Brides and Prejudice: Legacies We Could Do Without

Kim Singh-Sall shares her experience navigating the traditional marriage expectations of Indian culture while still exploring her own wishes. For Issue #20 ‘Legacy’.

I adore a period drama. The dresses, stately homes and vast grounds that characters get to frolic round and have dramatic confrontations in. It is something entirely alien and fascinating to me. Until the plot gets to the issue of young eighteenth and nineteenth century women having to grapple with marrying someone chosen by their family, or themselves being tasked with finding someone deemed suitable for the family. This is a plotline I am all too familiar with. 

When I was younger I took swimming lessons. I recall being probably around seven or eight, waiting in line with a friend to swim our length. My friend said to me, “I can’t wait to get a boyfriend”, to which I replied, “I’m not going to get a boyfriend…I’m going to get a husband”. I now look back on this and laugh. What was I thinking? As a child, there was never any talk of me ever getting a boyfriend, or dating in the way we’re familiar with, but there was always the assumption that I would get married. 

Marriage is fundamental to Indians. Whether in India, Canada, or little Sheffield, nothing will bring an Indian community together like a good wedding. It epitomises everything that is Indian: ostentatious and lavish displays, an abundance of food, decadent fashion, thumping music, and inevitable drama. And just like in any good period piece, the prospect of a wedding soon becomes talk of the town. The topic of gossip among the elderly aunties as they make their rounds of phone calls, discussing the bride, the family, the mother-in-law, the sister’s cousin’s husband’s grandmother, all before breakfast. 

Amy and Jo March are told by their aunt in Little Women that they must ‘marry well’. In my family at least, while marriage is no longer the austere, arranged business it once was, the expectations are still high. And contrary to the period piece’s definition of marrying well, this is not for money, or to elevate one’s social status, but for the preservation of tradition and of culture. 

The legacy of our Punjabi, Sikh culture brought over from India in the 1960s has diluted with each passing generation. My grandparents’ first language was Punjabi, my parents were brought up bilingual, and while I feign my half-hearted bilingualism, I’m really not fooling anyone. Each generation has become more ‘Anglicanised’ or ‘white-washed’, as the balance of the fused British Asian culture swings more and more towards the former. But marriage is one of those traditions that retains its stronghold, even if the pressures and expectations have lessened. Still, though, the moment you hit twenty-five, the countdown to the big day begins…biology waits for no one, of course. 

Times have changed, however. Unlike my parents’ generation, I have the luxury of choice (though not without the fanfare of unwanted opinions). It’s funny, though; these pressures are not even parental, just ancestral. I’m sure when I graduate and enter my middling twenties, distant wedding bells will start ringing in the ears of extended family. There will come the bombardment of ‘introductions’, suggestions of suitable matches, and questions of whether I have found a fiance, not a boyfriend, a fiance. Honestly, the whole fuss of it has left me disenchanted, disillusioned with the issue of marriage altogether. 

What would eight-year-old me think?! She’d see me approaching my dreaded twenties where if I haven’t settled or at least seem to be on my way to settling by the end of the decade, I’ll be reduced to a life of spinsterhood! Thirty and unmarried, entering my Bridget Jones (before the Mark Darcy and Daniel Cleaver) stage of life. Whatever would the family say?! 

Don’t get me wrong, I love a wedding – the sheer occasion of it all. My problem has never been the wedding, just the marriage part, because for Indians it is a family affair. You marry the person, and you marry the family. It’s all very The Crown. By all means, marry whomever you’d like. But marry well. Oh, and for love, if you can. 

It is high time we dropped this legacy of expectation. We shouldn’t forget our culture and our roots, but as a community start minding our business a little more. And in the words of Jane Austen: “do anything rather than marry without affection”.  

Art by Laura Cook.

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