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Modern-day marriages explored

Anthropology prof. studies tensions of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages in an evolving India

Lina Fruzzetti, professor of anthropology, recently published a book entitled “When Marriages Go Astray: Choices Made, Choices Challenged.” Fruzzetti held a book signing Tuesday at the Brown Bookstore for her new work, which chronicles the tales of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages in Bishnupur, India, and the intersection of tradition with women’s choices in modern-day Bengal. The Herald sat down to speak with Fruzzetti about her most recent publication.


The Herald: What got you interested in the topic of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages?


Lina Fruzzetti: This is a follow-up. I started doing work on marriage some 35 years ago. The young girls now tell me, “We are not interested in arranged marriages; we are interested in choosing our own partners.”

I started this work somewhere between 2001 and 2002, and because of the nature of the work, it’s a very sensitive issue. I can’t just go and do field work like I do in normal anthropology. (Normally) you attend marriages, you attend life cycle rites, you participate with them. This was different. This was primarily built around identifying such couples and then asking for permission to do interviews.


You said you’ve been going to the same town almost every year. How did you initially choose this town to study?


Oh, that is a long story. (Bishnupur) is about 90 miles outside of Kolkata. I learned the language. This (town) had access to trains, access to buses. And it had two colleges, a regular sort of bachelor of arts college and an engineering college. And I thought this would sort of lend itself to a nice mix of community to work with, and also the town had a 10 to 15 percent Muslim population, but it is primarily Hindu. So everything felt right, but we had looked at five (or) six other towns before we chose this one.


What was it like doing field work for this book? What did the process entail?


This is different, as I said. These young girls don’t tell their parents they have selected someone to marry. It’s all done surreptitiously. Because (the topic) is so delicate, upper-caste women marry lower-caste men, Hindu women marry Muslim men, some of these Hindu women convert to Islam. The delicate nature of all of these didn’t warrant that I would just go to a household and say, “Look, can I interview?” It would all have to be word-of-mouth. These weddings are not fully accepted.


Are there any tales, anecdotes or people in particular that stuck with you when you were writing this book?


Yeah there were three or four — I remember there was this really feisty woman. She was a Brahmin, an upper-caste woman, who married a Muslim. He worked as a driver in her uncle’s household, and that’s how they met. They just took off one day. It was a love-marriage that developed between them. They went out of town, got married, came back and of course his mother would not accept her even though she converted to Islam. So she lives outside of town, but her mother-in-law constantly harasses her.

One of the things I ask (these couples) is, “Would you allow your daughter to do exactly what you guys did, to make a choice?” And they say, “Never.”


How does the marriage culture in Bishnupur compare to that of other cultures?


It’s the same. The problems around the idea of this kind of marriage (are) something that you find reflected in many other places where these kinds of unions are taking place.

One of the young women who married into a Muslim household tells me that finally her family accepted that fact that she had done what she did, that it was her choice. And they will come and see her children, but they won’t even take a glass of water from her when they visit. In Bengali tradition, when visitors come, you always give them something — either water, sweets, food. That’s what saddens her: that she can’t do that because of the religious differences.


Where do you see the marriage culture of places like this going in the future — do you see it evolving or staying the same? What changes are in store?


I see that there will be a place for these unions in the society, but I can’t see that everything else is going to change. When I hear young girls who have made this choice, took that very difficult step and went to the wedding and now they tell me, “My kids will never do what I have done, they’ll have to abide by my new family rules,” I find that problematic.


If you could have people take one thing away from this most recent book, what would it be?


I was raised to think in terms of these really wonderful ideals, and when I see these young women articulating some of those ideals to me of why they did what they do, I go, “Wow, this is good, this is exactly what I would have wanted, a totally different world.” This is what I want people to get, that there are these women who are willing to fight for what they want. We keep thinking that women in India (are) sort of weak — no! These are strong people.


What’s next on the agenda? Do you have any current projects you’re working on?


I’ll go back again to the village. I’m doing now the social history of the town itself, which is a history that’s both textual and visual. In the last 35 years, some major changes took place. All of that will be part of this film that we did.


Anything else you’d like to add?


No, but I’m happy about this book. This is the one book that I’m really glad about because it’s different. It’s not simply about straightforward anthropology because I bring in the voices of some of these young women to describe the situation themselves. I enjoyed doing this.


This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.


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