Love Marriage, by V.V. Ganeshananthan.
Love Marriage, by V.V. Ganeshananthan. Random House Trade Paperbacks (2008), Paperback, 302 pages.
SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS
An exquisite novel by a Sri Lankan American woman about families and war, about loss and a past which can never be escaped, about what we chose and what is chosen for us.
Often the narratives of immigrants and their children are about their adaptation to their new country. Love Marriage is the opposite. Despite having left their homeland, Yalini and her family must face their pasts, personal and national. This book explores of the stories of family members back on the island of Sri Lanka where riots and killing were becoming increasingly violent. Like the author, Yalini, who narrates the novel, is the daughter of parents who left Sri Lanka before her birth. Now in her twenties, Yalini has grown up in the United States protected by her parents from the violence of their homeland. The arrival of her dying uncle, Kumaran, in Canada, opens her to stories of relatives. He had joined the Tamil Tigers and separated himself from his family, but he wanted to die with his sister, Yalini’s mother, at his side. As she helps to nurse him, Yalini faces her family’s conflict-filled past.
Love Marriage is V.V. Ganeshananthan’s first novel, but her short stories and articles have been published widely and are well regarded. She actually began to write this novel as her senior thesis at Harvard where she studied under Jamaica Kincaid. The prose in the novel is slightly formal, as befits a book about a family’s past. The text is broken into short sections, sometimes only a page or two, each focusing on a person or incident. The book is less driven by an external plot than the tension Yalini experiences between her Tamil legacy and her American upbringing. She grew up conscious of being a Tamil.
I was raised in a house that could not forget it. A house where I was taught a language and a code that told me about an unofficial war. As a child I read about Tamils murdered, and a Tamil library burned…I heard stories about Tamils disappearing. Tamils tortured, Tamils killing other Tamils. I learned a certain vocabulary. I learned to believe that a government could kill its own and drive them to commit unspeakable crimes. That no one would be right, but that some could be more wrong.
And yet she was an American and had to make choices.
We live by our own wits, our own hearts, and our own histories; there is no other way to survive here, and so we have learned to love people who do not worship our gods, eat our food, or share our blood.
The novel opens with a discussion of the different types of marriage; Arranged Marriages and Love Marriages, Proper Marriages and Improper Marriages, and all the variations in between. Discussion of marriage continues throughout the book, often symbolizing other choices between self-definition and being defined by others. Murali, Yalini’s young Not Yet Father, and Vani, her young Not Yet Mother, had made their choices to leave Sri Lanka separately and met only after they were in New York. Far from families to arrange marriages for them, they chose each other. Both were Tamils, but not from groups that traditionally married each other. Already part of a Tamil community in the United States, they had a traditional Hindu wedding. Despite having a Love Marriage, they later tried to make it seem to be an Arranged Marriage. Vani’s brother, Kumaran, was irate and wrote Murali threatening his life for marrying his sister. But years later, he needs Murali’s help so that he could return to Vani as he was dying.
On one level the novel is about events surrounding Kumaran’s dying and death and about the upcoming marriage of his daughter, Janani, to a man with connections to the Tamil Tigers. Hers is a marriage that has been arranged, but Yalini has trouble understanding why Janani agrees to it, especially when her groom’s continued involvement in violence becomes clear.
While Yalini helps to nurse Kumaran, she thinks back to the stories of her parents, her grandparents and the aunts and uncles who were once part of her parent’s lives. Each person’s narrative is a gem, a short story complete unto itself. These are people who knew violence and tragedy long before the Tamil Tigers appeared on their horizon. Sri Lanka was always “A place where anything could fail, and any illness illuminated a failure to foresee.” Both sides of the family were tough and resilient. Yalini sees herself in them and tells their stories to show her love for them, even when she chooses to be different from them.
The personal family stories are told in the context of the public history of Sir Lanka and the ongoing violence in Sri Lanka, something other authors I have read from there have bypassed. We see the conflict through Yalini’s eyes, but she is clear that hers is only one version of events. “None of the stories will be absolutely complete, but their tellers will be absolutely certain. That is how we make a war.” Yalini describes how the Sinhalese had discriminated and harassed the Tamils ever since the country was granted its independence in 1947. In 1958, a major riot against the Tamils erupted. Still a young child, Yalini’s mother took shelter in the home of a Sinhalese neighbor. Then in July 1983, the month that Yalini was born in the United States, Sri Lanka was torn apart by more anti-Tamil violence. The Tamil Tigers emerged to fight for survival and power. They not only attacked the Sinhalese but also Tamils who did not support their movement. “They would be called terrorists. They would enter into a world in which no one was right.” Both sides committed atrocities. Many Tamils became “aware that they could not be alive for much longer in this country, so they left.” Yalini, and presumably Ganeshananthan, is critical of how the rest of world ignored the massive killings in Sri Lanka because there was no oil and it was “A country full of people Of Color.”
In addition to learning the political narrative, I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of Hinduism. Yalini is not devout, but she knows the details and rituals of her family’s religious traditions. I was moved by her descriptions of the Hindu funeral and wedding and the symbolism behind each act. She explains that Hindu weddings are so long because of all the rituals to protect the couple and keep evil at bay.
Love Marriage is an excellent book, a multifaceted and insightful one that I recommend highly. From it I learned about Sri Lanka and Hinduism, and I was moved by the characters and their struggle to deal with the love and pain they carry from their past. I highly recommend it.