Vijay Nagaswami

The Shrinking Universe: Great Indian marriage obsession

I recently had a surprising conversation with some good friends — a married couple. They had always struck me as being urbane and liberal. They were both professionals who had made the transition from hippies to yuppies with seamless ease. They were well travelled ‘people of the world', as it were. And here they were, telling me that they were looking around for a bridegroom for their daughter. And how old was the said daughter? All of 24 years. And from her rolling eyes and pursed lips, I gathered that she was not particularly pleased with the direction the conversation was taking. Obviously, she'd been fighting a losing battle with her parents for some time, because there was also an air of resignation about her. And when I looked at her, all she could say was, ‘Yeah, right! Whatever!' Her 28-year-old single brother just chuckled in her direction, until the aforesaid parents added that they needed a bride for him as well. Maybe a brother-sister combination would work for everybody, they mused.

National obsession

What is it about Indians and marriage? I'm always astonished that even the most hitherto broad-minded and free-spirited Indians change dramatically when their children approach ‘marriageable' age, even though each community, social class and region define this differently. However, across the country, there seems to be a general consensus that wild oats must be sown pretty fast. By the time one is ‘settled' in one's career, one's brahmacharyais done and dusted, and one should settle down to grahastha.And, the onus of ensuring that one is ‘married off' (a terrible term, really) rests squarely on the shoulders of the parents. I have lost count of the number of parents who feel that they are failing their children if they don't find them a bride or a bridegroom to ‘settle' down with. Once their responsibility to terminate their children's brahmacharya is taken care of, then the parents, who are not yet ready for vanaprastha(and perhaps, never will be), want to extend their own grahastha with a grandchild or two who, when they grow up, will be subject to the same pressures all over again.

As a nation, we prepare for our children to get married pretty much from the time they are born. There are all manners of saving schemes tailored for just this purpose. And we want our children to qualify themselves well and get well-paying jobs, so they become economically empowered and good ‘ catches' in the marriage market. Though we tend to worry more about our daughters than our sons, the latter too are not spared. Of course, since sons are considered to possess a few more wild oats to sow than do daughters, we tend to give them a little more time before we start haranguing them to get married. And most middle-class families' savings are focussed obsessively on children's weddings (the Provident Fund was probably invented for the purpose). As a result, bemused 20-somethings are rushed into an institution they are as yet ill-prepared to engage with and end up in increasing numbers in over-crowded and under-staffed Family Courts that were never designed to handle such large volumes.

Step back

Let's just step back a bit and try and get some perspective on this marriage obsession of ours. First off, merely because we got married in our early twenties doesn't mean our children too have to. Remember our grandparents got married when they were 11 or 12. We didn't have to do the same, did we? So, if our children want to wait until their late twenties or thirties, why should we get spooked? In urban India today, the average age at marriage is increasing (about 25-26 for women and 29-30 for men). Had the men and women in question been permitted to have their way, they'd probably have got married even later than this. Let's look at a worse-case scenario. What if our children aren't able to find partners if they leave it too late? Or what if our children never want to get married? What if? There are enough single people who lead perfectly comfortable lives to testify to the fact that marriage is not the be all and end all of adult life. Sure, they may get bored and lonely at times, but then, so do married people.

Let them decide

Having worked with married couples for a while (both young and older), and having had several conversations with liberal as well as conservative parents who obsess about getting their children married, it's not difficult for me to come to the conclusion that young people should decide for themselves, when and even, whether, they should get married. Marriage can be a wonderful thing if we get it right, but the two most important predictors of a successful marriage are a state of preparedness for marriage and ownership of marriage, both of which are inter-linked. If young people get married because they've run out of arguments against their parents' obsession, the slope tends to get slippery. However, if they are enthusiastic about getting married, and both have had a say in partner choice, then they'll feel a greater sense of ownership over their marriage and chances are, they'll work harder at getting it right.

The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and can be contacted at

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 1:30:42 PM |

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