The Paths of Marriage is a must-read for anyone who has ever felt misunderstood. A detailed, quick-moving and relatable read, the novel takes the reader through the experiences of three generations of strong Indian and Indian-American women in India and the United States. Repeatedly, Mala Kumar will challenge you to question tradition, love and independence as you experience three unique upbringings in this modern tale. I had the opportunity to speak with Kumar. Below is an edited version of the interview:
What was the inspiration for The Paths of Marriage?
The Paths of Marriage is an amalgamation of fictitious events, real emotions and sentiments of my real-life family, and observations I have made through my career in international development.
The Paths of Marriage tells the story of three generations of women all growing up with very different struggles. Why did you look at the institution of marriage with such a broad perspective?
Marriage is an institution that is practiced according to cultural norms and expectations. With The Paths of Marriage, I wanted to explore how one institution changes in different cultural and generational settings. To show an evolution of one institution, I knew I needed to approach the topic over three generations of women instead of just one or two.
Were any of the characters based on personal experiences?
There are obvious parallels of the three generations of women in the book and my real maternal grandmother, mother and myself, though the personalities and events are completely fictitious. If I had to pick one of the three to whom I could most relate I’d have to say Deepa. A lot of the questions she faces as a young brown woman in New York City were my own experiences.
One of my favorite scenes was when Lakshmi, Pooja and Deepa were at the holiday dinner discussing Pedro Ramirez’s case. The conversation inevitably led to Lakshmi and Pooja’s opinions on LGBTQ rights and included such comments as “Just drop the subject. Gay is not a happy word.” What words of wisdom do you have for women who find themselves in Deepa’s shoes in such situations?
I wish I could give a piece of universal, cure-all advice for women who are facing challenges with controversial (by family standards) subjects. All I can offer is what I did – take a step back and read the situation. If I had started addressing these issues before I was ready or before my family had the confidence in me to listen, we would be in a very different place. I won’t claim this is the right advice for everyone else, though in my case it worked brilliantly.
I think every society has a concept of arranged or coerced marriages, whether it’s general community pressure to marry or the actual act of forcing someone to get married. The problem that I find with arranged marriages in its strictest definition is the lack of choice for the woman*, and often the man getting married. As I speak in Pooja’s story in The Paths of Marriage, being disowned from a family or having to give up everything outside of the home – including career and personal growth – for marriage is not a choice. I don’t have the answer of how to ensure all women have that choice. In fact, the lack of choice is one of the big questions of international development in South Asia, as it affects women across class, caste, religion, education level, language and ethnicity. As above, women need to be involved in decisions. Until all women have the true option to say no to marriage, the idea of arranged marriage will persist.
*I am of course categorically against children of any sex or gender being married in any form.
What organizations are doing great work in this area?
There are a ton of wonderful grassroots organizations that have picked up the cause across South Asia. Grameen Foundation is an international organization that focuses a lot of their efforts on women’s empowerment. The Declaration of Responsibilities speaks to the “women enabling women” movement. Amir Khan’s TV show, Satamev Jayate is tackling women’s equality through media engagement and real-life stories.
As I’m sure this book will inspire many others to tell their stories, who has inspired you?
Khaled Hosseini always comes to mind. He tackles controversial issues in his books, and like The Paths of Marriage, he always has a lesson to take away from his compelling stories. He broke down a lot of misconceptions Americans held of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, and I think he gave voice to a lot of South Asian authors trying to do the same for other countries in the region.
Personally, I am extremely excited that I will be returning home to NYC in a few weeks after three months in central Africa. In terms of writing, I have already started on my second book, whose working title is This Mourning. The book will primarily be a fictitious account of the mass shooting that occurred at my undergrad university my last semester that claimed 32 lives and three of my friends. I also have a very concrete idea of my third book, which will return to a transcontinental, South Asian culture focus.
Continue to check back on Girls’ Globe this week to read more about child marriage during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.