Sony TV has launched a new show called Love Marriage ya Arranged Marriage (aired August 6th, 8:30pm on Sony TV) and this post joins the debate that the Indiblogger blogging contest has initiated on this classic Indian conundrum. I must admit from the outset that I personally know only 2 couples that have had an arranged marriage and they are not your typical couple. Bizarre, I know, considering I live in India. You’d think that every other couple was united over the internet or through that unfailing network, more reliable than any computer algorithm – the grandmother/patti ma grapevine. So perhaps mine isn’t the most informed or best researched opinion but I’m always willing to debate and this is the mother of all high school and college debates.
In India we are bursting with contradictions – tribals with cellphones, slums sharing real estate with 5 star hotels, laptops in village schools but no electricity to run them, Mercs speeding on roads with meteoric sized potholes, the birth place of the kama sutra in the land of the sexually repressed. In the land of romantic Hindi songs and countless movies on love conquering caste, class and religion, the arranged marriage thrives. Arranged marriages have been around in South Asian cultures for centuries. It’s a system that believes in matching couples based on horoscopes that tell whether two people are compatible. This fits in perfectly with our Indian romanticism, so aptly captured in the lusty gyrating hips and crooning love songs of Indian cinema. Matching of horoscopes inherently means that the person you were meant to spend the rest of your life with is written in the stars, pre-ordained by the universe, there’s nothing more romantic and reassuring than a belief in destiny. From a more practical perspective, it’s a great way of keeping the gene pool sound, keeping it within the community.
The internet has replaced the old practice of grandmothers, some coquettishly others frantically, exchanging or forcing horoscopes into people’s hands. If you thought Indian weddings were a mega expense, now matchmaking is an even bigger commercial enterprise. Bharat Matrimony, one of the first internet matchmaking sites on the market has a turnover between Rs.10 to 100 crores and the company’s owner estimates that 2 million people have been matched and married through his website. He met his own wife through the matchmaking service that he started.
The internet has not only changed the process of matchmaking but increased the level of involvement of the two people whose fate is being managed. Before the internet, the boy’s family would select a shortlist of a few girls and then collectively with the boy, a suitable girl would be chosen, often with a cursory “interview” but no real dating process. The dating happens after the engagement. The love happens after the marriage. This dating period after the engagement might be the only dating experience that some boys and girls get in their entire lifetime. For the unlucky, they jump straight in to the arranged marriage part.
Nowadays, boys and girls manage their own online profiles and as long as the prospective fishes in this wide internet sea are from the same community, the parents and grandmas are happy. In fact, many of them “date” for a period before agreeing to an engagement. And thanks to FB and Orkut and other social networking sites it’s much easier for the boy/girl to see what their prospective life partner is like and what kind of friends they have. It’s much more accepted these days to test drive your mate before you commit.
We have so much choice in this life. I can choose from no less than 25 varieties of toothpaste, 15 brands of basmati rice but apparently I’m not qualified enough to choose a life partner. It makes sense though, I can try out my toothpaste for a month and then change it. But not the same with a man you already married. I guess my main issue with an arranged marriage is that most young people jump straight in to marriage without ever experiencing what it’s like to get your heart-broken, to be infatuated with someone, to be in love or to love for the wrong reasons. All valuable experiences that teach you about who you are. But then there’s another group of people in India who do date and have secret relationships and romances but eventually marry the guy their parents chose for them. More young people, thanks to social networking sites are experimenting with casual dalliances, flirtations, virtual but oh so real romances before they settle down with one person who they don’t really know. So maybe they’re a bit more prepared in dealing with relationships before they get married.
The half-Indian, half-Canadian comedian Russell Peters says in disbelief, “My mom wanted to pick my wife! I wouldn’t let my mom pick my clothes!. Can you imagine my mom walking in with a girl saying, ‘I know she’s a little big now, but you’ll grow in to her’.” Almost half of (love) marriages in the US end in divorce – so either you or your wife will get divorced!
It’s a common and forgivable mistake to think that arranged marriage is an Indian concept and that it just wouldn’t fly in the western world. But we’d be wrong to think that there isn’t a smidgen of arranged marriage tendencies in people in the West. Take internet dating, which is huge in the UK and US (generating a revenue of US$957 million in 2008 in the US). Doesn’t it follow the same principles of a matrimonial site – you put up a profile and hope that based on your photograph and perhaps slightly embellished traits and personality, you’ll attract potential mates. The only difference being that you date before you marry. You might even date a lot and never marry. In my brief and disastrous two experiences with internet dating in the UK I learned that you should never go out with a guy who has a black and white profile picture. His hair is most likely ginger or red. Indian women get most hits/hit on by older podgy white males who’ve lived or are living in places like Thailand and if a guy looks a little podgy around his face in his profile picture, his body is on the same track. Internet dating and Internet matchmaking are both listing your qualities and preferences. They are both a glorified vetting process, scrutinising, selecting and eliminating people based on information, most of which is what they want you to know about themselves. (The horoscope matching is just a touch of cultural exoticism.) Don’t we engage in this scrutinising process at every stage of a “love relationship” too? At some point, every woman sits around with her girlfriends and someone says the obvious – “…but he’s just not marriage material”. As a woman you are vetting and scrutinising a man at every stage of his life.
