The idea of an arranged marriage is a concept in the 21st century Western culture so foreign it is an anathema. Our novels, films, dating services, even our commercials celebrate romantic love and choice. However with our divorce rate hovering around 50% we cannot feel that our system is so superior.
It is India in the 1920s and two teenagers, whose parents decided suited their criteria and would be compatible, are married. The couple have never even seen one another until their wedding day. He is 18, she is 13, and here begins a great love story. After the ceremony they are separated as the groom (Rai) must continue his studies to become an engineer. The bride (Pran), according to custom goes to live in a multi-family situation with her mother-in-law. This mother-in-law is the stereotypical type that jokes are written about. She is a shrew. Rai visits on infrequent school vacations. The couple writes letters to one another but they must do it surreptitiously as it is considered shameful for husband and wife to correspond with one another. So, one may be intimate with ones spouse but writing letters is considered gauche. It is interesting to speculate on who formulates these rules. However, it is fortunate for those reading the epistolary compendium that has become “The Forbidden Letters” because these 216 missives make for a fascinating read. Even at her very young age Pran encouraged Rai to finish his education. She knew that this meant they would have to live apart but she was very mature in her thinking. The letters were their special bridge. Actually there were probably around 700 letters the bulk of which were discovered secreted in a metal trunk shortly after Rai’s death.
The author, Hemu Aggarwal, has painstakingly translated the script from Gujarati, an East Indian language. Oftentimes, a section will come with an explanation of a certain concept that the content of the letter is hinged on. Much of the lives of the people under discussion are based on the tenets of the Jain religion which is an ancient Indian faith, one of the world’s oldest. It places an emphasis on karma, non-violence, and reverence and respect for all living creatures. The society the author describes was one in which “A woman was at a disadvantage, dependent and permanently placed in male custodianship: first of her father…..then her husband…..and finally of her sons.” After giving birth a woman did not wash her hair for 21 days. Again is interesting to speculate if these seemingly irrational prescriptions had an original significance.
Aggarwal was born in India but came to this country for her education. She has a Master of Fine Arts from City University of New York and is a graphic designer. She has designed album covers for famous musicians such as The Beatles, Englebert Humperdinck, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Montovani and many Hip-Hop artists. While raising a family she provided leadership for several community and arts organizations. She continues to paint and write poetry. She lives in Petaluma with her husband and has two grown children and three grandchildren. Pran had at least ten pregnancies but not all of her progeny survived to adulthood. However, there were no more arranged marriages. “The Forbidden Letters” is available at Amazon and at local book stores.
Diane McCurdy can be reached at [email protected]. Diane was born in Santa Rosa, has a BA from SF State and an MA from SSU in English Literature and several teaching credentials, two grown children and three cats. Diane has a lifelong interest in film, thus her DVD reviews on a broad spectrum of films. Clearly, this interest in creative imagination extends to the printed page and book reviews for those who love to read.