The Ups And Downs of Indian Marriage In 'Sideways' In her memoir, Sideways on a Scooter, NPR's Miranda Kennedy reflects on marriage practices and the nature of love in India.

The Ups And Downs of Indian Marriage In 'Sideways'

The Ups And Downs of Indian Marriage In 'Sideways'

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An Indian groom gets his turban arranged by his mother and sister in law while his bride greets guests before their wedding ceremony in New Delhi. Manpreet Romana/Getty Images hide caption

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Manpreet Romana/Getty Images

It doesn't take a royal wedding for wedding madness to take hold. Certainly nuptials were the last thing on Miranda Kennedy's mind when she headed off for India nearly a decade ago as an aspiring foreign correspondent.

At 27, she left behind a job and a man she loved — but was hardly ready to marry.

Sideways on a Scooter
By Miranda Kennedy
Hardcover, 352 pages
Random House
List Price: $26
Read An Excerpt

In fact, the only romance she was looking for was the kind found in the adventures she hoped to have in the ancient, colorful city of Delhi. That was before she discovered that as a single woman, she would never be able to rent an apartment, because single meant loose.

"It was pretty horrifying to drive around in rickshaws, to be turned away, to have doors slammed in my face because I was on my own," Kennedy tells Renee Montagne on Morning Edition.

To solve her rental problems, Kennedy says, she pretended that her boyfriend back in New York City was actually her husband.

"The poor boyfriend back in New York," Kennedy laughs. "That wouldn't have gone over very well."

It did go over well with landlords — and soon Kennedy was ensconced in her own apartment, complete with the help of a housekeeper named Radha.

Radha is among the characters in Kennedy's new memoir, Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India.

She turned out to have weddings on the mind — as does much of India.

"Weddings are in general the biggest lifetime expense for Indians of all income groups," Kennedy says. "Middle-class Hindu weddings mean a guest list tipping into the thousands, and two whole weeks of religious rituals, parties and dinners — in other words, lifelong debt. In today's India of conspicuous spending and Bollywood glitz, the richest grooms arrive at their weddings. Their banquets feature extravagant flourishes such as spurting chocolate fountains. Indians spend an average of $32,000 on a wedding, $7,000 more than the average American spends — even though Indians earn only 10 percent of the American capital income."

Miranda Kennedy is an editor for Morning Edition and the author of Sideways on a Scooter. Gracy Obuchowicz hide caption

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Gracy Obuchowicz

Radha, Kennedy's housekeeper, mostly worries about her marriage-age daughter in the book.

"Radha started fretting about getting her daughter married off" when she turned 16 — bridal age in India, Kennedy says. "She went to her priest, and her priest found the perfect boy — perfect in every way, meaning his caste and religion and age matched."

"So she married her daughter to this boy," Kennedy continues, "which she was sure would guarantee her daughter lifelong happiness ... and you know, it didn't. But as far as Radha was concerned, it was her best chance at making her daughter's life better."

Aside from Radha, there was another important woman in Kennedy's life in India — her neighbor Geeta. At first glance, the two women seemed very similar.

"She was my age and very independent," Kennedy says. "My first sight of her was that she had a pair of car keys dangling from her hand, and I was very impressed by that, because most Indian women I knew, even middle-class ones, didn't drive themselves. And she occasionally wore miniskirts and went out to clubs, and yet Geeta was extremely traditional. She had no intention of having a 'love match,' as she called it. She definitely was going to have an arranged marriage. She had a lot of traditional expectations for herself."

Kennedy does note, however, that Geeta wasn't conservative in every way.

"There's lots of different types of arranged marriage in the new India, and the type that she chose is a type that millions of young women and men are choosing now, which is clumsily called 'love-cum-arranged-marriage' in Indian English. The easiest way to find these matches are online portals, sort of like, except they are only about marriage. It's normal for the parents to fill out those profiles and for them to then choose the boys that you might go meet. But in theory, in these kinds of arranged marriages, young people have a lot more input into their partners than they ever have before."

