SUSHI DAS is the opinion editor at The Age newspaper. This is an excerpt from her new book, Deranged Marriage, published by Random House.
Girls. They are an economic liability for Indian parents. They cost money to raise. They can trash a family’s reputation with the power of immodesty. They need a dowry when you marry them off, and what do you get in return? Nothing but worry and misery. Boys, on the other hand, are productive economic units. As men, they earn a salary, bring home a wife, scoop up a dowry and act as the welfare state for elderly parents. Who wouldn’t crave sons?
Luckily, we had a son in our family. My brother’s birth brought not only joy, but relief. Mum had carried and brought safely into the world that most precious of cargos. She was no longer just a mother of daughters, she was the mother of a son. The only thing better would have been to be the mother of several sons, but Mum was grateful for just one.
My sister Vin and I were pleased to have someone else to play with. We remained, in our youth, totally ignorant of the meaning of a brother. In manhood, he would be the carer of his parents and the protector of his sisters – a notion that satisfied my parents profoundly. Mum in particular felt she had been rewarded by a higher authority and she was able to extend her deepest sympathy to any woman god neglected.
Mum had a friend – an Indian woman with seven daughters. Yes, seven. People were always kind to her. An epic tragedy had befallen her house. A misfortune for every day of the week. What was the poor woman to do? You couldn’t accuse her of not trying to have a son. Look where that had got her. But the woman was remarkably sanguine. Always smiling and confident that things would turn out well in the end. The kind of person who would start a crossword puzzle with a pen. Her beautiful girls graced our house when they visited. Seven sylphs with intelligent, mouse eyes, swan necks and confident smiles. All seven together could turn a room into an oil painting. But it’s hard for Indians to see seven girls and not also see the shadows of seven dowries, seven opportunities for the family’s honour to be sullied, seven burdens.
When Mum’s friend fell pregnant for the eighth time, everyone prayed for her, including my mum. A son, please bestow her with a son. When she gave birth to twin boys, it was as if the heavens had opened up, sending forth great rivers of rain after seven hundred years of drought. There were tears of joy, elated hearts and sweet, sweet relief. Not one, but two boys. Sons at last, sons at last, thank god almighty, we have sons at last.
Life for Indian boys is different. Right from the day of their birth, which, by the way, is celebrated with a great deal more gusto than a girl’s, things are easier. Parents are much more reverential towards their sons – after all, they are the ones who look after them in their old age (or, more accurately, it is daughters-in- law who will look after a boy’s parents in their old age).
More importantly, boys’ sexuality is nothing to fear (unless they’re gay – that would no doubt be considered a calamity). They can’t fall pregnant out of wedlock and bring shame on their families as a daughter can. Yes, they can bring shame through acts of criminality or gambling or drinking, but shame through sexual immorality, the really serious kind of shame, is a disgrace that only women can bring crashing down on their family. All things considered, boys are best.
But sometimes even my brother Raja was no consolation for my mum’s deep frustrations with my failings. ‘You’re too tall,’ she often complained, as if I was deliberately growing beyond the stipulated height for an obedient Indian girl. ‘We have to find a boy taller than you.’
Her concern with my height was dwarfed by her alarm over the size of my bust, the correct size presumably being a pair of plump mangoes. I didn’t make the grade. When a marriage is being arranged by an Indian mother, a defective daughter can be a big problem, or, in this case, two small problems. A girl with no breasts. Two aspirins on an ironing board. Damaged goods.
I was ordered to visit the doctor to find out what was wrong with me. Dr Hall, who was shorter than the average man, told me I was not alone – lots of girls wished they had bigger boobs. ‘I wish I was a couple of inches taller,’ he added pointlessly. When I told him I was quite comfortable with my lighter than average load and that it was Mum who felt burdened with my deficiency, he kindly offered to talk to her.
That evening he called her. I listened from the top of the stairs. ‘Yes, doctor, yes, doctor. Yes, thank you, doctor,’ I heard her say before she hung up and made her way slowly up the stairs.
‘That was the Dr Hall calling on the phone,’ she said in her wonky English, sitting heavily on my bed with a disappointed sigh.
I waited for the verdict. ‘He was drunk.’ ‘What!’ ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘He say you are healthy, attractive girl. He say nothing wrong with you. Definitely drunk.’
Some months after the drunk-doctor incident, she was sitting on the edge of my bed again, crying: ‘It’s my fault, it’s all my fault,’ she sobbed, nodding in the direction of my chest. ‘In India, when I discovered I was pregnant with you, I went to see a special doctor,’ she continued in Punjabi. ‘I asked him to make you a boy. So he gave me some herbs.’
‘What! You went to see a witch doctor?’
‘I took the herbs,’ she continued. ‘But when you were born, you were a girl and I just assumed the herbs hadn’t worked. But now that you’re older and things haven’t grown properly, I see that the herbs only half worked.’
She burst into a fresh round of sobbing. I was at a loss to know how to console her, a task made harder by the anger ballooning in my flat chest. Not anger with her naïve and superstitious belief that when she was pregnant, the child she was carrying could be turned into a boy with a magical potion. Not anger with her instinctive maternal drive to blame herself for some- thing she should have known was clearly beyond her control. But anger with myself for having the misfortune to be born into an Indian family coming to grips with raising daughters in Britain. In such moments, I could see before me a chasm of communication between me and my parents. Their Eastern expectations. My Western desires. Any thoughts beyond that were rendered shapeless by immaturity and simply fell off the cliff into a sea of self-loathing.