Serena Nanda and Joan Gregg
Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2009
Reviewed by Sharla Blank
The purpose of this book, The Gift of a Bride: A Tale of Anthropology, Matrimony and Murder, is to introduce readers to gendered relations in India and in Indian diasporic communities of the United States, as well as to teach fundamental concepts of cultural anthropology. The text weaves key anthropological terms, such as ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, throughout the story line. The reader is introduced to Indian myths, beliefs, values, gender relations, power relations in the household, and family structure, as well as key anthropological terms in the book.
The text has a dark undertone as it focuses on violence against South Asian women, including sexual harassment and rape. The authors write, “We hope that our story will broaden the understanding of all our readers-students, social work, and law enforcement personnel, and the professional and volunteer staffs of supportive agencies for women-about the issue of violence against women in all its forms and how it can more effectively be addressed” (293). Based on these emphases, The Gift of a Bride would work well in courses on India, on gender and sexuality, in criminal justice and social work courses, or in introductory cultural anthropology courses.
The book is written in a clear, easily accessible style. Because the storyline is fictional and several mysteries develop in the text, the story becomes much more of a page-turner than would a classic academic textbook. The writing style is engaging; it draws the reader in. Rather than simply dryly stating facts, the authors choose to integrate important concepts about India, including the precedence of the group over the individual, the importance of caste, and how one chooses a spouse in an arranged marriage, throughout the storyline so that the reader learns about these ideas naturally as the storyline evolves.
The storyline itself is told from three different perspectives: 1) that of the main narrator, a professor of cultural anthropology at a fictional New York university; 2) a beautiful Indian bride in an arranged marriage who comes to join her new Indian husband in New Jersey; and 3) the antagonist, a man of Indian descent who is in the business of arranging and profiting from reprehensible deeds. This switching of points of view keeps the story moving at a fast and appealing pace. By the narrative’s end, the book becomes a page-turner, as the reader wants to discover what happens to certain characters. This is a nice and unusual accomplishment for an academic textbook.
One aim of the authors is to teach the reader about anthropological methods including participant observation, conducting individual interviews, and more. They effectively demonstrate these methods for the reader by having the anthropologist narrator travel to India to attend and observe at a wedding, have dinner with Indian informants, and conduct interviews with families who are arranging marriages for their children. The reader sees her character networking to make new research contacts in the Indian diasporic community of New York.
This fictional ethnography of Indian marital beliefs and customs paints a strong contrast between American notions of individual choice and freedom of decisions versus the strong web of social and familial obligations to which Indians must attend. The reader is exposed to an intense level of Indian extended family involvement in and concern about marital decisions and woes, which stands in strong contrast to American notions of the marital relationship being a private affair between partners.
Overall, the storyline is rather sinister as it touches on domestic violence, misogyny, sexism, murder, and rape. The brief one-page news stories of rapes that are placed both early in the text and toward the end of the book are a bit distracting from the main storyline, as an explanation of why they are in the text is not provided until a hundred pages after the first rape story appears. The reader gets the sense that men in the book are working against women and that husband’s families are working against new brides. Overall, the book paints a rather unflattering and dismal picture of the majority of its male characters including men who go to India to attain wives, unseemly businessmen, and sexist male professors.
Due to the breadth of fascinating topics discussed in The Gift of a Bride, it would work well in a number of different university courses. There are several helpful teaching tools at the book’s end including some thought provoking discussion questions, a glossary of relevant terms, and a list of social service groups that offer services to South Asian women in the United States. In addition, the authors provide a short list of films on gendered Indian relations that could be shown in classes in which the book is used.
Readers who are not very familiar with Indian culture will learn a lot from this book. Important concepts and ideas are presented in a very engaging manner with easily understandable language. Serena Nanda and Joan Gregg have done a fine job of creating an excellent teaching tool.
Sharla Blank is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Washburn University, and specializes in Caribbean Studies, gender, and female-headed households.