Book Review: The Shaadi Story by Amita Nigam Sahaya

Book Name: The Shaadi Story

Author: Amita Nigam Sahaya

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: 5/5

Book Blurb: The wedding is the most celebrated event in Indian society. It forms the heart of a multi-billion-dollar industry driving fashion, food, music, entertainment and our desire for companionship. 

In The Shaadi Story, social entrepreneur Amita Sahaya takes a fascinating look at the history, religious traditions, societal attitudes, industry and modern adaptations of the North Indian Hindu wedding and beyond. Across seven chapters structured like the traditional ritual of the saptapadi, this book illuminates the seven different aspects of the quintessential Indian wedding. Drawing on ancient Sanskrit scriptures, western philosophies, Bollywood movies and the voices of young Indians, this book is an in-depth examination of our evolving ideas of love and relationships through the prism of our society’s most elaborate celebration. 

Enlightening and entertaining, The Shaadi Story is a remarkable exploration of Indian weddings and marriages and what makes them tick.

Review: This is a review that I had ideally planned for last week (or maybe last month) but work responsibilities beckoned and I couldn’t find time to read. I used to laugh at people who said they were too busy to read (or pursue a hobby) but seems like I am now in the same boat. 

Another reason why I kept postponing reading this book was the cover-it resembles a wedding card! But I shouldn’t really be criticising the publisher for it, the designer has done a good job considering this is a book about Shaadi or marriage and the designer was bang on but it seemed off-putting for me. I have found Indian marriages a bit too loud, gaudy and I know there are people who like shiny or sparkling things but I prefer the grey life. The only bubbles I like are those that adorn my beer glass. 

I have this uncle (everybody in India has one uncle and aunty who mean well but don’t often realise that they’re overstepping) who asked me exactly five years ago if there was someone in my life-I wish I could reply in the affirmative but at that time, my life was so full of uncertainties (it still is in some aspects) and moreover, being penniless- marriage was nowhere on the horizon. He found it surprising and confessed after a few drinks that relatives were questioning where I was getting ‘the sex’! 

Anyhow, you’d think people would see (by now) that sex was never the purpose of marriage but for most Indians it is because getting laid beyond a holy matrimonial alliance is so damn difficult in this country! The favourite swear word on everybody’s mouth is the female term for vagina (or for some, its the male genitilia) which shows how much we are obsessed with sex. But marriage is not equal to sex and everybody needs to be told this in no uncertain terms. 

But anyhow, let’s come back to the book review before I get fired from my job for writing an honest and a personalised review- nobody wants that! 

I haven’t (at the time of writing) gone through the writer’s credentials- for obvious reasons. But to me, this book looks well researched, okay fine, its awesome and I wish some of our PHD scholars put in so much effort into their research as this author has for her book. Who puts in so much work for a simple book? 

I was bemused finding references to authors I follow (because they are brilliant writers and must be read and you’re doing something wrong if you haven’t heard of these names). The book refers to (before I forget) Rana Dasgupta and Sreemoyi Piu Kundu among others but these ones I recalled so the author must be doing something right.  There is a wealth of supplemental references that are a very good read. There is also something remarkable about this book- every page has that one sentence which can be used as a standalone quote- the writing is so good!

I had thought this would be a fictional work but its like a treatise on marriage, done in a very unique style so that it doesn’t come across as boring as most non-fiction works are. In some ways, its good because the best and the most famous book sold in India was written by a man who never married- A Suitable Boy. How many of you thought I was going to mention Karan Johar’s “An Unsuitable Boy”?

The author explains in the preface that it was her experience of attending a marriage that inspired this book. The book is very well structured and starts from the history and social significance of a a matrimonial alliance- the need for marriage. 

I have seen most marriage break down ( In don’t know who researches these divorce rates in India..most of my classmates are either divorced or separated) for either sex or for financial reasons. The reason most people stay in unhappy marriages is money- good sex can be found outside the confines of a marriage. Don’t ask me about love- I am a writer…Let’s leave it at that for now.  

In fact, I will quote somewhere from the preface to explain the gist (as it were) of this book:

“We also need to understand how it evolved within the sociocultural space, the llinks to religion, the historicity of certain traditions and rituals, the interconnections with love and romance, and its identities and avatars as the system adapts to the impatient demands of a younger generation.”

