centered one: telling her she looked prettier in traditional Indian clothes than American clothes, not buying her a car because she’d never learn to drive, and though insistent about sex, never forced her in the cruel way some men did. The reader understands that indeed the wife must have been unhappy, that her marriage has cost her a loss of self, something the husband cannot see. And when after a year, she doesn’t return, her presence in the house, through photos, memories, and mentions of her, disappears as well. Here, the husband recalls a time he’d mentioned his interest in women with a college education:
He’d flown to Calcutta to view several suitable girls that his mother had picked out. But now, thinking back, he can only remember her. She had sat, head bowed, jasmine plaited into her hair, silk sari draped modestly over her shoulders, just like all the other prospective brides he’d seen. Nervous, he’d thought, yearning to be chosen. But when she’d glanced up there had been a cool, considering look in her eyes. Almost disinterested, almost as though she were wondering if he would be a suitable spouse.
The story, one of the collection’s more stylistically spare, stands out as a powerful depiction of the struggle between dependence and freedom. The aim to reconcile old and new is poignantly addressed in the collection’s final story, “Meeting Mrinal.” Asha, divorced and facing financial difficulties as she raises her rebellious, metal-obsessed teenage son alone, is contacted by a longtime school friend, Mrinalini. As they catch up, Asha paints her life as she wishes it was. It’s a heartrending story, and I’ll withhold the details that follow—but Asha’s effort to make sense of her life and set it right has some of the most lovely passages, like this one:
I tell myself that I shouldn’t be too concerned about his clothing or hairstyle, or even the long hours when he shuts himself up in his room and listens to music that sounds furious. That they’re just signs of teenage growing pains made worse by his father’s absence. But sometimes, I call his name and he looks up from whatever he’s doing—not with the irritated 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.