Anyone familiar with India will know how it treats its women. Where else might you find political parties fielding candidates who have been charged with rape – 27 of them in the last state elections? At a time when Indians of both sexes protest at the brutal and ultimately fatal rape just before Christmas of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in New Delhi, Sushi Das’s curious memoir Deranged Marriage is nothing if not a timely read. For India is home to an entrenched patriarchy that appears to have migrated in the suitcases of its peripatetic citizens, just as they did with Das’s father – a Punjabi Hindu – when he emigrated to England in the 1960s. It is these attitudes that frame and feed this frank, but ultimately flimsy, book.
Das opens with a vignette about her father, recounted by her mother, illustrating the sanctity of the Indian male: a hero to be worshipped, particularly by his womenfolk. But it also portends the angst that will shadow Das’s adolescence, infusing her memoir with a bitter and sometimes hysterical fear of her mother’s vow coming good: to similarly find Sushi a ‘good man to marry’. Thus the hazy, lazy, suburban days of Das’s 1970s childhood speak of a gathering storm that will break around her growing resistance to that most Indian of traditions: an arranged marriage. “There was only one slight hitch,” muses Das. “Nobody asked me if this is what I wanted.” Clearly it was not. Not for her the fasting on Kurwa Chauth, a day where Indian women demonstrate wifely devotion and pray for their husband’s long life – recounted here in a rare moment of calm and beauty, appreciated even by Das as she struggles with “my East and my West, my twin belongings.”
Being an Indian in London in the 1970s and ‘80s was not easy. Being an Indian girl, apparently, was the pits. The racist taunts Das endures lead her to try to literally scrub herself white, believing “as a white girl I would become a new, improved version of myself”. She is crushed to find her clothes smell of curry, and is spat at by a yobbo on a BMX. ‘Paki’ jokes are common currency in the schoolyard. None of this is excusable: but elsewhere Das’s everyday torments could be those of any awkward teenage girl – one who hates her name, fails to gel with her siblings, finds her parents an almighty embarrassment, believes the song lyrics of her favourite bands are speaking directly to her, and so on. Punctuated with earnest diary entries, which Das began to write in 1977 aged 12, these are recollections that are almost endearingly familiar.
Where Deranged Marriage stumbles is on the shaky central premise that Das’s life, as a disobedient Indian daughter who shuns the very notion of an arranged marriage, was somehow in danger. She liberally sprinkles her text with ominous tales and statistics of honour killings, beatings, and imprisonments – the sort of fates that await such a girl. And whilst she claims her parents were “as horrified by honour killings as any right-thinking person would be”, in the same breath we are told “I was never quite sure how far they would go to persuade me to follow Indian tradition”. And I was never quite sure that this was a legitimate fear. What cannot be doubted is the sense of unbearable suffocation in a household where Das, as eldest daughter, is expected to be the prime upholder of izzat or family honour. It is a burdensome duty that Das fails at: if a woman’s behaviour can single-handedly send her family’s standing toppling from the heights of respectability, then Das’s lying, swearing, smoking, pub-hopping and illicit boy-coveting ought surely to result in a suitably dramatic punishment. But it does not: she never quite fulfils the promise of a spectacular banishment. Her fear of family rejection is never quite overridden by her will to break free.
And so it continues. She rails ever angrily against the strictures of an Indian household, rebelliously wringing from her mother, first hysterics, and then a brutal cold silence, and from her father a deepening sadness. Sadly, too, it is these illustrations – of her parents’ generation, fiercely traditional and intent on upholding those traditions in an alien land – that are the most affecting, the most thought-provoking, the most convincing. One wonders what life was like in the Twickenham semi, living with mother’s sister married to father’s brother, soon to be joined also by the in-laws. When an uncle announces that he will vote for the National Front, shocking Das into a frenzied “Why would you vote for a bunch of ugly racists?” he answers: “Because I want to go home.” Cast adrift from all that is familiar, these are hard-working people who want simply to hold on to what they hold dear. Das however seems intent on breaking the mould – and one wonders whether this is because she wants to, or because she feels she has to. When her sister Vin has an arranged marriage to an Indian man originally meant for Sushi, she expresses relief – “And something about that relief made me dislike myself.”
Das eventually marries an Englishman, John, a PhD student obsessed with Maggie Thatcher, after only ten months together. The marriage founders. Although she fast-forwards through the marriage breakdown, ensuing unhappiness, and an eventual happy ending in her second marriage, I felt her memoir ended 50 pages earlier – with her departure from London to a new life in Australia with John. Parting from her family at Heathrow, her mother cries and her father maintains the stiff upper lip acquired from years in Britain. It mirrors an imagined scene, thirty years earlier, when Das’s father left Delhi airport for England, saying goodbye as if it were the last time. But Das’s farewell is altogether different: her father shows no emotion, appearing cold and unfeeling, masking an inner turmoil that he cannot comprehend. One senses that, for him, the heartache of departure is easier than the heartache of losing a daughter to something as nebulous as ‘culture’. Nor is it something that Das ever fully gets to grips with: the great gulf of East and West into which she falls is a big one – one that this book never really leaps.