Love & Marriage, in Modern India

This weekend we received my friend Bhawna’s wedding invitation, and it got me thinking about love and marriage in modern India.

Bhawna grew up in a suburb outside of Delhi but immigrated to the United States with her boyfriend after university. On the scaffold at work, she and I used to joke that she was the black sheep of her family, having chosen a “love match” while all her sisters were (or were destined to be) in arranged marriages. I’d never met anyone who’d been in an arranged marriage, and frankly the concept seemed rather antiquated and constricting to me . . . until I moved to India in 2013.

saturdaynewspaperMatrimonial classifieds in the weekend section of our local newspaper in India, divided by age group and caste.

I spent my Saturday mornings, dosas piled on my plate, mug of masala chai in hand, poring over the matrimonial classifieds in the Bangalore Mirror. One ad would boast the bachelor’s father was a surgeon, another touted lineage from a prominent Brahmin  family of Karnataka. Despite my personal fascination in perusing these newspaper pages (not dissimilar from my fascination in perusing Match.com profiles), as far as we could tell, Jason’s co-workers of our generation didn’t distinguish between those who had chosen their spouses and those who had had their spouses chosen for them. At dinner with his team one night, a colleague explained to me, “Both are normal—maybe even equally occurring. I know it seems weird to you Westerners, but to us, it’s not.” He shrugged.

Why are we Westerners so hung up on choice?

Anecdotally from Indian friends—including my American-assimilated friend, Bhawna—it doesn’t seem that one type of marriage is actually more successful than the other. And, the (relative) success of arranged marriages dovetails nicely with my theory on why couples from Survivor and The Bachelor can boast successful post-TV relationships despite overwhelmingly slim odds of 1 man: 25 women (e.g.). Although we grow up watching and reading about “the One” in a million soulmate,  surely we don’t believe ABC producers are omniscient and all-powerful enough to seal the fates of Trista Rehn, Ashley Hebert, and a handful of other bachelorettes and their spouses? At the end of the day, that combination of circumstance and timing clearly enables us to feel “compatible” with many, many more people than pop culture and romantic fiction would otherwise lead us to believe.

My friend Harshini, who lives in Sri Lanka but studied abroad in the U.S., says she’s looking forward to her parents finding her match. “Dating can be so hard,” she lamented when I visited her in Colombo. “From how you dress to if you drink alcohol, to staying out late, or staying over—which is absolutely forbidden—it’s not like your Tinder. We can’t date around.” And indeed, the dating process she describes does sound painfully slow and tedious . . . even to a verrrrry slooooow dater like me.

My year online made me think that I would do rather well in an arranged marriage, and truthfully, I can see its appeal. I found I almost always grew to like someone the more time I spent with them. I relish in the slow reveal of admirable qualities, of intriguing characteristics and histories that lie below the surface. Establishing a base level of trust and comfort can take a while. Almost invariably, I enjoyed my longer dates over my shorter ones; by the third date I had much more interest in and respect for a guy than I did on the first. This is probably why I had the most luck dating old friends.

The idea of choice is important and empowering, for sure. But is having your parents pick your significant other from their pre-vetted community really so different from having the ABC producers pick from their pool of contacts? At least when your parents are setting you up, there’s a better chance you won’t wind up with a Chad Johnson or a Juan Pablo.

Deep thoughts for a Sunday night, and I actually could expound this subject for hours. But, in the near term, I can’t wait to break out my sari from the top of my closet and watch Bhawna’s husband ride in on his white horse.

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