The Ups And Downs of Indian Marriage In 'Sideways'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:24 pm

It doesn't take a royal wedding for wedding madness to take hold. Certainly nuptials were the last thing on Miranda Kennedy's mind when she headed off for India nearly a decade ago as an aspiring foreign correspondent.

At 27, she left behind a job and a man she loved — but was hardly ready to marry.

In fact, the only romance she was looking for was the kind found in the adventures she hoped to have in the ancient, colorful city of Delhi. That was before she discovered that as a single woman, she would never be able to rent an apartment, because single meant loose.

"It was pretty horrifying to drive around in rickshaws, to be turned away, to have doors slammed in my face because I was on my own," Kennedy tells Renee Montagne on Morning Edition.

To solve her rental problems, Kennedy says, she pretended that her boyfriend back in New York City was actually her husband.

"The poor boyfriend back in New York," Kennedy laughs. "That wouldn't have gone over very well."

It did go over well with landlords — and soon Kennedy was ensconced in her own apartment, complete with the help of a housekeeper named Radha.

Radha is among the characters in Kennedy's new memoir, Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India.

She turned out to have weddings on the mind — as does much of India.

"Weddings are in general the biggest lifetime expense for Indians of all income groups," Kennedy says. "Middle-class Hindu weddings mean a guest list tipping into the thousands, and two whole weeks of religious rituals, parties and dinners — in other words, lifelong debt. In today's India of conspicuous spending and Bollywood glitz, the richest grooms arrive at their weddings. Their banquets feature extravagant flourishes such as spurting chocolate fountains. Indians spend an average of $32,000 on a wedding, $7,000 more than the average American spends — even though Indians earn only 10 percent of the American capital income."

Radha, Kennedy's housekeeper, mostly worries about her marriage-age daughter in the book.

"Radha started fretting about getting her daughter married off" when she turned 16 — bridal age in India, Kennedy says. "She went to her priest, and her priest found the perfect boy — perfect in every way, meaning his caste and religion and age matched."

"So she married her daughter to this boy," Kennedy continues, "which she was sure would guarantee her daughter lifelong happiness ... and you know, it didn't. But as far as Radha was concerned, it was her best chance at making her daughter's life better."

Aside from Radha, there was another important woman in Kennedy's life in India — her neighbor Geeta. At first glance, the two women seemed very similar.

"She was my age and very independent," Kennedy says. "My first sight of her was that she had a pair of car keys dangling from her hand, and I was very impressed by that, because most Indian women I knew, even middle-class ones, didn't drive themselves. And she occasionally wore miniskirts and went out to clubs, and yet Geeta was extremely traditional. She had no intention of having a 'love match,' as she called it. She definitely was going to have an arranged marriage. She had a lot of traditional expectations for herself."

Kennedy does note, however, that Geeta wasn't conservative in every way.

"There's lots of different types of arranged marriage in the new India, and the type that she chose is a type that millions of young women and men are choosing now, which is clumsily called 'love-cum-arranged-marriage' in Indian English. The easiest way to find these matches are online portals, sort of like Match.com, except they are only about marriage. It's normal for the parents to fill out those profiles and for them to then choose the boys that you might go meet. But in theory, in these kinds of arranged marriages, young people have a lot more input into their partners than they ever have before."

Kennedy also formed a relationship with her yoga teacher, who, like Radha and Geeta, was also dealing with issues of marriage — and at the very heart of the marriage issue for many Indians is the practice of paying a dowry. Dowries are illegal in India and have been for a long time.

"They are," Kennedy says, "and yet in today's modern India, where women have more independence than they ever have before, where they are more highly educated and where there are more of them in the workforce, dowry has increased."

In the case of Usha, the yoga instructor, the question of a dowry looms large.

"Usha was the youngest child in her family," Kennedy says. "Her parents were dead, and her brothers were in charge of marrying her off, and they had actually spent all of their savings on the other daughters. So there wasn't much dowry for her."

As a result, Usha endures a parade of unsuitable boys and unsuitable families. In one memorable moment in the book, an entire family comes in and has to check Usha's feet.

"And Usha was horrified by this, because she had never heard of this tradition," Kennedy says. "No one had heard of this tradition. This was just a family's random village tradition, but because she was the marriage-age girl, she had to put up with whatever the family wanted to do. So the idea was, if her two first toes were of equal length, that meant that she would listen to her husband. So luckily, or unluckily for Usha, her toes were the same length, and this cry went out among the women that 'the girl is good!' and that they would come back with an official proposal."

The story has a happy ending, Kennedy assures.

"After they left, Usha looked at her brother pleadingly, and he said, 'Don't worry, they would be lucky to get you for free.' "

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It doesn't take a royal wedding for wedding madness to take hold, though nuptials were the last thing on Miranda Kennedy's mind when she headed off to India nearly a decade ago, an aspiring foreign correspondent. In her 20's, she left behind a job and a man she loved, though was hardly ready to marry. That was before she discovered that as a single woman, she couldnt rent an apartment, because to landlords in Delhi single meant loose.