Apart from Internet dating, the West is definitely taking cues from our culture. Take the TV show ‘How to Find a Husband’ that aired on British TV.Workaholic and fairly promiscuous Sally Gray who admits, that she “devoured men like that guy who devoured Super Size Me burgers” dated 50 men to find her marriage material man. This is TV after all and I don’t think she ever found him. In the US, you’ve got the TV shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette where after every date a guy or girl is “eliminated” based on a one evening, one date experience. And there’s no horoscopes to nudge you in the right direction either. Cosmo love quizzes and speed dating, these are all just fancy versions of the arranged marriage matchmaking process.
Take the movie Hitch, where Will Smith’s character “arranges” for men to succeed on dates with the woman they’ve been pining for but seem impossible to even approach. He arranges love to happen. On the bright side, one could get extremely lucky and find a man/woman way out of your league but cosmically matched through an arranged marriage. And might I add pining for someone at a distance is as fraught with unknowns just like an arranged marriage.
Now for some personal details. I’ve actually known the man I married, all my life. We grew up together as neighbours, played hopscotch together, he taught me logarithms, we made mud cakes and threw them at each other, he pushed me in to a bucket of wet mud and laughed at my backside caked in mud. So we have childhood memories together. But then we grew apart, he left for college, I did too and while we wrote letters for a while (no internet in those days) life took us on different paths and we had no contact for about 10 years, I didn’t even have his email address. Then all it took was one day, one afternoon. Sounds improbable I know, but sometimes all it takes is one hold of the hand, one look, one hug, one kiss and you just know. I’d been burned many times before, I’m no stranger to my share of boyfriends so I approached this dalliance with caution but he made an offer I couldn’t refuse. All it took was 3 weeks, just as short as some arranged marriages take to get finalised. Ok, maybe 3 weeks and 30 years… go figure!
Both of our parents had “love marriages” so the concept of an arranged marriage is even more alien to us. But we both dodged the arranged marriage bullet. I had two proposals when I lived in London that my mother very embarressedly told me about, a banker in Sydney and a banker is Ipswich. But judging by my reaction, there was no more talk of them. At a similar time, my husband was asked if he wanted to peruse the pictures of prospective girls but he flatly refused telling his mother that he wasn’t interested. Thinking she’d deal with the pictures and biodatas later (perhaps even hoping her son would change his mind?) my mother-in-law had placed the pictures of these future brides on top of the fridge, and headed out to work. When the coast was clear, Simba her giant Labrador told the cat to jump up on the fridge, bring the pictures down and the two of them ripped it to shreds; and so the chances of my husband and I getting married got better and I have Simba to thank.
My biggest problem with an arranged marriage and a love marriage is when you think you know the person but really you don’t. In either type of marriage you might jump in without knowing what you’re really getting in to. You could be totally infatuated with a person, think that you’re in “love”, jump in to marriage only to find out that he’s a loser or at best not all that you had made him out to be. On the other hand, I’ve known people who lived together for around 7 years before they got married. Once they got married, it lasted only 3 years. So perhaps in love marriages, we make excuses for people’s personalities and in arranged marriages it just takes us longer to find them out!
The other problem I can’t get my head around in arranged marriages is when do you become comfortable with the other person, when do you start to love a person who has been given to you without your say in the matter – does it take months, years? There’s an advert by Orra for Platinum Jewellery about a young yuppie (arranged marriage) couple who are travelling in New York and when they lose each other at a crowded subway, as the train doors open and close and eventually with great relief they find that they are both on the platform and one hasn’t ditched the other, is when they find “their day of love, 1 year, 2 months and 11 days.”
The question is what makes you care and respect someone and stick it out when things go bad? Is it knowing them for years and excusing all their flaws or is marriage the journey where you find out about the person and compromise. I think we’ve passed the era of women and men feeling it is their “dharma” or their duty to stick it out in an arranged marriage but I could be wrong. I’ve seen love marriages thrive and fail, I’ve seen couples who married for love, have become estranged and are just sticking it out for the kids. I’m sure the same happens in an arranged marriage. So if all marriage is a gamble, does it really matter whether you marry for love or not if the relationship doesn’t give you what you want. So arranged or by choice, every man and every woman wants to feel respected, cared for and feel special. “No woman wakes up saying, “God, I hope I don’t get swept off my feet today! Basic principles: no matter what, no matter when, no matter who… any man has a chance to sweep any woman off her feet. He just needs the right broom.” (Hitch, 2005). Arranged or love marriage, it’s how two people’s personalities survive each other and survive what the world throws at them. That even at the height of passion or in the tempest of despair, in this ever-changing world, love and marriage is the fixed star in the sky that guides you to safer shores. So for the last word we turn to the master of the love poem, the Sonnet:
Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
(Shakespeare, Sonnet116, 1-8)