My big, mysterious fiancé

Calcutta native Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s play Arranged Marriage, about an old-country tradition that lives outside contemporary romantic tradition, gets its world premiere at the Sacramento Theatre Company this weekend

Shahnaz Schroff, left, and Saffron Henke in a dress rehearsal for the Sacramento Theatre Company’s world premiere of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s play Arranged Marriage.

Shahnaz Schroff, left, and Saffron Henke in a dress rehearsal for the Sacramento Theatre Company’s world premiere of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s play Arranged Marriage.

Photo By Larry Dalton

It’s time for rehearsal, and Shahnaz Shroff, the lead actor of the Sacramento Theatre Company’s next production, is in character, daydreaming about the bride viewing—at which, adorned in a special gold-threaded sari, she could meet her prospective groom, a lifetime partner. Shroff’s voice is sweet and innocent and brimming full of excitement and anticipation. Close your eyes, and it could be Lesley Ann Warren singing about her Prince Charming in the Rodgers and Hammerstein TV version of Cinderella.

An arranged marriage can have a Cinderella-like ending, with the participants living happily ever after.

My own paternal grandfather, Puna Singh, came to the United States in 1906. In 1923, he sailed back to his native India and plucked a 16-year-old from the Punjab as his bride in an arranged marriage. They settled in California and had seven children and 21 grandchildren. My grandmother was in love with my grandfather.

It’s the parents who orchestrate a typical arranged Indian marriage, from the matchmaking to the nuptials. Religion, education, employment and caste (even though outlawed in India for decades) are of primary import. There’s a meeting of the groom with the bride, and then there’s a wedding. There are no dates and no down-on-one-knee “will you marry me?” Years ago, the betrothed didn’t glimpse each other in the flesh until they were decked in their wedding finery at the temple.

Although arranged marriages may seem like an anomaly in this media-fed culture of love, romance and How to Marry a Millionaire-type TV shows, lifelong unions arranged by parents have been an integral part of the Indian culture for millennia.

Calcutta native Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni wrote about those marital traditions in the book Arranged Marriage. Under the guiding hand of Sacramento Theatre Company (STC) Artistic Director Peggy Shannon and inspiration from Shroff, an amalgamation of Divakaruni’s tales will come to life on the STC stage. The February 21 world premiere of Arranged Marriage is a glorious union of the visions of the three women.

Arranged Marriage, Divakaruni’s first book of 11 short stories, released in 1995, won critical acclaim. Poignantly penned from a female view of a promising new country thousands of miles away from the motherland, the tales garnered the 1996 American Book Award as well as the Bay Area Book Reviewers and PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists) Oakland awards for fiction. From the eyes of the Indian immigrant, a modern-day pioneer, the stories reveal the other world of America, where the clothes, language, food and culture can offer curious and beautiful opportunities, juxtaposed with the bleak, harsh and ugly realities of a new land.

Indeed, some of the experiences traversed by Divakaruni’s characters reflect her own observations since her 1976 arrival in the United States as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. After earning a master’s degree from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, both in English, Divakaruni now teaches in the creative-writing program at the University of Houston.

“But I still regularly visit India,” she said. “My mother lives outside Calcutta in a little village called Gurap. A number of my stories are set there.

“In India,” she added, “there is this brightness and intensity and a pull, a sense of history and ancestry. Then there’s the other side that deals with immigrant effects of the diaspora—what we keep of our culture and what we let go of when we come here.”

Divakaruni first published slim volumes of poetry, including one titled Leaving Yuba City that won the 1994 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize. She admitted she’s never been to the farming town north of California’s capital.

“But I went to school [in Berkeley] with people who grew up in Yuba City,” she said, laughing, “and I heard a lot of their parents’ stories”—bits and pieces that now lace through her poems.

Divakaruni has seven works of fiction and three volumes of poetry to her credit. But it was Arranged Marriage that caught Peggy Shannon’s eye one day in Tower Books on Broadway.

“About four years ago, there was a gentleman from India who worked for STC. One day, I discovered he had an arranged marriage,” Shannon recalled. “It was so exotic and uncommon. We talked about it and how they first meet at the bride viewing.

“Then I happened to see a book called Arranged Marriage,” she continued, “and I had to get it because of my previous conversation. It gave me a deeper understanding. The writing was so powerful and beautiful. I fell in love with Chitra’s writing.”