The book begins with the need for marriage and rightfully, the author explores the institution of marriage right from pre-historic to ancient times and to the present. I have always wondered why companionship is so down on the marriage list and even sex is on top. Money, of course occupies the highest pedestal. Try getting married if you don’t have a regular job or a big fat daddy who can hide your failures inside his bigger pockets. Well, among others reasons, it turns out that to have somebody to look after you if you’re sick or old or too weak, you need marriage (but if I have enough money I could hire a nurse right?) So for some it will always be companionship, ‘a comrade,’ for the journey. Wow, I am getting there.

The author then dwells into the various kinds of marriages -’Arranging Love’ but I think it should be arranging marriage or arranged marriage as we call it in my native country (my history teacher was an Irishman and he hated the word native but I am so done with googling synonyms these days that it will have to work…apologies). 

The book explores the question of arranged marriages in detail. Here, I would also point out that this is more of a book about a Hindu marriage (but the writer explains in the preface why it is so).

The concept of the “Aunty jee marriage bureau network” is somehow not mentioned in the book or maybe I missed that part but I have seen it work for people. The neighborhood aunties are the biggest arranger of marriages in India and also the most prominent source of (local) news. But the book shows how parents or relatives arrange marriages. It also examines the deep rooted problems in such alliances. But I think young India is constantly refusing the power of parents to plan their lives for them like they should. Nobody should plan their lives. The only worthwhile plan I had in my life was to become a writer and look how it turned out- I became a reviewer!

I was curious to check if this book shed light on the idea of romantic love- the only reason people should be getting married but I know half of you don’t have the money and the remaining half pretend to be liberal only on twitter and facebook, deep down you know that even your parents support conservative policies. Its a kitchen secret. But this book is more honest than some of us can ever be. 

But that’s where this book shines- it dismantles the money power behind weddings. The proof is in the banknotes. No Indian man could afford (funding) his own wedding. There are some interesting statistics here and I quote:

“…the average Indian spends a staggering one-fifth of the wealth accumulated in his/her lifetime on a son or daughter/s wedding, second only to investing in the family home. This is reflective of Indian priorities, where a roof over one’s head mildly edges out the child’s wedding as the top expense in a person’s life.”

The whole celebration of marriage as the sole purpose of a person’s life is partly due to the larger than life’s weddings of influential people and of course- Bollywood. I think most people do not have any other interest in life- no literary pursuits or hobbies (music anybody?) and perhaps marriage is a way of feeling important for one day before they finally die- nameless and friendless. 

Sorry if this review appears to be a rant- its not but glass walls must be shattered and this book does that. I have so many friends who took vows in college to not take dowries and did exactly that after a couple of years when it was their turn to get married. I hope you read this review and perhaps it answers why I didn’t take your calls and never attended your marriage. Well, some I didn’t attend because of the Covid-19 lockdown- because I mean priorities! My priority was to survive 2020 but I salute those who got married in the middle of a pandemic. You’re the optimist this world so badly needs.

Is any book on Indian marriages complete without a discussion on barriers to love? The book dwells in detail about the various factors, caste, religion, gotra and financial inequality. 

But there’s something in this book for everything because even single people deserve to read so there is an entire section on singular life. So basically it runs a full circle. Begins from singlehood and end at singlehood. After all, no matter how many times you get married, you will ultimately die alone. But it helps if you know you were loved and marriages are built on trust and love. 

Final words…

I was surprised by this book. How is this not a PHD thesis? Or maybe it is. 

Marriages also destroy some lives. How ironic! You are allowed to destroy each others lives (including your own) but sometimes there are children involved and at least for their sake- marriages must be understood. This book will not help you to understand marriage completely but perhaps it will answer why so many marriages don’t work. 

The author writes well. This is the best structured book I’ve ever read. Meticulously researched, it shines light on the institution of marriage prevailing in India (I would have preferred if the scope had been broadened to include South Asia) and says what is mostly left unsaid in most Indian households. Looks like a lot of effort and planning has gone into this book and it shows. 

Would you agree with me if I said substitute the word arrange from marriage and it will still hold true because that is unfortunately the reality of many women- try substituting ‘arranged’ with the word ‘forced’. 

The post colonial feminist movement has happily ignored the rights of women to get married for love under the guise of more urgent demands such as political rights for women. But smart women are learning to navigate their way around arranged marriage setups and courtships outside the eye of peeping uncles and aunts is common these days. Nobody will have an issue with arranged marriages if the couple arrange their own marriage. 

Does this book cover what I’d like in a book about marriages? Yes. It does in small doses but the task of authors is so difficult sometimes- they have to leave out so much of what they might want to include. There’s a glossary of notes in the end for those who are into research and wish to read more. I wish I could read more (but I cannot). 

*New Asian Writing is active on twitter. But you could leave a comment here on the site too. 

Leave a Reply