Nothing hides the fracture in a family better than the enviable orderliness of its morality. The grandeur, bejewelled by silences and lies, is crisply deceptive, but it always looks like — or rather, is made to look like — a lovely, lovely thing. A dysfunctional family can be a dreary but unsullied recital of a perfect life, for it feeds on the necessary dullness that comes with the fundamental denial of the existence of emotional lives. It is made to look like it belongs to a holier-than-thou universe, but a familiar script runs the show: The fear of having to deal with feelings. Its members are often impervious to their own truths. They play out in the vacuum, they flourish in denial.
Until, of course, the fracture snaps its victims enough to crack them up. A dysfunctional family is a purulence of cliché. It is also a repository of love — much of which flows in staccatos — comedy and cruelty. Pop culture’s recent addition to the rank of such a family has come with Monica Ali’s Love Marriage, a social comedy on race, class, culture and love in contemporary Britain. But the punch-line of the joke(s) are the two families—one of which is archetypical middle-class South Asian with Bengali origins, and which deploys silence as its ultimate humanising force. The other is British that makes plenty of noise, but rarely about the important things.
Yasmin Ghorami, a middle-class 26-year-old doctor, is engaged to Joe Sangster, an upper-middle-class fellow medic and the son of a feminist author, whose feminism is an extension of the algorithm-driven one-size-fits-all rhetoric peddled on social media. She revels in her self-congratulatory liberalism, and has no concept of physical or emotional boundaries with Joe. The Ghoramis are a place of unquestioned rectitude; hierarchy and worship are the indispensable components. The father expects too much from his children because of the monumental struggle that went into raising them. It’s rationing: The children are the life and form of their sacrifice, so their life is the opportunity cost of the parents.
The younger son, Arif, is unemployed. He defines himself in opposition to other people, their choices, their politics, and hence, is too tired to know who he actually is. He aspires to make documentaries to get rid of Islamophobia. Naturally, he is useless in his father’s eyes, who cannot bear to see Arif ‘squander’ his life pursuing activism, which has ‘nothing to offer’. Then there is the mother, the archetypical underestimated figure, the embodiment of sacrifice and submission, perfectly relegated to the footnote of the ordinary and insignificant. This is what mostly every South Asian family typically looks like — until it doesn’t.
It can take a family years — decades — to acknowledge the crack that has always been sticking in the throat like a fish bone. It takes them even longer to cast a lens on themselves and come to terms with the staggering complexity of the dysfunction. With the Sangsters and Ghoramis, the glitch in the matrix stems from the unresolved traumatic pasts of the parents — a sexual minefield rife with infidelity, sex addiction, lack of sex, sexual violence and covert incest. When Joe cheats on Yasmin and confronts to having a sex addiction, it takes the reader multiple visits in the therapy room with him to understand how the disorder was actually inherited: His mother took the liberty to impose her emotional needs and consequently, sabotage, to compensate for the absence of a father. Joe’s sexual addiction became an attempt to escape from the body that was the site of many unwanted and repressed emotions.
When Yasmin resorts to ‘revenge sex’ after learning of Joe’s infidelity, it takes revelations of gigantic proportions to understand her own sexual repression; sex was never spoken of in the Ghorami household, sex was never had in it either, except for the times it had to be performed for the ‘duty of bearing children’. The Ghorami parents — Anisah and Shoakat — too have inherited the dark hinterland: The mother was sexually assaulted when she was a teenager, following which she was married off to the ‘only man’ who could have ‘accepted’ her — in exchange for money and an education. Because the mother could never engage sexually, the father — also a doctor — went for ‘home visits’. The final oedipal spin comes with Yasmin’s realisation of her own covertly incestuous relationship with her father.
There is also a palpable confusion over the novel’s title, Love Marriage. One never knows whose love is being sanctified here. Joe and Yasmin only dated for five months before they got engaged. Shoakat and Anisah’s marriage is labelled perfect right in the beginning, but it is abundantly conspicuous that in a novel that runs 500 pages, it cannot be that easy. Whose love was it, anyway?
It all starts with the parents — it almost always does. The burden of their unlived lives, the horrors of the past they could never fully confront, and the tenderness they were disallowed so they could never comprehend the full scope of their humanity — everything that is ignored, comes to haunt back with double the punch. Every family, in some way or the other trots out the same, tired trope: Of spinning lies and stacking silences, often to protect one at the cost of the other. The price of one’s own diminishment is rarely realised. To survive a long-term relationship — familial or romantic — is to endlessly climb rungs to avoid looking down at the darkness left behind. But the slope is slippery, and the fall inevitable.
One of the greatest feats of Love Marriage is that it eventually lends power to the most underestimated character of the novel: Anisah. As the relationship between Arif and Shaokat gets strained, and the former leaves the house, Anisah does too. She takes shelter at Joe’s mother’s house and begins a feminist reawakening. She comes closer to a woman, a lesbian, and though never admits to a relationship, calls it a ‘close friendship’. The conflict in Alisah’s case doesn’t immediately look choreographed; “I want to take my time,” she says, when asked to go back home to her husband. Curdled by disappointments and a trail of distressing revelations, Yasmin realises she has been pulling at the wrong end of the stick all the time. She calls off the wedding with Joe. In a way, Love Marriage subverts the familiar template that glorifies keeping lovers and family together at all costs, of upholding the social status over individual selves. The characters, especially the women, are open to unabashedly indulging their uncertainties. Love is a strong force here, but, refreshingly, not stronger than reason.
Despite the two families’ several cultural differences spanning generations and continents, they are a familiar social microcosm. The façade of their composure is eventually broken — and not on a long highway to some outlandish merrymaking or on the titular dining table where confessions are hurled like grenades — but in modest settings where the truth is given ample space to be spoken of and absorbed.
I believe that most of us are not obsessed with the lives we did not live. I still do wonder, sometimes, if our parents’ hearts strum with the knowledge that it could have been different. I also think they might simply dismiss it as a modern preoccupation, before the invisible strings of the past come to haunt them all over again.
Anshika Ravi is a Delhi-based writer.
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