The three Datta wives, ranged around Uma’s expansive granite kitchen counter, try to explain their arranged marriages in today’s terms. And, no, it’s nothing like poor Juliet Capulet being ordered to marry the conceited Paris or else! Rather, in Indian circles, friends and relatives start to do a bit of chatting in a friendly way, with the subtext of planning a marriage.
In Priya’s case, in New Delhi at the age of 21, she — not unlike the Dustin Hoffman character in “The Graduate” — was wondering, “What next?” “Next” happened to be young Chander Datta, on a bride-shopping visit to India from Martha’s Vineyard, where in 1973 he’d started a popular clothing store called It’s Me. He chanced to spot gorgeous Priya strolling past the house of a neighbor of hers, a friend of Chander’s.
He approached another friend who knew Priya’s family, and initiated a meeting with her parents. A few dates ensued, the first including Priya’s brother as chaperone. She liked young Datta. She knew the deal would involve moving oceans away to this Island, and the adventurous soul in her said, “Yes!”
The wedding took place in India, and then the couple launched all the paperwork for Priya’s green card — it helped that Chander was already an American citizen. Priya passed the nerve-racking interview at the American Embassy, after which the newlyweds flew to New York, then made a beeline for the Island.
The young and irrepressible Uma studied art at a college in the Punjab. There seemed to be more palaver involved in her own family-arranged marriage. Here in the States, Harinder Datta, who’d been in business with his brother on the Island since 1979, decided he was ready to revoke his bachelorhood. He began talking it up, and at a party in New Jersey, Uma’s aunt, in the States for a visit, decided to keep Harinder’s quest in mind. Back in India, she gathered up her chatty young niece Uma and brought her to New Delhi to meet Harinder, who’d flown over especially to check her out. And to be checked out in turn.
“I was unimpressed,” she says today. “But my aunt took me aside and convinced me we’d be good for one another. She said, ‘You are friendly and social, and that would be helpful to the Datta brothers in their businesses.’” Too, the families had compared the prospective couple’s astrological charts, where half of the 36 or 38 points must match up. In Uma and Harinder’s case, the stars were favorably aligned. Uma, being a good sport, pitched in and married her family’s nominee in New Delhi in early 1988. They arrived on the Vineyard in April of that year.
“Since then I’ve been stuck here,” she says with a laugh that’s totally infectious. In fact, around Uma’s kitchen table, the three Datta wives and I laughed a lot, even as we probed life’s deeper meanings, via marriage, and religion, and Everywoman’s search for home.
Uma and Priya, needless to say, stranded far from their families and trying to make sense of marriage — with men from Mars, the going is still rougher when you’ve had no time to get to know these Martians — at sea on this little Island and, frankly, homesick, the two sisters-in-law formed a close and lasting bond.
Preeti, now in her early 40s, was also 20 in New Delhi as she finished up her college bachelor’s degree in education. Now, try to follow this: Her future husband’s brother-in-law’s brother was friends with her dad. This relative-removed-by-four-degrees-of-separation broached a union with a third Vineyard Datta brother, Sandeep, and before Preeti could say “Who’s your daddy?” in Hindi, within three weeks of meeting the youngest of the Vineyard Datta brothers, she had married him.
“You have to grow up overnight,” she says today, even as the dew of youth is still very much upon her. Her own citizenship application took longer, and five years elapsed before she was cleared to leave her native country with the proper visa.
Nowadays, Uma’s house on Bayes Hill in Oak Bluffs sits in the middle of the family “compound” of three spacious homes, all with gleaming kitchens, multiple living and entertainment areas, and many baths and bedrooms. It’s the American dream, and yet all three women have their eye on a larger, cosmological meaning to life. Each curates a beautiful Hindu mini-temple in her house, crammed with statues of favorite deities, sparkling lights, and scripture.
Uma’s home is filled with Hindu art, from a sumptuous sequined painting of Krishna above her eat-in banquette to numerous statues of the god Shiva, and a rich bronze-hued painting of the Buddha’s face that hangs over the mantel of her living room. When asked if the ladies entertain any passing interest in Buddhism, Priya says, “Buddha was a Hindu,” which reminded me of how often it’s necessary to tell people, “Jesus was a Jew,” in order to clear away certain misunderstandings.
The sisters-in-law have seven kids among them: Priya a daughter, 22, and a son, 18. Uma has two daughters, 25 and 23. Preeti, obviously, hoped to catch up with her older sisters-in-law, and overtook them with two sons, 21 and 17, and a daughter, 16. All the Datta cousins, being close in age, and extremely proximate in their side-by-side houses, have a tribe unlike any I can think of in our Western style of life, where families scatter to the four winds.
Uma, Priya, and Preeti are also very much involved in the family businesses: It’s Me (which once had a cousin store in Vineyard Haven) and, also in Oak Bluffs, the Island House Restaurant, Tease Outlet, and Tease Outlet 2.
As for Uma, at the heart of the clan and the three houses, her three passions are cooking, spiritual practice, and plants. “In our tradition,” she explains as she hovers over a single philodendron with tendrils tumbling over her upstairs railing and dangling far below, “the health of an indoor plant determines the wellness of the family. I tend and feed this plant constantly!”
Uma teaches classes in Indian cuisine, but she can also be rallied to whip up cunning little dishes for whatever company is on hand. She says, “There’s no coming to an Indian home without food being offered.” Even before she utters this pronouncement, I and MVTimes photographer Sam Moore are sampling a sweet dessert-style iteration of grated carrots with almonds and ghee, an Indian halvah that’s more of a custard than the solid, cake-like Middle Eastern halvah, and heavenly popovers with a spicy green chutney.
Uma mentions that halvah is prepared only on special occasions, in this case for her husband’s birthday. This shocks me because Harinder has wandered the premises like a ghost, often on his cell phone, clearly inhabiting a parallel universe to which the ladies pay no attention and vice versa. It makes me wonder about the Eastern tradition of women confined to their own quarters when company arrives. Seemingly the Datta women have made the whole of their large — even lavish — houses the women’s quarters, with the men floating on the periphery, everyone comfortable with ignoring the existence of the opposite sex.
Sounds like a plan.