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Convenient Arrangements – A Revisited Opinion

6th September 2020

For a while, Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking was the show you just couldn’t avoid. Riddled with remarks that were casteist, sexist, and misogynistic, the show’s problematic nature was a reflection of the attitudes many Indians, both home and abroad, still harbour. The host, Sima Taparia, conveys the deep seated position of arranged marriage in India when she refers to it being the norm, with its alternative being referred to as love marriage Amongst many people in the West, and a growing number of young metropolitan Indians, the idea of an arranged marriage is abhorring to think about. Although this distaste is far from unwarranted, perhaps there has been a myopic understanding of the tradition at play. Especially today, when relationships seem to be more fickle, and the search for meaningful long term connection seems increasingly difficult to attain, maybe arranged marriages of the Indian Matchmaking variety offers some semblance of comfort for both parties involved. I do emphasise ‘Indian Matchmaking variety’ here because the harsh reality of arranged marriage in India is one characterised by familial pressure, unequal power dynamics, and often an enforced outcome. But, as today’s author Ashwath Nityandan refers to it, the Indian “semi-arranged marriage” is a wholly misrepresented practice.

Screengrab from “Indian Matchmaking”. Image Credits Netflix.

The piece that follows is a republished article previously seen in the print edition of India Abroad in 2016. From the vantage point of a couple who went through this process nearly thirty years ago, this cheerful account allows us to see nuance in a practice that is far too often unfairly derided as primitive by Western cultural standards.

Written by Ashwath Nityanandan

As a deshi engineer, I did my tour of duty in Software-istan very early in my career. At that point in history Indians had not yet underlined the “I” in IT. The only other Asian in the entire software company I worked for was a fellow from Shanghai.

So we subcontinental’s still carried enough novelty that when my copy of India Abroad Magazine made its weekly appearance in the company snailbox, the girls at the front desk noticed. That’s where you’re from, cool. Wait, it says India, but it has so much information about the world. Which it actually did back then, much more than it does today – a point worth noting for editorial archaeologists.

A week came, however, when I was in no mood to show my issue of India Abroad to anyone. I rushed it off to my desk, skipped the headlines about Rajiv Gandhi’s peacekeeping adventure in Sri Lanka, and went straight to the back page. There I found the first words I ever landed in the IAM’s pages: South Indian engineer seeks outgoing graduate student or professional near Ohio. No bars.

As I heaved a sigh of relief that they had got the damn thing right, I may have thought of bars: the cultural ones we must jump over in a strange land, the casteist ones which separate us from our soulmates, even the wet ones which make us call a taxi to get home. But something made me open the paper and take another look. Three columns away from where I had planted my flag, I read: Nair girl is finishing master’s in US.

We just got back from a silver anniversary cruise to the Caribbean. For twenty-five years those two synchronised, fossilised strips of newsprint have been taped to our wedding album. Over them arches my wife’s proud banner inscription: And So The Story Begins. The fact that I responded to her ad while she completely ignored mine became a playful power point in our relationship. I think it just meant that she and her brother wrote better ad copy than I did.

Either way, that double-barrelled IAM catapult launched us over the unknown waters of matrimony like an F-18 from a flight deck. Over time, it has also launched some interesting exchanges. Even in midlife the conversation occasionally strays to “How did y’all meet, yaar?” We glance across the room, and reach telepathic agreement: Ok, we’re an India Abroad couple today. The story gets told and the reactions come.The early reactions were often edgy. Mainstream Americans fell into two camps, a nervous wow-that’s-great or a creepy stare. A few found the whole thing sexist, primitive or faintly obscene. Some just struggled with the notion that a good-looking, arty professional woman could appear by my side as if she had stepped out of a vending machine. They choked on the F word: I would introduce her as my fiancee and they would slide a notch down the alphabet and start calling her my girlfriend. They needed a nonexistent previous chapter in my story to be filled in for it to all make sense.

I explained that she came with unexpected bonuses. Her college stint in Chennai had left her with enough Tamil to understand those branches of my family tree. She was rapidly improving my Malayalam handicap, which had faltered after the death of my grandparents. We had even succeeded in closing the loop, as expat deshis say – we had found someone who knew someone who was related to someone who was somehow connected to both of us. None of this seemed to help.

