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Second-Generation Indian Americans and the Trope of Arranged Marriage


I was sitting in the Atlanta airport last October, minding my own business and desperately trying to recover from the excesses of four days of celebrating a friend’s wedding, when the middle-aged man sitting next to me struck up a conversation. Upon finding out that I was Indian American, his pleasant smile was replaced with a look of patronizing concern: "So, they’re going to send you back there to get married huh?" he asked knowingly. I immediately went into defense-mode: "We don’t do that anymore," I retorted and our ostensibly innocent conversation came to an abrupt end. As I sat in stony silence across from that poor man, I wondered why I had responded the way I did. After all, I was just coming from the wedding of a bride and groom who met at a regional youth convention that we all know is just a marriage market by another name, and only few months before another friend had gotten married after her parents set the ball in motion. I obviously knew then from my own first-hand experience that arranged marriage is a lot more complicated than parents sending their child back to India to get married and that indeed, arranged marriage in one or another of its infinite variety of forms happens all the time. Why then was my first instinct to vehemently disavow arranged marriage altogether, thus implicitly accepting this stranger’s stereotypical reduction of the practice?

This paper is my effort to understand just this problematic. It appears that my "psychosis" regarding the question of arranged marriage is not only a personal problem, but rather that the trope of arranged marriage haunts the creative output of a large cross-section of Indian American youth. For instance, in the last decade or so, a spate of Indian American cultural products (literature, films, music) have interrogated the diasporic identities of "1.5" and second-generation Indian Americans. Significantly, a number of these works employ (either centrally or peripherally) a caricatured version of arranged marriage as the locus for their representation of Indian American identity-formation. If we agree that any productive engagement with the question of arranged marriage must necessarily acknowledge its complex and varied character, and that furthermore, compliance with or resistance to heteronormatively-defined arranged marriage should not sum up the totality of Indian American identity, how then do we understand the pervasiveness of arranged marriage as a trope of cultural and generational conflict?

In this paper, I will argue that Indian Americans are interpellated by a "regime of representation" that encompasses the images of Indianness produced by strains of US and Indian popular culture. If, in the words of Stuart Hall, the meanings of arranged marriage "float" so widely, how is it that these representational paradigms attempt to "fix" what is signified by the term? It is my hope that an investigation of this issue will show how this fixing produces stereotypes that are then used as emblems for diasporic Indian selfhood, and that what is at stake here is nothing less than control over female sexuality in the service of a hegemonic definition of cultural identity. Finally, through an examination of the Indian American film, ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), I will analyze the process by which second-generation Indian Americans generate self-definitions that often remain bounded by this representational matrix, and in so doing often replicate the fixation on arranged marriage as an overarching signifier of diasporic identity.

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