About the Book
Lakshmi, a bright student who grew up in poverty, marries and immigrates to the United States from India to provide a better life for herself and her family. Clinging to her cultural realities, she forces her American daughter, Pooja, into an arranged marriage, creating a rift of resentment. Pooja’s daughter, Deepa, is an out lesbian to everyone but her family. The woman Deepa loves presents an ultimatum—come out to Pooja or break up—and Deepa is forced to confront her greatest fear.
Three generations of Indian and Indian-American women navigate the harsh slums of Chennai to the bustle of New York City, struggling through a cathartic generational collision to try to come together as a family.
Keep up with the news about The Paths of Marriage -
2015 Rainbow Award for Best Lesbian Debut
“Ms. Kumar has managed to narrate each story in a different voice, a different style, to suit each generation and time period. Her descriptions, particularly of rural India, are exquisite. The sights, sounds, and smells of Chennai flow off the page like a pool of color to surround us.” — Velvet Lounger, Curve Magazine
“The Paths of Marriage is a richly textured story full of bountiful detail, well-defined characters, and unexpected cultural and social insight. It expresses a rare fidelity and beauty, while having the heart to show both the dark underbelly of Indian and American cultures, as well as the bright lights they share. Ms. Kumar speaks to the ongoing struggle to control our own destinies, the blight of sexism on both historical and contemporary cultures, and the bonds that strengthen when you are willing to sacrifice for love.
“In the hands of a less passionate writer, such thematic material might easily have become didactic, and the characters might have seemed like paper doll cutouts from a Bollywood knockoff of The Joy Luck Club. But in the hands of Mala Kumar, who has a wonderful eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, a soul-deep empathy for her subject matter, and a gently colloquial style of writing, they form the beautiful and compelling story we’ve waited a long time to read. The Paths of Marriage is a must read, not just for members of the Indian-American community, but for lesbians, feminists, and women of all sizes, shapes, colors, and beliefs.” – Salem West, The Rainbow Reader
“Mala Kumar tackles issues that are of relevance to the Indian diaspora with sensitivity, but more admirably, with courage and tact. The issues of failed arranged marriages, the LGBTQ community and immigration among the Indian diaspora are rarely addressed by authors, and it is to be appreciated that Kumar attempts to deal with them.” — Sonali Kudva, Review, Brown Girl Magazine
In the Media
New School Minute: Mala Kumar | A Global LGBT Citizen
#NewSchoolAlumni Day, Graduates Had ‘Plenty To Be Proud Of’
Author Mala Kumar Shares Her Coming Out Story by Mala Kumar, Brown Girl Magazine
2 authors rewrite what it means to be LGBTQ in New York by Arpita Mukherjee
A Real-Life Heart-to-Heart With My Grandmother by Mala Kumar, April 6, 2015, The Aerogram
Richmond Native returns supporting book on intersectionality in South Asian lesbians by Brad Kutner, GayRVA.com
Gay rights, inter-generational chasms and evolving society–A conversation with Indian-American writer Mala Kumar by Venkatesh Raghavendra, IBNLive Specials
Flying, Lunching, and Working Out: Your Diary Entries for #DayInLGBT
A Conversation, The Paths of Marriage and Section II – Mala Kumar and founder of Section II, Allie Esslinger, discuss intersectionality and the media on queer women of color.
International Call: A Richmond native explains why she quit her post at the United Nations over LGBTQ rights, Interview by Tom Nash, Style Weekly (Richmond, VA)
Inspiring Woman Leader Spotlight: Mala Kumar, Interview by Megan Foo, Women LEAD
Arranged Marriages: Interview with Author, Mala Kumar by Holly Curtis, Girls’ Globe
Op-ed: Why I Quit My Job at the United Nations by Mala Kumar, The Advocate
Coming out is really just not an option for a lot of LGBT South-Asian American people: Mala Kumar, By Asif Ismail, The American Bazaar
Queer Desi Reflections On The Meaning Of Marriage by Mala Kumar, The Aerogram
A tale of two cities by Chitra Sudarshan
Alumna Mala Kumar Launches Book: “The Paths of Marriage”
Read an Excerpt from The Paths of Marriage by Mala Kumar
I AWOKE TO a crash loud enough to disturb the Gods. As my blurred vision came into focus, I saw my mother standing a few feet away from me, swearing under her breath as she bent over the contents of a small Tiffin container that bled streams of sambhar down its side. She cursed her clumsiness and began cleaning the mess off of the small plastic runner that served as our kitchen floor.