Not a conga line: Dancers rehearse moves in Arranged Marriage.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Shannon works two jobs, wearing the big hat at STC and also serving as a University of California, Davis, professor of theater. A couple of years ago, a graduate student, Shroff, began to mention Divakaruni’s name and how she loved Arranged Marriage. Shroff worked some of Divakaruni’s stories into her master’s thesis.

“I had the luxury of seeing [Shroff’s performance] in a workshop forum at UC Davis and realized what a wonderful play it could be,” Shannon said.

When Shannon contacted Divakaruni to share her vision of breathing life into Arranged Marriage on the stage, the writer was flattered and happy, easily leaving the stage adaptation to Shannon, who collaborated with Shroff. A seasoned theater veteran on an international level, Shroff teaches performing arts to middle-school students at Courtyard Private School in Midtown.

Shroff stepped off the plane onto California soil on September 10, 2001. “It was interesting to wake the next day, so jet-lagged, to see what had happened” in her new country, remarked the Bombay-born-and-bred native.

She came armed with an internationally recognized license to teach drama from Trinity College London, and in India she had co-founded a theater company called Act One. As a graduate student at UC Davis, Shroff zeroed in on Arranged Marriage for an obvious reason.

“Coming from India,” she said, “I had to re-evaluate my own culture because people were always asking me about this ‘arranged marriage’ thing and had a negative view,” she explained. “I tried to tell them that it would work. I’ve seen firsthand that the rates of divorce are lower.” Divorce, once a rare finale to an arranged marriage, has become more prevalent in the last century.

In 1929, my maternal grandmother stepped off the boat from India onto the Canadian mainland in Vancouver as a 14-year-old bride wed in an arranged marriage. She was widowed 10 years later and married her first husband’s best friend, inheriting two stepchildren and then bearing three of her own. That union lasted a decade, and my grandmother was the first Indian woman on this continent to get a divorce.

“I do already have a boyfriend in my community,” Shroff admitted. “I fell in love with him, so my parents will accept him. If I didn’t already have him, I would be open to an arranged marriage.”

(Even Divakaruni didn’t have an arranged marriage. She met her husband while she was in school.)

“And,” Shroff added, “it’s not as traditional as it used to be. It’s not just meeting the guy the day of your marriage. Now, it can be meeting them yourself and then telling your family.

“So, for my thesis project,” Shroff continued, “I took the story of ‘Clothes,’ written by Chitra [in the book Arranged Marriage], dramatized the narration and played the central character in a 45-minute piece with music, dance and storytelling. I had two other girls help me; they took on different characters, playing my husband or others. The Women’s Research Center in Davis funded and publicized it and grouped it with their women’s shows because it had a message, a mix of culture and women’s issues from India.”

It worked well in Davis as Shroff’s thesis, “Rhung [red]: The Color of India.” Shroff produced, acted and directed it last year. “Peggy is directing now,” she said. “She was my mentor, giving me her ideas and feedback while I was doing it in school. Now, she’s giving me the opportunity to extend it.

“I hope we can take it to New York,” Shroff said excitedly. “It’s so visual. Both of us are very into the aesthetics, and India’s so full of color and beauty. It will be like an Indian film, with dancers performing bharatnatyam and kathak, a Northern India dance style,” Shroff said, very familiar with the so-called Bollywood movies for which her hometown is famous.

UC Davis student Sophia Valath has the choreography honors for this production and will show off her dance moves, too. A 14-year veteran of Indian dance, Valath helped Shroff with “Rhung,” and has been the primary coach of the four other dancers, teaching the nuances of the hand positions with some pretty smooth hip action. Saffron Henke (yes, her name was inspired by the 1966 Donovan song “Mellow Yellow”) plays myriad roles, male included, adding a comical bite to the all-female play.

“It’s going to be a very beautiful piece,” Shannon said. “Divakaruni’s writing is so poetic and powerful. She engages all of the senses—you can smell it, taste what’s she’s describing, which is what makes her work so appealing.

“Everybody involved in Arranged Marriage is very sophisticated,” she added. “It introduces the concept of arranged marriages in an intelligent and informative way. The whole idea of Arranged Marriage is not to be a lesson, or a subject fully comprehended or represented in one evening.

“It’s the play I am most excited about this season,” Shannon concluded. “I have [jokingly] arranged marriages for both my children.”

My 20-year-old Canadian mother was betrothed in a 1955 arranged marriage. They even had a marriage license. But she backed out and, six months later, ran away with my father [of a different caste] to marry in Reno. My grandmother had the police after them and tried to have the marriage annulled. But they stayed married, and they raised four children together. Now my mother’s pink bridal-viewing sari is wrapped in tissue in my closet, ready for my daughter.