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.
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The Ups And Downs of Indian Marriage In 'Sideways'

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The Ups And Downs of Indian Marriage In 'Sideways'


It doesn't take a royal wedding for wedding madness to take hold, though nuptials were the last thing on Miranda Kennedy's mind when she headed off to India nearly a decade ago, an aspiring foreign correspondent. In her 20's, she left behind a job and a man she loved, though was hardly ready to marry. That was before she discovered that as a single woman, she couldnt rent an apartment, because to landlords in Delhi single meant loose.

Ms. MIRANDA KENNEDY (Author, "Sideways on a Scooter"): It was pretty horrifying to drive around, you know, in rickshaws and be turned away. You know, have doors slammed in my face, literally, because I was on my own.

MONTAGNE: So you found yourself doing something - what - Im guessing you never would have

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: You never would have done before, which is you transformed your boyfriend back in New York into a husband

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

MONTAGNE: who happened to just not be there yet.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, the poor boyfriend

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENNEDY: back in New York

MONTAGNE: You didnt tell him though because, you know.

Ms. KENNEDY: No. No. No, that wouldnt have gone over very well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Soon, Miranda Kennedy was ensconced in her own apartment and had a housekeeper, Rada. In her memoir, "Sideways on a Scooter," she writes that Rada had a wedding on her mind, as does much of India.

Ms. KENNEDY: Weddings are, in general, the biggest lifetime expense for Indians of all income groups. Middleclass Hindu weddings mean a guest list tipping into the thousands, and two full 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 in helicopters. Their banquets feature extravagant flourishes such as spurting chocolate fountains. Indians spend an average of $32,000 on a wedding, thats $7,000 more than the average American spends - even though Indians earn only 10 percent of the American per capita income.

MONTAGNE: Rada, your housekeeper, spends her time worrying about her marriage-age daughter, as soon as she hit - what - about 16?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. Rada started fretting about getting her daughter married off and she went to her priest. And her priest found the perfect boy - perfect in every way, meaning his caste and religion and age matched, (unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: So what happens?

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

MONTAGNE: Next to Rada, there's another important woman in your life, and she's more a contemporary. Her name is Gita. She's a neighbor. It's certainly, at first glance, you would think she's really quite like you.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. Yeah, she was my age and very independent. And my first sight of her was 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 middleclass ones, didn't drive themselves. And she, you know, occasionally wore miniskirts and went out to clubs and stuff. And yet, Gita 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. And, you know, she had a lot of traditional expectations for herself.

MONTAGNE: Though she isnt 100 percent traditional, there was a mix there.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right, yes. So 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-Come-Arranged-Marriage in Indian English. So the easiest way to have these matches happen is through online portals, which are kind of like, except they're only about marriage. And it's normal for the parents to fill out those profiles, and for them to then choose the boys who you might go meet.

But in theory, in these kinds of arranged marriages, young people have a lot more input into their own choices of partners than they ever had before.

MONTAGNE: From Gita over to a yoga teacher that you know, all of them are in some way circling around issues of marriage. And at the very heart of this, for some of them, is the practice of paying a dowry. Dowries are illegal in India and have been for a long time.

Ms. KENNEDY: They are, and yet in today's modern India, you know, where women have more independence than they ever had before, where they're more highly educated and where there's more of them in the workforce, dowry has increased.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about Usha, where the dowry loomed quite large in her case. She's a yoga instructor.

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

MONTAGNE: So there's this parade of really unsuitable boys and their unsuitable families.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: There's this one moment where an entire family comes in and the women in that family, they have to check her feet.

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah. And Usha was horrified by this, because she'd never heard of this tradition. I mean no one has ever heard of this tradition. It was like this 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.

And 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 amongst the women that: The girl is good. And they promised that they would come back with an official proposal, because this meant, now, that she was a desirable bride.

And after they left, Usha looked at her brother kind of pleadingly, and he said: Don't worry - they would be lucky to get you for free.

MONTAGNE: Miranda, thank you very much.

Ms. KENNEDY: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Miranda Kennedy's new memoir is called "Sideways on a Scooter." She's now an editor here at NPR. And you can read an excerpt of her book at


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: Im Renee Montagne.

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