Trying not to make too much noise, I shifted in my cot to peer out of the door. A few warm sunrays lent enough light to show the first signs of life in our Chennai village. On the other half of my cot, my baby sister was curled up, resting peacefully. I pulled myself up so as not to disturb her.
“Morning, amma,” I said to my mother.
“Good morning, my dear.” Her voice was strained.
“Can I help you, amma?”
“No, don’t worry. You go get ready for school.”
I lingered for a few seconds, hoping she would follow with the most anticipated words that anyone in our village could hope to hear. On some lucky mornings, I ate before preparing for school. Amma telling me to go and get ready meant this was not one of those mornings.
At the other end of our dirt-packed six-meter house was my school uniform. Quietly changing, I heard my mother in the background stifling her cries. The sound of strain in her voice always sent a chill down my spine. I hated hearing amma cry.
Dressed in my sweat-stained uniform, I walked outside and saw our village was already abuzz at that early morning hour. The toils of preparing for the day had begun: walk half a kilometer, collect the water, build a fire, prepare the vegetables, cook the food. I saw one of the villagers twisting his body in his dancelike bathing ritual a few one-room houses down. He was the only person I had ever met who could coat his entire body with less than two cups of water.
I made my way to our outhouse; it was a simple structure of scrap wood and a half-buried plastic bucket, though it took us two months to scrounge the village for the materials. It was worth every painstaking minute. Our neighbors looked at us with envy for having a place to defecate so close to our house. Most of them were forced to walk a kilometer to the nearest public lavatory or cover their droppings like dogs in the wild.
I used the last of the soap in the tin cup hanging on the door. We were taught in the second standard the importance of washing. I still remember the absolute pride I had in standing up and informing the other students that I already knew this fact because my amma was the most intelligent woman in our village.
Back inside, I saw amma had cleaned up the mess, salvaging the bits of food that weren’t completely coated in village grime. She was an excellent cook. I was sure the vegetables tasted like little treats from the Heavens, even with the dirt. Amma did not offer me any of the food; I knew she was not saving it for herself.
I softly called out to her that I was leaving. She turned around and gave me her usual radiant smile, which always lit up the village far better than the sun did.
“Look at my daughter. You are the smartest person I know, my dear.”
“Look at my amma. You are the wisest person I know.”
“Make nana and I proud, okay?”
I told her I would. Making my parents proud was the motivating factor that unlocked my every passion and desire for a better life. As I turned to walk out the door, my stomach growled. Spilling food was not something we could afford to do.
1950S INDIA DID not provide me with electricity, running water, adequate nutrition, or public transport. In fact, it barely provided a roof over my head. The one thing 1950s India did provide me with was an education.
For ten years, I walked three kilometers each way to get to school. At the age of eight, I had my first terrifying glimpse of the world beyond the boundaries of my village. At age twelve, the walk was a familiar playing ground to relieve tension before a long day of studying. At age sixteen, it was a stressful addition to my already busy life. At age eighteen, that walk had become a stepping-stone to achieving the unimaginable. An education would bring a better life.
“Lakshmi. Lakshmi. Lakshmi!” I heard someone shouting.
As I approached the final steps, I turned around and saw my best friend running toward me. Her parents had chosen her name, Alpa, meaning “small,” in the hopes that their daughter would grow up to be a tiny, fair-skinned princess. Much to their dismay, Alpa used her parents’ relative wealth to stuff herself with candy. The extra weight slowed her down, prolonging her exposure to the sun.
We had nothing in common. She dreamed of an easy and tranquil life, whereas I dreamed of having enough work to support my family. She was at the bottom of our class, and I did everything in my power to ensure I stayed at the top. But Alpa had the kindest heart of anyone I had ever met. While the other students threw dirt in my face, stole my pencils, and called me a peasant girl, Alpa stood by me.
“Chee. What did you get on your uniform?” I asked as she waddled up to me.
Alpa peered down at the dark stain on her stomach before looking back up at me with a smile. Of course the stain was chocolate, and of course Alpa did not worry that it ruined her uniform. For Alpa, life was much too fun to worry about such small problems.
