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September|October 2002
The Hours By Niki Kuckes
The Blood-Money Myth By Tom Baker
Monsoon in a Teacup By Ratna Kapur
Smog & Mirrors By Alec Appelbaum
Prosaic Justice By Anthony Sebok

Monsoon in a Teacup

In India, arranged marriages are uncontroversial. In Britain, they're causing a stir.

By Ratna Kapur

At the center of Monsoon Wedding, the celluloid hit from the 45-year-old director Mira Nair, is an arranged marriage in contemporary India. The film is set in middle-class Delhi, where the Punjabi home of the Verma family is overflowing with preparations for the wedding of Aditi, the 24-year-old daughter, to Hemant, a young Indian engineer who lives and works in Houston. The two have never met.

Nair, who studied sociology at the University of New Delhi and at Harvard, is best known for Salaam Bombay, a poignant movie about street children. In Monsoon Wedding, she uses the story of Aditi and Hemant, and of their families, to explode the myth of loveless Indian marriages that has infused Western imagination. Aditi has agreed to marry Hemant because her former boss, a 42-year-old talk-show host with whom she's been having a clandestine affair, has made no move toward leaving his wife. Hemant is content to marry a woman he doesn't know; he says that every relationship has its risks. Aditi initially is more reluctant. But when she tells Hemant about her affair, trust takes root between them and blossoms into love.

The wedding preparations reveal other relationships and identities. A flirtation ripens between Rahul, a sophomore at the University of Sydney returning to India for a visit after five years away, and his cousin Ayesha, a sensuous "Delhi babe" who challenges Rahul's orthodox assumptions about Indian women. A romance emerges between P.K. Dube, the upwardly mobile wedding planner, and Alice, the maid of the household, which culminates in a "love marriage" under an umbrella of marigolds. There is Ria, who is 28, single, and planning to study in the United States. And there is Varun, Aditi's effeminate brother whose passions for cooking and Bollywood dancing suggest—to his father's consternation—a budding gay identity.

These stories unfurl against fast-paced images of Delhi's dot-com modernity. Like India, Nair suggests, the Verma family is in a period of transition. In the film's infectious climax, the wedding guests dance in the monsoon rain to a brass-band tune that mixes traditional Indian instruments and electronic flourishes. It's a pleasure to see such a textured portrayal of Indian culture. The dancers' vibrant outfits and gyrating hips displace the subjugated images of Third World women to which the West is accustomed.

Not long before Monsoon Wedding was released, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a White Paper, or statement of policy, on immigration and citizenship. Entitled "Secure Borders, Safe Haven" and prepared by Britain's Home Secretary, David Blunkett, the White Paper aims to increase controls over borders and immigration. In some respects, the new policies reflect legitimate concerns about national security in the wake of September 11. But the paper also collapses the threat of terrorism with worries about preserving British identity, which is made plain by the paper's misleading depiction of South Asian marriage—a depiction contradicted by the truthful complexity of Nair's film.

Blunkett proposes that immigrants take a citizenship pledge, a compulsory English-language test, and an exam on British life, society, and institutions. About arranged marriages, which bring Indian brides and grooms to the United Kingdom to marry British citizens of Indian origin, Blunkett's main concern is for residents who are "duped" into marriage so that their spouse can secure permission to settle in Britain. In some cases, Indians hoping to immigrate "may have paid someone to go through a marriage ceremony with them or used an organized crime group, a corrupt solicitor or immigration adviser to arrange a bogus marriage for them," Blunkett writes.

To "increase the chance of exposing sham marriages," the White Paper proposes extending the testing period from one to two years for new marriages that convey settlement rights to an immigrant (leaving immigrant women with no way to leave violent marriages during that time without the threat of deportation). In addition, it asks couples to prove their love during those two years by living "without recourse to public funds."

The White Paper also introduces a "no switching" rule to prevent immigrants who enter on a work or student visa from remaining in the country because they have gotten married. According to Blunkett, 76 percent of those granted leave to stay on the basis of marriage in 1999 had been admitted to the U.K. for a different reason, and half this group switched within six months of entering the country. "The indication is that many of these persons had intended to marry all along but had not obtained leave to enter on this basis and had therefore lied about their intentions to the entry clearance officer," he writes.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the Blair government wants to impose its own standards on immigrant marriages. The United States also checks to make sure that when a marriage confers the right of permanent residency on a spouse, the couple lives together and shares assets (many other countries do not). But the White Paper singles out South Asian marriages for suspicion.

