Of Marriageable Age is a saga (546 pages) by Guyanese author Sharon Maas. The book was originally published by Harper Collins in 2000, but Maas has re-released it through Bookoutre. The description of this book alone intimidated me, and sagas are not my usual read. Of Marriageable Age follows three narratives (Savitri’s, Nataraj’s, and Sarojini’s) that start in three different decades (1920s, 1940s, 1960s) on three continents (India, British Guyana, England). Even the names and locations intimidated me, as I was worried about cultural and historical information and pronunciation being a hinderance, which caused me to put off reading Of Marriageable Age for a while.
This saga is actually quite easy to follow. The author makes sure to remind readers often enough of who’s who. If I wasn’t sure of a location, a simple Google search helped me out. In terms of remembering the decades, it’s not really that important. One character’s story, Savitri’s, is set in the 1920s, which is the outlier and easy to remember. By page 130 I was aware of how the three characters were related. But, the exciting part was seeing how it unfolded. There are also Tamil words used, like amma and appa, which were easy enough to figure out. Other words, such as lungi, sambar, and tinnai were not super clear, though I did get the idea: pants, food, sleeping spot. I was dismayed to find a glossary at the end of the book–dismayed because it was too late for me to use it. Why publishers never alert readers to the fact that there is a glossary, especially e-reader editions that don’t make it easy to flip through the whole book before reading, is beyond me.
The story mostly focuses on the Indian tradition of fathers being responsible for marrying off their daughters to suitable families. Oftentimes, little children are paired up, “officially” engaged when they are about 13, and then married at 14. Brides come from all over the place. Sarojini’s mother was “imported from India.” Her bridegroom, Deodat, who lives in British Guyana, is an “orthodox Brahmin” who “refused to take a wife born and bred in BG [British Guyana]. In such a woman traditions were diluted, culture was dying….He was appalled at the gradual disintegration of Hindu traditions, and the spineless capitulation of Indians to the secular spirit which ruled the colony.” While Of Marriageable Age hits on many important topics, whether or not girls can choose their husbands and whether or not Indians can marry non-Indians is the big theme.
Maas excels at yo-yoing the reader. At times, I wanted to burn this book for how Maas made me feel. I was faced with difficult moments that made me question what I would be okay with accepting. I hated Maas for making me do such personal questioning. Truly, it says a lot for an author to get the reader so involved and thinking beyond myself and my world. Then, when all seemed to be horrible, a breath of fresh air would rescue me and take the decision out of my hands, for which I was grateful. Some of the heavier topics included: rape, incest, arranged marriages, politics, racism, sexual liberation, and magical realism.
Yes, magical realism. Maas conflates idealized Indians with magical realism, which made me more willing to accept some of what might otherwise be sappy perfection. For instance, you’ll find this sort of thing often: “the dark, deep, all-knowing, all-seeing pools of his eyes.” Every time eyes were called “pools” I wanted to snicker. But, Maas gives some of her characters magical abilities, like this:
“Savitri once believed that everyone could talk to plants and birds and animals, that everyone knew their language. When she was very small, people had been alarmed by her silences….It was only when she discovered that humans didn’t understand silence that she began to use words, and then they came out in perfectly formed sentences, in two languages, and people were astonished. Only the other beings, the plants, birds, and animals, understood silence. People, she knew now, lived wrapped in thought-bodies, which was why they could not understand silence. The thought-bodies got in the way. They were like thick black clouds through which the purity of silence could not enter, and they kept people captive and dulled. Sometimes there were gaps in the thought-bodies.”
And so, it feels a little more genuine to me that the characters with the ability to hear voices and animals, to heal or bring good fortune, should have deep “pool” eyes (they are magical, after all), and so I forgave the otherwise cliched descriptions.
Although I understood how the three character’s lives were linked, truly I did not fully know. Typically, Maas rotates the stories in a predictable way: Nataraj, Saroj, Savitri, each with their own chapter, and then repeat. Later in the book something tragic happens at the end of one of Savitri’s chapters, so I kept reading to get back to her story and find out what happened. Instead, Maas danced away from the foreboding plot, making the chapters play Nat and Saroj and Nat and Saroj and back and forth between THOSE two! I had to keep reading to know what happened! Maas expertly leaves readers dangling above the plot line they most want.
Whenever I thought I knew how the saga would end, even when I didn’t want it to end the way I predicted, I often found that I was wrong and there was more to know. Although the ending of the book is wrapped too neatly, is a bit too eager, it is Maas’s ability to make the reader feel right and then incorrect that kept me reading way past my bedtime. I highly recommend this Of Marriageable Age.