This collection of short stories by Chitra Banerjee is above all a cautionary tale about the various things that are bound to go wrong when one is pushed into an arranged marriage. While almost every story she talks about is set in an era when most women looked forward to getting married as the ultimate goal of their young lives, in true Victorian manner, and where they were kept under strict supervision lest they meet any eligible man on their own, the author chooses to point out only one side of the coin in story after story. After reading this book one would almost be forced to conclude that there are no happy arranged Bengali marriages at all. And, by extension, no happy arranged Indian marriages.
It is true that her writing style is exceptional and the stories are etched out with fine broad brush strokes, lending a clarity to her narrative that is beautiful to behold, it is the actual content of the stories that let me down. Marriages are difficult no doubt, but, call me a romantic, one wishes that she would have tried to present examples of a few happy ones also along with the sad ones.
The first story, Bats, was one of my favourites with its very understated messages about the self-destructiveness of the human nature. It is told from the point of view of a little girl and how she interprets her mother’s actions. Its very innocence is what makes the story more heart-rending.
Every story talks of an arranged marriage and most of them are set in the US, thus entangling immigration troubles with domestic chaos to further murky the matriarchal waters. Every story is laced with melancholy and sometimes downright tragedy. It gives a strange insight into the author’s life as well should one choose to interpret it that way. This is a collection of stories that are a social commentary on the lifestyles of well-off, upper class Bengali households - a very typical culture that seems to generate very specific characters and life choices.
One of the members at the book club mentioned that this was a collection of stories about mother’s and daughters and the various forms that often difficult relationship takes. Every story has a mother-daughter relationship fraught with misgivings and misunderstandings. Most of these differences occur mainly because of the generation gap and also because the daughters see themselves settling into the same traps that held their mother’s back.
There is not much to be said about the book except that it was a very fast read and touched a nerve with almost every married lady at the book club. The one story about a house guest actually had people almost coming to blows – all in good fun of course. Most people agreed however, that this work was nowhere near her much-acclaimed ‘Palace of illusions’.
Arranged marriages was written at a time that is too far in the past for most people to connect to nowadays. It can however be a good study of societal norms of just a few decades ago in one of the most educated and liberal cultures of our country. One can even presume that where the Bengali women were two decades ago, the rest of Indian women would find themselves there today. So, maybe its not so outdated after all.