British-American journalist Miranda Kennedy spent five years in India, moving to Delhi from New York in 2002. She worked for National Public Radio and a slew of newspapers, but this book is far more interesting than your average action-packed journo memoir. Subtitled Life and love in India, it tells the stories of several Indian women, as well as Kennedy’s own struggles to fit love into the adventurous life she’s chosen. Mainly this is a book about marriage, the institution that defines Indian life like no other.
Soon after her arrival, Kennedy makes friends with Geeta, a Punjabi career woman with a problem: she’s pushing thirty and she isn’t married. As their friendship grows, Geeta confides in Miranda about the tricky business of finding a husband in 21st century India, and it’s fascinating stuff. Staying single is just not an option, but Geeta is intent on a love marriage. Instead, she finds herself having to fend off men who understand this as an invitation to something else entirely. All the while there is growing pressure from her family back in Patiala, and the consciousness that she’s a woman with a ‘past’ – a boyfriend she kissed in college. As another friend explains, Indian women can now choose what they study, what job they do and where they live. “And yet, when it comes to the most important decision of their lives, their parents don’t trust them with it.”
Miranda accompanies Geeta as she browses marriage websites at her parents’ insistence, has a surreal interview with a potential husband, and finally decides to settle for what is termed, in peerless usage, a ‘love-cum-arranged’ marriage. The story is told with wit and empathy, and some beautifully rendered moments, against a backdrop of Bollywood movies and a city honking and hustling its way towards modernity. There is a hilarious scene in one of Delhi’s new lingerie shops where Geeta goes to buy some honeymoon kit, and the description of the wedding is as funny and heartwrenching as the real thing. But this is far from the end of the story. The groom’s family are South Indians living in Bangalore, opening up a whole new dimension of cultural conflict and adjustment.
Geeta’s counterpoint is Parvati, a smart and spiky journalist who is in a relationship with fellow reporter Vijay. But the two can’t marry, or live together, or acknowledge their relationship in public. The reasons, when they have been teased out, are almost banal. Kennedy also tells the story of her maid, a Brahmin widow from Bihar, and her efforts to maintain her dignity and marry off her daughters. Other characters make their way into her life, each with her own tale to tell about caste, religion, and of course marriage.
The stories are interspersed with details of Kennedy’s own frustration as she realises that her dream career is chronically lonely, with frequent travel, traumatic reporting assignments, and a less than ideal dating scene. That the book avoids slipping into self indulgence is partly thanks to Kennedy’s honesty and partly because she never allows her own story to take over the narrative. For all its glamour and excitement, foreign correspondence is a stressful job, freighted with moral dilemmas that have no real answer, and presents particular problems for women. Compared to the usual hardboiled reporter’s memoir, it’s refreshing to encounter someone with the sensitivity to acknowledge that perhaps this is not, after all, the world’s most desirable job.
There are a couple of minor structural flaws. At the start of the book there is too much routine history, which can be skipped by anyone with more than a passing knowledge of India. And Parvati’s story trails off as Geeta’s expands. But Parvati is clearly a difficult character – she disappears for six months after a minor disagreement – and it’s anyway hard to imagine a resolution to her complicated love life. This is after all journalism, where sources sometimes dry up, and stories don’t always have an ending, happy or otherwise. That’s what makes it so interesting.