A year before the Sri Lankan civil war ended, I published a novel, which began,
In this globe-scattered Sri Lankan family, we speak only of two kinds of marriage. The first is the Arranged Marriage. The second is the Love Marriage. In reality, there is a whole spectrum in between, but most of us spend years running away from the first towards the second.
I had written those lines sometime in college, before I knew much about anthropology. But in the year before I finished this novel, Love Marriage, I took a Southasian anthropology class with E. Valentine Daniel (author of Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropography of Violence and Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way). At the time, I was studying journalism, but I became close to several graduate students writing anthropological dissertations connected to Southasia. In this way, I became the outside observer in a community of anthropologists, most of whom were themselves Southasian. Anthropology and its approaches, as well as the self-critique and critique of the field modelled by several of my classmates, became important to my writing. In the years since, the tree of that class has grown new branches and revealed hidden flowers; path has led unto path. One of those paths led me to the annual conference on Southasia in Madison, Wisconsin, where some years ago I met Sidharthan Maunaguru, an assistant professor of anthropology in the South Asian Studies Programme and the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. I heard him give an exemplary paper, after which we had a brief conversation. These are my limited qualifications and disclosures as I review his brilliant first book, Marrying for a Future: Transnational Sri Lankan Tamil Marriages in the Shadow of War.
Last month, I submitted an application to renew my (American) passport. In my haste, I enclosed a laughably bad photograph – so terrible I wondered if it would be accepted, although technically it fulfilled the requirements. The passport boomeranged back to me with the seal of approval, but when I went to visit family for the winter holidays they passed it around, agreeing that it looked fake and wondering whether at border control it would pass muster. I worried: Why hadn’t I been more careful? How could I have posed differently, to look more genuinely myself? I am American, yes, but my family is mostly Tamil, mostly Sri Lankan, mostly cautious at borders and checkpoints, mostly dispersed too far from each other across them. My relatives have lived in Canada, England, France, Germany, India, Australia, and Norway, among other places; I went to Toronto a few times a year for most of my childhood, and Love Marriage is partially set there.
I thought of that passport, nestled in my purse, as I read Sidharthan Maunaguru’s ethnography. The book, published as part of the University of Washington Press’s Global South Asia series, is technically for academics, but Sidharthan has written it in a clear, straightforward style that should make it of interest to a broader audience. In the book, Sidharthan writes movingly of transnational marriages between Canadian and Sri Lankan Tamils prior to the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.
Such marriages, he shows, are possible because of Tamil communities working together to help Sri Lankan Tamils marry and migrate. Carefully posed, shot, edited, and curated wedding photographs are a key part of the process, as couples submit them to the Canadian state as evidence of genuine unions meriting spousal visas. Some applicants are authentic enough, and others aren’t; the judgments are in the hands of individual Canadian visa officers, and according to their expectations of what Sri Lankan Tamil marriages should look like. But, Sidharthan argues, the photos not only offer proof to the state: they offer something to the wedded pair themselves – fragments of the past and an image of the present, along with the possibility of a future. “Within the context of a prolonged war and the migration it caused, how does a community use the marriage process to reconnect, create relatedness, and work out uncertain futures?” he asks.
If the marriage transforms two individuals into a couple and forges an alliance between families, then such a process works with certain ideas of imagined futures and current practices to bring some certainty to the uncertainty of marriage. Given the context of war and mass migration, transnational marriage processes have become moments in which another way of reinhabiting the world becomes possible for the Tamil community. In that sense, it is not just a strategy to escape the war, but also an effort to reinhabit the world, to make uncertainty into certainty, and to imagine a future for the Tamil community.
Sidharthan offers a lucid, deliberate, but also frankly personal style, and a long-overdue disruption of categories and perceptions. He begins with the story of Gnani, a friend since their shared childhood in Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka.
“We played, ran, and hid together behind the trees and in the bunkers during the shelling between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (or LTTE, a Tamil militant movement) and the Sri Lankan forces. We went to school together and ran away from there when bombs exploded in its vicinity. We saw our friends disappear, be killed, and be arrested. We lived with an uncertain future, frightened for our lives and those of our parents. However, we also had dreams of doing well in school, entering university, falling in love.”
