Photo by Helen Gibbs
Kavita Daswani’s debut novel, For Matrimonial Purposes, could just as easily be titled My Big Fat Indian Wedding. The parallels between the two hilariously funny stories about matrimonial culture clash are certainly there. But Daswani’s novel has just as much in common with Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire, The Bachelor and Meet My Parents — all shows that deal with Americans who believe that, when it comes to mating, we could all probably use a little help.
Daswani grew up in a culture where the vast majority of marriages are arranged and dating is something for the outlandish characters on Dynasty. For Matrimonial Purposes (Putnam Publishing Group) chronicles the adventures of Anju, a young Indian woman living on her own in New York, and her lifelong search to fulfill her own and her parents’ dream of a proper arranged marriage. Despite being the daughter of a well-connected and wealthy Bombay jeweler, Anju is faced with several major problems: She is a little too short, a bit too pudgy, a bit too dark-skinned and, at 34, way, way too old for most proper suitors. That she lives in New York instead of at home with her family, and that she has a job — as a fashion publicist — doesn’t help her cause, either.
Born in Hong Kong, Daswani began freelancing as a journalist at 17 and later became a fashion editor living for many years in Paris. She based Anju’s story largely on her own. And, like Anju, she was constantly bedeviled by the need to find a spouse. “It really was the end of the world not being married,” she says. “In hindsight I look back and say what was the big deal, but it was just atrocious. It really was a melodrama.”
Appropriately, Daswani’s writing style is straightforward and baldly emotional. What she accomplishes by keeping her narrative voice so simple and urgent is to draw the reader fully into Anju’s inner life, portraying her conflicting feelings of independence and duty, loyalty and desire with such immediacy that a Western reader can’t help but end up rooting for Anju in her quest, and sympathizing with her impulses throughout this extremely foreign process.
The culture clash Anju experiences on a daily basis is by turns hilarious and acute. During her one disastrous foray into dating an American “boy,” Anju tries to explain her fatalistic world-view to Jeff, a young man who reminds her of “Adam Carrington”: “We don’t even have a term for ‘falling in love’ in our language,” Anju tells him. “Instead, we say pyar hogaya — love has happened.”
Her own marital problems now solved, Daswani is at work on her second novel, which is about — what else? — the reality of being a young, married Indian woman living in Los Angeles.