Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Paths of Marriage by Mala Kumar

Book: The Paths of Marriage
Author: Mala Kumar
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publishing

On a late August afternoon in 1984, my corn-fed parents packed up the Delta 88 with all my worldly possessions, and deposited my twitchy little butt into Room 718 of Lawson Hall on the campus of Eastern Illinois University.

American manufacturing at its finest
By-the-by, Oldsmobile’s official tagline for the Delta 88 was, “A nice surprise for families who didn’t think they could afford a car.” Really.

For the most part, it was the first time I’d really left the farm.

For anywhere.


My first-year roommate was a born-again, bible-thumping biology major, I had no clue why Wednesday was “Prince Spaghetti Day,” and I rocked the big glasses and home perm. I was a hayseed. An outsider. A freak. I had a South Midland accent that clashed horribly with Chicago’s Northern-City-Vowel-Shift. I had no clue why the dining hall always served fish on Friday, and the only Polish phrase I knew was “Warsaw Falcon,” a spurious brand of kosher pickles stocked in the local IGA.

To say college was a culture shock, is a bit like saying “Black Death cast rather a gloom over the 14th Century.”

But, over the course of that first year, things started to sort themselves out. I met a great gal from Northbrook, who was a fellow outsider and freak. The only difference was that “outsider” and “freak” were badges of honor for her. She was deceptively smart and well read, and her sense of humor could sharpen a shillelagh at forty paces. She took me under her wing, introduced me to REM, and spent more nights than I can remember sitting under the stars with me, talking about life and everything in between.

My glasses eventually got better, but I would endure another decade of increasingly bad hair don’t’s before I finally learned to quit loving the box perm, and get a real hairstylist.

It’s a nice story, I know.

But, as hard as it was for me, I had it easy…by far.

Imagine what it would feel like being that 17-year-old girl, and encountering a cultural chasm where your religion, cuisine, family and gender roles, celebrations, marriages, music, clothing, language, and societal hierarchy—all or in large part—were outside of the excepted norm.

Yeah, kind of daunting, right?

In Mala Kumar’s debut novel, The Paths of Marriage, three generations of Indian/ Indian-American women wage battles against discrimination from within themselves, the outside world, and each other. Lakshmi was born Shudra in the South India city of Chennai. A smart girl, her parents made every sacrifice to see that she would live a better life than they had. Lakshmi faced brutal discrimination from a society that did not value her place in the world, her sex, or her lack of wealth. After the murder of her father, and the suicide of her best friend, the reeling Lakshmi meets Shankar, a kind-hearted young man who is intent upon marrying for love and not for tradition. After a whirlwind romance, the young couple immigrates to the United States, where Shankar takes a job as a doctor. They struggle to learn the ways of their new world, finding success, joy, heartbreak, and discrimination, before eventually settling in a small town in West Virginia to raise their two daughters.

Pooja, their oldest daughter, grows up an outsider in her West Virginia town, and learns upon high school graduation that she is destined for an arranged marriage. While not happy with her parents’ decision, she reluctantly tries to rise to the expectations set for her. After marrying Anand, who takes a residency position in Orlando, Pooja gets an opportunity to follow her dream of studying architecture. But soon Anand must take another position in New Orleans, and Pooja’s dreams are uprooted. Eventually, she enrolls in a new architectural program, and life rights itself again. That is, until she finds herself falling in love with one of her professors, and drifting away from her husband. To make matters worse, the object of her affection is proudly gay, and has no interest in her other than as a friend. Newly single, broken-hearted, and pregnant, Pooja walks away from her academic dreams, and embarks upon a journey to give her daughter the life she never had.

Deepa, is a third generation Indian-American, and a lesbian. Living in New York City, she is out and proud. However, with her mother and grandmother, she remains firmly in the closet—understanding that her grandmother lived a hard life, and that her mother made many sacrifices for her. After meeting the woman who could be the love of her life, she struggles to understand what it means to love someone enough to risk losing everything. Deepa’s eventual coming out is complicated by the circumstances of being a gay minority woman, and it splits the seams of her family wide open. Each woman must then find a way to use her own set of experiences to form empathy for the others.

For the Indian-American community, The Paths of Marriage is a one-of-a-kind story, and its themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in literary works of many cultures.

Chief among them is the challenge of cultural translation—the various narrators (Lakshmi, Pooja, and Deepa) meditate on their inability to translate concepts and sentiments from one culture to another—Indian to American, Privileged to Peasant, First Generation to Second Generation to Third Generation, Straight to Gay. The barriers that exist between the mothers and the daughters are often due to their inability to communicate with one another, sometimes through language, sometimes through life experience, and sometimes through cultural establishment.

The second is the power of storytelling—because the barriers between the Indian and the American cultures are exacerbated by imperfect translation of language and experience: the mothers use storytelling to circumvent these barriers and communicate with their daughters. The stories they tell often warn against certain mistakes, or give advice based on past successes. In effect, storytelling is used to communicate not just life’s lessons-learned, but also to illumine the basis for decision-making and steadfast belief. The problems arise when each of the characters has heard the others’ stories so often that they quit listening, and lose the importance of the message.

The third is the issue of immigrant identity. At some point in Ms. Kumar’s story, each of the major characters expresses anxiety over her inability to reconcile her Indian heritage with her American surroundings. While the daughters in the novel are genetically Indian, they also identify with, and feel at home in, modern American culture. Still, as the novel progresses, the daughters plan a special trip to visit both Paris and the Taj Mahal—showing, perhaps, that they are amalgams of their unique tastes, habits, hopes, and ambitions more so than creatures of their genetic sequences.

And finally, the characters use their own sets of experiences to form empathy toward others. Lakshmi survives a brutal youth. Pooja gives up her dreams to fulfill the dreams of her parents. And Deepa embraces life as a lesbian. Each woman becomes so focused on her personal demons, that she fails to understand and accept the messages she is hearing from the others. As each woman finds herself poised on a precipice of nothingness, she must choose either to change her trajectory, or to step forward. These acts of personal sacrifice speak to the power of the mother-daughter-granddaughter bond—despite being weakened and tested by cultural, linguistic, and generational gulfs. The sacrifices these women make prove that the bonds they share will not be destroyed.  

Mala Kumar
The Paths of Marriage is a richly textured story full of bountiful detail, well-defined characters, and unexpected cultural and social insight. It expresses a rare fidelity and beauty, while having the heart to show both the dark underbelly of Indian and American cultures, as well as the bright lights they share. Ms. Kumar speaks to the ongoing struggle to control our own destinies, the blight of sexism on both historical and contemporary cultures, and the bonds that strengthen when you are willing to sacrifice for love.

In the hands of a less passionate writer, such thematic material might easily have become didactic, and the characters might have seemed like paper doll cutouts from a Bollywood knockoff of The Joy Luck Club. But in the hands of Mala Kumar, who has a wonderful eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, a soul-deep empathy for her subject matter, and a gently colloquial style of writing, they form the beautiful and compelling story we’ve waited a long time to read. The Paths of Marriage is a must read, not just for members of the Indian-American community, but for lesbians, feminists, and women of all sizes, shapes, colors, and beliefs.

The Paths of Marriage is scheduled for an October 1, 2014 release date.