Kennedy also formed a relationship with her yoga teacher, who, like Radha and Geeta, was also dealing with issues of marriage — and at the very heart of the marriage issue for many Indians is the practice of paying a dowry. Dowries are illegal in India and have been for a long time.

The author, photographed on a Kashmiri houseboat. Miranda Kennedy hide caption

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Miranda Kennedy

The author, photographed on a Kashmiri houseboat.

Miranda Kennedy

"They are," Kennedy says, "and yet in today's modern India, where women have more independence than they ever have before, where they are more highly educated and where there are more of them in the workforce, dowry has increased."

In the case of Usha, the yoga instructor, the question of a dowry looms large.

"Usha was the youngest child in her family," Kennedy says. "Her parents were dead, and her brothers were in charge of marrying her off, and they had actually spent all of their savings on the other daughters. So there wasn't much dowry for her."

As a result, Usha endures a parade of unsuitable boys and unsuitable families. In one memorable moment in the book, an entire family comes in and has to check Usha's feet.

"And Usha was horrified by this, because she had never heard of this tradition," Kennedy says. "No one had heard of this tradition. This was just a family's random village tradition, but because she was the marriage-age girl, she had to put up with whatever the family wanted to do. So the idea was, if her two first toes were of equal length, that meant that she would listen to her husband. So luckily, or unluckily for Usha, her toes were the same length, and this cry went out among the women that 'the girl is good!' and that they would come back with an official proposal."

The story has a happy ending, Kennedy assures.

"After they left, Usha looked at her brother pleadingly, and he said, 'Don't worry, they would be lucky to get you for free.' "

Excerpt: 'Sideways On A Scooter'

Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy
Sideways on a Scooter
By Miranda Kennedy
Hardcover, 352 pages
Random House
List Price: $26

Delhi's stale April air caught in my throat. Each breath had already been recycled through millions of Indian mouths, I imagined, growing hotter and thicker with each exhale. This is what it must feel like inside a burka: It was as though I was enclosed from head to toe in black cotton and inhaling the fabric that covered my mouth as I tried to scoop the dusty soup into my lungs.

"Natural air-conditionings, madam! Full breeze-open like a helicopter!"

When a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw slowed to a sputter alongside me, I was uncomfortable enough to pay attention to the driver's offer. I'd only been in India for a couple of weeks, but I'd already learned that most of Delhi's rickshaw drivers choose to nap away as much of the seven-month hot season as they can, sprawled across their backseats in a pool of sweat. When the temperature sails above a hundred degrees, they hike their fares to ensure that the predatory customers leave them to nap in peace. This driver must have been especially hard up. He gave me an exaggerated salesman's smile, disturbing the too-small pair of plastic glasses jammed onto his face, and agreed to a reasonable fare without arguing. I scrambled in, immediately grateful for the relief his rickshaw's flimsy canvas top provided from the sun, and for the slight breeze of his "helicopter" with two open sides.

The peppery smell of areca nut stung my nostrils as my driver dug a leaf-wrapped packet of paan out of a metal box and pulled it open with his teeth. Paan, a strong stimulant like chewing tobacco, reddens the teeth and lips of laborers, delivery boys, and shopkeepers across India. When my mother had first come to South Asia, she'd assumed the men were all dying of tuberculosis, spitting blood onto the streets. She had been only twenty-three-younger and even more naïve than I was when I first arrived, at twenty-seven. In fact, paan is a relatively innocuous vice, "the working man's way of getting through the day," as one friend later described it. If the middle class relies on air- conditioning and chauffeur-driven cars to endure the disorder and discomfort of Indian city life, everyone else blunts its frustrations with cheaper and more accessible aids, such as paan, hand-rolled cigarettes called bidis, and Bollywood films.

