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  • Jerome Kocher

33. An Arranged Marriage

One book. One movie. Different authors. Different countries and cultures. But the same story. Freedom. The Henna Artist written by Alka Joshi takes place in the Pink City of Jaipur, India. Unorthodox, a film adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s book by the same name, takes place primarily in Berlin with flashbacks to Brooklyn. Both female authors write about arranged marriages, the former within the ancient Hindu tradition of a caste system and the latter about an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in New York.

In both narratives the entrapment in a patriarchal hierarchy reveals the pain and abuse of women who are prisoners within a deeply religious custom of forced marriage, usually at a very early age. Both stories follow an archetypal path of escape, danger and loss of everything they value. Every right decision seems to be fraught with more chaos. Although the path seems to spiral out of control, ultimately redemption is the gift of grace at the end.

In The Henna Artist, the main character Lakshmi is a runaway from her village and seeks independence by using her craft of painting henna designs on women, first the courtesans and prostitutes in a big city, but as her reputation increases, the opportunity to paint the “ladies” of higher class Brahmins in post-colonial India gives her the economic upward mobility she strives for. Coupled with her medicinal knowledge of herbal healing she expands her clientele, until the day her family tracks her down and then her thirteen years of hard work starts to collapse. And her with it.

In Unorthodox, young Etsy flees the Hasidic restrictions of her Williamsburg enclave in Brooklyn and takes refuge in Berlin, Germany where she hopes to find her birth mother whom she believes abandoned her as a child. Her family and husband hunt her down with one purpose, to reclaim their property, a pregnant Etsy carrying his child.

There are no spoiler alerts here, as I am not going to reveal the stories. I’m only sharing the backdrop to an all too often human drama of seeking freedom whether personal, religious or political. Although I know both men and women who have been in arranged marriages with mixed results, I was actually drawn to the stories through my personal connection with both cities. In Jaipur I have wandered the bazaars and marketplaces of the Pink City, so called because of the colored hue of the plaster on the city walls. I’ve bargained with its merchants, mostly Sikh businessmen recognizable by their turbaned hair that has never been cut alongside their ritual knives as protectors of the faith. Their shops were located beneath the landmark Hawa Mahal, a palace wall with myriad screen windows that allowed a once royal harem to look out, but no one could see in.

As for Berlin, my connection is deeper. While living in Europe for five years during the ‘70s, I worked one summer in a bäkerei in free West Berlin, frequently crossing Checkpoint Charlie to investigate life under East German Communism. Forty years later I returned as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar on immigration, especially the German-Turkish contract for guest workers during the Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle that elevated Germany from post-war devastation to a developed country again. Berlin became a beloved city for me, as it also did for Etsy in Unorthodox, but for totally different reasons.

Despite the misogynist evil of ownership over women’s lives reducing them to breeding machines, the female director of Unorthodox is also cognizant of the legitimate origin of this Satmar Hasidic community of Holocaust survivors from Hungary. In a post genocidal world, their survival depended on staying together through tradition, dress and familial bonds to rebuild the six million who were lost. Pre-war efforts to assimilate into German life did not work out so well. Whom could they trust. No one.

And in India using the caste system to discriminate is now illegal, but that designation is still on their student ID cards. Bloodlines run deeper than any legislation in a post-Partition independent India. For better or worse, Western values of individual rights and freedom over the greater survival of the community have eroded the power of these past communal customs.

As you read this from today’s perspective, you may no longer wear the clothes of your grandmother or grandfather, nor follow their way of thinking, but that should not prevent us from acknowledging their heart and soul, their work and sacrifice. The world changes and evolves, What they may have done, we often should not do. What you did as a six year old may not be recommended for your behavior today. But that six year old is you. That grandmother and grandfather is us. You may be an individual, but your roots go deeper than just your personal rights.

The question is how do we stand up for individual justice and still show respect for the ways of all those who have gone before us. Arranged marriages are totally unacceptable. But equally unacceptable is a condemnation of all those born before us. If we traded places, would you want them to condemn You?

Unorthodox may be edgy and not for everyone, but The Henna Artist is a beautifully written first novel dedicated to the author’s mother who was in an arranged marriage. She balances outrage with devotion, an acceptance of life with self-determination. Just as we all should.


I've already pre-ordered Alka Joshi's second novel, a sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, due to be released in June. I can't wait.

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Esther Diaz
Esther Diaz
May 06, 2021

Jerome! I really enjoyed reading your post and just ordered the book. I agree, this was a beautiful message. Thank you!


Catherine Torres
Catherine Torres
May 06, 2021

That is the most beautiful message I ever heard! Thank you!

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