BY PARUL BHANDARI
Asha Abeyasekera’s article, Narratives of choice: marriage, choosing right and the responsibility of agency in urban middle-class Sri Lanka’ is a much needed contribution in the field of marriage, kinship, and modernity that provides a nuanced understanding of urban Sri Lankan women’s negotiations with self-expression, modernity, and contours of continuity. Her work helps establish similarities and differences across South Asian societies and helps challenge the popular binaries of ‘modern’ and ‘tradition’.
Abeyasekera has addressed the much complicated and pertinent issue of ‘love’ and ‘agency’ in marriage choices of urban Sri Lankan women. She has unpacked the category of ‘choice’ to explain that far from the popular opinion of ‘choice’ as being synonymous with independence and freedom, it is in fact received with much anxiety especially by women who are expected to make ‘right’ choices. This analyses certainly speaks to my own ethnographic research on the middle class of Delhi, where both men and women were aware of their immense responsibility in spouse-selection processes (using matrimonial agents, matrimonial websites, or more recently dating applications) to ensure that their family status, class position, and individual aspirations are well-represented through their choices (Bhandari 2014).
Another poignant aspect that Abeyasekera brings out is the continued importance of parental approval in self-choice marriages. Such a critical observation has also been noted by ethnographies that delineate the characteristics of the ‘modern’ in India (Bhandari 2014; Donner 2008, 2016; Twamley 2014) and in that Abeyasekera’s work allows us to see the affective and kinship continuities that mark South Asia. This pattern of findings in the South Asia region is also crucial to challenge Eurocentric western models and ideals of ‘modernity’, which view the modern era as marked by some sort of a break from a past that is rendered traditional and untimely. Abeyasekera’s work then, in challenging the binaries of ‘tradition’ and ‘modern’, explains that contradictions and contestations of time and space are in fact what constitutes the modern (Dube 2009, 2011). This is well-captured in the section where Abeyasekera’s highlights her interaction with older women, who, as she explains, also had a say in their spousal-choice. In this way, Abeyasekera emphasizes that the element of ‘choice’ is not soleley the prerogative of the present generation, and in that not necessarily a ‘modern’ experience. The distinction, however, is in that the older women downplayed their assertion in spousal choice, whilst the younger women emphasize on it as the marker of their independence and identity. We thus see that even in Sri Lanka, much like in India, the modern is not indexical of a break of a certain temporality of love, choice, and romance as much as it is of the reconfiguration of these elements in new social contexts.
Abeyasekera’s work resonates with some recent works on urban India, however these ethnographies have also brought out a few other nuances of the characteristics of the ‘modern’ in marriage practices, and it would be interesting to know if Abeyasekere either encountered these in her fieldwork and attempted some other conceptualizations of the symbols and experiences of modernity.
Firstly, these ethnographies have analyzed in detail on how ‘choice’ can conceptualized in a changing space of spouse-selection? To elaborate, my work on the urban middle class in Delhi explains that the term ‘self-choice’ marriage as much as ‘love’ marriage (which is already widely critiqued in this article and in other works) forms only a small part of a wide variety of choices that modern techniques of spouse-selection offer. In fact, the modernization and professionalization of spouse-selection practices in the form of matrimonial websites (Agrawal 2015; Bhandari 2009; Kaur and Dhanda 2014; Titzmann 2013) and matrimonial agencies allows the parents and children to interact with varying degrees of influence to choose a spouse. Donner too in her study of Urban middle class Kolkata marriages observes that “The values of companionate conjugality are very much part of middle-class self representations and the ‘Indian arranged’ marriage too offers varying degrees of choice and agency. The self-chosen ‘love’ marriage is only one variation on the main themes” (2016:1179). In other words, the notion of ‘choice’ itself is much more variegated and determined not simply by individual aspirations and ambitions to claim a modernity but also defined by changes to the space of spouse-selection, which is no longer restricted to recommendations by kin but has been transformed with intervention of technology (websites, chat rooms) and a professionalized ethos where impersonal services are offered to aid in looking for a suitable match. Is urban Sri Lanka too experiencing a transformation of space of spouse-selection, which itself is offering varying degrees of communication between individual desires and parental approval? If so, how then can ‘choice’ be conceptualized keeping in mind the various possibilities of expressing agency, control, and upholding duty and responsibility?
