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My Grandmother Was A Child-Bride

Two Seemingly Simple Choices: Enjoying Childhood or Joining Another Family

A few days ago, my friend started talking to me about how awful arranged marriages are. Her comments stayed with me because she didn’t know anything about arranged marriages, so how could she be so against them? Granted, I for one, have always been quite vocal about not wanting one in the future, but I never thought about why I feel this way. My maternal Aunt, and maternal Uncle both had their marriages arranged and are perfectly happy and in love with their better halves, but that’s because they welcomed it, and wanted it. What about child brides who weren’t necessarily forced into the marriage, but didn’t know another path was out there?

Most people both in and outside my family’s circle know of my grandfather in at least one capacity: the renowned former world bank employee, author, economist, and professor. They often look past another real diamond though, as she usually works behind the scenes. My grandmother may not have had her name mentioned in countless articles or had her praises sung by members of Harvard’s faculty, but she is a hero to me.

At the age of thirteen, she was married. It wasn’t a forced marriage per se, but there also wasn’t much choice in the matter. At that time, in India, it was normal for families to arrange a marriage even before the children were born, and it was not out of the ordinary to go with whatever your parents thought was best for you. This is because there was, and still is, a culture of respecting and revering elders, especially your parents, when it comes to the biggest decisions in life.

My maternal grandmother doesn’t have many fond memories of her childhood, because she never really had one to begin with. I have often heard people say that you are the sum total of the decisions you make, without any one particular decision (bad or good) having to define you. Well what if some of the biggest decisions in your life were made by someone else? In my grandmother’s case, she was told when she could go outside, and when she couldn’t because she wasn’t to become “dark.” At that time, and even today, being tan isn’t considered to be attractive, and reduces one’s ability to find a life-long partner. A part from not being able to do what many children often take for granted, she was deprived of fully getting to know her parents. She moved out of her Mom’s house when she was a teenager, and was thrown into a life of cooking, cleaning, and raising children without a formal education past eighth grade, and a few Telugu (my mother tongue) classes her father put her in here and there. Most would think she wouldn’t owe her parents anything, but yet, she’s the only child out of eight who drops everything to take care of my great-grandmother with no bitterness whatsoever.

She learned as she took on her new life. When my grandfather moved her to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the U.S, she adapted without a single complaint. She fit in with the locals everywhere she went creating her own versions of the food for her three children, learning words in several languages, and entertaining World Bank employees. Throughout it all though, she never lost sight of her identity. She’d gracefully carry herself dressed in traditional South Indian garb regardless of who was in her presence. She raised her children with the values that are closest to her heart: honesty, respect, and faith in God. No matter what comments were made about her, she had the fortitude necessary to thrive and the ability to remain unapologetically herself.

However, a few years ago, I spotted an English workbook near her, and when I asked my Mom why it was there, her answer broke my heart. She told me that my grandmother wanted to learn English properly but didn’t want us grandchildren to know and be embarrassed of her. Her answer though did have some merit. We often don’t recognize when we make fun of someone, but we should be aware of it. If I didn’t hear how she felt, I never would have internalized it. I never would have been aware of the fact that I should tell her story. I lost sight of what was right in front of me; a pure soul who I can learn so much from by just being around. So, here’s my advice for anyone reading this: keep your eyes and ears open, in order to enrich your life.

The point of this article is not to assign blame to anyone in particular. It’s not to insinuate or imply that my grandmother could have had a “better” life if she didn’t get married so young. It’s simply to shine a light on a woman who deserves nothing less than the best. It’s to put a woman up on a pedestal, because she embodies the true meaning of strength, and has shown me how to thrive during adversity. It’s to remind young women everywhere that even if the cards are stacked up against you, you are powerful. Finally, it is to say thank you to a woman that I’ve never sincerely thanked, but owe everything to.

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