COMES MARRIAGE, THEN COMES LOVE
Ira Mathur, India
A suitable boy is first spotted by Bharati Narvani's uncle
at a wedding in New Delhi, India.
then lived in Trinidad where her parents migrated some 25
years ago from the Gujarat region of India. The 21-year-old
university graduate was brought up with the customs and values
of India. The boy, Manoj Solanki, 29, a civil engineer, is
also of Gujarati parentage. Born in Liberia and educated in
England, he went to India with his parents to find a bride.
after that New Delhi wedding, Bharati accompanies her parents
to India on one of their regular visits. She knows that her
parents are making this trip with the hope of finding a groom
for her. She is amenable to the idea. Bharati was never allowed
to date, or mingle freely with boys her age. She didn't rebel,
unlike some of her peers in Trinidad's Indian community.
friend, Sujata, the daughter of a well-known surgeon, reluctantly
agreed to marry the son of a family friend in India. Before
the wedding, she committed suicide by drinking gramoxone,
a poisonous pesticide. Sujata was in love with a young man
in Trinidad, and was too afraid to tell her parents. There
is speculation that she might have been pregnant, and saw
no other way out.
will not be Bharati's fate. She will follow the ancient script
of courtship and marriage that still prevails widely throughout
the Narvanis arrive in New Delhi, the uncle -- the closest,
senior male relative in India -- arranges a meeting of the
two families. Manoj is accompanied by his mother and aunt,
Bharati by her mother and uncle. A discreet discussion takes
place among the elders: Is Manoj able to support a wife? Can
Bharati adapt to a foreign country? The Solankis make clear
they do not expect a dowry. This is not uncommon in many modern
arranged marriages. However, if the families are more traditional,
the question of the dowry would be settled at this time.
the couple are given a chance to talk alone in another room.
Manoj, being more confident, breaks the awkward silence with
a joke. In between light bantering, the two manage to ask
and answer serious questions about one another. Asking whether
Bharati likes Indian movies, for instance, tells him how strong
her cultural ties are. She wants to know whether Manoj expects
her to be a housewife or will he be happy with her working?
Will she live with his in-laws? His answers reassure her that
they will live alone, that she is free to work, and that she
can visit her parents whenever possible.
attraction between the couple is immediate. Part of it has
to do with the fact that this union will take place with the
full consensus of their families -- a very important consideration
for Indian men and women raised traditionally. Within 20 minutes,
Manoj decides that Bharati is right for him. Bharati modestly
tells her parents that she will accept their decision.
month later, there is an elaborate engagement ceremony. Soon
after, the wedding takes place in couple's ancestral home
of Baroda, Gujarat. The bride is weighed down by a heavily-worked,
shocking pink lehenga, choli and dupatta (full skirt, short
bodice and shawl) embroidered finely with real gold and silver.
She is adorned with flowers and gold jewelry. The groom is
wearing a shervani (long tunic and trousers).
the wedding ceremony, the wedding party of 400 -- women in
silk and brocade saris, men in traditional wear and Western
suits -- spill onto the streets and make their way to a five-star
hotel for the reception. The couple honeymoon in Indonesia
and settle down in Banjul, Gambia where Manoj works as an
engineer in a construction company.
this year, the newlyweds visited Trinidad with their infant
son for a huge reception given by the Narvani family. Bharati
is radiant in her traditional bridal outfit. Manu, as she
affectionately calls her husband, looks smugly satisfied.
Those of us who knew Bharati before she was married have to
admit she has gained confidence, matured and looks very happy.
mother, Manju, misses her daughter tremendously, but is satisfied
that the arranged marriage was the best she could have done
may have lived worlds apart but they have everything in common:
food, religion, language, culture and a similar outlook on
life," said Manju.
can also go horribly wrong. Meena, a 20-year-old high school
graduate from Hyderbad in India, ended up through an arranged
marriage with a computer analyst ten years her senior. Sharing
their home in Los Angeles, California, was her husband's American
society is quick to reject divorced, separated or abandoned
women. If Meena went home, her parents' status in society
would be shattered. Their pride and honour -- on which the
highest premium is placed -- would make them societal rejects.
She had no choice, but to accept her husband's mistress and
live as a semi-servant in his house.
custom of arranged marriages in India has survived migration
and modernization remaining central to the fabric of society.
Although no exact figures are available, some 95 percent of
all marriages in India are arranged, even among those in the
educated middle class.
Indians contend that arranged marriages are more successful
than marriages in the West, particularly given the latter's
staggering divorce rates. Romantic love does not necessarily
lead to a good marriage, and often fails once the passion
dissipates, they argue. Real love flows from a properly arranged
union between two individuals.
most unions between individuals from the same background,
the arranged marriage reflects and reinforces the social,
economic, geographic and historical diversity of India itself.
More like a continent than a country, India is made up of
14 states, with as many languages, thousands of dialects,
three major religions, hundreds of sub-religions, an outlawed
but still practiced caste system amongst Hindus, and an informal
class and economic differentiation amongst Christians and
Indian girl-child and boy-child remain just that, the property
and extensions of their families, until they are married.
