MARRYING ANITA: A QUEST FOR LOVE IN THE NEW INDIA by Anita Jain. Bloomsbury USA: New York. July 2008. $24.95. 320 pages. http://anitajain.net1d9783e2f5941cd953681433950d50f8-2

With a “Sex in the City” strut, Anita Jain’s memoir, Marrying Anita, hurls itself at readers with this desperate realization: “I had become precisely the kind of woman I was determined not to become before I’d come to New York: that proverbial single thirtysomething female propped up at the bar waiting for her ship to come in.” Frustrated with having failed to find romance and a husband through the dating system practiced in the West and the arranged-marriage system attempted by her parents, Jain decided in 2005 that she would uproot herself from New York City and transplant herself in Delhi. There, she thought, she would have an easier time in her search for marital bliss. Three years later, we have the book that records her quest.

In March 2005, New York Magazine published Jain’s article, “Is Arranged Marriage Really Any Worse Than Craigslist?” which would eventually spawn the book. The article, written before she left the States, was focused and balanced by points made through serious humor: both dating and marriage arranging have their good and bad points, especially if you’re a modern Indian woman. Jain’s approach was simple, and her views were charmingly sharp. From the discussion posts published online, one can see why Jain decided to expand the piece. In the progression from article to book, however, her story lost its allure, its heart, and its point. The article was about Jain’s experiences with the processes of dating and mating, but the book became a platform for Jain’s growing dissatisfaction with her inability to find a husband. Marrying Anita is a roller-coaster ride with baggage.

Jain, born in India and raised in the United States, is a Harvard graduate who has lived and worked as a journalist around the world. Never shy about her “western” behavior, she neither portrays herself as a saint nor claims to be stereotypical Indian bridal material. After three years in New York and past the age of 30, the dating scene left her weary of one-night stands, affairs with married men, and men who never called her back. The answer to her dilemma, she decided, was to move to India. “People commonly go to India to find themselves or to find God, but I went to India to find a husband,” she writes. “I would give myself a year, what I figured was ample time in such a marriage-oriented society.” But would she have a problem finding an Indian husband who was broad-minded enough to want a wife who went out with friends, drank, smoked, and had had sex with more men than just two long-term boyfriends? She wasn’t sure what she would run up against, but she owed it to herself to try.

Fast forward to Delhi. Jain has a job, a place to live, and a housekeeper who, in time, will become a supportive factor in her new life. The timing of her move is a two-edged sword: Delhi is a hip, vibrant, devil-may-care city that is, as she puts it, “in flux moving rapidly from rigid tradition to modernity, from poverty to gilt-edged prosperity.” In short, Delhi has become a close copy of cities such as … um, New York. Interestingly, Jain encounters many of the roadblocks to love in India that she met with in other parts of the world. Dating offers no guarantees, men are free to run from commitment, and when it comes to choosing a potential mate, Jain is as particular in India as she had been in the United States. Finding true love and romance, while high on her priority list, is low on the priority lists of men found in matrimonial ads, matrimonial web sites, and good old-fashioned friend- and family-arranged meetings. Her tales are usually gloomy goings-on and outcomes that lend a dejected tone to the book. In fact, there is such an undercurrent of bitterness in the book that one wonders if there is much joy in her life outside of her parents in California and her faithful housekeeper, Chandra.

As she chronicles her year in Delhi, Jain’s dissatisfaction with dating gains a new intensity. “I think love or dating or the romantic life is just one of the most difficult aspects of our lives people in the modern world face unless one is really lucky,” Jain told me over email, “and let’s be honest, there are very few of those people out there. I may be neurotic or even at times get bitter, as you put it, about trying to find love and failing but I hardly think it’s rare; it’s the nature of the beast.” Is she still looking, or is she now married, three years later? “I am still single,” Jain continues, “and while I wouldn’t say I’m as actively looking as during the period written about, I haven’t yet thrown in my towel and pulled out of the game.”

The real heart of the book, however, is not Jain’s attempt to find romance and true love but rather her upbeat images of the young, new Delhi and “India’s dizzying economic expansion.” Delhi’s booming suburbs, Noida and Gurgaon, are depicted as places where “middle-class houses, luxury high-rises, and gated estates grow like ragweed.” Between shopping malls and multiplexes, there are restaurants, clubs, and bars perfect for late-night trysts, encounters, and get-togethers. Those, and upscale hotels, spas, and salons, all cater to the newfound “wealth” of the area: money being earned and quickly spent by those who work in call centers in bed with American companies. Casual sex, premium pot, and pounding rock/disco music create a backdrop to this energy and passion for freedom.

“You walk into a Barista—the Indian Starbucks,” Jain explains, “and it’s packed with these young men and women in their 20s—more than half of the country is below 30—wearing jeans and t-shirts and the latest Western fashions. They are so different from their counterparts 10 or 15 years ago! And 10 to 15 years hence, these young people will be married and have families and Indian society will look very different from what it looks like today because their values are so different.” Jain also paints a fascinating picture of the contradictions of the new India: low monthly wages for cooks equal the price of two double vodka-sodas in a hip club bar; a booming economy versus reverse work hours and expensive housing; changing attitudes towards sex while arranged marriages prevail.

There is a revolution going on in India, and fortunately Jain is there to capture it. Her documentation of the new India is the more important aspect of the book, and I hope she will continue to report on this changing part of the world with the same enthusiasm. As for Jain’s quest for love in the new India, all good wishes go out to her. After all, it’s up to each person to answer that one simple-yet-perplexing question: what’s love got to do with it?

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

 

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