Not a 101, I am not qualified to write a 101. This is me basically just sharing my personal history with learning about modern urban Indian marriage practices from people I know and things I have seen and read, and then you can share your own experiences and ask questions of each other and hopefully just talk and learn from each other.
When I was in college, all of my friends’ parents had arranged marriages. None of them were planning on an arranged marriage, but none of them were dating either, they were sort of in a middle limbo space. I think that may be a common space for a lot of kids of arranged marriage parents? There’s no real taboo any more on dating, exactly. Their parents aren’t going to say “marry the boy I pick or you are disowned”. But there is also no real place for dating. During college, the message over and over again was “study, work hard, you are young and have to think about your future”. There was a vague idea that they would get to med school and somehow the perfect boy would just appear, another doctor at the hospital, and he would talk to them and say he is in love, and then they would go to their parents and be married. It was a sweet idea when you are 19 and in college, and not necessarily unhealthy, not every 19 year old is ready for dating or should be dating. But I don’t know what happened to those girls when they got to med school and were 25 and the family pressure and expectation was that they would be married and no perfect boy was appearing to propose. What do you do then?
The explanation my friends gave me for arranged marriages is that “it’s like a dating agency, but run by your parents”. I still think that is basically accurate? For these girls, American and educated and upper middle-class, there wasn’t going to be some forced marriage to a stranger. Their parents would arrange dates with a whole bunch of boys and they could pick. I also spent some time with their parents, and these were not unhappy marriages. They liked spending time together, they had things in common, they joked with each other, the wife wasn’t some silent terrified woman worshipping her husband. And I still think that is the reality of a lot of arranged marriages, two people who have things in common that were introduced by their parents, married, and 20 years later when their kids were in college, they were a happy team.
So my starting point for modern urban Indian marriages was a kind of happy place. If you had an arranged marriage, it was voluntary, you got to say yes or no to whichever guy you wanted, and twenty years down the line the arranged couple was interchangeable with a non-arranged couple. Oh, and also, there was an about to graduate couple I am pretty sure was arranged-engaged who worked at my campus job with me and they made out HARD in the break room. So I also got to see that sometimes an arranged engagement leads immediately to hardcore hormone explosion.
There were two marriages that happened in my friends’ extended families while we were in college and the way they talked about them was the first time that I went “wait, something is maybe not always perfect here”. First, my roommate’s cousin in India fell in love and it was a Thing. She was getting all of this second hand of course, just repeating to me the blurred version of what she got from her parents in that very unquestioning confident way that teenagers can have when they repeat their parents’ opinions as absolute Truth. She was Brahmin, from a landed Telugu speaking family. I first heard about this cousin as someone she vaguely disapproved of thanks to inherited opinions. When they had visited last, he had been designated to take his younger cousins around, they wanted to see temples and book stores and spend time studying for tests. He was on his cell phone with people, seemed bored with them, and wanted to go to malls and things, and eat meat. And there were rumors that sometimes he went to clubs. He was living alone in Hyderabad, working at some corporate job, away from the family, and there was much worry about this. Next I heard was a big family scandal coming to them from India, he had a GIRLFRIEND! At work! And she was of a different caste. Which my roommate seriously explained to me was a problem because they wouldn’t have anything in common, they would think it was okay now, but problems would come up. He didn’t realize that this relationship was doomed and he should never have started it. And then a few months later, update, his family found out he had secretly married the girlfriend and they had been living together in the city for months. More headshaking, this was ruining his life of course. And it was because he had seen too many movies and believed in the fantasy of romantic love, instead of sensible love with people like you. Obviously, I didn’t disagree at the time, it wasn’t my culture, she seemed very sure of herself, and I was only 19 myself. But looking back on it, that was RIDICULOUS! He DID marry someone like himself! He married a coworker at his job in the city, that was way more “in common” to build a relationship than he would have had with anyone his rural family picked out. Plus, what is with this “they can never be happy together”? They were married already! Had been married for months! And nothing disastrous had happened, everything was fine. But the family, down to his American teenage cousin, all were involved in this discussion, and were all convincing each other that it was hopeless. They weren’t forcing arranged marriages on anyone exactly, but they sure weren’t okay for a love marriage that happened without their approval.