In doing so, Blunkett assumes that arranged marriages are a deeply entrenched cultural practice. This assumption is wrong conceptually, because it regards culture as an artifact—that is, static and fixed. It's also wrong historically. Arranged marriages have never been a universal practice on the subcontinent, and they are not an unbroken part of ancient Hindu or Islamic tradition. The contemporary version dates from the 19th century. During the period of the British Empire, Indian nationalists saw British attempts to outlaw practices like child marriages as an invasion of the home, the one space over which Indians still retained control. For nationalists, arranged marriages served as a form of resistance.

While the child marriages of the 19th century might appear coercive to 21st-century eyes, today's arranged marriages are not. They range from relationships that grow out of an introduction by the couple's parents to more orthodox unions that are about acquiring property or inheritance rights, or even strengthening political alliances. Among the Muria tribe in Central India, for example, girls and boys in their early teens are encouraged to have sex with someone they find attractive as a means to helping them choose a partner with whom they will be sexually compatible. In cities like Bombay, middle-class people sometimes ask "dating agencies" to find them partners who match their class, religion, and ethnicity. The relationships often start as sex without commitment, but sometimes lead to marriage.

In both "East" and "West," it's worth remembering, marriage is the only relationship that offers access to an array of benefits from the government, including property rights and tax breaks. Some South Asians arrange marriages with these rights squarely in mind. Others, like gays and lesbians, may accept arranged marriages to assuage the concerns of family members. Like Westerners, Indians also marry for love, to bear children, to relieve loneliness. Perhaps the best-known example of a love marriage was the one between Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India, who was a Kashmiri, and Italian-born Catholic Sonia Maino, now the president of the prominent Congress Party.

The point is that the main features of most Indian marriages, arranged or not, are not monolithically "Indian." Arranged marriages look different when performed by upper-caste Brahmans or Hindu nationalists. The White Paper does not mention them in its account of arranged marriages, but similar British relationships also come to mind: mail-order unions between white Englishmen and foreign brides; marriages sparked by Club 18-30 holidays, a popular "no kids or grannies" tour that offers young people a week or two of fun, dating, and sex at a resort abroad; and, of course, marriages within the British monarchy. Couples who are no longer compatible yet stay together for tax reasons, or who marry for money or only to have children, all implicitly fall short of Blunkett's ideal.

In some respects, the White Paper's dubious swipe at Indian culture seems oddly timed, since many aspects of Britain's way of life have been remade by the South Asians who have settled in the U.K. over the last half-century. Curry ranks above fish and chips as Britain's most popular restaurant food. The writings of Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi are crucial to British literature, and the current smash hit of London's West End, Bombay Dreams, is a musical produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Indian film director Shekhar Kapur about a young Indian aspiring to make a career in Hollywood cinema.

Still, suspicion of foreigners resonates in Britain. In the summer of 2001, young whites and Asians clashed in what has been described as the worst racial violence in Britain in 15 years. The rioters threw Molotov cocktails and vandalized property in Oldham, Burnley, and Bradford, three northern cities dogged by a history of segregation, grinding poverty, and unemployment. Campaigning in Burnley's municipal elections in May, the far-right British National Party claimed that "hundreds and thousands of asylum seekers" are given free homes and benefits at the expense of the British taxpayer. The BNP called for the "long-suffering" British people to take back control from "ethnic minority thugs"—and won small but significant electoral gains.

The numbers do not support the neo-nationalists' claims that Britain is being swamped by immigrants. According to the Office for National Statistics, ethnic minority groups account for about 7 percent of Britain's population. Indians make up 1.7 percent of the total, Pakistanis 1.2 percent, and Bangladeshis 1.5 percent. Immigration from Asia and Africa declined in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then increased only slightly due to rising applications from Africa, Hong Kong, and Bangladesh. In 2000, only about 183,000 people legally immigrated to Britain, representing 0.3 percent of the total population. (In the same year legal immigrants to the United States also made up about 0.3 percent of the population.)

Nonetheless, immigrant-baiting, fueled by concern about the large number of illegal workers, remains a force in British politics. Tony Blair is not the only European leader looking over his shoulder at the right. Across the English Channel, xenophobia transformed recent national elections in France. It is likely to similarly affect September's vote in Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder faces considerable opposition for his government's efforts to recruit immigrants in hopes of addressing a labor shortage and a population decline.

The Blair government could reduce the number of immigrants entering Britain, if that were its objective, without targeting Indian marriages. But the White Paper's choice of strategy has the effect of placating the far right by taking a moderate-seeming step in its direction. What the new policy does not do is what it is supposed to—help Britain better control its borders. By cementing the cultural stereotypes that Monsoon Wedding takes apart, the White Paper aggravates racial tensions and those between countries. The British government should not make policy based on its conception of foreign culture; if the White Paper is a reliable guide, the government is too apt to get things wrong.

Ratna Kapur is the Director of the Centre for Feminist Legal Research in New Delhi, India, and co-author of Subversive Sites: Feminist Engagements with Law in India.

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