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The Ups And Downs of Indian Marriage In 'Sideways'

Apr 29, 2011 (Morning Edition)

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The author's great-aunt Edith, a missionary who spent 40 years of her life in India. This photo was taken at the Mirzapur Missionary Compound outside Varanasi, India. An Indian groom gets his turban arranged by his mother and  sister in law  while his bride greets  guests before their wedding ceremony in New Delhi. Miranda Kennedy is an editor for Morning Edition and the author of Sideways on a Scooter. The author, photographed on a Kashmiri houseboat.

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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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