And then the second marriage was the arranged marriage of my best friend’s cousin. She explained to me that her cousin was awesome, very smart, but she was over 30 and still not married. So her family took a hand and found her a really nice guy. He sounded like he actually was a nice guy, not just family approved. My friend liked him because at the pre-wedding things he spent time talking to her and getting to know her (the teenage serious awkward cousin of the bride). And he seemed really nice about the wedding stuff too, it was all arranged around her cousin’s schedule so she could keep doing the research she wanted to do. This did indeed sound very nice and pleasant. But what stopped me up for a second was that she described her cousin as very cool (meaning, smart and academically successful and interesting, not cool dresser or anything like that), not interested in marriage stuff, so once she got over thirty the family stepped in. Why couldn’t her very cool cousin just not be married? Why did the family have to find her this guy, nice though he sounded, who she was only willing to marry if it could be scheduled around her work stuff?
And then there was a final marriage, after I had graduated and started learning more about Indian culture in general and getting kind of an idea of how things might work outside of how my young friends perceived them. It wasn’t even a marriage actually, that’s part of what was interesting. My best friend, the same one whose cousin HAD to get married, had another male cousin who started seriously dating a Muslim young woman (her family was not just Hindu, but Hindu and displaced by Partition, lost the family home, and had a child die along the way as they walked to Delhi). He was away at grad school, his father was dead, so all his uncles (who all lived near each other in the same suburb) gathered together to discuss what they were going to do about the situation. Because they wanted to be sure they did something big to convey their unified opinion. That opinion being, they loved her. She was the girl their nephew loved, and in the place of his father, they needed to be sure she felt as welcome and accepted and cherished as possible. The religion thing was an issue, because what if she thought it was an issue? How could they best convey their total and absolute acceptance and joy in this relationship? Maybe a present? Should they send her a present? Or a letter that they all signed? Maybe a surprise visit to campus to take the young couple out for dinner and be aggressively welcoming? Luckily, his mother got wind of this gathering and showed up to give her brothers a piece of her mind and tell them to butt out and let the kids figure it out on their own. But isn’t that sweet? For this family, marriage and love (and there was no difference between marriage and love, if you loved someone you would marry them) was a family affair, not just between the couple. And what that meant was that it was the responsibility of the family to make the new loved one, whoever he or she was, feel as loved and welcome as possible by all of them.
I still don’t have a total handle on the modern urban Indian marriage thing. I think all of the various descriptions I heard over the years are correct. Sometimes it’s like a dating agency, you go out for coffee with a bunch of guys your parents find for you and hope you click with one of them. Sometimes it’s that you are a woman over 30 and you HAVE to get married, so the family steps in and makes it happen. Sometimes you fall in love all on your own, and the family steps in to give lavish approval and support. And sometimes you fall in love all on your own and the family refuses to approve or believe it will last.
The thing that I guess sticks out to me the most, which is beyond love versus arranged although related to it, is the “you HAVE to get married” part of it. I’m 35 now, and I wake up most mornings feeling very grateful that I don’t actually have to get married. If I ever meet someone where I think “I would be happier sharing a life with you than not”, then I can get married. But if I meet someone and think “well, if I have to get married, you are okay”, the next thought is “oh wait, I don’t actually have to get married! If I would be happier staying single than living with you, than I can stay single forever and ever! I am so blessed”. I think maybe a lot of the modern arranged marriages in the urban western set come up more from the “well, you HAVE to get married” push. If someone falls in love with a moderately appropriate person (“appropriate” as defined by their family and social group) before they are 30, great! No worries! Marry them! But if you are over 30 and there is no marriage on the horizon, well, maybe it is time to stop leaving it up to fate and leave it up to your parents instead.
Okay, that’s all I’ve got!