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FOR MATRIMONIAL PURPOSES by Kavita Daswani. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Hardcover. $23.95. July 2003. 277 pages.

My grandmother was married off two days shy of her tenth birthday. My mother found a husband when she was twenty. I thus reckoned that if every generation increased by a decade the acceptable age for marriage, I should have become a wife by thirty.”

And so begins Kavita Daswani’s debut novel, For Matrimonial Purposes, a story told with humor and grace, respect for parents and tradition, and a raging desire to be free and in control of life. Spiced with a double-edged perspective as she spins the revolving door of marriage prospects, Daswani’s highly-likeable character, Anju, gives us a round-trip ticket on the Bombay-to-New York, leave-no-culture-behind, bittersweet-funfest express that offers a respectable amount of chuckling, clucking, and cooing with an “elderly” (30-something) unmarried woman coming to terms with her traditional dreams and her modern desires.

Anju is the eldest child and only daughter of a wealthy Mumbaian couple who can’t understand why their daughter isn’t married. Anju can’t quite understand it either, even as she contemplates the possible outcome of using the “promise of fairness” cream given to her as a husband-hunting aid. Suitable boys stream in and out, leaving a frazzled and frustrated Anju in their wake. Some don’t like her because of this, that, or the other reason, including the color of her skin; so much for any “promise of fairness.” Subjected to a parade of losers, including boys requiring a remedial course in getting dressed and the storekeeper from Ghana who was looking to improve his domestic staff (“do you know how to use a vacuum cleaner?”), Anju tells her mother, “I decided a long time ago that it was going to be G-eight only. You know, developed nations or nothing.”

Resigned but not broken, Anju allows her mother to drag her from swami to astrologer, from healer to guru, from matchmakers to priests, from temples to holy places, only to end up conducting pujas, undertaking fasts, wearing specific jewelry, chanting prescribed mantras, lighting pink candles, and ultimately wondering why in the world wasn’t anything working? When she catches her mother copying the number of a matchmaker off of a tattered poster peeling off a crumbling wall, Anju knows she can’t possibly be that desperate.
Raised to be the perfect Indian wife, Anju knows the societal pressures imposed upon her parents for having an “aging” unmarried daughter. Although she doesn’t blame her mother for her constant degrading remarks—“Beti, I don’t want you to be happy. I want you to be married” and “So what if she’s fat/sad/stupid? At least she’s married” and “Quickly, go find a picture that doesn’t make you look so old”—Anju tires of feeling bad about herself and decides that something drastic must be done.

As per custom, Anju’s chronic singleness is a barrier to any marriage opportunities for her popular, desirable, younger brothers. Added to that is the self-knowledge that one more younger relative announcing an engagement would be too much to grin and bear. Anju concocts a plan: if she could go to New York to continue her schooling, she could take responsibility for herself and not be a burden to the family. Haggling, discussing, crying, and compromising yield that coveted ticket to “Umrica,” where she will live with relatives who promise to watch over her and help to find her a mate. Instead, Anju finds a new life that accepts her for herself, a high-profile job that fulfills her professionally, the joy of watching daytime television reruns during what she dubs her “Oprah-Chopra Hour,” and friends who happily share the dilemma of finding Mr. Right. She learns, however, that finding him isn’t any easier over here; it’s just that there is no expiration date to contend with.

Still she has to look for a husband, and the ups and downs begin anew. Between taking solace in the purchase of new designer shoes or handbags, she has to educate her well-intentioned friends; one suggested catch was qualified with, “he’s the right color, isn’t he?” Anju explains to one suitor, an American man who is genuinely interested in her, that one of the differences between their cultures is, “We don’t even have a term for ‘falling in love’ in our language. Instead, we say pyar hogaya—love has happened.” This is what sustains Anju: the total belief in the concept that pyar hogaya with a suitable, acceptable prospect. But the reality of her own situation after living in New York frees her to understand that love can happen at any moment no matter where she is or what she’s doing … and maybe even when she’s not dwelling on it or expecting it.

Daswani, who says that much of Anju’s story is based on her own experiences, poses hard questions to her character: How do you define yourself? Where does your mother stop and where do you begin? What’s love got to do with it? While Anju doesn’t have snap answers, she learns that the questions provide a part of the process of life, the life she is making for herself and to share with another.

Driven by pop culture and fashion-trendy references juxtaposed by a heartfelt love and respect for family and traditions, Daswani’s writing easily shapes Anju into a fully-rounded character who effortlessly makes us feel her pain, her heartbreak, her happiness, her joy. Anju’s self-deprecating yet uplifting character is the key to accepting her honest struggle to balance the traditional and the modern, the east and the west. The first marriage in this book for Anju is not the one in which she is the bride; rather it is her comfortable fusion of revered Indian traditions with her hip, cool American environment. It is her blending of strict Indian values with a life that accepts her for who she is and what she has accomplished, not for who she isn’t and to whom she is married.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as an advertising and promotions copywriter.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....