Chapter : 1
On my mother’s twenty-second birthday, her parents told her she was engaged. She had met her fiance once before, when my dad, accompanied by his dad, visited her home and spoke to her for about fifteen minutes. Two months later, they held hands for the first time and exchanged their wedding vows in a tiny village church in South India.
My father, then twenty-five years old, left the country to enroll in seminary in Europe, leaving his new bride with her in-laws. She joined him some months later, and they immigrated to America in 1971. They had me, their first child, three years after that. In 2014, my parents will celebrate their forty-fifth anniversary.
This is not a story. It’s a lesson. An example. A standard to live up to. And like all of the story-lessons my parents sprinkled into their child rearing—“We walked three miles to school each day in the Kerala heat. We had chores from sun-up until sundown. We did our homework by candlelight”—this one is unadorned. There are no addendums, intrigues, or controversies I can add to spice things up, though God knows I have tried.
“But what did you feel when your parents first told you? What did you think?” This to my mother, who raises her eyebrows at my twelve-year-old foolishness.
“I didn’t think anything. I had completed college, and it was the right time for marriage. That’s all.”
I try multiple choice. “But were you scared? Excited? Sad? Did you think Daddy was handsome, average, ugly?”
She doesn’t give me an inch; everything is a moral. “I trusted my parents to make the best decision for my future. Parents know best about such things.”
I scrutinize her face as she says this. I want a flutter, a twitch, any betrayal at all. But she’s seamless. I fall back on facts.
“What did you say to him when he came to visit you? What did you talk about?”
“I didn’t talk. He asked me some questions, and I answered them.” “What questions?”
She squints her eyes, trying to remember. “He asked if I was willing to be a pastor’s wife. If I could make the sacrifices his profession requires. Money and things like that. And he asked if I would go with him to America.”
“And you said?”
“I said yes.”
“Just like that?”
“But … wasn’t there anything you wanted to ask him first?”
“Like what?” She waves me away disdainfully. “What would I ask, Debie? We weren’t married yet. What could there be to ask?”
I give up and turn to my father, but he is only slightly more forthcoming. “I had one proposal before your mother, but I said no to that girl right away.”
This fascinates me. “Why? What didn’t you like about her?”
He gets awkward. Busies himself with the sermon notes on his desk. “I just didn’t want to marry her.”
“But why not? Because of something she said? Did she answer your questions wrong?”
“No. We barely spoke. I just knew she couldn’t be my wife.”
I see from his face that we’re reaching the limits of what’s sayable.
“You mean, you weren’t attracted to her?”
“Attracted” is an English word my father doesn’t know what to do with. It embarrasses him. I retranslate. “You didn’t think she was pretty?” He thinks about this for a minute before he answers. “When I looked at her, I thought of her as a sister. Or an aunt. Not a wife.”
I nod smugly; he wasn’t attracted to her. I’m both pleased and disoriented by the fact that my father understands this about himself. “But when you saw Mummy?”
“I thought right away she could be my wife.”
“Because she was beautiful? That’s how you decided? By her looks?” He doesn’t like the criticism implicit in the question. He gets defensive. “She was a godly, well-educated girl from a decent family. That’s what’s important.”
It’s time to end the conversation, but I can’t. I ask the next question fast, before my courage gives out. “Did you fall in love with her?”
For conservative Indians like my parents, “falling in love” is an American illness, a condition to avoid as one avoids warts or gonorrhea. But I need Daddy to confess that he felt something for Mummy when he married her, and this is the only way I know to ask. But he doesn’t answer. He gives me a vocabulary lesson instead.
“Indians don’t ‘fall,’ Debie. We don’t marry by accident. We choose. Choose to marry, choose to love. We’re not powerless like Americans.”
By age twelve, I’m attentive enough to words and their precise meanings to be shaken by Daddy’s explanation. It hasn’t struck me until that moment that “falling in love” is a passive activity. That it can’t, by definition, involve choice or volition. Nothing in my careful dichotomizing of American freedom and Indian oppression explains this upending, and my twelve-year-old self protests. What does Indian culture know about choice? What could epitomize choicelessness more than an arranged marriage? Falling?
The possibility stumps me. It stumps me still.