Two years ago, when my friend Gauri, a ship engineer, felt ready to settle down and have a family of her own, she turned to my mother to talk about it. Gauri, 27 and a modern Indian, is well placed in her job. She has gained a solid goodwill in her niche industry and is very good at what she does. She is independent, has experienced her share of adventure in life, or so she thinks, speaks her mind and doesn’t give a fig what others say or think about her. She is a doting daughter and takes good care of her parents and sister. She donates to causes and campaigns that touch her heart, parties hard and rocks the disco with her friends, but only on special occasions.
Now, when she felt a nudge within to find a partner and a kind of vague idea of stability, which is also the effect of her parents’ constant advising, she couldn’t make up her mind. She called my mother, who has been her confidante and guide on many occasions in the past, fixed a time and came over to explore her thoughts and seek direction.
Gauri never imagined she’d have to resort to marriage professionals to find her a man. She has a strong mind. But her experience with the men around her had put her off. She told my mum that her colleagues kept flirting with her, even though most of them are married. She is looking for a decent man with more self-respect than that. She’s seen marriages being compromised, neglected, or broken and she’s not willing to risk her individuality for anything. She has dated a few hunks, but has not yet met one who could connect with her. Over long chats and several rounds of masala tea, walnut cakes and ice creams, my mother convinced her to give the popular Indian matrimonial portals a try. That way, her search would not be public (Indian neighbours can be nosy) and she would have enough time to make up her mind. Her only option, she thought.
Was Gauri being too fussy? Was she at all prepared for marriage? Why is marriage important for Gauri? Like many other young careerists, she could have chosen a live-in relationship. No big deal. At any cost, she’s not going to force herself to live with a person she doesn’t like. No one would like that. “To live together under the same roof, to be able to share our rooms, beds and finances, both of us must be able to respect, love and trust each other a lot,” she feels.
That night, Gauri spoke to her parents and they sat together to create her profile on a top matrimonial portal. They posted pictures and descriptions of her and officially announced to the virtual world that she was willing to be swept off her feet.
Within the next four hours, as soon as her profile was activated and validated, interested candidates, or their parents, siblings and friends started mailing her with requests and invitations to consider their profiles. She had enough prompts and requests to consider daily. It was more than she expected. She put aside 30 minutes before bedtime to explore the database of suitable candidates as per her choice and review the invitations she received. She shortlisted several profiles and showed them to her parents and sister, who were just happy that Gauri is contemplating marriage, after years of pleading. They reviewed the profiles and her parents spoke to the parents of a few selected candidates.
Gauri herself wrote to several of the shortlisted people, chatting with some of them in real time. She rejected many. She met three at various coffee shops around the city, but finally rejected those too. One had hidden his height on his profile and turned to be a tad shorter than her. One spoke badly with the waiter and the third, in a roundabout way, suggested that Gauri should focus more on taking care of her in-laws and children than her job, post-marriage.
She announced to the virtual world that she was willing to be swept off her feet.
Gauri spent some time considering the first person; he seemed nice, but finally she decided to drop him. Lying has never been a virtue. She took no time to reject the other two. A couple of the shortlisted candidates became good friends with her, but were not who Gauri was looking for. After two months, she was almost ready to give up on her search but continued spending some time on the portal as it had become her routine by now. Her parents were exploring their networks and had informed helpful relatives that they were looking for a suitable groom.
On one unexciting visit to the portal, just as Gauri was about to log out, a chat window popped up. A sibling of a potential groom wanted to speak to her. She informed Gauri that she and her family had seen her profile and were interested to take it forward; if she would allow, she could speak to Neelabh, the candidate, the next day.
The following evening, Neelabh, an engineer himself, greeted her and wanted to speak for five minutes. They hit a note and five became 50. It seemed they had a lot to talk about, but they retired with a promise to catch up again next day. Then another day, and the next. Finally, they realised a week had passed and they had been having longer conversations, often averaging for two hours.
Gauri looked forward to these conversations. Her sister had started teasing her about her late-night virtual voyages. She and Neelabh planned to meet; the following weekend, he flew from Ahmedabad to meet Gauri in Kolkata. A month later, Neelabh ‘s parents and sister met Gauri and her family at their ancestral home. The families liked each other; my mother was invited over as a special guest and everyone was happy.
Gauri has now placed an order for a sequinned peach and silver benarasi silk saree to wear at her wedding. She and Neelabh, in a silver and white churidaar kameez, will have tied the knot in front of about 250 guests, by the time this story has been published.