Sidharthan is matter-of-fact and indeed deeply sympathetic to the troubles of the community, but he is also a keen observer of their adaptability, strengths, and hopes. What’s more, he is one of them, and impressively neither pessimist nor optimist. “My friends, relatives, interlocutors, and I occupied the same social field of war and violence. We were displaced, full of fear about the war and thoughts of migration to foreign countries. But we learned to live in a dispersed life,” he writes.
Gnani, Sidharthan’s first stop on the way to fieldwork, tells Sidharthan about his own marriage and long courtship across years of migration, displacement, imprisonment, and uncertainty. His sweetheart, Sujatha, remained in Sri Lanka as Gnani attempted to migrate. As he moved from country to country, attempting to find a safe harbour and permanent status and sometimes finding detention or imprisonment instead, he wrote to Sujatha. On some occasions his letters and her replies reached their destinations, and on others, they did not. Regardless, Gnani wrote. Eventually, she landed in Australia; he went to the U.K. They managed to marry and settle in London, but their periods of long uncertainty left a mark, and each retained their new citizenship, just in case.
“Scholars have argued that the conditions of war and violence froze the lives of refugees and suspended the survivors of war in limbo (Ferme 2004; Agamben 1998). However, the story of Gnani and Sujatha reveals a different narrative. Their romance struggled on as they moved from war zones to become refugees, and finally made a home in a new, unknown land. The constant struggle of making and remaking relationships across borders, through the institution of marriage and kinship in times of uncertainty due to war and violence, has become an integral part of the everyday life of the Tamil Jaffna community of Sri Lanka…. This ethnographic study suggests that the Tamil community, fragmented as a result of war, was rekindled by ‘in-between’ processes such as transnational marriages.”
Sidharthan’s vision of these marriages is a radical and historically expansive one. He disrupts the binary of diaspora and homeland by making clear that neither his fieldwork nor these marriages move in linear fashion from homeland to emigration. The idea of the in-between animates the book. He argues that marriage, rather than being an institution, is a process, and that via transnational marriages, the fragmented Sri Lankan Tamil community remakes itself. One frequent site of what he dubs “place-making” is India, often thought of as simply a waystation on the path to other countries. Chennai, Colombo and Toronto aren’t three places, but one “mobile social field” for this group of people, Sidharthan argues; India in particular, despite its status as a transit site, is a unique place for transnational Sri Lankan weddings. Instead of marrying in the new country or the old one, spouses-to-be rendezvous in Tamil Nadu. In this way, they can access services in Tamil and avoid the war; it’s possible some of their relatives will be able to join them, and the large community of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees is ready to help. After the wedding, the spouse desiring to emigrate must return home to apply for a visa.
Brokers in Sri Lanka and India arrange the marriages; Sidharthan’s first chapter describes the small variations between a few interlocutors (all men). Some work from home; others visit clients; others have offices. Some work with anyone who inquires, and others restrict their services to those they know. Sidharthan spends the most time with Rajan, a Colombo-based man who operates his business on what he calls a self-selection model. He keeps organised and colour-coded files (women over 40 coded red for hard-to-match!) Rajan gathers biodata on prospective matches and invites people to seek more information on those who interest them; he keeps official records on place of origin, gender and age, plus employment information and astrological charts. He also has a private notebook with caste-related information. (His rules for those filling out his forms include: “2) discrimination based on sex is unfair… 6) if the applicant is a female, one among the photos must be in a saree or in her traditional dress.” No word on what happens to those who don’t believe in astrology). Asked about caste, Rajan “would not directly articulate the caste name of the spouse. Instead, he would only say whether they were suitable…. This is in keeping with the Sri Lankan Tamil practice of not speaking openly about caste, even though it is an important consideration when it comes to marriage.” The marriage brokers are profiting from their businesses but, Sidharthan makes clear, that’s not their only concern; they also want to help their communities and make people “knowable” to each other. With the disruption of war severing the once-clear tie between place of residence and caste, this is harder than it once was; some boundaries of caste are shifting. So, too, is the brokers’ profession – once considered less than entirely respectable. Rajan considers himself not a marriage broker, but rather a “facilitator”, a term with fewer pejorative connotations. More people know the word these days, he remarks, after the Norwegian peace process.
