As anyone who has read British-Australian journalist Sushi Das’s award-winning columns in Melbourne’s daily broadsheet the Age will know, you can rely on her to mount a gutsy argument. Das is not the mealy-mouthed sort. Whether she’s denouncing the burqa, challenging men to engage in feminist debates or decrying racist attacks on Indians in Australia, she doesn’t skirt around an issue.
And so it is with her debut book, Deranged Marriage, a memoir about Das’s struggle to assert her independence and avoid the arranged marriage that her strict Indian migrant parents expect her to have. All that the London-born Das wants is the freedom to become a journalist and choose her own husband; all that her parents want is to marry her off to a ‘suitable boy’. A showdown is inevitable, and therein lies the action — and tension — of this lively, fast-paced, often riotously funny and sometimes deeply sad story. (As a former colleague of Das’s at the Age, I can vouch for her claim that she is ‘an unhealthily nervous person’, charmingly so, thought she wouldn’t be the first journalist to suffer from a touch of neurosis.)
At its core, the book is a manifesto of opposition to arranged marriages. Das takes a staunchly feminist line against the tradition, and, in one of the book’s more forceful tracts, demolishes what she believes is the misplaced Western tendency to romanticise the custom. Das has little patience for cultural relativism or political correctness, and has no time at all for the ‘arranged marriage cheer squad’ as she calls it:
How many times have we heard that arranged marriages are more successful than love marriages? Disillusioned Westerners love that line, as do Easterners who want to assert the supremacy of their ways. But there are no reliable figures. Put this ‘growing’ love within a community that frowns on divorce and what have you got? True love or bondage?
Strong words, particularly considering that Das’s sister Vin enters into an arranged marriage with the last man Das rejects (and remains successfully married to him). Das, on the other hand, goes on to face the consequences of freedom, and the vagaries and disappointments of ‘love’ matches.
If that sounds a tad heavy, be assured that the story’s binding feature is comedy. Das is a natural humourist, with a sharp sense of timing and a ready source of comic material thanks to a life lived between cultures: that of her Indian/Eastern heritage, and that of Britain and the West (‘my twin unbelongings’ as she aptly describes them in a more sombre mood). Some marvellously funny moments stem from these cultural collisions: her mother’s linguistic mash-ups (her favoured curse is ‘bastard bloody!’), her father’s determination to quarantine her from ‘undesirable elements’ (aka English boys), as well as Das’s own cultural stuff-ups (in both England and Australia), and teenage obsessions, not least her fixation with Irish punk band The Boomtown Rats. At one point, the young Das eschews the panoply of Hindu gods, and the Christian god she is learning about at school, and chooses a deity of her own: ‘GELDOF IS GOD’ she scrawls on the whiteboard behind her bed, to the profound distress of her father. (From the perspective of 30 years or so hence, her father’s reaction seems perfectly justified.)
Although Deranged Marriage is based on the diaries Das kept religiously from age 13 (and includes some of her more amusing entries verbatim), Das continually shifts the narrative from the personal to the general. Her book is part comic memoir, part personal essay and part social critique. While she employs narrative techniques, such as extensive use of dialogue, her style never strays far from her journalistic roots. It’s not a book with literary pretensions. Drawing on her well-honed journalistic skills, Das brings the reader up to date with the latest statistics, laws and developments on arranged marriage, as well as on the more odious practices of forced marriages and honour killings. She deftly situates her story in the broader social and political context, succinctly sketching British culture from the time of her parents’ migration to London in the 1960s to the time of her own migratory voyage to Australia in 1991.
While she exposes the racist face of England (and Australia), migrant cultures are not spared analysis. Das questions the migrant attachment to traditions that are anachronistic in a new land and modern society. She is particularly critical of the Indian concept of family honour, or izzat, which weighs most heavily on women and girls, and perpetuates their oppression.
In Indian communities, particularly among Punjabis, a woman can bring shame on her family by doing things that are considered quite acceptable in Western societies today … If a woman has hurt her family’s izzat, the family can redeem itself by making her an outcast. This can take the form of disowning a daughter — literally casting her out of the house or, in extreme cases, killing her.
And yet Das’s own family is neither violent nor monstrous. Her father is portrayed as a particularly noble and wise man (from whom Das has inherited many traits, not least her love of newspapers and current affairs). Paradoxically, he is one of the ‘heroes’ of the story. Nevertheless, she pays a high price for her freedom. Her desire to marry her English boyfriend causes a deep rift at home and in part prompts Das’s departure for Australia.
In total, Mum didn’t speak to me for five months. It doesn’t matter how old you are, the withdrawal of parental love is always agony.
Her family also suffers the consequences of her decision, facing the judgement and taunts of some elements of the British-Indian community.
But the book leaves me with some lingering questions. I wish Das had explored her sister’s experience of arranged marriage more deeply. Vin is not a woman in chains, and I would have liked to hear more about her views on the tradition that her sister so fiercely rejects. It must also be said, that while Das can be a persuasive and impassioned debater, at times she argues herself into a spin as she attempts to justify her position.
She does, however, succeed in evoking the migrant experience, the smouldering sensuality of Indian rituals, and both the burden and beauty of family and heritage. Ultimately, it is in family that she seeks joy, refuge and affirmation.
Gabriella Coslovich was a senior writer at the Age, specialising in arts and culture, and is now completing her Master of Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of Melbourne.