The rickshaw spluttered through Paharganj, a seedy district for low- budget tourists where British accents jostle with the guava sellers' Hindi cries and the shouts of the aggressive red-shirted porters at the railway station nearby. Adjacent to New Delhi Station, this area is the landing point for Israelis letting off steam after their mandatory military service, and for lost European souls in search of Afghan heroin or Russian prostitutes, or both. It's a little ironic that it is also where those in search of spiritual awakening come to lay their yoga mats. Paharganj isn't the "real India," but it was the version my parents would have seen when they made their way along the hippie trail to India back in the seventies. This, the spiritualized, photogenic India sought out by Western wanderers, didn't really parse with the globalizing India that I'd read about, of cable TV and McDonald's McAloo Tikkis.

Although I have been known to do yoga, I wasn't especially interested in a New Age-y ashram experience of India. However, there was no getting around the fact that I'd shown up in Delhi dressed the part. It took me longer than it probably should have to realize that outfits such as a long, wrinkled beaded skirt and tight black cotton eyelet top weren't doing me any favors in India, where neatness is sometimes the only way to tell the slightly poor from the desperately impoverished. Compared to Delhi's ladies-impeccable in freshly ironed silk saris and tiny beaded slippers, and radiating a fragrance of baby powder and palm oil-I looked like a sloppy hippie.

A few hours earlier, in the breakfast room of the Lord's Hotel, I had looked down at the strips of papaya and clumpy yogurt in front of me and tried to concentrate on my goals for the day. Half watching the translucent geckos skitter across the walls, I reviewed the list of interviews I wanted to set up, the apartment search I needed to embark on. It seemed overambitious and strangely irrelevant when I considered my surroundings: a cheap druggy traveler's hotel in a chaotic city that would seethe its way through the day no matter what I did with mine. I sighed in frustration and turned my attention to the geckos. Through their bodies I could see the cheery red and pink frescoes of Hindu gods.

I was determined to be more than a casual visitor to India. I'd been saving everything I earned at my job as a producer at a public radio show so that I could pick up and go overseas to try my hand at becoming a freelance foreign correspondent. The lack of transcendent, transformative experiences in my life so far had disappointed me: My days seemed a blur of headlines and deadlines. And even though it was a nineteenth-century idea, I couldn't help but worry that I needed to make a dramatic gesture to convince my New York boyfriend to stick it out with me. As much as I wished I could stride into the world without caring about such things, it wasn't that simple. I hoped that by taking myself off to the farthest, most exotic place I could imagine, I'd make myself more appealing to him.

There was never any question in my mind that India was where I'd go to do it. My family's fascination with the place dates back to 1930, when my British great-aunt Edith traveled there as a Christian missionary. My mother's side of the family is a small, close-knit group of wanderers, and I'd always expected that I would be like the rest of them. Going to India was like a rite of passage, entwined with my very idea of myself. Although the decision didn't make much sense to my friends, I had an idea that I would become my fullest, most interesting self there.

Moving around was also just a part of who I was. When I ask my mother to list the cities we lived in when I was young, she has to pull out a pen and paper to keep them straight. I think I went to four different first grades, beginning in England, where my mother comes from. Unlike some families, who are forced to change cities by circumstance or jobs, moving was itself the goal for my parents. Often, they would create the reason to leave. My father, a theater studies professor, seemed equally compelled by the drama of a life lived on the move as by practicalities such as career development or earning a good salary. Living in many places was important enough to them that they decided we'd never buy a new refrigerator or car. My mother was frugal by nature anyway; she'd half joke when telling us to eat our apple cores that this was how we'd be able to afford plane tickets to see her family in England.

My great-aunt Edith died when I was eleven, and all I have left of her is a family of brass elephants and a few leather-bound books of photographs carefully mounted onto wax paper. As a teenager in Pittsburgh-where my parents settled long enough for me to attend middle and high school-I would look at the three elephants lined up on my windowsill, each one slightly larger than the next, and imagine the life I would have. In every photo, Edith is wearing sensible black lace-up shoes and a dour Victorian expression. She and her missionary sisters look out of place, to say the least, under groves of South Indian palm trees, or floating on elaborately decorated wooden Kashmiri houseboats on Srinagar's Dal Lake.

