A few days ago I read this fascinating book, A Good Indian Wife, which left me with a lot of food for thought. Not that you and I haven’t shared this particular meal together, already, but there’s always some new bone to pick at, some new seasoning to identify; so what’s the harm in dissecting it again, today?
Well, just as it implies, the story is about matrimony; in this instance an “arranged marriage.” But what it explores, above anything else – unfaithfulness, family, and expectations – is suitability. The main character in the novel is Indian; but, having found professional and financial success in America, he has distanced himself from all the things that mark his ethnicity, including Indian women. In fact, the feller is decidedly “white struck.” And the marriage into which his family has tricked him forces him, eventually, to make a choice: not only between his ethnic wife and his white lover, but who he has become and who he ought to be.
Now, you might be wondering what all that has to do with us, but it’s a discussion that comes up from time to time, usually when we’re discussing why other people don’t, or won’t, marry us – and, by us, I mean local blacks. We will pout over the fact that So and Bo have been friends for donkey’s years; that they really love each other; but, that, because of race or kind, they could never marry. We will rail that it’s all a matter of prejudice, because Bo’s parents don’t think that So is good enough for their son or wouldn’t willingly accept her into their family. … To which I would ask, “And what’s wrong with that?”
Really, what’s wrong with choosing your own kind? Isn’t it what the vast majority does, anyway, in some form or fashion? When it comes to the business of yoking, wouldn’t most parents prefer their children to be hitched to folks who look like them, who worship the same god, who share the same values, and who speak the same language? And doesn’t it make simple good sense? If marriage between two like-minded people – he from Ottos, she from Browne’s Avenue; he from Grammar School, she from High School; both of them Moravians; both of them Antiguans – can be so very hard, can you imagine the difficulties two totally different people would encounter in making it work?
Even as youngsters, when we were growing up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we realised that compatibility played a significant part in relationships. For, quite apart from our parents asking the boy, “Who’re your people?” we knew enough to inquire of the feller we liked, “So, what’s your sign?” And then we would fly to the astrology book to see whether a Leo and a Taurus actually stood a chance of making it. Back then, a Catholic girl knew not to even consider an Adventist boy, for that would be a nightmare from beginning to end: In whose church would they marry, first of all; and did he know that the children would have to be raised in her religion? And when he got up for church on a Saturday morning and she got up at the same time … to sort the laundry? Well, as old folks would say, “Is hell work!”
So which marriages are made in heaven, then? The sages will tell you it’s the relationships where there are already values held in common and where there is the willingness to compromise on differences.
… After moving to New York, I feasted on doucana and codfish with all the trimmings on my first Thanksgiving Day. That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I had; turkey could wait another month for Christmas. By the time I had an American feller, however, I was dutifully roasting the Butterball in November and making rice and black-eye peas for New Year’s Eve (no longer “Old Year’s Night,” you notice?). And in other ways, large and small, I had changed who I was, i.e., a Caribbean woman, to accommodate him.
The thing was, while we did, in fact, already have certain commonalities – ie, he was black, he was smart, we had similar political and social interests – I remained a West Indian and he remained American. My three hours of Short Shirt, Obsti and Latumba would, defiantly it seemed, be followed by his three of John Coltrane, Pat Metheny and Thelonious Monk; and he could not picture my “home,” blessed Antigua, as more than a great vacation spot. Simple as they sound, these were not mere spaces in our togetherness; they were chasms.
On the other hand, as I scurried around one day, helping a workmate who was planning her wedding, I casually said, “Tell me: How did you and Tommy start dating?” I was expecting one of those romantic stories I’d grown up watching on American TV, you know, and so I was completely taken aback when she answered: “Well, he was the only white boy around for six blocks. …” Apparently, when her neighbourhood “changed” – as is said when minorities move in – these two families were too poor to move out; and I guess when you are two peas from the same kind of pod, that’s enough to bring you together. …
The unfortunate thing, however, is that it’s not always enough to keep you together. For the one thing we cannot predict is how people will change – and, trust me, they will – even if that change is a simple refusal to change when change is expected or demanded. And so, after two decades or three, you may wake up one day and discover (or acknowledge) that you have moved away from the very things that brought you together, while he is clinging determinedly to them. The once-devout Adventist is exploring Rastafarianism, or the Labour stalwart has begun leaning toward independent thought, or the social butterfly wants to become a homebody … and where does that leave the other partner?
… That’s the question. That’s the big question. And as soon as I find the answer, Sister, you’ll be the first one to know.