Art sits dejectedly in my office, his elbows on his thighs, his head, shaking side to side, cradled by his hands. “I told you it would never work. She’s unrelenting. Tradition is everything to her. But it’s ridiculous! I’ve been in this country most of my life. How can she expect me to accept an arranged marriage? Go back to India and marry the girl her sister finds for me? It’s crazy.”
“I’m so sorry, Art. I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you.”
Lifting his head, he says, “And that’s another thing. She said she absolutely forbid me to have anyone call me anything but my given name, Arjun. She repeated it, yelling, ‘Arjun, Arjun, Arjun. That’s your name and I don’t expect to hear you called anything else.’ Of course I’m not about to do that. My friends haven’t called me Arjun since the first or second grade. And they made fun of me even then. She has no idea what it’s like, how difficult it is for a kid to fit into this culture. And particularly today. Even my brown skin can bring those looks – are you one of those?; are you illegal?; are you stealing our jobs?” He covers his face with one hand. “But there’s no point discussing all that.” Pause. “What am I going to do?” he asks beseechingly?
“I was just going to ask you the same thing.”
“I don’t know. I love Jessica. I want to marry her. We like the same things – hiking, kayaking, watching old movies. We think the same way, have the same values, love kids. My mother just doesn’t get it. We don’t have to be from the same culture, although we basically are. I’m probably more American than Indian.”
“Is that true? I mean you have grown up here most of your life, educated here, working here, but is it true that your Indian culture means so little to you?”
“Right now I just wish I could disown the whole culture.”
“But that’s your anger speaking, right?”
“I don’t know,” he says dismissively.
“I remember how joyfully you’ve described the Hindu weddings you’ve attended, how you know all about your gods, how you say you sometimes pray to one god or another.”
“But that’s just habit. It’s all a bunch of superstition. I don’t believe any of that stuff.”
I realize I’m pushing too hard to have Art take ownership of the Indian part of himself and wonder if that’s because he’s projecting those feelings onto me rather than feeling them himself. I need to step back.
“What are your thoughts?”
“I know I’m not going let my mother bully me. And I also know she won’t retreat. She said Jessica – no, actually she said ‘that girl’ – would never be welcome in her house, that she would never see our children. That hurts. And I know she’ll stick to it. There’s not going to be any Hollywood ending like in The Big Sick.”
“I wish my father would say something.”
Is he also wishing I’d say something? I wonder.
“I know my father agrees with me. Or at least he’d accept my decision. But he always bows to her.” Pause. “And that’s another thing she said, ‘Your father and I had an arranged marriage. It turned out well for us.’ I had to bite my tongue there. It turned out well for her. She got to move to the US, be a doctor’s wife and stay enclosed in the Indian community. I don’t think that’s what my father would have wanted, but he’d never say.”
“So you’re angry at your mother for being too dominant and at your father for being too passive.”
“I was thinking about Jessica and my relationship. Wondering who’s the more dominant one.” Pause. “I guess I’d say she is.” Pause. “I wonder how I feel about that.”
“Not so good actually.”
“So are you implying that you were raised by a dominant woman and that perhaps now you’re attracted to a similarly dominant women?”
“Oh no! I came in here thinking I had one problem – how to deal with my mother – and now I have two problems – how to deal with my mother and Jessica.”
“Perhaps it’s not so much how you deal with either of them, but how you deal with yourself, the person you want to be, the person you are now given the family and the culture you were raised in. Is there a place between complying and rebelling? Are you unwittingly driven to repeat patterns from your past that you may not consciously want to repeat?”
“Stop! Too much. It’s giving me a headache.”
“There is a lot , but I was just trying to say that we humans are very complex beings and that it’s helpful for us to try and understand ourselves as best as possible.”