The Bachelor of Arts is a novel by RK Narayan, one of the most celebrated Indian authors of all time. It chronicles the life of a young man who lives in the fictional town of Malgudi in South India in the 1930s. Being a person who is always fascinated by things new and old, just basically different from what I am used to, I subconsciously compare the life as I know it and the life that I read about in books. I guess that probably explains my interest in fantasy novels and the like. As I started reading this book, that is what I did again. I started comparing the life that we lead now to the life in the 1930s and even though the setting and the societal expectations were different, the essence of it seems to remain the same.
The college life of the young man, Chandran, depicted in the book is something that even the college goers of today’s age would relate to. The classes till evening, hanging out with friends after college, the fear of the examinations and the drawing up of timetables to study at the last-minute, the actual preparation which ends up becoming nothing like the timetable drawn and the like. The interest to pursue higher education abroad also seems to gel well with the present thinking of Indian students. The romances, the crushes, the heartbreaks, all the feelings have seemed to stand the test of time.
Even though most of the happenings in the 1930s seem to replicate the present age, the one thing that got my attention was the concept of marriage. The customs, the dowry haggling and the horoscope matching was obviously a huge part of the marriage process then than it is now. But the questionable thing is the ideal age of marriage for girls. In the history lessons during my school days, I have come across chapters related to empowerment of women and children in the pre-independence era, which included the abolition of Sati, child marriages restraint act and so on. I have also read few news reports in the recent years concerning child marriage. But it is only when I read this book that I read about this concept in a setting that deemed it to be a natural way of life rather than a crime.
Since it was common those days, the author has not explained much in detail as to how the process goes by. From what I could gather, it goes like this – the family of the girl sends out the proposal for marriage to the boy’s family in which they are interested to make an alliance with. It was never the other way around. The horoscopes were exchanged and checked for compatibility and if it was good enough, the talks of marriage begin, including the dowry. This process is not something which was different to me. This is still what happens today but without the constraint of only the girl’s family approaching the boy’s. But it is the age of the girl and the reactions to it that took me by surprise.
Chandran happens to come across a young girl and gets smitten by her and pressurize his parents to arrange for the match. In the days that follow, his mother tries to talk him out of the notion. On hearing that the girl might be close to sixteen years old, she exclaims that there must be something wrong with the girl for no one would let their daughter stay unmarried this long. Thirteen or fourteen years were the acceptable age of marriage for girls during that time. Anything later than that leads to talks about the low character of the family and the girl. As soon as they attained puberty, they were married off. And from what I could gather from the book, the girl would still be in school when she was married and so, after marriage, she will stay at her home till her schooling is completed, after which she will be taken to her husband’s place.
Comparing it to the present scenario, there is an increase in the marriageable age for women for sure. Very rarely do women get married before 20 in cities. But arranged marriages are still the norm in India, where even though a woman is highly educated and holds a good job, she is still not trusted with selecting her life partner. Even though there is a lot going on in the women empowerment side, we have still not reached the stage where men deem women to be their equal. Women have always been seen a step below them.
What is surprising to me is that, in ancient India, as evident in the scriptures of the yore, women were in fact considered to be equal to men. They were entitled to education and also married off only when they were mature enough. They were even given the choice of selecting their own partners. And by ancient India, I mean 1500 BC to 1000 BC. It is saddening to see that when we would think that we would evolve with time and become more open in our thinking, what has happened is just the opposite. Maybe a time would come when we go back to our ancient roots and learn a thing or two from them. Here’s hoping for a better future.