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No Two Alike: India’s Modern-Day Arranged Marriages

by Katie Mehrer

On the subjects of life, love, and marriage Indian women, like most women, have plenty to say. The practice of arranged marriages is still going strong throughout India, while influences of modernity on the ancient system have also been felt in numerous ways both comic and tragic. Traveling in this land of contrasts, I met women of all ages who were all too willing to tell the complex stories behind their own arranged marriages.

Lakshmi, a headstrong woman in her fifties, had been joined in marriage thirty years ago to her husband, a prosperous banker, in the traditional style of an arranged match. She told of how she had only seen a photograph of him before entering into the solemn ceremony and subsequently moving to a new town to live with her husband and in-laws. Soon afterwards, the two had been walking along a city street—she a few steps behind him in the proper attitude of a respectful wife—and his long strides had taken him too far ahead. She looked up to find him gone. Lakshmi was lost among the bustle and clamor of a very unfamiliar place, and she didn’t mind telling me that she resented his carelessness. “I could have gone looking for him,” she said. “But to be honest, I hadn’t known him that long and I really couldn’t remember what he looked like.” She sat on a pallet beside a vegetable stand until he came looking for her. “It took him quite a while,” she added.

By Lakshmi’s frequent barbed comments about her husband—which she distributed quite freely throughout the year that I was acquainted with her—I could tell that this was the first in a number of incidents that had led her to loathe the man with whom she had had a son and shared the majority of her life. On the other hand, this old-world traditionalist has utter disdain for women who get divorced. Her comment on the subject was simply, “I have survived my marriage. Why can’t they? Women today need to be made of stronger stuff. After all, where will they go? Back to their parents’ home? Who says the girl’s parents will even take her back?”

Meanwhile, Lakshmi also believes whole-heartedly in promoting a wide variety of women’s rights and is absolutely disgusted with those old-fashioned thinkers who would prevent women from starting businesses, speaking their minds, and voting according to their free will. She is clearly a strong, independent thinker, and it seems that her difficult marriage has served to make her more so. The fact that she lives within a traditional arranged marriage and that she wears her hair and sari in impeccably traditional fashion at all times seems to give her a sense that she represents the strength of Indian womanhood itself and that therefore her opinions deserve to be heard.

Another example of how modern thought can be unpredictably paired with traditional arranged marriage is found in 25-year-old Shalini. In palpable fear of becoming an old maid, Shalini was, for some time, engaged in a subtle but determined campaign to convince her parents to arrange a marriage between herself and her secret boyfriend. Having met in college, their relationship had largely bloomed over the phone, although she added that friends had helped her sneak out of the dormitory once to talk with him in person.

Dating is slightly more common among some of India’s most highly educated and westernized populations, but for most middle-class Indians—like Shalini and her family—it is considered somewhat taboo. Parents expect to have a great deal of control over their children’s choice of spouse. To choose one’s own spouse in a “love match” is seen by many to be both bad luck and bad judgment. Many worry that these marriages will end in divorce due to the starry-eyed young lovers’ sudden disappointment when faced with the realities and hardships of a life together, and statistics seem to support the validity of this theory. Parents try to provide financial stability for their daughters and a good helpmeet for their sons by interviewing extensively for the position.

Shalini summed up her unusual insight into the modern practice of arranged marriage with the following statement, “Dating is not allowed. But, if you do manage to date in secret, then when it comes time to arrange a marriage for you, your parents will actually be grateful if you help them out by suggesting someone. Then all will be forgiven, sort of. Maybe.” In her case, her father liked her choice and was ready to go forward with the marriage, but her mother had serious misgivings about arranging what was essentially a love match. She felt it would be wiser to marry her daughter to a prosperous stranger with whom she could make a clean start. After a great deal of pleading and patience from Shalini, her mother seemed to acquiesce, but then the arrangement was further complicated by astrology. An auspicious date had to be set and the mother claimed that her astrologer could not find one anytime in the near future. When I met Shalini, the entire process had been ongoing for three years already, and she commented, “I feel like I’m losing my mind. I’m already 25, and if they don’t approve this match, at my age it might be hard to find me someone else. I feel like I’m just waiting and waiting for my life to begin.” Six months later, the happy couple sent me their wedding photo, taken in the traditional style.

Modern people engaging in traditional arranged marriages: there are as many variations on this theme as there are young people seeking to start a life together. In the ancient land of India it is this very struggle to unite tradition with modern ways of thought that seems to add something difficult but enduring to the union of two souls.

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