When I broke the news to my parents that I was dating somebody, my father asked me the basic questions: “What does he do? How did you meet? Do you have the same food habits?” (In a gastronomically diverse country like India, this is a very significant question, believe me.) My mother’s reaction, on the other hand was a lot less subdued and less accepting. Above all, her main cause of irritation was this: “My only daughter and my only child, and I am deprived of the right of choosing a husband for her.” Please don’t get her wrong. My mother is a smart, very highly educated (a Doctorate), career-driven ambitious woman. But as Indian mothers go, she felt left out. She didn’t get the opportunity that even 60 percent of Indian mothers today take for granted.
Arranged marriages are supposedly a part of our “custom and tradition.” Thankfully, I grew up in a nuclear family where it was just my more cosmopolitan parents and I, with almost no contact with our more conservative relatives, save the token presence at the weddings or funerals. For the more “Indianized” relatives I have, choosing your spouse, dating before getting married, or god forbid, falling in love with more than one person is not even an existing concept.
For generations as far as any of my elderly relatives can remember, marriages happened between happened between “known” families. In a country where networking is so vast where your mother’s second-cousin’s sister-in-law’s brother’s son’s friend is considered a “known” boy, girls definitely have plenty of “options” to choose from. But to throw more clarity, let me explain a rough “outline” of the procedure. Not the actual one followed through ages, but the modern day one (even this relatively modified version would shock a lot of people in their 80s—for some, this is simply too “forward.” For people like me, it’s almost primitive, but the fact is that the more austere method was followed until probably even a mere thirty years ago).
Typically, the boy’s parents come forward with the request. For some families, it’s still a matter of dishonor if the girl’s family is proactive in persuasion. Then, the parents first meet, to see if the families will gel together. If all is okay until this stage, horoscopes are exchanged. (Although these days the more liberal parents will skip this stage to respect the sentiments of the non-believers.) The next stage involves the guy and the girl meeting. Some parents will merely give the children token information about the prospective other, and encourage them to meet. Some families insist on the youngsters being chaperoned (by someone their own age, maybe a cousin or very close friends), while other families prefer to have the guy and his parents over for maybe a round of tea, or dinner. If all is well even now, the girl and the boy will be allowed to probably talk a few times to know each other, but there is always a deadline for their engagement looming.
All dates are now fixed, including the engagement and the wedding. After they get engaged, this is absolutely no restriction on the couple in terms of communication or going out. Pre-marital sex is of course a no-no. (Although sometimes if the couple is really comfortable, they get into high school mode with the sneaking out, or weekend getaways with “friends.”) If either the man or the woman is not comfortable with the other, this is the stage to call it off. With immediate effect.
For the Gen Y and beyond, the idea is (in words I have heard to describe this … arrangement) “sick,” “disgusting,” “Neanderthal,” “gross,” and in my opinion, presumptuous. For us, it’s probably a most basic right. If I can choose my own clothes, my own career, my car, buy my own house, I will but naturally think that choosing my own spouse is part of the flow. But as many parents I have heard say, “Well, we choose your school, guide what you do in college, we know you best.” And the clincher which would make even slightly non-stubborn children melt, “We are your parents. We want the best for you.” Of course! In more traditional communities, where a marriage is considered a union of families, an arranged marriage is seen as a necessity to guarantee that “perfect fit” (be it size of the family, family structure—joint or nuclear, values and attitudes, and the most important—economic status of the family). It’s almost like looking for a job. No pay, working hours 24/7, one time contract.
But surprisingly, not ALL post 70s born Indians would agree with me here. One of my classmates, again, a smart, well-educated, hardworking guy, who has seen quite a few facets of life, admits in our HR 201 class, “I don’t want my wife to work” (but she had to be smart, intelligent and educated, else they wouldn’t be compatible). This seemingly chauvinistic statement was met by shock and outrage, especially among the women of the class. Since this man was a dear friend, I almost nonchalantly asked, “But where are you going to find a woman like that?” A simple solution, “Oh, I don’t need to find, my mom will find the girl for me.” Wow. An easy solution to THAT, if there ever was any.
Today, matrimonial websites have sprung up by the dozen. The same procedure as above is followed in this case, except that the “mining” of the prospective bride/groom is done via the big, useful world of the internet. There are even language-specific and community specific websites like tamilmatrimony.com, hindimatrimony.com, kayastshaadi.com, and infinite others. It strikes me as really bizarre that someone relatively a stranger is more accepted just because the marriage is arranged, rather than a partner that your child has chosen to be with, despite being very acutely aware of all the differences between them. In a society where even to this day, sometimes spouses are not “accepted” if the parents haven’t had a say in their being a part of the family, or where children are “turned away” from home if they marry outside the community, or in very, very rare cases they are sought out and bodily harmed, it makes me wonder what priority the happiness and contentment of the child lie.
In my own experience, one guy’s parents thought us too “middle class,” one family said the horoscope didn’t match, and one family would simply refuse to accept the fact that I couldn’t connect with the guy. All this AFTER I told my mother I wanted some time to figure things out with the man I’m dating at present. Even now, my mother’s most common lament is: “But you have liked him for almost a year (she will NEVER use the word “dating” or “boyfriend” or “in love”—other mothers would probably think her daughter’s state to be “contagious”), why can’t you just get married.”
Well, ma, and all Indian mothers out there, we know real life is not so simple. We know that not everything has a quick-fix solution in the form of our parents telling us what to do. If you want us to take care of you when you are old, we need to take care of ourselves first. Freedom for us is not a burden as much as letting go for you seems to be. We want to be happy, and that doesn’t come in the form of “ABC Auntie’s Son.” True freedom means not having people, even if it’s your parents telling you that that have “let you” do something as important as deciding who you want to spend the rest of your life with. Carrying a baby becomes heavy after a while, not because of the weight of the child but the weight of our own conscience.
And to all Indian children out there: for an irreversible decision, especially where the direct impact is on you, also take the responsibility to make sure you decide what that impact should be like.