Desert Sands to Sandy Beaches
An Indian woman’s journey from Rajasthan to Hawaii
By: Mara Mahoney
10 December 2018
Billions of Hindus celebrate the festival of lights, known as “Diwali,” each year. Yet, instead of lighting candles and making desserts, like she would usually do back at her home in India, Neetika Rana spent her Diwali evening at her studio flat in Honolulu, studying for her midterms.
Fresh from her honeymoon, the 27-year-old moved to Hawaii three years ago from the desert state of Rajasthan to live with her husband, a man whom she had only met a couple of months prior, when her parents decided it was time for her to be wed.
When Rana moved to Honolulu, many people asked if she was forced to get married. Some have even questioned the love and longevity of their marriage.
“All questions were unexpected to me when I first moved here,” Rana said. “I believe in arranged marriages because it is my tradition. I grew up in the family and community where everyone has or will have an arranged marriage.”
Rana grew up in a lower middle class family. She is first-born child to a doctor and a middle-school teacher. She has a brother, Ravi, who is two years her junior. While her parents were pleased to bring a healthy baby girl into the world, not everyone saw it as a blessing.
“The day I was born my grandparents from both sides were not happy,” Rana explained. “My grandmothers cried on the day of my birth because they were expecting a boy. The only people who were happy at my birth were my parents.”
Her grandparents’ reaction is very common in India as boys are more preferred. People think a son will take care of his parents when the parents get old. While a daughter has to leave her home after marriage to stay with her husband. Another reason a son is preferred is because of the responsibility and burden of a daughter’s wedding ceremony.
Weddings are a major part of Indian culture. Parents save money their whole lives just to spend on their children’s weddings. Most importantly, the girl’s family is responsible to pay for the entire wedding ceremony, dowry and jewelry.
“Everybody has to get married according to Indian culture and tradition,” Rana said. “Marriage is necessary in my culture. People think without marriage you cannot establish identity and maturity.”
But while marriage is still considered important, the process for arranged marriages has changed over time.
Ranaʻs grandparents did not see each other until the day of their marriage. Her parents saw each other before they got married, but were not allowed to spend time together.
In her case, she had a choice to say yes or no.
She had meetings with potential suitors to find a compatible match. Once she made her choice, the engagement was finalized. She met with her future husband, a Honolulu based lawyer, a few times whenever he was in India. They also talked every day over the phone.
But it was not until their honeymoon that they spent more than 8 hours together unchaperoned.
Her husband, Manmeet Rana, was born and raised in Hawaii. His parents moved to Hawaii before he or his older brother were born. Manmeet’s father passed away not long after he was born and his mother was left to raise two young boys on her own.
He said that while he did not feel a strong connection to the traditions and culture of India, it was out of respect for his mother and all she had sacrificed that he agreed to an arranged marriage.
Like all marriages, they have their fair share of ups and downs, they said. But the couple admitted that an arranged marriage has had its own unique set of problems.
“It can be hard at times,” said Neetika Rana. “There’s still so much we don’t know about each other and are learning every day. But I knew it was not going to be easy, and if my parents and grandparents could do it, I know we can.”
The first year in Hawaii was difficult for Rana. She was severely homesick. She was in a new place and in a new family. Despite having a master's degree in teaching from India, she had to start from scratch in the U.S. because her degree carried no weight locally.
She was the first girl in her family who went to college despite her grandparents’ fierce opposition to higher education for women. They did not let her aunts finish their higher education degrees.
“They think a woman does not need higher education as long as they know how to read and write,” she explained. “They believe a woman’s role is to be a good housewife and mother, and women need housework training, not higher education.”
Her parents sent her to school and college against cultural norms and her grandparents’ wishes. They wanted her to be independent. Rana said she is very grateful to have her parents’ support her journey to achieve higher education.
“My mom always told me I want you to be a successful person and learn everything which she could not learn due to family and culture,” she said.
With her mother’s words in mind, she decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She signed up for classes at Kapiolani Community College.
Then, tragedy struck. In the middle of her second semester, she received a call from India saying her mother had been diagnosed with cancer. She was devastated. Her mother was the one person keeping her from falling apart, and now she was dying.
“I didn’t have friends in Hawaii,” said Rana. “I felt like I am in a new world with different people, including my husband, whom I don’t know properly. And my mother was sick. I felt helpless.”
She dropped all her classes and left for India. The three months she spent in India was exactly what she needed. After her mother recovered and with her family’s encouragement, she returned to Hawaii determined to make her new life work.
Three years later, she is well on her way to getting her bachelor's in accounting and now thinks of Hawaii as home.
“You never know where your destiny takes you,” said Rana. “My marriage brought me to Hawaii, a place I never noticed before on the map. I believe you can feel like home anywhere in this world as long as you are with the right people.”