Gauri has resorted to a modern Indian version of arranged marriage. And she is not alone.
Gauri has resorted to a modern Indian version of arranged marriage. And she is not alone. Sudeep, a non-resident Indian working in the banking sector in Kuala Lumpur, asked his parents to find a suitable bride for him. His parents immediately alerted their indigenous network and created a profile on two matrimonial portals. They searched for three to four months, then a friend of theirs put them in touch with another compatible family. Sudeep’s parents visited Neena’s family and immediately liked them. Neena is completing her course in medicine and wishes to specialise in paediatrics. Meanwhile, Sudeep’s parents had shortlisted and spoken to several other families and possible would-bes for Sudeep. They drew up a list of some 18 candidates. Sudeep came over during his Christmas holidays, met a few of the girls, was taking time to make up his mind, then he met Neena and was completely bowled over by her sophisticated manners and elegance. He immediately cancelled meeting the others. He has now applied for three weeks’ leave from work in April, when he will marry Neena and the duo will head to Langkawi for their honeymoon.
Then there is Prachi, a high school chemistry teacher, whose grandparents met an old acquaintance whose son, a government officer, seemed a suitable match for her. They invited the whole family to Prachi’s home and the potential bride and groom met first among the relatives and later, by themselves, at various coffee shops, shopping malls and decent places in the city. They were married with full family party after eight months of courtship.
The process of arranging marriages has evolved to include long periods of dating and courtship, sometimes ranging over a year.
Gauri, Sudeep, and Prachi are independent young adults, upwardly mobile and well-placed in urban India. They are just a few of the large number of young marriageable Indians who have struck lucky in their arranged marriages and almost sketched a life of “living happily ever after”. They are lucky because although they needed support in finding their life-partners, they had not been forced into marriage like many others.
Theirs is a new genre of Indian youth who chose to have their spouses selected by their family but did not hand over the reins to them. They were involved in the complete process of searching for the right partner, shortlisting the candidates, meeting them, judging them, rejecting or accepting them. In modern India, the process of arranging marriages has evolved to include long periods of dating and courtship, sometime ranging over a year. As for Gauri, who had almost lost faith in men thanks to the examples around her, she went into an arranged alliance and she’s happy she did so. How would Sudeep from Kuala Lumpur have struck up with Neena, if it hadn’t been for the chain of friends and friends of friends who arranged to connect them?
Padmanabhan Iyer, a marriage consultant tending to the cream of Brahmin society in Chennai, says: “It’s all about bringing the right groom for the right bride, or the other way round. People these days do not sit at home. Even the girls are independent and working, often times in another part of the world. When parents want to find a suitable boy for their young achiever daughter, I am called up. I can find a boy for that girl within the same culture, caste and probably work location. Similarly, I can help parents find a nice girl for their NRI son who can manage the home along with her own career, in perfect Indian style.”
“I guess arranged marriages in India are mostly about retaining purity of blood lineage and, of course, wealth. Since this system [of culture, rituals, bloodline, etc] is so rooted in us, those who marry outside the system seem to have a tough time, usually. Additionally, the choice of the spouse is taken sincerely by others with no materialistic concepts in mind. But arranged marriages are an excellent solution for the person who wants to get married but is too shy to go ahead and find a mate,” says Suneetha Balakrishnan, journalist, editor, blogger and author of a novel based on the Indian matrimonial system.
Dr Vijay Nagaswami, an eminent psychiatrist with more than 25 years’ experience working with couples and relationship issues and the author of three well-read self-help books on managing marriage and relationships, agrees with Suneetha. “It’s just a pattern of mate choice. Often it may be seen as a cop-out, where a young person may fall back on it after unsuccessful attempts at finding a partner, or after a series of heartbreaks. However, the system is without doubt one that ensures that even one who is least likely to find a date may find a spouse with far less trouble.” This is a prerogative in the Indian context.
What is the system?
Arranged marriages are where family, friends and relatives of the potential bride and groom, with or without the help of third-party, professional matchmakers, select their partners in marriage. The New World Encyclopedia says: “In an arranged marriage, the marital partners are chosen by parents, community elders, matchmakers or religious leaders in an effort to guide young people through the process of finding the right person to marry.”
