Chetan Bhagat , 2009, Rupa
Two States is Chetan Bhagat’s highly autobiographical tale of an inter-community marriage between a Punjabi man and a Tamil woman, which actually means uniting two disparate cultures from north and south India.
Two States is a love story, written with many typical Bollywood (or “Kollywood” for the Tamilians) features: plenty of plot twists and turns, gags, caricatures of overbearing, possessive mothers, splendid saris and festivities. No wonder Chetan Bhagat is so successful among young adults in India!
At first, western readers might be put off at the idea of reading a light-hearted tale about arranged marriage. The portrait of mothers using emotional blackmail to manipulate their sons can indeed be pretty repelling. In the beginning, Krish has a monster of a mother. For example, when the son objects to her making him meet a girl when he has informed her that he is already in love with someone:
“Mum, why should I come, really?”
“Because it will make me happy. Is that reason enough?” she said, and I noticed her wrinkled hand with the bandage.
“Ok,” I shrugged…”
And though it’s hard not to laugh, our laughter is hollow when, towards the end of the book, Ananya, Krish’s girlfriend and now fiancée, overhears a conversation between mother and son:
“‘She is too intelligent to be a good daughter-in-law.”
I had no clue how to respond to that, but I had to calm her. “She isn’t that intelligent, mom,” I assured her.
“She did economics but I beat her”
“She is out of control.”
“Mom, she is with her parents here. But I am marrying only her; once she comes to our house, we can control her (…) “Fine, make her toe the line,” I said, “but be normal now…”
Needless to say, that conversation complicates matters between Ananaya and Krish, requiring another chapter before the happy ending!
To European readers, who will inevitably find themselves wondering, “Why should these young adults be so willing – even eager – to indulge their parents’ selfish whims?”, Chetan Bhagat
might answer: Wait and see, this is the way they are and have been for generations, but parents may have feelings all the same, even generous ones, and little by little we, the younger people, can change things.
The book reads like an ethnographic romance. We learn how Indian people stereotype Punjabi and Tamil cultures. Tamilians are seen as being fond of music, respectful of knowledge and
culture, mostly vegetarians who use banana leaves for plates and are generally teetotallers – though there may be a few exceptions to that rule. The Punjabis, on the other hand, are shown as cheerful people who are not really interested in books or culture, who love gold bangles, big watches and weddings in which the two families vie to see who can spend the most money. The look down on the Tamilians because of their dark skin, while the Tamilians dismiss the Punjabis as ignorant and vulgar.
Beyond writing an enjoyable book, Chetan Bhagat has also done a tremendous job of reconciling two rival nations and cultures, as well as trying to show that women and men should be equal. Two States is a plea against arranged marriages: an entertaining novel with a serious purpose.