Ms. MIRANDA KENNEDY (Author, "Sideways on a Scooter"): It was pretty horrifying to drive around, you know, in rickshaws and be turned away. You know, have doors slammed in my face, literally, because I was on my own.

MONTAGNE: So you found yourself doing something - what - Im guessing you never would have

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: You never would have done before, which is you transformed your boyfriend back in New York into a husband

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

MONTAGNE: who happened to just not be there yet.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, the poor boyfriend

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENNEDY: back in New York

MONTAGNE: You didnt tell him though because, you know.

Ms. KENNEDY: No. No. No, that wouldnt have gone over very well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Soon, Miranda Kennedy was ensconced in her own apartment and had a housekeeper, Rada. In her memoir, "Sideways on a Scooter," she writes that Rada had a wedding on her mind, as does much of India.

Ms. KENNEDY: Weddings are, in general, the biggest lifetime expense for Indians of all income groups. Middleclass Hindu weddings mean a guest list tipping into the thousands, and two full weeks of religious rituals, parties and dinners -in other words, lifelong debt.

In today's India of conspicuous spending and Bollywood glitz, the richest grooms arrive at their weddings in helicopters. Their banquets feature extravagant flourishes such as spurting chocolate fountains. Indians spend an average of $32,000 on a wedding, thats $7,000 more than the average American spends - even though Indians earn only 10 percent of the American per capita income.

MONTAGNE: Rada, your housekeeper, spends her time worrying about her marriage-age daughter, as soon as she hit - what - about 16?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. Rada started fretting about getting her daughter married off and she went to her priest. And her priest found the perfect boy - perfect in every way, meaning his caste and religion and age matched, (unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: So what happens?

Ms. KENNEDY: So, she married her daughter to this boy, which she was sure would guarantee her daughter lifelong happiness and, you know, which didn't. But as far as Rada was concerned, it was her best chance at making her daughter's life better.

MONTAGNE: Next to Rada, there's another important woman in your life, and she's more a contemporary. Her name is Gita. She's a neighbor. It's certainly, at first glance, you would think she's really quite like you.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. Yeah, she was my age and very independent. And my first sight of her was she had a pair of car keys dangling from her hand, and I was very impressed by that, because most Indian women I knew, even middleclass ones, didn't drive themselves. And she, you know, occasionally wore miniskirts and went out to clubs and stuff. And yet, Gita was extremely traditional. She had no intention of having a love match, as she called it. She definitely was going to have an arranged marriage. And, you know, she had a lot of traditional expectations for herself.

MONTAGNE: Though she isnt 100 percent traditional, there was a mix there.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right, yes. So there's lots of different types of arranged marriage in the new India. And the type that she chose is a type that millions of young women and men are choosing now, which is clumsily called Love-Come-Arranged-Marriage in Indian English. So the easiest way to have these matches happen is through online portals, which are kind of like Match.com, except they're only about marriage. And it's normal for the parents to fill out those profiles, and for them to then choose the boys who you might go meet.

But in theory, in these kinds of arranged marriages, young people have a lot more input into their own choices of partners than they ever had before.

MONTAGNE: From Gita over to a yoga teacher that you know, all of them are in some way circling around issues of marriage. And at the very heart of this, for some of them, is the practice of paying a dowry. Dowries are illegal in India and have been for a long time.

Ms. KENNEDY: They are, and yet in today's modern India, you know, where women have more independence than they ever had before, where they're more highly educated and where there's more of them in the workforce, dowry has increased.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about Usha, where the dowry loomed quite large in her case. She's a yoga instructor.

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, for Usha, she was the youngest child in her family. Her parents were dead and her brothers were in charge of marrying her off, and they had actually spent all their savings on the other daughters. So there wasn't much dowry for her.

MONTAGNE: So there's this parade of really unsuitable boys and their unsuitable families.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: There's this one moment where an entire family comes in and the women in that family, they have to check her feet.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. And Usha was horrified by this, because she'd never heard of this tradition. I mean no one has ever heard of this tradition. It was like this family's random village tradition. But because she was the marriage-age girl, she had to put up with whatever the family wanted to do.

And so the idea was, if her two first toes were of equal length, that meant that she would listen to her husband. So luckily, or unluckily for Usha, her toes were the same length. And this cry went out amongst the women that: The girl is good. And they promised that they would come back with an official proposal, because this meant, now, that she was a desirable bride.

And after they left, Usha looked at her brother kind of pleadingly, and he said: Don't worry - they would be lucky to get you for free.

MONTAGNE: Miranda, thank you very much.

Ms. KENNEDY: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miranda Kennedy's new memoir is called "Sideways on a Scooter." She's now an editor here at NPR. And you can read an excerpt of her book at NPR.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: Im Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.