I shook my head to demonstrate my disapproval of her habits. Secretly, I was just trying to distract myself from my growling hunger. Sometimes I was envious of Alpa and her carefree attitude about the world. Carefree was not something I could afford.
Alpa sheepishly looked down at the floor. She meant no harm. I apologized for being so mean.
“I’m just nervous about final exams next week. Come on, let’s go inside.”
Made of a mix of mud, cement, sweat and tears, our school stood three stories high. Its sand-colored exterior matched the outside ground so perfectly that it was not unusual to hear someone had walked straight into the walls after the sunset. Eventually, our headmaster made the same mistake and decided to use the government tuition money to have life-sized portraits of himself painted on the walls.
“The colorful exterior is a safety measure for the students,” he said.
No one could question him—what could a villager say to rebuke the powerful headmaster? We could not complain even though the tuition money was supposed to be for books. Village children lived with what headmaster wanted, and headmaster wanted giant portraits of his face.
Our humble school hosted all twelve standards for the surrounding population of nearly one million people. Even as a poor village girl, I prayed that the building would not collapse under the pressure of the students’ constant worry for their futures.
When villagers petitioned the local government to build another school, the official government response was always the same. “Stop complaining. There is very little demand past the second standard.”
Very few families could surpass the limitations of poverty to keep their children in school past the second standard, beyond the age of eight. We could not argue either way.
My parents’ childhoods had been no different. My father, my nana, had been pulled out of school in the first standard so he could help support the family. Amma had only attended school twice before her father dragged out by her hair and beat her for trying. When Amma was eight years old, she decided to break that cycle with her daughter. She endured constant heckling from the villagers to have me married. In three weeks, I would be the first person on either side of our family to graduate from higher secondary standards. I was already the most educated person in the family—man or woman.
The rooms were crowded, we were four to a book, and had few other supplies. I knew no different. This building had allowed me to see the wonders of the world that no one else in my family had ever had the privilege of knowing. The Pyramids of Egypt, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the czars before the USSR . . . Whatever the subject, I found everything fascinating.
In 1950s India, a desire to learn was rarely met with praise. Being a girl, being poor, and just being was never easy in India. Your character was the least important measure of your worth. Most people in school regularly put me in my place.
“Scheduled caste is the only reason you are here, Lakshmi. You don’t deserve to go to school.” the other students except Alpa would taunt.
Despite the constant reminders of my place in society, I enjoyed every minute of my education . . . until this year. Even in our common Chennai village school, most of the teachers desired to impart knowledge on their students. They did not approve of my caste, they did not approve of my poverty, but they allowed me the privilege of learning without insulting me. That year, however, our teacher had dedicated her life to tormenting children.
Her favorite object in the world was the giant wooden stick she used as a cane, as a pointer, and above all, as a weapon to beat students. Questions aren’t allowed in Indian schools, which was the reason she had a job. She did not know anything about most of the subjects she was required to teach. Unless the question was about M.K. Bhagavathar, her favorite film actor, teacher would not know the answer.
But teacher had the one quality all schools valued: a high caste. Her father had been a priest; her mother had come from one of the highest Brahmin families in all of Chennai. No one understood how she fell from grace and landed in the slums, though she never let us “heathens” forget where she came from. She told us how lucky we were to have such a highly respected person as our teacher. She told me how lucky I was to even be allowed to stand in the same room as her, or to breathe the same air.
Teacher loved to torment the few impoverished students who had managed to survive until the last standard. While we ignored the hunger eating away at our stomachs, we had to hear about all of the lavish vacations and the endless quantities of food she had consumed while seeing the grand landmarks of south India.
“The beaches of Goa, the palace of Mysore, the . . . Taj Mahal.”
Teacher was an idiot, but teacher could not be questioned. “Lakshmi,” she shouted, hovering right above my desk.
“Yes, Madam?” I said as I stood up attentively.
I was poor, I did not speak Tamil at home, I was of an inferior caste, and I was smart. Teacher hated me.
“What is the date of Indian independence, Lakshmi?”
Teacher’s breath stank of stale onions. Teacher’s brain stank of unearned privilege.
“Fifteen August 1947, Madam.”
She gathered a fistful of my hair and pulled me to the front of the class. Demonstrating to my classmates how to properly point and laugh, she hit me five times in the back with her beloved wooden stick for a correct answer.