Today's Reading

After all, they tell me—their mouths full of champagne and vanilla cream cake, cocooned in flowing bridal lenghas worth as much as a new car—what was the big deal about being set up by your family?

Isn't "today's arranged marriage" equivalent to being set up by a friend, or an algorithm in your go-to dating app? Aren't their chances of having a successful marriage as high as the girl who ends up marrying her one-night stand? Or the one who met her leading man in college? I am one of the very few in my generation still unmarried in my hometown, and I never know what to say. How much to smile. And so I help myself to another drink—sometimes, another piece of cake— and reverently congratulate them on their Bollywood ending.

But I always wonder what happens after the ceremonial fire goes out and the guests go home, stuffed and slightly drunk on Johnnie Walker. Nani's marriage was arranged, and unlike today's blessed nuptials, she didn't have much of a say in the matter. Her father showed her a black-and-white photo of a lanky boy with round wire spectacles, and later, someone smeared red powder on her forehead, and just like that—well, nearly—she was married. It was simple. Clear-cut. A transaction performed not out of love for a would-be spouse, but for one's own family.

But wasn't an arranged marriage beneath me? I wasn't really Indian, after all. I was Canadian. A girl who refused to feel out of place in her mostly white, middle-class suburb in west Toronto. I had Rollerbladed and held lemonade stands, rolled my eyes on "Culture Day" at school when Shay and I were forced to wear lenghas, the other kids crowding around us for a chance to paw at the fake crystals sewn onto the sleeves. I only saw other Indians when I was dragged to dinner parties, and at temple every Sunday. When we went bulk grocery shopping in Scarborough because the corner Safeway didn't have the right brand of lentils or coconut milk. And even though Ravi Shankar always seemed to be playing on the radio at home, and my clothes perpetually reeked of masala, I grew up fully committed to my role in what otherwise seemed to be a white narrative. I played a girl who couldn't believe in arranged marriage—not only because of the cliché of her own family shambles, but because the cynicism of her Western world, the literary fiction on her bookshelf, barely allowed her to believe in marriage at all.

So I resisted. I resisted the idea of a planned union that might make me happy. That might make Nani happy.

"Did you like Sachin?" she asked after he had left. She stood beside me as I washed the dishes, the side of her head lightly resting on my shoulder.

Did I like him? I didn't dislike him. After he told me he just wasn't interested, and Nani came back with the tea, the pressure had evaporated. It wasn't a chaperoned date, a three-hour festival I'd have to immortalize in the diary I'd outgrown so I could one day tell my daughters about all the silly things their father said the first time our eyes locked.

It was just lunch.

"Will you see him again?" Nani asked.

"No." I shook my head. "I don't think so."

"Don't think so?"

I didn't answer, and she leaned forward on her tiptoes and turned off the tap.

"You got along with him, 'nah'?"

"I don't know." I turned to face her, not quite sure how to tell her I'd already been rejected. "What did you think of him?"

"Only you know what you need in husband, Raina. What you need to be happy."

"I am happy."

She wiped a fleck of foam off my neck and stared at me, attempting to read my expression the way she attempted to read English.

"I am!"

She grimaced and glanced away, as if she'd heard it, too. The urgency. The insistence. I attacked the rice cooker, knuckles and steel wool, my palms burning red in the hot water. The suds washed off, and I held it up, set it sideways on the dish rack. Why did I sound like I was trying to convince myself? I was happy, wasn't I? I had everything, less the one thing that, to Nani, defined the rest. The boxes for college and career had been ticked; only marriage remained.

She rolled up her sleeves and handed me a frying pan. Staring at it, she said, "You agreed to this."

"I know. But I said thirty."

"You're twenty-nine now, Raina. What difference is one year?"

"Yeah, what 'is' the difference?" I squirted dish soap onto the pan, and set the bottle down firmly. "What's the difference if I get married now, or in five years, or never—"

"Don't talk nonsense."
...

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