Video: Learning to embrace ‘the ‘set-up’

By MSNBC.com contributor
updated 3/24/2009 2:50:28 PM ET 2009-03-24T18:50:28

Anita Jain is the kind of woman who can keep you up all night chatting about everything from sex and family to culture and literature, with insight and wit. (I know; it was 3 a.m. my time when we finished our interview, which turned out to be the most convenient way to bridge her time zone in New Delhi with mine in California.) But is she the kind of woman you’d want to marry?  Or, more to the point, can she find the man she’s looking to marry?  That’s the question at the heart of Jain’s memoir, Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India (Bloomsbury, 2008), in which she decides, after years of dismal dating experiences in the West, to move to her parents’ homeland of India to see if she can find The One. 

Jain grew up in northern California, went to Harvard, and worked as an international journalist before moving back to New York, where she had dalliances with too many men who didn’t want “anything serious.” A child of Indian immigrants, Jain had always been less than receptive to her parents attempts at finding a mate for her.  Eager to settle down without just settling, Jain decided to move New Delhi, where she guessed that the combination of urban lifestyles and traditional values might lead her to her perfect match.

Through a combination of drunken adventures, marriage-oriented online dating, semi-arranged marriage matches, and even a real date or two, she carefully navigates the minefield of being single, thirty-something, and a perennial outsider in a country that is rapidly changing its ideas and practices around dating, youthful independence, and marriage itself. 

Minal Hajratwala: So far you haven’t found The One in India, but you’re staying there for now – what have you found there that’s making you stay?

Anita Jain: I'm hoping to move into film, either writing or production, and I think it's a great place to be for that. Plus the U.S. economy is in the toilet!

MH: It sure is. And I could definitely see your book becoming the Bollywood version of “Sex and the City”...

AJ: I'm not so into the SATC comparisons. I really think my book is a serious exploration of the New India as I see it. That part is very important to me. My own search is a tool I use to tell the story of the New India.  So it does raise my hackles a bit when the book only gets noticed for the racier elements. The way it's written is I think very serious, almost grave at points.

MH: Agreed. Sometimes we think of the New India or the New China or whatever as just catching up to or mimicking the West. Aside from sexual liberalization, what are some of the distinct elements of the New India as you see it?

AJ: The fact that it never really is a New India. It's always brushing up against the old, almost in every second, and I try to describe that as well.  Here you have a [rock] band, but one of the guys has taken a very serious traditional oath [to never smoke, drink, eat meat, or engage in physical relations with women before marriage].  Or here I am living it up in Delhi, but thirty minutes away I have family that hasn't changed a bit from the previous generation. It's all so terribly interesting to me.

MH: Do you think there is a growing gap, maybe a generation gap or rural/urban gap? Or do you think the more traditional-minded elders, say, are learning to change along with the younger generation and becoming more “broad-minded”? Or it's just all side-by-side and in tension...?

AJ: Tradition-minded elders in the city are changing, many of them, if they have children that are adopting certain lifestyle choices, i.e. to be gay or to live with someone before marriage or to have relationships before marriage. But I think certain parts of India will take a long while to change.  Like the character Nandini: She lives with her boyfriend, for the last two years, but her parents still expect her to marry a Rajput.

Arranged marriage is alive and well

MH: You’ve talked about your parents being loving and supportive, but also the feeling that you’re often disappointing them. I think this dual edge, unconditional love and ongoing nagging, is something a lot of second-generation Americans can identify with. How do you cope with it?

AJ: I will start by saying they are VERY proud of me, even after the book, which they did find it difficult at first, but they've accepted it with full support, which is great. 

What is hard for them is that I'm "not settled," which I suppose is an Indian mindset.  They will never change, and I sometimes rue that because I think it's added a certain kind of pressure and panic to the way I deal with the world that Westerners don't have to deal with as much. Women nowadays put so much pressure on themselves, and to have that added pressure from ones' parents, even if it comes from a loving place, can be very hard.

But then again as I say in my acknowledgments, I wouldn't have a book were my parents not so emphatic about the marriage search.

MH: Did you find that writing the book changed you – the way you approach dating, marriage, or the way you see people around you in the New India?

AJ: It certainly changed the way I approached the world. I became a writer first and foremost, somebody who sits in a room alone and types, and that process inevitably makes us different people. I got used to a certain solitude and became more comfortable with it than I was ever before. I don't know if my attitudes toward dating and marriage have changed. I'm a bit old-fashioned, not entirely, but a bit, and I always will be.