Subsequently, Sidharthan talks about the weddings themselves. In Tamil Nadu, some Sri Lankan spouses-to-be purchase wedding packages designed for them. “The Sri Lankan Tamil community is made and remade here during the wedding season. Sri Lankan Tamils who live in Chennai often participate by providing the social texture (e.g. food, wedding services, and guesthouses), helping to create a ‘Sri Lankan Tamil village’ atmosphere during weddings.” In this chapter, Sidharthan tells us about several weddings. In one, a young husband substantially increases his debt to pay for a wedding in India. The nuptials reunite him with his parents, whom he hasn’t seen in seven years. In India, fragments of his family come together to celebrate his marriage with no idea when they will next see each other.
The family’s conflicts, joys, fights, feasts, and jokes all took place within the few days Ratna’s family spent in India, in a house that was not even their own…. even in that brief time in a transit place, the habits of daily life were established. The family knew how to pick up the fragments from where they had left off, through those daily routines. The thought that after the wedding they would once again be scattered was temporarily kept at bay, as the family reunited in that transit place to celebrate a wedding. However, the scars of the war and impossibility of staying together in Sri Lanka would resurface now and again—such as when, after a few rounds of drinks at night, Ratna would remove his shirt and show me the scars on his back, or when his father alluded on the eve of Ratna’s wedding to the uncertainty of reuniting with his children.
Ratna’s family invites nearby Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to attend his wedding, and they come although they do not know him. When a bride or groom’s parents cannot support them because of war-related travel difficulties, elderly refugees take their place, both so that wedding photographs will have a look of authenticity, and for actual auspiciousness. “These are our children. They have to get married; and if their parents cannot make it to their children’s wedding because of what is happening to our community, we must help them to get married properly,” one couple tells Sidharthan.
Another marriage broker shows Sidharthan his backyard; it is a forest of trees. The betrothed traditionally plant trees in each other’s yards, and then transplant the trees to their new homes. Because they have married in a transit place, they must leave the trees behind, and the marriage broker has offered to guard these symbols of their new marriages in his own home.
The state – any nation-state – is a bundle of contradictions, and Sidharthan does a wonderful job of describing attitudes in flux, as well as the community’s changing responses. In one vivid scene, Sidharthan goes to the Sri Lankan High Commission, where couples register their unions (the process being easier than registering with Indian authorities). Twelve couples and their attendant witnesses and photographers queue tensely for the bureaucratic ceremony; sweating brides drip makeup. “The war between Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan state caused the dispersion of Tamil families,” Sidharthan writes. “Yet it is the same Sri Lankan state that functions as the agent of reuniting Tamil families by creating the possibility for married couples to convene in an adoptive land, by authorising their marriage at the site of the Sri Lankan embassy in a foreign land.”
This is not the only way these Sri Lankan Tamil brides and grooms assemble Sri Lankan Tamil-ness. In another scene, a Sri Lankan Tamil photographer butts heads with a last-minute substitute priest, who is Indian. Everyone is convinced the priest isn’t doing things right. He’s praying too long; he’s praying too short. Nobody knows exactly what he should be doing, but he isn’t doing things Jaffna-style, which is what the bride and groom want. Sidharthan notes the photographer’s “genuine concern that the marriage rituals be conducted in a proper way for the sake of ‘his people’,” and adds,
What struck me most was that the concern of the photographer was not only about producing wedding photos but also about ensuring an ‘authentic Jaffna Tamil’ experience. Vijai’s worries suggest that Sri Lankan photographers, the bridal couple, and their families share the same hope for a secure future, sharing as they do the experience of displacement, suffering, and the difficulties of war.
Sidharthan’s work shines most, perhaps, when he writes about the photographers and their work. The photographs have multiple audiences and subjects. The bridal couples themselves may want photos in a romantic style influenced by Indian films; such shots also signal enduring and emotional relationships to the authorities scrutinising them. In the old days, Sidharthan notes, there were fewer close-ups, because the photographs weren’t for visa officers. Bridal couples looked “tense and shy”. Now, photographers must encourage them to make eye contact and look natural, and curate photographs to highlight key moments in the ceremony to make them intelligible to non-Tamils. In doing so, they may make photographs that render certain traditions more important. Their pictures must also capture attendees, to provide a sense that the community witnesses and accepts the marriage. One photographer explains how much harder this is. “But nowadays, we need to think about the frame, who has to be there, who is going to see it, which rituals have to be captured, and where do we place relatives who did not come to the wedding in the wedding photos?”
