India Debunked #10: Are You Together?

Arranged marriages still account for the majority of all unions in India. A recent 2013 survey even showed that 74% of young people in India preferred arranged marriages over one where they can freely choose their spouse. Some view this as an archaic, backward process but it is very much part of Indian culture. Even children of the Indian diaspora in places as cosmopolitan as New York and London consider being introduced to potential partners by the parents.

In the past, the groom and the bride often did not meet until just before the wedding, some only on the day of the wedding, which meant that there was a lot of pressure on the parents to make sure they chose well. Families set about finding a match, not just between the two people getting married, but also between the families. Joint families live together, holiday together and pitch in to help each other so it is important the families are compatible.

The whole business has now gone digital, with websites and apps devoted to helping families find a suitable match for their daughters and sons. (Side note: Tinder is also popular in India; some claim they use it to find friends to do stuff with. Hmm….) These sites make capturing highly personal information such as height, weight, skin fairness (yes this is a thing!), family medical history, income, aspirations etc easier, enabling the parents to separate the wheat from the chaff more quickly.

Common interests, cultural similarities and complementing characteristics in both parties are sought after. Astrology charts of the two parties may be drawn up. Standard phrases and terms in matrimonial ads include ‘Very Handsome’, ‘Very Fair’, ‘Fair Beautiful’, ‘Very Beautiful’, ‘Cultured’, ‘Highly Decent’, ‘Hi-Profile’.

Sometimes “caste or religion is no bar” but other times, ‘fair educated Brahmin boy seeks Brahmin girl”. So caste can sometimes still play an important part in the deliberations. Traditionally, you would never marry someone outside your own caste or race. I learned this because Graeme and I are a mixed race couple.

I was initially baffled when we first arrived in India because hotel staff would ask whether it was ok that we had only booked one room. It took me a few months to realise that in the past, it was rare for Indians to marry outside their own social boundaries and that included race, caste and religion. Things are only starting to change now as the socially mobile millennials come of age. So to many, we were more likely in their minds not to be married to each other and hence the confirmation of the single room, often said to me, was necessary to protect my modesty and virtue.

It was never any question in our family that my sisters and I could marry whomever we chose. My parents only wish for our choice in life partners were that they were kind people and good to us so the concept of arranged marriage was strange to me at first. As I spent more time in India, I learned that whilst I would never have chosen it for myself, it’s not really such a bad idea in today’s non-stop, fast-paced age where young people work long hours and socialise outside of that. And is it really that different to meeting someone online?

These days in the modern interpretation, the children have more say in the matter and the parents’ roles are more like those of vetting and introduction agents. It is then left up to the couple whether they want to take things further after the initial meeting. Almost like going on a blind date with the cream of the crop. But set up by your parents.