The other day, my husband's brother suggested I help arrange "a suitable alliance" for our nephew, now twenty-seven and longing to become "well-settled". Of course, my brother-in-law was joking -- I will always be the "unsuitable bride" in his eyes, and any candidate I might put forward would be dismissed -- but the idea got me thinking about expectation, tradition, and the way cultural memes are kept alive in the face of change.
When I first began writing my multi-cultural novels, I wanted to explore the stage of life Indians call samsara, and how it affects characters caught in a culture-clash. I liked the sibilance of a word that describes the important “householder” period, and also connotes drowning. The water imagery is poetically apt, in my view --- all that flailing around in far-flung domestic seas.
Ways in which immigration affects notions of identity, family, and home; and how these definitions change over time became obsessive interests of mine. I wanted to convey to native-born readers the emotional ache that is at the heart of displacement. In my stories about the search for home, I wanted to show the complexity that is the act of immigration, even the temporary four- month-visa type.
In Shiva’s Arms, I pit a traditional Brahmin matriarch against an American, “unsuitable” bride. Alice is the unexpected outsider, pushed aside by a Hindu mother-in-law with the weight of an ancient civilization behind her, as the family is drawn deeper into the state embodied by another wonderful term: vidama pidingaratha--the messiness, the grabbiness of samsara. It gets its hooks into all of them and won’t let them go.
I assumed that readers with Western sensibilities would root for Alice, and the younger women certainly did. “I could never keep a marriage if my mother-in-law was so mean,” said one reader. Another told me, “I’d get so mad at Amma, I’d have to put the book down.” Others blamed Alice’s husband for not standing up to his mother (the namesake of a god) more, although he was lucky his mother did not disown him for marrying “outside.”
But I have spoken to many women roughly Amma's age who say how much they identify with her struggle to adjust to a re-shuffled family. They describe lives built on cultural rhythms broken by widowhood, and dutiful children who insist on moving them to an unfamiliar land where they are expected to bridge not only a generational gap, but a cultural one. When Amma’s son builds her an in-law suite, she refers to it as “the basement” and resents the fact that she is not given the master bedroom. My older readers nod their heads.
They praise Amma’s determination to carry her old, traditional ways with her to a new country, and I can see that they are remembering their own childhoods, where a grandmother was integral to the fabric of the family, not shunted to one side. Which brings me to my question -- When one belongs to two cultures, how much does one stand to lose? What part of the divided self stays and what part goes?