Growing up in Canada, it was rare to find a book about a woman like me.
On one hand, I’m Indian. My mom’s family is Bengali-Hindu, while my dad is a Punjabi-Sikh. I go to both the temple and gurudwara as often as I can, cook daal at least twice a week, and have 15 saris in my closet that I can (sort of) tie myself.
Yet, my family speaks English at home and so I need subtitles to watch Hindi films. In North America and the UK, people call me Indian, but when visiting relatives in India, I’m called a Westerner. My parents raised me with South Asian family values, although I grew up exposed to and influenced by more Western norms. Most of my friends are white, and when I got older, whether a man was Indian or not was never a factor when deciding whether to say yes to a date.
I suppose there are many labels for someone like me: Non resident Indian. Indo-Canadian. Whitewashed. Coconut. (Some are more preferable than others.) But whatever the name, however it is I choose to express my identity, the truth is I don’t tend to see stories like the ones I have to tell sitting in my local bookshop.
Three years ago after finishing my studies and training as a lawyer, I decided to move to London to try and write a novel. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to accomplish when I started writing The Arrangement, but over the years it’s become an exploration about what South Asian women in the diaspora face as we navigate dating, friendships, family obligations and career choices.
While I drew from real life experiences, the romantic comedy’s heroine Raina Anand and what happens to her is completely fictionalized. At the outset of the novel, Raina is twenty-nine years old and has reluctantly agreed to let her Nani arrange her marriage. While Nani is a sweet, loving character, she also embodies the societal pressure many women feel.
“Beta, you are getting older. Your Auntie Sarla, everyone at temple – they always ask me: why is Raina not married? Why always at that office? You cannot marry your Blueberry!”
“It’s called a Blackberry, Nani. And I’m not picky. I’m just not ready.”
“You work, and work, and life is passing by. Men are passing by. Tell me, when is the right time? When will you be ready?”
Eventually Raina caves, and her Nani provides her with a list of eligible bachelors interested in taking her out. She goes on a string of dates – some of which aren’t bad, although others are total disasters. In one scene, Raina reflects on whether taking the traditional route was the right choice:
I wasn’t really Indian, after all. I was Canadian. A girl who refused to feel out of place in her mostly white, middle class suburb in west Toronto. I rollerbladed and held lemonade stands, rolled my eyes on ‘Culture Day’ at school when Shay and I were forced to wear lenghas, the other kids crowding around us for a chance to paw at the fake crystals sewn onto the sleeves. I only saw Indians when I was dragged to dinner parties, and at temple every Sunday. When we went bulk grocery shopping in Scarborough because the corner Safeway didn’t have the right brand of lentils or coconut milk. And even though Ravi Shankar always seemed to be playing, and my clothes perpetually reeked of masala, I grew up fully committed to my role in what otherwise seemed to be a white narrative. I played a girl who couldn’t believe in arranged marriage – not only because of the cliché of her own family shambles, but because the cynicism of her Western world, the literary fiction on her bookshelf, barely allowed her to believe in marriage at all.
The plot thickens when Raina’s ex-boyfriend Dev reappears, a man that broke her heart and is universally despised by her friends and family – especially Nani.
While The Arrangement is a romantic comedy, I wanted the book to challenge the notion that marriage inevitably brings women their ‘happy ever after’. Like so many Indian women living in the diaspora, Raina’s Nani and community expect her to get married and have children at a reasonable age – and they expect Raina to want that life, too.
But what if she doesn’t? Or what if she hasn’t quite figured out what kind of life she wants to lead? Or what does or would make her happy?
This predicament is common among many women as we balance our sense of obligation with our own dreams and desires. But at the end of the day, if and when we get married is our decision to make – and one we should be making only when we’re ready.
We’ve all heard those snide remarks about unmarried women: they’re too picky or work too hard. It’s their fault they’re alone. The Arrangement challenges women – Indian or otherwise – to drown out that noise and listen to themselves.