I’d been caught in a maelstrom of engagements and weddings recently. In some instances, the girl or the boy was not that much older than my own daughter and so now my child began chafing at the broad hints from her parents about her own future.
“You guys raised me to be independent,” she declared through a text. “And now you’ve begun pestering me about when I’m going to tie the knot. This is the problem with you “Indian people,” she said, using a term that made me cringe. Like other young Indian-Americans her age, she was tossing me into this melting pot of garbanzo in which, I could swear, one bean was not a clone of another.
“For you Indian people, marriage seems to define and complete the life a woman,” she said. “And no, no, it won’t end there,” she said. Whenever she did marry, I would hound her about children. Then I’d quiz her about buying a house. “It’s another generational thing between us. If, like me, you live in a city, you don’t think much house ownership you know” she texted at 100 words per second. And, then came the final punch, so to speak, “the race never ends, does it?” she asked.
I agreed that it was frustrating for children to have to volley their parents’ anxious questions about “settling down,” a term that, in the India I grew up in, referred to finding the special person and settling down into domestic harmony. I knew, as well as all the wives of the world, how much “settling down with” someone equated to “putting up with” a million things in a marriage, a partnership demanding daily adjustment and commitment.
“And this thing Dad says,” she wrote. “About needing to marry so that you avoid loneliness in your old age.” She wished to beat the dust out of that. “You should get married because you want to make a commitment to someone, mother.” I reassured my daughter that parents often took the liberty to quiz their children about what was uppermost on their minds as they, the parents, aged. It was the way of the world.
But the most important reason, I said, was the biological clock, warning her that women were always hemmed in by bodily constraints. Pat came the counter argument. There were many advances in technology and women could have children later now than ever before. Then came another philosophical query about the institution of marriage itself. “For instance, what was the relevance of marriage in our society if couples were not interested in having children?”
Our debates fermented thus in a million ways. I reminded her that she had to reckon with how immigrant parents had evolved. She was, after all, only one generation removed from parents whose marriages had been arranged and just two generations removed from grandmothers who had married before they completed high school.
Employing a parent’s final weapon of manipulation, I told her that one day the questions would stop. It had been three years since I’d received a phone call from my parents. Had they been alive right now, they would have bombarded me with questions about my month-long work retreat in France.
Who cooks and cleans for you?
Are you getting enough to eat, baby?
You mean, they make chicken and fish out of the same pots
and pans you use? You must ask for your own utensils.
My parents had a way of drilling down to the specific parts of one’s life. One question always led to another query or an unexpected answer or a reminder of a previous unsavory event which then put both parent and child on a path riddled with landmines. I let my daughter know that as long as parents birthed children, the worries would be rather typical. “Indian people” would continue to place value on the family unit because we had been dipped and dyed in such thinking for generations.
But my child was not finished wih her iPhone rant. “No one should have to be defined by marriage and, also, marriage is not for everyone and does not need to be for everyone. But that isn’t even within the realm of possibility for you guys, is it?” she asked.
My daughter was onto something. In most traditional societies, our fairy tales still ended in an orchestrated way: “The two got married and they lived happily ever after.” But did they? That was the question we preferred to not debate enough.
I assured my daughter that while marriage was not a perfect destination for everyone, it was one way for parents to ensure that their children were in healthy, committed relationships and had someone in their lives who’d care for them. I told her then about an argument with my father some months before he passed away. I’d tried to explain how the system worked in the United States when two people had found each other.
“What happens next?” my father asked.
“Depends,” I said. “In America, the couple normally takes a while to decide if they really, really can settle down with each other.”
“But for how long do they wait?” he asked, again.
“It depends,” I said. “Also, the boy must propose to the girl.”
“What nonsense is all this “proposal-kiposal stuff”?” my father bellowed. I told him it was a formality. I explained the rituals—the ring, the proposal, the surprise element—and the romance of it all. He didn’t understand why the boy needed to surprise the girl with a proposal when she was expecting it all along.
“That’s the way it is,” I said.
“But why stretch it all out?” he asked, shaking his head. “And why can’t the girl propose to the guy instead?” Now here was a sudden hairpin bend in our discussion that made me wonder where gallantry ended and where feminism began.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. http://kalpanamohan.com