Arranged marriages are not just an Indian phenomenon. Wikipedia says: “It was common worldwide until the 18th century. In more recent times, arranged marriages are common in South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, south-east Asia and parts of East Asia; elsewhere in developed countries, arranged marriages have continued in some royal families, parts of Japan, among immigrant and minority ethnic groups. Other groups that practise this custom include the Unification Church.”
Researchers claim: “Arranged marriages were common as far back as Biblical times and beyond. The traditional purposes of these types of unions were political, military, and social. They were commonplace among the royalty and nobility around the world. In ancient Egypt, for example, one of the chief goals of arranged marriage was to keep royal bloodlines pure.”
According to our Indian Vedic stories and mythology, women used to be scholarly, strong willed, powerful and sensitive. They could decide whom they wanted to marry or whether they wanted to marry at all, or bear children, without any help from others. Numerous anecdotes of sage women and mythological goddesses support this tenet. However, marriages were set up between royal families to seal a deal or to protect a state, for completely diplomatic reasons, with or without the consent of the two concerned people. Probably because of the existence of this factor of coercion, diplomacy and sacrilege, marriages that are arranged by people other than those getting married have acquired a negative hue.
In India, arranged marriages were very different earlier from what they are today. Over continents, like societies, the institution of marriage has undergone mammoth change. A hundred years ago, Indian society was rife with child marriages, unequal marriages and forced ones. In an appropriate marriage, the parents would search for the potential bride or groom, find out about their family background, temperament and disposition, and astrological and social compatibility before finalising the alliance. The differences in age or educational qualifications were not bothered with. Only in the rarest of rare cases was the opinion of the groom (or the bride) paid any heed. Further, the voice of the potential bride or groom would only gain any serious attention and empathy if a sibling or a relative within the same age group were present. Usually the bride and groom would not have met before the wedding. Any question of them giving their consent or opinion was a far-off dream. But again, that was probably a generation or two back.
Today, however, all stakeholders understand that a marriage is supposed to bind two different people together, supposedly for life. Hence, they all look for compatibility. Parents allow their children to meet their potential partners, spend time to get to know each other better and proceed to the mandap (marriage venue) only after both candidates agree to take the relationship ahead. Most often, a blood test for the Rh factor is done and in some cases, relationship counselling is obtained.
Nihar Pradhan, cofounder and partner of a digital learning organisation and author, says: “Marriage is a beautiful choice between two individuals who ultimately have to decide to live together. There can’t be a better proposition where the two individuals have the freedom and the maturity to take a call on their own. Since it is a very important and one-off lifelong decision, it needs to be taken rationally with a good amount of deep thought and a great degree of emotion. The impact of a wrong decision is very high and affects not only the individuals but, in the Indian context, both the extended families and the children. Everybody may not have the freedom and the maturity to take the right decision; hence families get involved to facilitate selection and decision-making.”
An evolving system
Nihar’s opinion may seem intrusive to some, but one has to understand the weave of Indian society before making a judgement. In India, marriages happen between two families, and not just between two human beings. The couple, as an entity, has a role to play in society and in every sphere of life.
Look at our Bollywood movies. Every time the protagonists fall in love, either they strive to convince their parents to agree and permit them to marry, which makes up the entire three-hour stretch of the movie, or they give up their lives for true and genuine love when the warring parents do not agree. Setting aside the dramatic extremisms, a part of the story remains true. A happy family picture essentially has a young couple dipped and absorbed in mutual love (who cares whether it was arranged or not) and a smiling troop of parents, siblings, friends and relatives blessing them with flowers and all things sweet. So, in essence, be happy, keep your families happy, diplomatically or otherwise.
Dr Vijay Nagaswami points out: “The arranged marriage process has changed over the last decade or so and there are three distinctly recognisable categories. First, you have the classical arranged marriage, which is usually done through networking, horoscope matching and the works. The second is what is coming to be known as the love-cum-arranged marriage (LCAM), which basically means that two people fall in love and their families are cool with the idea of their getting married. And the third is the arranged-cum-love marriage (ACLM) where the bride and groom are strangers until their first meeting, at the end of which they fall wildly in love with each other. But whatever the type of arranged marriage, with the advent of marriage portals, there is much greater ownership of the marriage by the couple since they actively engage in the mate-seeking process from scanning to shortlisting and they do have a substantial say in the final decision.”
Are arranged marriages forced marriages, or not?
In my country, once one reaches a particular age (approximately 24 for women and 27 for men, at very liberal standards) and attains a certain milestone in life (completed college, got a job), people start talking of matrimony – that’s the next logical step. Getting married in India is not a choice but a must! If one is 35 and still a bachelor or spinster, they receive gallons of sympathy and pity from all around because they are perceived as a pathetic case, with no one willing to marry them and their immediate family not having the intention, skill or wealth to marry the poor thing off.
So when one reaches one of the milestones that indicates a logical time to get married, concerned neighbours and relatives start making loud reminders. Parents cringe and fall in line to start nagging and advising their offspring on the need to get their lives on track with an appropriate partner so that someone is there to care for them when they are old. And of course to ensure that you leave a line of sons and grandchildren before becoming too old.
Coercion! Suneetha comments: “That still exists for many, especially regarding when and how. A woman is often married off before a certain age because her grandmother or other senior relative is ailing and wants to see a grandchild. The son who is seeking to complete a professional course is forced into a marriage for similar reasons. The maturity and mental preparation required for marriage seems a non-necessity now. The worst of all is the blind belief in horoscopes. One’s age for marriage is often decided by a few planets and their ostensible position as seen by a certain astrologer.”
Says Dr Nagaswami: “In certain less-developed parts of the country, coercion continues to exist and the views of the bride and groom are secondary. Even in urban India, coercion does happen, maybe more subtly, particularly when the son or daughter in question is reluctant to get married either because they feel they’re not yet ready for it and want to focus on their career for a bit before considering matrimony, or they have fallen in love with someone who’s considered undesirable or unacceptable by the family. However, when neither of these situations exist, many young people are happy enough for their parents to arrange a marriage for them.”
Should we assume that after employing such meticulous selection processes, arranged marriages are more stable and sound? There is no reason to believe so. Dr Nagaswami emphatically says not. “I don’t believe that arranged marriages are more stable. It’s just marriages in the past were not particularly rocky because of a fatalistic acceptance of one’s lot in life. And since most of these marriages were arranged, this fallacious belief has crept in and been parroted by the more vocal protagonists of this system.”
He adds that couples in love marriages may face the same set of problems as do those in arranged ones. “As I see it, how you choose your mate hardly matters. It’s what you put into the marriage that does. Romantic love dies down anyway within six months to two years. So the ‘love marriage’ merely has a bit of a head start. And given that even in arranged marriages young people are taking more ownership of their marriages, this head start may not really amount to much unless couples understand the mechanism of converting romantic love to intimate love.”
“Any degree of negative influence and any degree of coercion is not good for the sustainability of the relationship. It has to go through both good and bad times. If it is built on a weak foundation, it is bound to feel the strain. It all depends on the circumstances whether it can withstand or crumble under sustained pressure,” Nihar says thoughtfully. “It is a delicate relationship and any scope for fissures has the potential to dissipate and disrupt smooth sailing when confronted with rough weather.”
Are arranged marriages here to stay?
‘Contemporary arranged marriages are not the same any more, because the expectations of both partners in an arranged marriage are rightly much higher than were those of their parents. I have a problem when, owing to the ‘Great Indian Marriage Obsession’, parents compel their children into marriages when they’re not ready, when they’re not comfortable with the partner chosen for them, or when they have someone else in mind. The biggest challenge of the arranged marriage today lies in adapting to these contemporary realities. Will it? Your guess is as good as mine,” says Dr Nagaswami.
Suneetha chimes in: “I think arranged marriages are an obsolete concept now, especially in the urban scenario. India is mostly just villages marching on to be small towns in the mindset, so we stick to a format we know, which once succeeded in an entirely different set of needs and wants.”
Nihar, however, begs to differ. “Arranged marriage is a wonderful process and it plays a sensible and meaningful engagement in building a successful relationship. It is a reality that in our society we have enough evidence to look up to the arrange marriage to make our society a better place to live.” He finds support in celebrity author and columnist Shobhaa De’ who writes in her book, Spouse: “Arranged has worked for centuries in India. ‘Love’ is only 50 years old. And both can fail.”
She adds hope to her statement: “Arranged can progress to love.”
Ritwika Sen, a lecturer in Indian history in a reputed government college in Kolkata, has the last word. “When I get married, I’ll prefer that my parents find a suitable match for me. They know the person that I am, my likes and dislikes, my preferences and ambitions. They are the best people to find someone with a similar bent of mind. Finally, I totally depend on my grandmother who has a sharp eye and reads people well. She is a good judge of character and few people can lie in front of her. I have to be very sure of what I am doing.”