Arranged marriages, even though they seem to us like a concept from the Dark Age, are very much in. But of course, there are different types of arranged marriages.

The hardcore ones happen in rural areas. The older women on the boy’s side send the word that they are looking for a bride. Send the word is too strong an expression: they whisper about it in their closed quarters, and it spreads like wildfire. Within 12 minutes, all the villages in the district know. When the women hear about a suitable girl, the first thing they do (after checking her family’s assets and the dowry they can expect, let’s not forget we are talking business here) is matching the horoscopes. If the horoscopes match, then they’ll go check her out themselves. The bride-viewing trip to the girl’s village usually involves two dozen people squeezed in an old jeep, a round of tea, biscuits offered by the girl at whom the boy will try not to stare. However, since she’ll be around for about 14 seconds, he’d better try and get a glimpse. Not that anyone will ask his opinion. The families will talk, they will agree on a dowry (usually, in villages, a gold necklace and some cash) and next time the girl will see the boy will be on their wedding day. Sometimes there is no bride-viewing for the boy, just a picture.

In the cities, it is slightly more relaxed. The women organize for the girl to come over for tea with her family. The boy and the girl meet, they are told to go for coffee together and to come back in an hour. The boy takes the girl to an expensive place he will never take her again once they are married, they have coffee, they talk about movies. They come back, they’re smitten. The families agree on a “gesture” (a fridge, a scooter, a car, some cash, depending on the income bracket), a date is set by the astrologer. There are different versions of the urban arranged wedding: sometimes the boy and the girl go for coffee two or three times before giving an answer. But never more than three times, this would damage the girl’s reputation.

It’s all fun and I often tease my friends who got an arranged marriage. But it can be an excruciating process. A friend of mine got rejected three times by guys she went for coffee with. She was crushed and she told her parents that that was it. She’d find her husband herself, but there was no more “going for coffee”. She did find an amazing guy and they are now blissfully married.

Love marriages are just as many as arranged marriages. Sometimes they go smoothly, both families being relaxed and not minding inter-casting. A friend of mine from Pondicherry fell in love with a guy from Jaipur. They dated and when they decided to get married, the boy’s family asked about her background. “So, she told me, I went to my father and I asked him: Papa, by the way, what caste are we? He had no idea. So he asked his mother, who figured out something. It seemed to please the family alright, and we got married.”

Another friend of mine had a thougher experience. He is a Brahmin boy from Uttar Pradesh (which would make his parents very strict on caste). While he was in college in Pune, he fell in love with a nice Maharashtrian girl. They dated, and when it became obvious they were going to spend their lives together, they told their parents. Her parents were cool, his went totally frantic. For three years they wouldn’t even consider it. He was adamant he wasn’t marrying anyone else. But is was a tiring and hurtful fight, and he got scared she would just give up and leave. He decided to elope with her. But his father got wind of it and, somehow, finally gave in. They got married, and they are just the most adorable couple!

I really think there is no rule about marriages in India. Arranged marriages do work, because they look at marriage as what is has been for centuries: a practical venture. We started putting feelings in the marriage concept in the fifties and we now cry in dismay at the divorce rates. I also think that parents often know what is best for their children.

So, to finish this horribly long post, let’s say there is no rule. India is a country where shaadi.com and speed-dating, bride-viewing and teen sex all coexist.

For the better and the worse.



It’s complicated

November 23, 2008

I read somewhere that Indians tend to get irritated by the constant and amused references to their holy cows. I couldn’t agree more. The fact that, when we talk about the biggest democracy in the world, where writers can pocket two Booker Prizes in three years (Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga) where just about everyone is an entrepreneur, and where poetry was being written while we white faces were still fighting wars with snow balls, the fact that when we talk about this country we talk about the bloody cows wandering in the traffic can only be irritating for Indians.

One day at a party, an English lady on her first trip to India was telling me and an Indian friend of mine how much she liked Jaipur. “It’s such a wonderful city, she exclaimed, but so dirty! Why doesn’t anyone pick up the garbage on the streets?”. “Who would want to do something like pick up the garbage?” my friend replied. “And what would the cows eat?”, I asked. She stared at us, bewildered.

Along with the cows and the dirt, another common question is poverty. The amount and the behaviour of beggars on Indian streets is indeed crazy. If you live here, however, you have no choice but get used to it. Everyone asks me how I cope with it. The best answer to this eternal and eternally annoying question comes from Mark Tully, English writer and long-time Delhi-wallah : “I don’t have to cope with the poverty, the poor have to cope with the poverty”.

The two other subjects of intense and judgmental fascination for first-timers are caste and arranged marriages. I have had endless conversations about these with visiting friends. As with everything in India, it is difficult to be definitive on these topics. There are so many different realities that generalization is impossible. A farmer’s daughter from Uttar Pradesh and a middle class Bombay girl have nothing in common (except maybe a crush on Akshay Kumar), and when they get married, it will be for different reasons and in ways poles apart.

As for caste, it is an even tougher one. Unlike the arranged marriage stuff, there is nothing vaguely romantic about it. It is hard to joke about something that has caused so much pain, so mercifully. In cities, where castes are somehow blurred by money and education, people tend to shrug the issue off. Castes are joked about, not cried over. On the other hand, rural India’s caste system is still, I think, pretty hardcore. Caste-related murders are common and low caste people live a hard, sad and fearful life. But this is a side of India, definitely not shining, that few people are interested in and even fewer do report from (grab Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger for a ferocious glimpse of it).

Poverty, arranged marriages and castes: like India itself, it englobes millions of truths, contradictions, surprises and subtleties.