Arranged marriage casts a long shadow over South Asian culture. As a way to maintain religious barriers, caste affiliation, socioeconomic standing, and patriarchal standards, it seems like a vestige of history. We might like to think the tradition of arranged marriage, and its satellite concerns like dowry and honor killings, might simply die out with young people. But journalist Mansi Choksi’s The Newlyweds: Rearranging Marriage in Modern India shows that it won’t.
Choksi begins the book with a series of startling statistics: Two out of every three Indians are younger than 35. Half of them believe caste and religion to be the tentpoles of identity, half are against interreligious marriage, and one-third believe intercaste marriage will destroy society. Less than 6% of those polled in the survey chose their own partners.
Through three pairs – the interreligious and intercaste couple Dawinder Singh and Neetu Rani, Hindu Monika Ingle and Muslim Arif Dosani, and queer lovers and second cousins Reshma Mokenwar and Preeti Sarikela – Choksi explores the ins and outs of shirking familial expectation to marry whom you love.
The lives she paints in at times overly lyrical detail are far from the Bollywood romances many of the young lovers expect them to be. Hatching a plan to run away together is just the first step. Then there’s survival far from home. In some truly horrific parts, Choksi recounts the violence that befalls the families they left behind – neighbor turning on neighbor, friend on friend to claw their way closer to the offending young people. Her subjects are struggling with fear and homesickness, guilt and jealousy, as they come to blows with entrenched rural Indian power structures. They are rebuffed by the police. Some are swindled by lawyers and champions of their causes. More than once, the reader joins the lovers in wondering if any of this is worth it.
The disquieting rise in Hindu fundamentalism feels like a fast burning fire licking around the edges of our vision. But to see it play out in such awful detail in the lives of everyday people is a terror in and of itself. Choksi is deft in her application of recent history to contextualize the barriers her lovers come across. Her descriptions are grounding and her recall thorough.
But the book ends suddenly. It never promised a happy ending and yet, you can’t help but expect one. All this struggle, all this grief, must be leading to something. But the stories remain open. They are still happening. Yes, babies are born. Yes, some of the couples say they are moving in the direction they hoped to, but there’s no way to know what happens next. It’s impossible to put Newlyweds down without wondering “where do we go from here?”