To marry for love or security

 

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Category: Relationships Date: 26 Jun 95


Ira Mathur discusses the advantages and disadvantages of arranged marriages

 

I was deeply hurt and angered at the brutal murder of a ten-month-old baby by his young father. Continuing an article on arranged marriages was difficult while I struggled with my powerlessness at this violence which appears so frighteningly random. The subject seemed frivolous by comparison.

 

On further reflection, I thought not. I am not a psychologist but surely the basis of a human being is his family life, whether he has been nurtured or abused into adulthood. What kind of life did that infant’s father have? What shaped him? What support systems did he have? This is the stuff that forms us.

 

The arranged marriage today is widely regarded in the West as a terrible example of lack of choice, of loss of freedom and individuality. But it may be worth our while to examine systems which can support people who are aimless, angry, alone. Perhaps I am reacting to this murder of a child, instinctively wanting to huddle somewhere with everyone I love.

But here we go: The arranged marriage.

 

A suitable boy is spotted by Bharati’s uncle at a wedding. Manoj is of Indian parentage. He was born in Liberia, educated in England, and has returned to India with his parents to find a bride. At about this time Bharati, born in Trinidad, is preparing to accompany her parents to India on one of their regular visits back to her country of birth. Bharati is aware that her parents feel it is time for her to get married. She herself is amenable to the idea. On their arrival Bharati’s uncle arranges a meeting of the two families. Manoj arrives with his mother and aunt to meet Bharati who is accompanied by her mother and uncle. A discreet discussion between the parents, formalities exchanged, and the couple are given a chance to talk. Within 20 minutes Manoj decides that Bharati is right for him. The feeling is mutual and Bharati modestly tells her parents that she will accept their decision.

 

The two families are delighted. The couple gets engaged. Two months later a wedding takes place in the State of Gujarat in India. The bride is weighed down by a heavily worked shocking pink lehenga and choli and dupatta (full skirt and bodice and shawl) embroidered in gold and silver. She is adorned with flowers and intricate jewelry. The groom is wearing a Shervani (a long coat) and silk pajamas. After the traditional wedding ceremony at the bride’s home, the wedding party, women in silk and brocade saris, men in traditional silk sherwanis and suits spill out onto the streets of Baroda and make their way to a five star hotel for the reception. They honeymoon in Indonesia and settle down in Banjul, in Gambia.

 

Earlier this year Bharati and her husband Manoj visited Trinidad with their infant son to a huge reception given by Bharati’s parents. Bharati is radiant in her traditional bridal outfit, and Manu, (as she affectionately calls her husband,) looks smugly satisfied. They encourage their baby boy to greet the guests. Those of us who knew Bharati before she got married have to admit she has gained confidence, matured, bloomed, looks happy.

 

Bharati’s mother misses her daughter tremendously but is satisfied that the arranged marriage was the best she could have done for her. “They may have lived worlds apart but they have everything in common, food, religion, language, culture, and a similar outlook on life”. It makes sense. People tend to mingle with and marry those of their economic, social and religious grouping. Married people will tell you that sharing your life with another human being is difficult enough without having to also deal with and argue over religion and friends, family and food.

 

The Western mind may baulk at this idea. I know that even I did when faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage. I was 23, just completed a seven-year stint of studying in Canada and England, but I agreed to accompany my parents to India at the possibility of meeting a prospective groom. But one condition let me off the hook: that I would agree to meet people arranged by my parents, but the final decision to marry or not would be mine.

 

In those few weeks in Delhi, dressed by my mother in demure silks, I met lawyers and doctors, businessmen and young army officers. Sons of family friends and friends of friends. “Do you cook dear?” asks a particularly conservative prospective mother-in-law. “No, hate it,” I answer happily.  Then turning pointedly at her son, “Do you read?” I asked him. He did but wondered aloud why I was so aggressive about it. That ended that.

 

I nodded over coffee and cake at some very amiable fellows but my heart wasn’t in the venture. I was in turn sulky, outrageous and downright rude to prospective grooms and their parents and returned to England without an engagement ring. My parents didn’t show signs of disappointment; rather they accepted my decision philosophically. It is true that the arranged marriage can preclude the choice of marrying for love. But let’s face it, how many single women, who want to get married, scoff at the idea of meeting a string of eligible bachelors, even if it is arranged by their parents?

 

Western style marriages begin with dating with its attendant excitement, of spontaneity, of a challenge, of tender moments and the pleasure of companionship without heavy commitment. Then there’s the painful side. The elaborate ritual of dressing to kill, of having your worst childhood insecurities surface as you approach a prospective partner: Does he/she think you are fat, stupid, ugly or all three? Of wondering if she will expect you to marry her because you invited her to your mother’s birthday party? Of agonising after a nine year relationship and two children if he will ever pop the question, of biological clocks and fear of commitment, of the brittle smiles as you fail to capture someone’s attention. Of the two in the morning loneliness.

 

But like all systems, the arranged marriage can be abused. There have been a few highly publicised cases of harassment for bigger dowries; of fathers with daughters becoming financially stripped by endless demands for expensive gifts, of tyrannical interfering in-laws. And it goes without saying, no marriage, not even an arranged one, is inured from basic incompatibility or abuse. It can go wrong in other ways. A friend who lives in India ended up in an apartment in LA married to a man who was already living with a woman. She couldn’t go back. Indian society is quick to reject divorced or abandoned women especially those with children. She has no choice but to accept her husband’s mistress.

 

That is why the best part of an arranged marriage can be having your in-laws close-by. Going to live with in-laws can’t be all bad if you’ve got a bit of space and wonderful if you’ve got kids, because in-laws are built-in baby sitters. Apart from the built-in economic comforts of a family home, it is able to absorb shocks such as a loss of job. This system also cares for the elderly, parents and grandparents who are generally isolated in western societies. A joint family gives children confidence because they’re always around people who care about them. Also because the arranged marriage tends to be a union of two families of strong moral and religious values, it provides checks and balances against areas that may splinter it, such as infidelity and irresponsibility. Above all it provides comfort in adversity and a buffer against one of the biggest modern day ills - the despair of feeling isolated in a cold world.

 

Ultimately what matters is that the angry young men are sending strong signals to us: that we ensure that our children are nurtured, the best way we can.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur