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I Came, I Saw, I Married.

Mar
26
2007

My mother loves to tell the story of how she and my father got married. It probably won’t make it to the list of ‘the most romantic marriages’ since it was arranged by my granddad and she barely spoke to my father before they were wed. She likes to tell it because for her – a bright, educated and beautiful woman – it was probably not the best way to find a husband. But she did to obey her father and, at the time, it was the way most Indians married.

My father went to see her with his parents and a friend. I say, “see”, because that’s exactly what it was, he saw her as she sat across the room, while my grandfather did all the talking. My mother did not know which of the two men she was supposed to marry. She sat demurely (something I have great trouble imagining now) while the parents talked – exchanging information about their children: Birthdates, finances, the like. A few months later, my parents were married and while their arranged-marriage turned out to be a happy one, I cannot imagine how my mother – or anyone – could get married to a stranger glimpsed across the room.

Today the story is somewhat different, but also scarily similar. It’s different because young Indians like me, especially the upper middle class, consider it something of an embarrassment to be introduced to prospective spouses by their parents. They would rather find their own match, and the ones who do take that route do know a little more about their partners than my mother did.

Growing up I could never imagine having an arranged marriage, the words conjuring up cringe-inducing images of me dressed in a traditional sari quietly serving tea to gawky men, as their parents discussed marital matters – personal matters! – with mine. And I didn’t. But it wasn’t for lack of effort by my mother who had tried, by the time I was twenty-nine, to introduce me to every reputable young man she remotely knew of. Her logic was quite simple – she would choose someone decent who was doing well and came from a respectable (upper class) family – so where was the problem? That, in a nutshell, is and was the logic of most parents.

I understood the rationale behind the system, but the idea of meeting someone with the intent of marrying him did not appeal to me, even though in my case, as it is with a growing number of upper middle class women today, I was free to meet the man without the assortment of relatives so it felt more normal, something akin to a first date. Yet, I resisted it because of the childhood associations I had about it, and also because I wanted to know the person really well before I made my decision, something one cannot do in an arranged system.

The old way of doing this is still how the majority of the people still get married in India today; the meeting is arranged by the parents either through word-of-mouth (relatives’ relatives’ sons or daughters spotted mostly at weddings where the “old” folks sit around primarily discussing prospective matches) or through the classifieds ads in newspapers. After the parents give the nod, the boy and girl meet, maybe once and mostly, agree with their parents’ decision. In cases of NRIs (Non Resident Indians) the parents meet back home in India, the couple exchange e-mails, and voila a date is set. And, of course, there are immensely popular sites that serve the same purpose as the old-fashioned introduction: Shaadi.com (“shaadi” translates to “marriage”) or jeevansathi.com (lifepartner).

The reason why the system works, and works well for many, is that in India caste is, unfortunately, still an important social aspect and marriage helps maintain that. When I say caste, I don’t only mean lower, middle and upper, but also sections within these tiers. It’s a complicated system, especially to a westerner, but two people could be from an upper class and still be very different culturally, depending on the state that they originated from. For instance, if an upper class woman belongs to West-Bengal (a western Indian state), her parents would prefer her to marry someone from that culture, not say to someone upper class from Kerala, a south Indian state which differs from West Bengal in pretty much everything -language, food, customs etc (there are twenty four languages and more than fifteen hundred dialects spoken in India). Like I said, it’s a little complicated because there are divisions and sub-divisions, and families look at marriage as the perfect medium through which they can maintain their class as well as their culture.

Why all this pressure? In India, marriage is seen as an absolute essential part of life not something about which men or women should have an option. So parents start to pressure children to take the plunge somewhere in their early-to-mid twenties. If the family is not conservative (most are), then they are quite happy if the kids find someone on their own, but that is a small percentage of the population. By and large, the middle and upper classes prefer to arrange the union since they like to take in consideration things like caste, family background, financial aspects and the like. More importantly, most marriages take place only after the family priest has thoroughly examined the horoscopes (planetary charts) of the couple and only when he gives the go ahead can the wedding be finalized. And if the stars don’t match then, no matter how much everything else seems perfect, it can’t happen.

In some cases, if the couple really wants to get married but the stars are unwilling to oblige, the priest can come up with ingenious methods of warding off the evil from the marriage. One such custom – a bit bizarre but common – has the bride “marry” a tree which is then cut off; the logic being that the hapless tree would suffer any evil that was to befall the groom. Even Bollywood star and Hollywood actress Aishwarya Rai has been rumored to have pledged marriage vows to a “wooden” groom in order to ensure conjugal bliss and good health for her husband to be.

Even Rai, an international celebrity hews to tradition and, you could argue, superstition. And while “arranged” is the way to go for most Indians when it comes to marriage today, it has changed and is, hopefully, changing. The boy and girl in question do meet and speak often before they give their final verdict, and they often reject prospective unions – some more rudely than others, to be sure. Rare – and getting rarer still – is the girl whose wedding day is the first day she meets her husband.

Share  Posted by Gopika Kaul at 3:01 PM | Permalink

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