I'm constantly surprised by how much people, and men in particular, are skittish about entering something romantically – when I think romantic experience and pleasure are such exciting parts of our lives. I don't think my surprise at this will ever change. I'm either foolhardy or just a fool.

MH: You do seem to have a certain fearlessness about it!  And optimism, hope, too?

AJ: I rush into things, which isn't always good, and it scares people to go too fast. So I suppose it's almost an arranged marriage mentality! I'm a commitPHILE. I guess I need that “guarantee” that we all know is so not a guarantee in this world. I continue to be hopeful.

MH: Do you think the Web 2.0 world, with its social networking and instant messaging and Shaadi.com and all the rest, is helping at all? Or is it just creating more avenues for drama, miscommunication, disappointment?

AJ: Oh god, I have no idea! I can't even figure out my own life.

But I do think there was a simpler time.  There are people who have known how to make their lives more straightforward and less complicated, and I admire that. I wish I could have figured out a way to do that without accumulating so much baggage along the way – including my book. Now if that's not baggage I don't know what is!

MH: Aww.

AJ: Well, it's a book after all...so I'm not too upset! It has to do with the fact that my book is so deeply personal that it scares me that I'll always be associated with it. I can never hide from what I've chosen to reveal. I have my moments of feeling super-exposed and then not at all; I mean, I don't actually think anybody who reads the book KNOWS me. They just know certain things about me. There's a certain ironic mystery to somebody who's revealed so much because you don't really know them, yet you know a lot about them.

'Just sex doesn't interest me'

MH: One of the great things about your book is how candid and explicit you were about sex, which IS unusual for a good Indian girl. I know you've gotten some backlash for that, but have you gotten kudos as well?

AJ: This is one question I am a bit cagy about because I don't think there is THAT much sex in the book – especially compared to what you see in memoirs out of the U.S., where people talk about obsessions with anal sex or their sex addictions or what have you. But the mere fact of an Indian woman writing about sex in a an honest non-fictional way I guess is rare. I don't sensationalize it; it's just a normal byproduct of a modern life. I even try to play down what sex there is; I don't go into heavy detail.

MH: Maybe just admitting that sex happens feels like "a lot," in a cultural context where a lot of people have a lot vested in pretending it doesn't at all?

AJ: Yes, exactly. Or more than not happening (because we all know that babies get born), that women themselves don't desire it, that they don't necessarily have a sexuality to explore.

Did you think there was much sex in the book?

MH: It wasn't the overwhelming story. You're pretty clear that you're NOT really out for “just sex,” that you're looking for real connection, partnership.

AJ: Yes, just sex doesn't interest me, though sex of course is an important part of the connection I'm looking for. That's not to say that I don't leave room for dating/sex that doesn't lead to marriage, because I'm just like everyone else here; I don't know where a particular relationship might be headed.

MH: In considering sexual connection as an important criterion for marriage, you're already different from earlier generations, where sexual satisfaction, and certainly the woman's sexual satisfaction, was not a factor at all. How did that change your experience of searching for a mate, in India in particular?

AJ: Let me just say that sexual compatibility is just as important as an intellectual and emotional compatibility. The younger generation of Indians who I write about are discovering this, too. In this way, the whole country will be very different in 10 to 15 years.

MH: You observe that the West has no organized system for finding a life partner. Do you see the Indian system eventually going away because of the changes in the younger generation, or is it adapting and morphing to keep pace?

AJ: Arranged marriage is very alive and well in the hinterland and always will be. But as far as the cities are concerned, Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore, arranged marriage isn't really a strong option for most young people. They are interacting much the same way they do in the West: serial monogamy, casual hook-ups, etc.  Except that the organized “dating” that I mention, i.e. dinner and a movie [is rare] ...!

MH: That was an entertaining section of the book – what constitutes “a Date”! I suppose I have to ask the obvious question – how’s the dating going now, post-book?

AJ: Males continue to be attracted, which is good, and not entirely put off by the subject matter!

MH: They aren't terrified you'll write about their foibles?

AJ: Well, I tell everyone I’m not writing another book for a while!

Minal Hajratwala is a San Francisco writer and performer. Her narrative nonfiction book, "Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents," is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (March 2009).  (http://www.minalhajratwala.com) 

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