In one picture, Edith is being carried by several underfed Indians in a covered sedan chair through a mountain passageway. Transported through Kashmir like a princess in a palanquin to her summertime retreat in the cool hills! To my adolescent self, stuck in an utterly unromantic postindustrial town, these images were reason enough to consider becoming a missionary. We rarely went to church and I didn't believe in God, so my mother had a good point when she suggested that I might want to consider something that required less religion-such as being a foreign correspondent, perhaps.

Even if the grass isn't always greener, it is always worth checking just to be sure-that is my father's belief, and I inherited it. Early on, I learned that it was easy enough to make friends and not get too attached to any of them; it was okay, my parents taught us, because we had one another. Committing to a group of friends and learning to belong to a school or a neighborhood-we didn't do that in my family. I was the kind of teenager who kept a running tally of the European cities I'd visited and asserted my opinions about world affairs over the dinner table. When my father was offered a position in Ireland, at the University of Dublin, it seemed natural to transfer my college credits there and go along for the ride; I didn't want to miss out on any of my family's cool international adventures.

After college, I wanted to outdo my parents and crisscross the globe again, this time of my own accord. New York yielded me all the things I'd hoped it would: It helped me realize what I wanted to do with my life, and it gave me a boyfriend who believed in the poetry of adventure, as I did. I found a cockroach-studded apartment in a rent- stabilized building in Brooklyn that was cheap enough that after several years of working at magazines and radio programs, I could buy myself a ticket to India.

My friends were right to be skeptical about my tripping off. New York was full of opportunities for an aspiring writer, and my developing- world country of choice offered nothing in the way of career assurances. Although we knew plenty of journalists who'd decided to freelance overseas, they'd chosen higher-profile regions, such as the Middle East, where their reporting was actually likely to generate some attention. India's economy was booming, but it wasn't a major story. When I talked to editors about my plans, their eyes lit up when I mentioned Pakistan and Afghanistan. I said I was interested in reporting from those places, too, but I was quite sure that I didn't want to get slated as a war-on-terror correspondent.

When the September 11 attacks happened, I was at the radio studio, right below Canal Street, a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. I didn't leave for the next two weeks. We slept and ate and worked in the studio-afraid that if we left Ground Zero, the police wouldn't allow us back in. I spent every night down among the rescue workers. It was amazing to witness to such an important part of history, but it also helped me realize how difficult it was to burrow inside a major event like that and pull out the sad, quirky, and untold moments, as I like to. Part of me wanted to follow the story to Afghanistan; but I also wanted to get away from all the elbow-jostling of daily news reporters and go to the place I cared about most.

I got a small grant to train radio reporters in South Asia, which gave me enough money to get started. Other than that, though, I had no guarantee of work-just expressions of interest from editors at National Public Radio and a few other news outlets. My friends advised that if I stuck it out in the New York media world, I'd eventually work my way up to a job as a foreign correspondent. Even if they were right, I didn't want to wait. I thought I needed to kick my way out of the claustrophobia of normalcy and show the world that I could become a foreign correspondent on my own, rather than waiting for an employer to hand me the job.

I'd started to feel at home in New York, and that was exactly the problem. I'd lie awake at night working myself into a panic as I imagined myself ten years hence: working a slightly better job, living in a slightly nicer apartment-a scheduled, comfortable life that my parents would consider mundane. Now that I was a slightly rebellious, itinerant adult, resisting the urge to claim a community as my own, India had taken on an almost legendary aspect. Far away and unfamiliar, it had become a kind of resting place in my mind. On some level, I knew that it was where I would go to define myself as a journalist, an adventurer, a woman.

Excerpted from Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy. Copyright 2011 by Miranda Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.