In January I spent ten days in a small town in rural South India, bracketed at each end by several days in the city of Chennai (formerly Madras). Chennai—with over four million residents—is everything one typically expects in a huge, Indian city: it’s crowded, hot, polluted, and congested with exhaust-spewing vehicles. I saw families camped out on sidewalks, women washing clothes in a garbage-choked river, school children walking barefoot on dusty asphalt roads. I crisscrossed the city numerous times by taxi, interviewing women who assist victims of domestic violence and advocate changes in laws affecting women. Each night I returned to my posh, gated, air-conditioned hotel with a combination of relief and sorrow.
It’s the heart of my journey—ten days in a small town called Kuppam—that I most want to tell you about. I stayed with friends, a Muslim family I met six years ago when I lived for four months in that town in 2002, across the street from my friends. This family consists of two parents, four daughters, and a son. The daughters are 23, 22, 18, and 16 years of age. The son is 21. I’ll call the girls, respectively, Tara, Mysha, Varisha, and Tayma. Their brother I’ll call Zakir, and their mother and father, Zerina and Aalim.
I could write a book about those ten days in Kuppam—I am, of course, in the process of writing a novel inspired by that place and the people in it—but here I will give you snippets. Mysha, the second daughter, described to me how her older sister Tara went to bed for five days after her wedding was cancelled and wouldn’t eat. Tara showed me her passport—the one she’d gotten when she thought she’d be traveling to Dubai with her new husband, who works there—and then she hid it when her father walked into the house. He wants to destroy it now that the marriage is off, she told me, but she harbors dreams of using it someday, somehow. Varisha plans to take out a loan to finish her degree in software engineering at Kuppam Engineering College. Her mother, Zerina, has paid out of her $75 per month teaching salary for the oldest girls to attend teacher training college and for the two youngest to begin their college studies. Later this year, however, she will face compulsory retirement. Zerina—the third daughter—wants to work in the U.S. Of the four daughters, she seems most likely to be able to achieve her dreams. She is the only one I saw leave the house without a burqa—though only to walk around the corner for baji, batter-coated, deep-fried banana slices, or to buy something at a nearby store. To cross town, she veiled herself from head to ankle in black, just like her mother and sisters. She pinned a black cloth across her face, leaving only her lower forehead and eyes exposed.
One evening during my stay, a new potential bridegroom’s family came to visit, to see if they wanted to offer a marriage proposal—to check Tara out. At 5:30 pm Tara dressed in a bright pink sari embroidered with sparkling silver sequins and crystal beads. Her father told her to change into a different sari, one he had bought for her, also pink but not as flattering to her coloring, in my opinion. She obeyed. She oiled and braided her hair, applied kohl to her eyes, powdered her face. Then she sat and cried with me. She didn’t want to meet this family. They live just an hour away, in a small city that holds nothing of interest to her. She dreams of living in Bangalore or another large city overseas. Something vastly different than her own small town of 20,000.
Waiting for our guests, Tara, her mother and sisters, and I crammed ourselves into a tiny back room nearly filled already by a double bed—a bed frame, a hard platform, and a woven reed mat. We watched a film on television, one of those love stories that somehow ends up as an arranged, parent-approved marriage. I’d put on my best salwaar kameez, my best earrings. The girls’ father had asked me—through the girls, as he doesn’t speak English—to present Tara to the visitors. Mysha showed me how to stand behind Tara, guiding her with my hands on her shoulders.
It was eight-thirty before we heard the guests arrive. Tayma and Varisha slipped silently through the curtain separating our part of the house from the living room, their heads covered by their shawls, serving figs and snacks and tea to the guests. Tara hadn’t moved from her slumped position beside me for over two hours. As the two of us rose to go into the other room, Zerina asked me to tell her what I thought of this new family. “Zerina, I won’t understand a word they’re saying,” I told her. (The families spoke in Urdu.) “All I can give you is my gut impressions.” She nodded. She knew, of course, that I wouldn’t understand their words, but she would not get to meet them. How would she judge whether this family was right for her beloved first daughter? “Okay,” she said. Apparently my “gut impressions” would be of some value. She gestured for me to proceed.
The men of each family sat opposite each other on one side of the living/dining room. Tara and I sat on the other side facing three women shrouded in black: the bridegroom’s mother, his teenage sister, and a broker’s wife. Tara’s face was half-hidden by the end of her sari, which she’d draped over her head. She kept her head down. After what felt like endless conversation—none of it directed at Tara or me—the bridegroom’s mother stood before Tara, lifted the veil, and raised my friend’s face by the chin. Tara wiped away tears before she let the older woman look at her. I hadn’t realized she’d been weeping silently beside me. The bridegroom’s mother smiled at Tara—who was still looking down—and then at her husband and son, as if to say, “Hey, she looks nice!”
More conversation ensued, and then Tara and I were sent back behind the curtain, the three visiting women following us. We all squeezed again into the tiny bedroom with the TV while the men talked. Tara never looked up, never met anyone’s eyes. Twenty minutes later, the visitors left.
Now my friends and I gathered around the table. It was 9:30, and we ate ravenously. Tara changed out of the pink sari, put her elaborate gold earrings, necklace, and headpiece—part of her dowry—back into their velvet box. Along with the fancy garments and jewelry she seemed to shed her sadness and tension. She smiled while she ate. Later I asked if she got a look at the young man. “No,” she said. Not even a glance? “No.” So you have no idea what he looks like? “None.”
Zerina asked me, “What did you think of this family?” I struggled to find the right words. I wondered how much weight they would carry. They looked nice, I said. The bridegroom seems gentle and shy—a bit scared. His face looks intelligent. The mother seemed warm and kind. The father—I couldn’t tell. He seemed okay, perhaps a bit distant. Zerina nodded. She seemed satisfied or maybe relieved by my answer. We all knew, however, that in these circumstances, families are on their best behavior. The last family had seemed fine, too. They’d checked out the family’s status in the community, financial situation, the types of work the men did. They’d trusted the marriage broker who’d brought that family to their attention. They hadn’t anticipated the scamming that would ensue.
During my ten days cocooned with this family, we spent hours at home together, mainly the girls, their mother, and I, talking about love marriage versus arranged marriage, trying on each other’s clothes, listening to songs on my iPod. They took me to a circus one night where unsmiling young girls performed acrobatic acts, twirled five hula-hoops at once, and marched in sparkling, skin-revealing outfits that seemed harshly out of place in this conservative town. Each time I walked into the center of town to check my email, one or two girls came with me—an opportunity to get out. They are not allowed to visit the town’s many Internet café’s on their own. They are not allowed to hang out at friends’ houses. They are not allowed to see films or go shopping without their mother. People will talk, Zerina said. People will tell lies about them. I interpreted this to mean, My girls’ reputations will be tarnished, and I will not be able to find husbands for them.
On my last night, Varisha and Tayma painted intricate henna designs on my palms and forearms. They asked me when I’d come visit them again. We agreed that six years was too long, that I needed to come sooner next time. Mysha explained to me that it would be two months before the new bridegroom’s family would contact them. We were now in a sad period, according to Islamic faith, that was not propitious for starting anything new. They had to wait for this sad time to end.
Alone with Tara, I asked her if she could refuse an offer of marriage from this family. I told her that according to Indian law, no one could force her to marry against her will. “If they offer a marriage proposal,” she explained, “it is my fate. It is Allah’s will.”
How much is your parents’ choice, I asked her, and how much is it the will of Allah? She smiled and shrugged. Like many of the questions I asked in India, this one went unanswered.