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Article on Indian Wedding


By Ira Mathur, India
A suitable boy is first spotted by Bharati Narvani's uncle at a wedding in New Delhi, India.

Bharati 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.

Soon 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.

Her 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.

That will not be Bharati's fate. She will follow the ancient script of courtship and marriage that still prevails widely throughout India.

Once 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.

Finally 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.

The 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.

A 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).

After 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.

Earlier 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.

Bharati's mother, Manju, misses her daughter tremendously, but is satisfied that the arranged marriage was the best she could have done for her.

"They may have lived worlds apart but they have everything in common: food, religion, language, culture and a similar outlook on life," said Manju.

It 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 girlfriend.

Indian 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.

The 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.

Many 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.

With 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 Muslims.

The 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 to son.

A 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.

The 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.

An 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.

It 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.

The 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.

In 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.

Until 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.

These 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.

Advertising in daily newspapers remains a well-established tradition for parents of prospective brides and grooms to state their requirements.

In 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.

As 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."

The 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.

Today 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.

Western 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.

It 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.

Also, 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.

Children 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.

But 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.






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