Secondly, the cultures and practices of pre-marital relationships in Colombo and Delhi seem a bit different and thereby perhaps altering the significance of ‘background checks’ in the form of astrology and tarot. Contrary to Abeyasekera’s work, my research revealed that young middle class Delhiites engaged in many pre-marital relationships, and rarely did their first or second relationship transform into a marriage. Instead, they viewed this phase of young adulthood (from 18 to 25) as the age of social experimentation where they formed inter-caste, inter-community, and at times inter-regional relationships. It was only when they reached an age of ‘maturity’ did they seriously contemplated marriage. They used astrology not to convince themselves that their match is indeed compatible and nor did they immediately view astrology checks as causes of anxiety and potential deadlock for their union. Instead, they expressed a more convenient relationship with astrology. As astrology checks certainly forms an important part of making an alliance official (so much so that matrimonial websites also offer the option of uploading one’s horoscope and horoscope matching facilities), the couples flirt with the idea of bribing the priest incase the horoscope is declared to be unmatched, or insist on performing special pujas (prayers) to ward off the evil omens and ensure an auspicious alignment of stars. In other words, they view astrology as a tool that can be used in their favour and be easily manipulated.
Thirdly, does Abeyasekera infer elements of middle class morality in these narratives of burden of choice and responsibility? Ethnographies on middle class in India have analyzed with much rigour that the middle class carry a self-imposed burden of ‘morality’ that is to be expressed in the ideals they uphold usually around the family, duty, and sacrifice (Saavala 2012). In the space of marriage choices these moralities are expressed in decisions to not elope, deny pre-marital sexual relations, and use the language of ‘pure love’ to describe mutual feelings towards each other (Bhandari 2014). The spousal choices made by the middle class are also seen as strategies of reproduction of status and boundary maintenance to ensure that those who are not considered to belong to the middle class are kept outside. Perhaps Abeyasekera too could explain the place of morality in these narrative of self-choice used by women in Colombo to ascertain if the motivations underlying these burdens and anxieties around choice are in fact insignias of being middle class as much as they are of being modern.
Abeyasekera’s work on urban middle class women of Colombo is certainly a timely contribution as it begins to unpack and nuance the category of ‘modernity’. It helps understand that the modern need not necessarily be new, as ‘choice’ in marriages was upheld even by an older generation and as she elucidates, ‘choice’ too is guided by elements of past traditions, in this case, for exmaple, through astrology and tarot reading. Abeyasekera, higlights that choice is not simply a signifier of progress and freedom as it is in fact bound by calls of duty, burden of gender performance and anxiety. ‘Choice’ then is far more complex, making it a suitable signifier of late modernity, which refuses to be captured by a single narrative of change or progress. Abeyasekera’s article and many other similar works across South Asia have revealed the strategies and resistances of women against their local cutlures, as they also highlight the continued pressures and anxieites of being women, perhaps more relatable at a global culture. Most importantly, these works bring out the voice of diverse women in diverse social and political situations, emphasizing their ability to resist and also comply, aim for transformation and maintain status-quo, and in these dualities and juxtapositions they seek their modernity, their freedom, and speak their stories.
Agrawal, Anuja. 2015. “Cyber-Matchmaking Among Indians: Re-Arranging Marriage and Doing ‘Kin-Work.’” South Asian Popular Culture 13(1): 15–31.
Bhandari, Parul. 2009. “Marriage and the Internet in India.” University of Cambridge. (unpublished thesis).
———. 2014. “Spouse-Selection in New Delhi: A Study of Upper Middle Class Marriages.” University of Cambridge. (unpublished thesis).
Donner, Henrike. 2008. Domestic Goddesses: Maternity, Globalization and Middle-Class Identity in Contemporary India. Farnham: Ashgate.
———. 2016. “Doing It Our Way: Love and Marriage in Kolkata Middle-Class Families.” Modern Asian Studies 50(4): 1147–89.
Dube, Saurabh. 2009. Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation, Globalization. New Delhi: Routledge.
———. 2011. “Makeovers of Modernity: An Introduction.” In Handbook of Modernity in South Asia, ed. Saurabh Dube. New Delhi: Sage, 1–25.
Kaur, Ravinder, and Prit Dhanda. 2014. “Surfing for Spouses: Marriage Websites and the ‘New’ Indian Marriage?” In Marrying in South Asia: Shifting Concepts, Changing Practices in a Globalising World, eds. Ravinder Kaur and Rajni Palriwala. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.
Saavala, Minna. 2012. Middle-Class Moralities: Everyday Struggle over Belonging and Prestige in India. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.
Titzmann, Fritzi-Marie. 2013. “Changing Patterns of Matchmaking: The Indian Online Matrimonial Market.” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 19(4): 64–94.
Twamley, Katherine. 2014. Love, Marriage, INtimacy among Gujarati INdians: A Suitable Match. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Parul Bhandari is a post doctoral fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines de New Delhi. She finished her PhD in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge University in 2014 and researches gender and modernity in South Asia. Her PhD thesis ‘Spouse-Selection in New Delhi: A Study of Upper Middle Class Marriages’ forms the basis of her review of Asha Abeyasekera’s article here.
Asha Abeyasekera’s article on ‘Narratives of choice: marriage, choosing right and the responsibility of agency in urban middle-class Sri Lanka’ in Feminist Review Issue 113, Currents, is available here.