For the female, ownership changes hands from father to husband
girl is marriageable from age 18, and parents get worried
if she remains unmarried past 24 or 25. It is acceptable for
a boy to remain unmarried till his late 20s, but after that
questions are asked about his desirability as a husband. This
does not necessarily apply to a growing urban middle class
population, in New Delhi, or Bombay.
Hindu religion, strongly enmeshed in the concept of "duty,"
decrees that parents are responsible for providing their children's
education and marriage. Once married, their sons take over
the running of the household and provide for their parents
for the rest of their lives.
unmarried daughter -- pronounced a spinster even in her late
twenties -- brings shame upon her parents, and is a burden.
But once married, she is considered the property of her in-laws.
In this context un-wed mothers, separated, single or unfaithful
women are considered outcasts. Living out of wedlock with
a partner is still virtually unheard of.
is incumbent on the girl's family to make the first move towards
a matrimonial union. Many young women have to have huge dowries
attached to them to ensure marriage. A price is placed on
the boy's head based on his education, economic and social
status. Many fathers go heavily into debt, even bankrupt,
trying to pay for the dowry. In villages, dowries are given
in the form of cattle, land and jewelry. In the towns and
cities, dowries are given in the form of hundreds of thousands
of rupees (Indian currency), furniture, jewelry, and expensive
household items and even homes and expensive foreign holidays.
deal is completed either discreetly and subtly in the upper-class
educated families, or more crudely in lower-income homes.
The phrase "bride burning" was coined in India after
several young brides had their saris lit on fire in front
of a gas stove either by their husbands or in-laws because
of their father's failure to meet demands for a bigger dowry.
Muslim families, the boy's family takes the first step to
ask for the girl. First, a respected family of equal status
to the girl's family is selected. Its antecedents are examined
for insanity, felon, and undesirable behavior. A girl is then
selected from that family. A third party is sent discreetly
to inquire whether the other party is interested to save face
in the event that they are not. The couple meet, and the nikah
(marriage) is arranged. The boy has to give her a dowry or
marriage gift so she is independent financially.
recently, Nayans, messengers attached to a particular caste,
were ideal matchmakers for all families since they were professional
news carriers of the community. They would deliver invitations
for weddings and festivals, announce births and deaths, and
intimately knew all the families in the community. Families
with children of a marriageable age would approach Nayans
for help in finding spouses.
days a family friend or distant relative approaches a family
for a match. This ensures that no direct insult or humiliation
is conferred upon the family which makes the first move, should
the proposed match not be amenable to the other family.
in daily newspapers remains a well-established tradition for
parents of prospective brides and grooms to state their requirements.
cities such as New Delhi, the seat of Indian middle class
families, the advertisements echo the same requirement for
girls: University graduates who are tall and fair of complexion.
Parents with dark-skinned daughters have a harder task getting
their daughters married.
one Indian father who arranged his daughter's marriage through
the matrimonial pages put it: "There are no hard feelings.
You can see as many people you want. When you want to buy
a car you want the best and shop around till you get it. You
don't just pick it up on a whim. You can't pick up a wife
or husband in the name of love while ignoring the qualities
of intellectual, cultural, and social compatibility."
arranged marriage has adjusted to modernization. Prospective
grooms were once not even allowed to see the photograph of
their prospective brides so as to preserve an unmarried woman's
purity, her most valuable asset. By the 1930s, such as in
my grandmother's marriage, the couple exchanged photographs,
in order to decide if they liked each other.
couples, depending on how liberal their parents are, have
a coffee or meal on their own either at home, or in a restaurant,
before deciding to commit. Middle-class women are allowed
to reject suitors favored by their parents. Engagements can
now last six months.
concepts of love triumphing over tradition can be seen in
popular Indian films. However, many Indian women in the diaspora
are in flux. Freedom comes with a price. Some women, after
having ended several long term relationships, find themselves
in their late 30s alone, with one foot in either world and
judged by both.
goes without saying that no marriage, not even an arranged
one, is inured from basic incompatibility or abuse. But the
arranged marriage does have its advantages. Living with the
extended family -- daughters traditionally live with their
in-laws including brothers-in-law and their wives and children
-- means a free staff of child minders. Apart from the economic
savings of a family home, shocks such as a death or the loss
of a job can be absorbed. The system cares for elderly parents
and grandparents who are generally isolated in Western societies.
because the arranged marriage tends to be a union of two families
of strong moral and cultural values it provides checks and
balances against areas that may splinter it, such as infidelity.
Above all, it is a buffer against one of the biggest modern
day ills -- the despair of feeling isolated in a cold world.
of Indian background living in the diaspora can cull out what
is most oppressive in the traditional system -- such as tyrannical
in-laws, a dowry and a society which rejects divorcees --
by living abroad.
for millions of women from India an arranged marriage is not
a matter of choice. It is about the union of two families,
in a community, in a caste, in a religion, in a province,
in a country. It is what defines India's status quo which
is ultimately male-dominated.
Ira Mathur is an Indian-born journalist living in Trinidad.
She produces television documentaries on developmental issues
and writes a regular column for The Trinidad Guardian.