SJ Sindu’s debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, has too much going on to allow it to simply be labelled a queer novel. It is a multi-generational story about a Sri Lankan family who tried to carve a space out for themselves in good ol’ America. On one end, it is a love story, but that’s not all. This is also a story of identity crises, and of finding oneself and growing up while struggling against the pressure of fitting into familial expectations.
The book introduces us to a married couple, Lucky and Kris, who met at college. Both queer south-Asian students, they decide to get hitched to escape the future that their families would inevitably have chosen for them. We see how in an attempt to thwart norms, they play into it by creating an arrangement that allows them to be free from their families’ iron grips.
To this end, they move away from the confines of the Boston Tamil community in which Lucky grew up, to Bridgeport where, under the dim lights of gay bars, they are finally free to be themselves. However, we soon realise that this seemingly convenient arrangement is more complicated than our characters first show. Lucky has trouble taking control of her own narrative, which affects her entire life. Her marriage may have saved her relationship with her parents, but she is always tense around them. Her mother constantly guilt-trips and pressures her into trying to have a child.
While this sham marriage forms the central plotline, it is not the driving force of the novel or even its most interesting part. After her grandmother suffers a bad fall, Lucky is called back home to play caretaker. Here she is reunited with her one true love, Nisha, and is thrown in the middle of a great family drama. However, it is Lucky’s relationship with the two main women in her life — her mother and grandmother — that really keeps the reader turning the pages.
This narrative of traditional south-Asian families and their ideas of a fulfilling life is a central thread through the novel. Talking about what it means to be a ‘good, brown kid’, Sindu says, “They get married to other brown people and pop out some brown kids, buy a nice cookie-cutter house and everything is forgiven.”
The story also shows how despite being well-educated, south-Asians are unable to come to terms with homosexuality or even the idea of their children marrying of their own volition. When Lucky gets married to Kris, her mother tells her, “You’re a normal girl. You’re going to have a normal life,” almost as if she trying to convince herself that forcing her daughter into a heterosexual marriage would fix everything. To some extent, we understand why Lucky’s mother is anxious that her daughter lead a normal life. We see how after her own divorce, she stopped attending functions because her community shunned her. Having had the first-hand experience of being excluded, it seems only natural that she wishes for her daughter to fit in.
While Lucky’s parents are passive-aggressive in their approach, Nisha’s family is more violently oppressive of their daughter. And at times, Nisha seems like a child who can’t choose which toy to play with. Caught between the need to make her parents happy and her desire to be happy, she makes decisions that hurt people around her, especially Lucky. She gets engaged, strings Lucky along, convincing her of a future together, and ultimately gives in to her parent’s wishes.
Of course, it is easier to preach than to live through the experience of being ostracised by your loved ones for being yourself. While Kris is disowned by his family, both Lucky and Nisha are forced to lie about their true selves. Married and in her late 20s, Lucky is still expected to take her mother’s permission before going out (something many of us can relate to), constantly justify her clothing choices, her decision to not have children or to even enjoy coffee. She finally realises that the only way for her to be happy is to move away from her family just as her sister, Vidya, had. And the only alternative to following her family’s plan for her is to cut herself away from them.
Gender is an extremely complex concept and Sindu tries her best to discuss it. Lucky is constantly criticised by her family for not being feminine enough. She enjoys dancing — most likely because it was something she did with Nisha — but also comes to love rugby after she is introduced to a bunch of Nisha’s old schoolmates. While learning to tackle, Lucky says, “It means knowing how to fall forward, how to lose balance on purpose, how to drive something home.” In some ways, she learns to apply the same to her own life when she decides to take control over her life.
The constant tension between Lucky’s two worlds tears her apart until she is forced to leave one behind, which makes one wonder, if there will ever be a day when we don’t have to make compromises on who we are to be accepted by our family and friends? It is a visit with her long-lost sister Vidya that reminds Lucky that she cannot compromise who she is to make others more comfortable or accepting:
“It’s not so bad, Lucky. I’m free.”
“Free from what?”
This conversation is reminiscent us of what Lucky says at the beginning of the novel, “Let me tell you something about being brown like me: your story is already written for you. Your free will, your love, your failure, all of it scratched into the cosmos before you’re even born. My mother calls it fate, the story written on your head by the stars, by the gods, never by you.”
Even though Lucky is the narrator and her voice looms across the text, there a huge void in the access she gives us to her emotions. She doesn’t share what she feels about her marriage, her estranged sister or even the pressures to have a child. The closest we get to witnessing her feelings are those about Nisha. While the will-they-won’t-they narrative that makes up most of the text gets a little predictable (and frankly, annoying), Marriage of a Thousand Lies is still a powerful story. The book is filled with interesting and relatable characters. In many ways, it is a story that has been told several times, but it is also a powerful critique of marriage, tradition and religion.
In a way, there is some comfort in seeing a character stumbling through her life and figuring it out in her 20s. To me, this novel by Sindu – who is a second-generation queer Sri Lankan in the USA — is more about the experience of being an outsider than a love story. And this is what makes it a good read.