At the age of 15, Jasvinder Sanghera ran away from home to escape a forced marriage. The man, then boy, who helped her run away and who later became her lover and her husband, was of a different caste and was not acceptable to her parents. Sanghera's act of defiance resulted in her being cut off from the family, and disowned by them. Her repeated attempts to contact her parents failed, until, tragically, one of her sisters, also caught in a marriage she had been forced into, killed herself and Sanghera was able to finally break through to her mother.
By Jasvinder Sanghera
Hodder & Stoughton
For many Indians, this is a familiar story. Arranged marriages are the stuff of everyday life. Many of them are forced, and resistance means little. Stories of escape are few and far between and many attempts at escape end up in incarceration or death. When parental authority fails, or is questioned, community heads are brought in, and in most cases, it is the woman who is not allowed the privilege of independent decision-making. Whether it is an elite family in Delhi, a caste panchayat in Uttar Pradesh or a community head in Punjab, the story is the same-the family's honour must be saved at all costs, and the full responsibility for this lies on the woman.
What makes Sanghera's story different is that it takes place in England, in the town of Derby, and in a family that has been settled there since the 1950s. Change is all around them-although the book does not focus much on the external context-but for the Asian communities, no matter what happens in the outside world, marriages must still take place within the community, spouses, if not easily available in the community, must be sourced from the home country, and of course, inter-racial, inter-class, inter-caste marriages remain a taboo. The first man who helps Sanghera run away is of a lower caste, a Chamar. Her mother's fury at her involvement with this young man is as much because her daughter has flouted her authority as it is because the man belongs to a lower caste. But it is not only marriage or sex, but every little sign of defiance or rebelliousness that must be clamped down upon-even if it is something as innocuous as a fashionable haircut. So when Sanghera manages to put together some money to get herself a perm, she is forced to go into hiding in a relative's place until her hair has grown back to the required length.
In many ways there is little that is new in this book. Every story recounted by the author appears familiar, every incident of violence brings a shock of recognition. But this is, nonetheless, a brave book-there are no simple or simplistic lines in the way characters are represented. Sanghera's father remains the recognisable sympathetic character who is unable, or unwilling, to stand up to his wife or the community. Her mother is someone caught in the difficult situation of being an immigrant in a hostile country, never fully accepted, never fully acceptable, and therefore finding recourse in an unchanging "tradition", something that kills freedom of thought, but perhaps makes for a kind of security. Sanghera's own ambivalences inform this narrative-she longs for home, for the family, for the familiar and comforting feel of a routine made up of siblings, aunts, uncles, food, tradition, while she values her freedom and independence. She longs for her mother's love, her father's attention while attempting to understand their oppressive nature.
The question, however, that the book forces us to face yet again is: how long can this go on? In the 21st century, among a people who are said to be on the fast track to growth, can we really speak of progress if half the population counts for nothing? Sanghera managed to escape her fate, and set up an organisation to help other women, but, to twist the words of an old song, "how many deaths will it take to be known, that too many people (read women) have died?" But in this case the answer isn't blowing in the wind, it is very much in ourselves.