Love Is a Many-Cultured Thing
By Mary Kay Zuravleff
Sunday, September 8, 1996
I am always conscious of reading a short story versus a collection of short stories, in which an author's tales have been uprooted from their separate homes to live cheek-by-jowl between a single set of covers. On encountering a makeshift household such as this, I am obliged to assess the individuals not only on their merits but also on their mates: How are they different and how are they the same? Who are good or bad influences on whom, and who should have been wise enough to stay outside the dust jacket?
And so the premise of Robbie Clipper Sethi's strong collection, The Bride Wore Red, is doubly interesting, for here, in the garb of intercultural unions, are 13 tales devoted to these same judgment calls. In story after story, partners establish themselves as a couple, only to be bound and gagged by their extended families. Herself an American married to an Asian Indian, Sethi captures the notions of same/different, accepted/ostracized in a blunt yet empathetic style.
It's refreshing for Sally, the character who appears to be patterned after the author, to be cast as something of a sourpuss, and a cold one at that. Sally loves Deshi, a Punjabi Sikh whom she meets in California. She is prepared to love his India as well, if only the crowd of relatives will let them out of the house to look around by themselves. In first through third person, Sally narrates nearly half the book, and the reader warms to her voice; what seems disaffected is soon welcomed as unaffected, especially among so many hysterics. When Deshi's mother first lays eyes on Sally, the Indian matron collapses with disappointment. Fresh from medical school, Sally recognizes the swooning as an act, which doesn't make it any less unsettling. When the author, in deadpan second person, describes Sally's wedding day, the mother-in-law's presence is simultaneously pitiful and powerful: "On the morning of your wedding they will paint a clot on your forehead too, pink because you are so white. But before they consent to your marriage, Deshi's mother must faint a few more times. Every time she looks at you."
In another early story, Mataji suspects pale, Midwestern Gudrun of seducing her eligible son, Hermeet. Mataji schemes the story away, hoping to secretly arrange a marriage between Hermeet and an Indian stranger. But just when Sethi seems headed toward ethnic bashing, she next peers into the soul of "the white-haired girl" to tell "Gudrun's Saga." It turns out that Gudrun, married twice before (once to a Muslim!), is another hen nesting on a clutch of secrets all her own.
One of the strongest pieces in the book is "Grace," which encapsulates the lack of compromise these couples must face. A painter who breathes best in solitude, Grace is undone when her in-laws move in and take up the air supply. "In India," her husband says, "a parent is always welcome." One imagines Grace's simple reply, "But this is not India," spoken with equal parts resignation and defiance.
Throughout the book, the men are by and large passive; in fact, a weakness of the collection is the lack of men vivid enough, even in submission, to persuade the reader that it is worth the effort to bridge the cultural divide. Time alone for these couples would do everyone involved some good. Sharp-tongued and sharp-toothed, families manage to gnaw away at the connection between husband and wife; one fantasizes that an occasional meddler, upon breaking through the insulation, might be electrocuted by a couple's passion or at least stunned by a surge of love. No such sparks fly.
Still, the women are compelling subjects for portraiture, and Sethi expertly paints what is in their hearts. In the opening story, Sally cannot comprehend her mother-in-law's remarks, though she understands the look in her eyes. "She gazes at her son like a lover. He hasn't disappointed her a bit. You have." The son who can do no wrong is nurtured by many cultures. What is distinctive in these Indian-American unions is that, disapproving and protective as the mothers may be, they do not reject the married couple. This seems a consequence of Indian fatalism as well as the culture's ability never to assimilate but instead to absorb, ultimately a more powerful technique.
Sethi is to be praised for writing so many stories on essentially the same topic without once seeming repetitive. Quite the contrary; revisiting these conflicts with warmth and wit, she burnishes and illuminates a deserving manuscript. Each tale heightens the message that to be shunned is difficult but to be accepted may be harder still.
Mary Kay Zuravleff, who lives in Washington, is the author of a novel, "The Frequency of Souls."
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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