Indeed, although traditionally it was considered inauspicious to have the dearly departed too close to a wedding, these days, some bridal couples are Photoshopping them in. Asking one groom why he wants his late relatives there, Sidharthan elicits this painful and direct answer, “These people would have lived with us and participated in this marriage, except for this war.”
Why, Sidharthan sensibly asks, should the Canadian state care more about the photographic evidence of marriage and its proof of customary marriage, per Sri Lankan Tamil culture, than a Canadian civil registration of the same union? At this juncture he makes a surprising move to answer this question, and delves into the colonial archives, where he discovers something I find a little bit funny: when the British attempted to regulate land ownership and inheritance in Sri Lanka, and adjudicate disputes related to the same, they needed to make related rules about marriage, and wanted everyone to register their unions. So, they made a law saying people should do this. And to their considerable surprise, people just…didn’t.
One imagines their stiff upper lips curled a bit. What to do? They decided instead to rely on evidence of customary marriages. But these marriages were frustratingly inconsistent in their practices; the British authorities did not know how to judge them. Ultimately, the British turned to another option: relying on the community to bear witness to the intent to marry. This resulted in the state working with upper caste witnesses to testify as to the legitimacy of certain marriages. This in turn had the effect of reinforcing caste hierarchies. Echoes of this same approach by the Canadian state are what influence Sri Lankan wedding photographers today, Sidharthan argues. They want to get not only the bride and groom in their shots, but also the whole audience witnessing their intent to marry. Otherwise, a Canadian visa officer might reject an application, saying the wedding looks like a sham. The fingerprints of colonialism are everywhere – or perhaps it’s more like the impression of a slammed fist.
Several of these instances of denied visas were maddening to read; in at least one case, an application was rejected because the bride’s mother wasn’t at the wedding, throwing doubt on its authenticity – but the mother’s immigration status in another country had prevented her from travelling. In another story, a mother missed a wedding because of travel disruptions related to the war, although she had originally planned to make the trip; the couple went ahead without her. Sidharthan does not linger on the question of how they might have felt, but I could not help imagining it. And I thought, as I read, of the temporary assemblages of family I have attended, and missed: weddings, and also funerals. I failed to reach a cousin of mine before she passed away in Jaffna because I was simply too far away. I remembered too, the joy I felt at meeting another cousin after 20 years because we happened to be visiting Jaffna at the same time. I had met him in London when I was nine and he was 20 years my senior, and since then he had lived in Norway and several African countries. In our ancestral village, we sat on a veranda and he told me stories about people we both knew, and I thought, this might never happen again, which is what I think any time I see a member of my family in another country.
Sidharthan’s book ultimately arrives at a broad-minded and creative mapping of an expansive, adaptable and resilient community. I have often heard people complain that those writing about and studying Sri Lanka write too much about the war, but to me, to write about Sri Lanka without describing the “shadow” over its Tamil communities for the past three decades would be strange; its hold over my own life, even at some remove, has been considerable. In Sidharthan’s pages, I saw some parts of my family and community named for the first time. I wonder how many times he used the word ‘uncertainty’, and I wonder how it has marked us – those who have been married in this way, and their children. The book is a clear, fresh portrait of the Tamil community as phoenix; his fieldwork is a carefully observed aggregation of community tendernesses in the face of the often-cold bureaucracies around migration and marriage. The weddings herein may have assembled families only briefly, but the book itself is a remarkable and lasting testimony – in its own way, a document offering proof.
More from V.V Ganeshanathan on Himal: ‘Enter the body’ and ‘Sri Lanka’s alternatives abroad’.
V.V. Ganeshananthan is a novelist and journalist. Her first novel, Love Marriage, is set in Sri Lanka and some of its diaspora communities. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, The Washington Post, and other publications. She teaches at the University of Minnesota.