This is the first book I have read written by an Indian author for an Indian audience still living in India. Chetan Bhagat is quite a famous writer in India. Aside from selling many copies of his novels, two of them were made into Bollywood (Indian Hollywood) movies. One of those movies – 3 Idiots – had cross cultural success, with Indian-Americans going to theaters in droves to watch it. I would actually recommend it to non-Indian-American audiences as well. It is a wonderfully directed/written movie, the actors are good, and the songs are entertaining. Did I mention that all Bollywood movies have songs and dance routines? Yea, they do.
Anyway, back to the book. Me thinks this may be based on Chetan Bhagat’s life. I mean, aside from the title saying “the story of my marriage,” the characters bear a striking resemblance to people in his own life. Before I can really get into the story told in this novel, it is important to have an understanding of arranged marriages. And I don’t mean the superficial understanding that leads people to say stuff like, “How can you get married without loving somebody?” or “You’re letting someone else choose your life partner for you?” I’m not saying these aren’t valid questions. I just want to give you a fuller picture of the concept. At one end of the marriage spectrum is the historical context of two people getting together in matrimony. Marriage often served a political purpose. People exchanged heirs to maintain peaceful relationships with foreign powers or tribes. Many people are involved and the two people in the center of this exchange aren’t so much consulted as told of the impending match. Two people coming together for love is on the complete other end of the spectrum. Here, nobody except the two people involved consult about the match. Arranged marriages are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. These marriages involve the coming together of two families that share common beliefs, cultural practices, languages, etc. The bride and groom are consulted, but everything is seen through a familial lens: how will this person fit in with my family?
So, now that I’ve bored you with a short sociological lesson on the purpose(s) of marriage, let’s get on with the good stuff: the novel. Girl enters prestigious college. Girl is declared most attractive new admission in the whole class by college poll (I am told this stuff really happens in Indian colleges. But then again, this was how Facebook got started). Boy meets Girl. Boy volunteers to tutor Girl in Economics. Girl accepts. Weeks later, Boy declares that he can no longer be just friends because he is in love with her. Girl is taken aback but eventually reciprocates feelings. Boy and Girl move in together.
So at this point in the story, my jaw drops. They move in together?! This does not happen in the India that I visit every two years with my parents. But, after consulting with my Indian cousins, I find that it’s growing more and more common. But the couples usually hide it from their parents and take measures to conceal it from anyone else who may leak it to them. Moving along…
Boy and Girl realize they want to get married and decide to share the news with their respective families on the day of their graduation. When that day arrives, their simplistic world view comes crashing down. Their families are not at all alike. Boy is from northern India where the language is Punjabi, religion is more of a spiritual concept, meat and alcohol are consumed with little regard to health, and emotional expression is paramount. Girl is from southern India where the language is Tamil, she comes from the highest religious class, where the people abstain from alcohol and are vegetarians, and all social interactions are subdued. Needless to say, the families don’t get along. What makes matters worse is the fact that the Boy does not get along with his father for reasons that become clear further into the novel. His father doesn’t even attend the ceremony.
Boy and Girl part ways with the plan to slowly win over each other’s families. Thereafter the novel is devoted to each of them taking turns working in their love’s native state and cajoling their family members into realizing that they’re not that different and are indeed a good match. Things do not work out well. In fact, when the two families meet a second time, again sans Boy’s father, both vehemently deny the possibility of a marriage ever taking place. Everyone feels insulted, no one feels respected, and the Boy and Girl are forced to rethink their destinies and imagine a life without the other.
Bhagat’s depiction of the depression Boy goes through, the guilt trip his mom forces on him, and the utter lack of sensitivity his father displays is impressive. All of it comes off as real and raw and debilitating. This is where Bhagat’s writing shines and, consequentially, this is also the best part of the book. Watching Boy go through the motions at work and at home, skipping meals because he simply has no appetite anymore, slowly becoming unhinged – it is all painful to read. When he finally sees a professional who recognizes the signs of a nervous breakdown, he is almost beyond saving.
I’m not going to go into the last couple of chapters in the book, as that will ruin the plot for those of you who may read the novel. What I will say, though, is the character that Bhagat uses to bring this story to a close comes kind of out of nowhere. The character’s actions don’t fit in with the image created of him by the writer. This makes it all seem rather unbelievable. At the same time, perhaps Bhagat wants to show that sometimes help comes in the form of someone you least expect. Whatever the reason, this – I would argue – is the least powerful part in the entire novel when it should have been the most.
For this reason, I would give this book 2 out of five coffees. It really could have been better.
If you are on the fence about reading this book, I would recommend checking out 3 Idiots. Here’s the trailer: