Something incredible happens when you’re Indian, female and turn twenty-five, something almost unbelievable in its epidemic rate of scale and sudden ubiquity. Suddenly everyone-from that auntie, to that great uncle to that guy Papu who turned up selling door-to-door life insurance at your Grandad’s once- has one, desperate, burning question. Blurted with an urgency that belies its prosaic nature, in a tone as pantomime-esque as ‘they’re behind you!’ they ask: When beta, when, are you getting married?!
The question wears different guises, slipping out as a pleading ‘you should think about marriage’ when you and mum are having chai, slapping you when an aunt exclaims ‘why are you not married?!’ at a pooja, wailed with the characteristic immigrant’s guilt-laden love as ‘why won’t you get married?!’ The sheer versatility of the line is baffling. It shimmers in the ether like the saris in that awful GCSE poem ‘presents from my aunts in Pakistan’. The one you sat through looking at your feet, knowing that your white classmates would think it accurately described your family.
I’m nearly at the end of my twenty-fifth year now, and the question has only reached fever pitch at home, making the Christmas holidays a feat of evasion I feel I deserve an award for.
The funny thing is, while being asked about marriage is something my brown friends all relate to, no one seems as upset as me at being asked about it. For me, it feels like being winded, like that second before you cry with all your feelings bunched up in your throat.
There’s a few things it could be. A few months ago, before I went on a trip to Japan that changed my perspective on brownness fundamentally, I told my parents about having had mental health problems, of a difficult first relationship that they alternately punished me for and blocked out and the impact it left. No sob-stories here, I’m doing well now and have put some demons to rest, but these early experiences do leave their mark. I guess I thought that this big reveal would somehow change my parents’ expectations of me. Like they would suddenly get who I was, and the emotional shit I carry around, and would back off with their constant marriage and weight interrogations. My brother was hopeful too, we had a tearful text exchange about it being ‘an important step.’ Sadly the tidy resolution I was hoping for didn’t arrive. Instead of making myself understood, I seem only to have deepened my parents’ opinion of me as someone complicated and difficult to know. The lesson is that while you can control your actions, you can’t control the impact they will have or their result.
It could also be because I feel guilty. Somehow, in unconscious defiance of Disney and the TV I grew up with, including those Zee TV shows where the evil aunty is always the unmarried one, I’ve never been able to imagine being married. It’s just never sat in my head as an eventuality. Companionship I could see, sex has always made sense, but marriage eludes me. I guess its cultural and economic necessity has never felt relevant, and the spiritual weight with which it’s endowed in Hinduism only sits with Shiva and Parvati or Krishna and Radha in my mind, never with us mere mortals. We’re too imperfect I think, and too evolving, and forever is only an accumulation of the moments of trying, not a state I can promise upfront.
There’s also a kind of fear I maintain, about not being able to let down my guard, of marriage being something that could weaken your intuition as to when someone’s lying, but to be honest if I went into that, we’d be here all day and my therapist would be redundant.
Back to the point. Over Christmas there was another thing I noticed. Every time my parents mentioned a woman, the immediate chaser would be ‘she’s getting married in June’ or ‘husband and two kids’ or ‘not married, a widow’, as if their exchange was some sort of matrimonial Top Trumps where you up your opponent on spouse points. I wonder whether shaadi.com would be interested in idea. In which case scrap everything I just said and marriage is the best.
But seriously, no description of a woman would be free of their relationship status, and often it was the only, defining characteristic my parents mentioned.
If from twenty-five on a woman’s worth, even personality, is defined by her betrothal, does that mean that unmarried women aren’t complete people, that they are lacking? Why does society weave so much narrative about a person as a half and couples as whole, as if to be single is to be impaired? This is a common trope in Western society too with unmarried women have historically being seen as witches, outcasts and otherwise shady characters. The narrative is not one I endorse.
And yet, despite all this, all my feelings of indignation, I suspect that I will end up married. Part of me even wants to. There’s something you drag around I think, as a child of parents who’ve left their home, their language and their people solely to give you a better life, a sort of nascent duty that grows, despite rebellion or anger. And I am pregnant with it. There’s just four of us in the UK, the rest of my family are in India and now that my brother’s married, my parents won’t permanently move back as he’ll soon have kids. My brother married an English girl, someone who couldn’t be better for him, but who does not have Indian parents for mine to speak in Hindi with over chai for hours. The culture just isn’t shared. I really want them to have that: in-laws that they can grow old with, which expand our family in the UK. I’m not saying they have to be Indian, but for my parents they kind of do. There is too much of themselves that they don’t get to be in their day-to-day lives here, too much of their identity they police. There is too much they have given me and I can’t separate my life from theirs despite the nirvana the language of freedom and individualism paints.
It’s tricky. My position in the UK is not the same as theirs, I’ve grown up with British cultural references and an English accent which still, depressingly, advantages me over my mum in daily interactions that I will never forgive those who make her repeat herself for. And like most kids who grow up between cultures, I’m only just beginning to celebrate my otherness, how I relate to a huge chunk of my self. But I’m wary that my family will equate that celebration to an acceptance towards marriage, as if the matter’s neatly tied up. I’m conscious to distinguish my otherness from their otherness, my India from theirs.
And then there’s all the other factors that divide us, like generational differences, personality variations, values that don’t align. Sometimes looking at my parents is like looking into another world. I answer the question ‘when are you getting married?’ across a chasm of difference, the widening gulf silences me. And yet we are together, imperfect, evolving. We build forever in our moments of trying.
My mum found a photo over Christmas of us. Peering out from the ‘70s curtain that my dad is surreptitiously emerging from, there I am in my mum’s arms, frowning, tearful, delightfully round in the way small babies are. My feet are curled and bare, exposed. My brother stands in front of Dad, wearing a squiggly smile that looks like he’s just stopped crying; Mum looks at the photographer with a question. The brown of our skin melts into and reflects off the curtain behind us. It is incandescent