By Rohini Mohan
When asked how they first met, my friends, a couple happily married for 15 years now, usually say “At a café”. They did meet at a café, that much is true, however, the meeting was set up by their parents. They just showed up, had a conversation and decided to go it together for the rest of their lives from thereon. Sounds scary on the face of it- how do you say “I do” to someone you met just once? Live with them, embrace their family, have kids with them, put up with their idiosyncrasies? With no understanding of their nature, their habits, their likes and dislikes, their sense of humor, their temper, their values. How do you know that the gamble will pay off? Anachronistically, my grandparents fell in love and got married, but each of their four children had ‘arranged marriages’. Amusing to many, terrifying to some, but a way of life to millions in India (and some other societies), arranged marriages have been around for generations and have stood the test of time.
When non-Indians meet me for the first time, we are barely knee deep into the conversation when the inevitable question is popped, “If you don’t mind me asking, did you have an arranged marriage?” My answer obviously disappoints because they are really eager to meet a living walking example. I tell them that my parent had one and out comes the smug smile. (They conveniently forget that their great grandparents’ probably had one too in the old country given that it was practically the norm back then!)
I wonder what they find most bizarre – is it the fact that arranged or ‘pragmatic’ marriages as they are also called, are just that – pragmatic? The thrill of dating and falling in love, the excitement of living in, the romance of courtship, the joint planning of the wedding day, all replaced by statistics of your prospective spouse’s height and weight, degrees on hand, dietary habits and where exactly the planets were suspended when you both were born.
Or is it the fact that you have little say in the most important decision of your life? Our society is configured in such a different way. Though the last generation saw the emergence of the nuclear family, the habits of the joint family system die hard. Kids “listen to” their parents, decisions are made for them or at the very least jointly, even when they step into adulthood. There is no question of earning money by flipping burgers or babysitting when you enter your teens. You are not a ‘loser’ if you still live with your parents when you’re working or after you marry. Independence, identity and personal space have all been very alien concepts to the average middle class Indian. So the entire family makes a joint decision on whom the individual will marry. And as long as they are doing that why not pick and choose the cream of the crop?
Is a love marriage more successful than an arranged marriage? Hard to say. You fall in love with someone for their physical appearance or their spirit, you live with them awhile, and you both evolve. The bond could strengthen, sure but what’s to say that you won’t find yourself married to a stranger a few years hence? The next step is divorce – and looking at it comparatively there have been many many more of those in the West than back home. Divorce has been taboo in India, you say. Our society is based on the fundamentals of tolerance and sacrifice, laced with the absence of emancipation of women, you argue. All true. But is it not possible that many arranged marriages succeeded because two like minded people got together and they fell in love just as the two people who got together because of love fell out of it?
When the Stepford wives of the 50’s became the flower children of the 60’s there was a paradigm shift in thinking in the West. And they have not looked back since. So shocked are they by our concept of ‘arranged marriages’ that they make TV serials like “Married by America”. It was introduced it as a show about singles who are successful in every aspect of their lives except in finding their mates by “conventional means”… now there’s a phrase that can mean two exactly opposite things depending on where in the world you are!
And yet, apart from the fact that you make your own decision, how different are the classifieds looking for Mr/Ms Right, dating services, matrimonial agencies and such like?
Look at the sea change in India today – with companies luring young Indians men and women alike out of their hometowns to big cities, putting disposable income in their hands and surrounding them with material comforts and access to the opposite sex, with societal rules bent out of shape because of third degree exposure to Western life, with the newfound confidence that one sees in the youth today that fosters independence of thought and decision making, the dot com age could well be our answer to the hippie revolution. Good or bad, as in everything else, the gap between them and us is narrowing in this department too…. and somewhere the twain shall meet.