Running in the family

Young Indians are playing with apps, dates and other fruity ideas. But for the real thing, the convention of the arranged marriage still holds sway.

Updated - April 03, 2016 08:26 am IST

Published - April 02, 2016 04:30 pm IST

Arranged marriages — delicious material for parody and an often discomfiting mirror to a patriarchal and kinship-bound society — are not going away anytime soon. File photo used for representational purpose only.

Arranged marriages — delicious material for parody and an often discomfiting mirror to a patriarchal and kinship-bound society — are not going away anytime soon. File photo used for representational purpose only.

"We’d just settled down around our table, much like two couples on a double date, when the guy’s brother-in-law asked, ‘So Meeti, do you cook?’ If I were a little kid, this could be the moment I flung a toy car at his face. But I was a grown woman looking to get married; the most I could do was finger the sharp edges of my fork under the table and consider stabbing his eye.”

In her book Know Any Good Boys? Meeti Shroff-Shah — copywriter and travel writer — takes us, hilariously and slightly terrifyingly, through the labyrinthine “arranged marriage circuit” consisting of birth-charts and classifieds, and bio-datas, a Gujarati matrimonial bureau, and dozens of “hellish” first meetings that she endured before she finally met a suitable boy.

Arranged marriages — delicious material for parody and an often discomfiting mirror to a patriarchal and kinship-bound society — are not going away anytime soon. Not even in a dating-app-accessed India where the urban middle class can (and does with growing regularity) swipe right on a potential romantic match.

Shroff-Shah did agree to let her parents find her a groom and over 40 suitors and two-and-a-half years later, she found and married the man of her dreams.

If this sounds like something of an unbeatable endurance test, Shroff-Shah represents another anomaly: she married outside her community. Just over five per cent of urban India marries outside their caste, according to the > India Human Development Survey II (IHDS-II), conducted by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland in 2012. This percentage is only marginally higher than in rural India. “What this shows us is that the family still dominates decisions about marriage,” says Sonalde Desai, Senior Fellow at NCAER and Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, who spearheaded the study. The survey included 35,275 ever-married women aged 15-49 years.

Now, while we cannot assume that all these same-caste marriages were arranged by the family — some could have been by choice — a safe guesstimate would say a good majority were.

So, why is a family-refereed “arrangement” still the commonest route to marriage even in our metropolises where, one would imagine, relatively greater education, cosmopolitanism and anonymity would allow people to exercise their agency over the trappings of tradition? For 29-year-old Asawari Deshpande, arranged marriage is a “safe” option. “My experiences have made me wary. Maybe an arranged marriage will be safer, as more family members will be involved in the decision-making process,” says the Mumbai-based brand manager.

The one dramatic shift that has happened to affect this dynamic — at least within a sliver of our demographic — is the worldwide web. “The most interesting emerging trend heralded by portal matrimony is that individuals participate much more in the process of ‘arranging their marriages’, as a result of which they tend to have greater ‘ownership’ over their marriages,” says Chennai-based author and psychiatrist Vijay Nagaswami.

Marriage portals are advertised as spaces where individuals, along with their families, search for life partners. But how real is the individual’s participation? While it’s true that families are taking on board the preferences of their sons and daughters, it is also true that it is often the parents or other relatives who initiate and engage with the portal on behalf of their children.

Also, the so-called “choice” that parents now offer comes with caveats because these are really constructed choices. Film-maker and writer Paromita Vohra, who conceptualised ‘Agents of Ishq’, a multimendia project about sex, love and desire, says. “There is now a new idea of the arranged marriage where parents and children are shown to be ‘choosing’ together. On the surface it looks like an open-ended choice — (‘of course we will find you a girl or a boy who you like’) — but the space in which you are looking is often circumscribed by your caste, class and background.” The notion of ‘choice’, she points out, is incorporated into the notion of ‘norms’.

And in this process of choosing, ‘class’ is more important than ever before as a factor in who you arrange to marry, says sociologist Chandan Gowda, Professor at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru. By ‘class’ one does not “merely mean economic backgrounds, but also shared cultural factors like styles of speech and shared aesthetic sensibilities in food, clothing, and other items of taste,” he says. “Further, caste boundaries have not ceased to matter in marriages arranged by families. The latter rework the criteria of acceptable and non-acceptable caste relations.”

In fact, endogamy (marrying within one’s caste) has been so widespread, it has etched itself into genes, a >recent study has found. For most upper-caste communities, endogamy started nearly 70 generations ago.

Meanwhile, our app stores are bursting at the seams with dating and match-making apps: Tinder, Truly Madly, Woo, OkCupid, Truejodi, QuackQuack, Aisle. Tinder alone sees some 14 million swipes a day in India. Mumbai-based advertising professional Anindya Kundu, 30, found his soul mate on Tinder last year, and he married her after a year of dating. “The only person who should have a say in your choice of a life partner is you,” he says. This leads one to imagine that apps, more than portals, might be the game-changer for the arranged marriage.

“My understanding anecdotally is that there are people who meet on dating platforms and marry,” agrees Vohra, “but these people make up a very small percentage.” In the app world for now, most users may meet people, date people, and experiment with dating life, but will eventually make much more conventional marital choices.

In other words, young Indians are still trying to understand dating, the dynamics of which are not yet set. Young people are rarely socialised to engage with the opposite sex. There are no dating conventions or mores for them to fall back upon, which often leads them right back to the tried and tested arranged marriage.

Chennai-based software professional Deepa Lakshmi (name changed), 27, is an outgoing person, full of fun, and her parents are open to her choosing a partner of her liking. An arranged marriage was the “last resort” for her. “I dated a few men, but did not find a single person I wanted to settle down with. In the end, I gave up, and asked my parents to find me a boy,” she says.

This safety net is so ingrained in society that even LGBT activist Harrish Iyer’s mother, in that much-publicised case, went to a matrimony website to find a suitable boy for her son. It looks as if young Indians are playing with apps, dates and other fruity ideas, but for the real thing, they still prefer to get their families involved. For now at least, arranged marriage appears very much hard-wired into our DNA.

(With inputs from Julie Merin Varughese)

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