I encountered a different flavor of marital arrangements on my first job in Jamshedpur. A knock on my hostel door one night led to mysterious inquiries by a group of strange men about Rahul, another engineer trainee who lived a few doors away. I knew that Rahul came from a well-connected Bihari family. I froze at the thought that he might have run foul of some bhayya hit squad. My roommate closed the door and whispered Chhup, shaadi ka chakkar hai. Rahul was not being hunted, he was being screened and wooed by the clan.

I soon saw Rahul’s small-town situation mirrored in another hemisphere when I moved across the world to America and started eking out a living as a teaching assistant. Idling exhausted amid my lab instruments on a Friday evening, I fell into conversation with one of my students. I asked Tim what he planned to do after he graduated. He said that he and his twin brother felt forced to move to Atlanta, though they really preferred the rural life. I asked why, thinking of job opportunities and bachelors in the fast lane.“Gotta settle down. No chance in a small town. Not enough good women around here, Ash.”

He went on to explain the added burden of competing for a maiden’s hand against another handsome blond male who looked exactly like him. As he spoke, it dawned on me that the pressure on these Southern gentlemen to show the world their family life was immense. It even trumped the oppressive need to get laid.

Of course, Tim did not question the premise that the world would leave him and his twin to fend for themselves; they expected no public assistance in finding mates. One of my friends who went west before I did had reacted sharply to this larger issue of social conveniences in an early letter that he wrote back to me from Stateside. His take was typical of us 1980s career refugees: I’m not saying I like America for the fast cars, fast food or fast women. I like it here because everything bloody well works.

As I opened his letter, I was hearing around me that the way to make a long-distance call in Jamshedpur was to bribe the technician at the telecom substation. Just hand him ten bucks and the number, said the advice. Then stand back and watch the sparks fly as he jumps the wires to get you a line. Surely things worked better than that in America?
Well, maybe not quite everything. As Tim and Tom hiked off towards the city lights in search of separate female fishing ponds, I could have pointed out to them Rahul’s privilege as well as his predicament. Jamshedpur had no singles bars, health clubs, coed volleyball groups or any other rickety infrastructure of the mating game. Instead, the solid drawbridges of Jharkand society were lowered precisely to him – wherever he was, and whether or not he wanted to duck and run to avoid being crushed by the burden of his social obligations.

As our own bridges began to span the chasms across in-laws and languages, geography and personality, my fiancee and I certainly expected to do some explaining about our postmodern arrangement. But some things took us by surprise. At the municipal desk in Chennai, an officer warned us sternly that she could not issue a marriage certificate at short notice unless a religious ceremony had already been conducted. When we assured her that it had, she glared and snapped: “Yenna, Margazhi maasathile kalyanam-aa? “(What, marriage in the month of Margazhi?). Her displeasure was well founded. Orthodoxy discourages weddings in the month of Margazhi, which wraps around the end of the western calendar year. My mother scolded her that expat kids must make expat arrangements around their Christmas vacations, whether or not these meet the cultural expectations of the Saidapet civil clerk. We got our marriage certificate, and a quarter century of patience later we got the reward of a delightful stop in the Cayman Islands.

That event might be counted as friendly fire, but it is more difficult to categorize Uncle Sam’s reaction when he himself is an expat. One guy stopped by the US consulate in New Delhi to renew his student visa early on a vacation trip home. He got it with no fuss. The complications arose when his trip ended in an unexpected engagement. He found himself before the same consular officer a fortnight after their first meeting, this time accompanying his new fiancee who needed a dependent visa.

The agent demanded ponderously: “Sir, do you expect me to believe that you did not know two weeks ago that you were going to marry this woman?” As the story goes, my friend responded: “Sir, do you expect me to believe that they sent you to India without teaching you this shit?”

She got her visa, and the State Department got some free on-the-job cultural training.
The training will have to evolve as the rules change in front of our eyes. I just met a couple whose trajectory ended on the ultra-traditional note of formal ponnu-paakarthu, an ancient girl-viewing party with the prospective in-laws. What nobody talked about was the fact that they had first friended on Facebook. The friends were really introducing the in-laws to each other, even though protocol required them to pretend that it was the other way around.

Still, the tradition likely serves as a circuit-breaker against failed marriage. The families can do background checks and culture matches, and retain some veto power if they really see something going wrong. The one thing they can’t do is stay rooted in the past, especially when it comes to conservative scruples of lifestyle. Even back in the 80s, one guy mocked my IAM ad, saying his would have read “Gender no bar, sex baar-baar”.

As westernisation masquerades as globalisation, this sustained tradition looks like a cultural counter flow. In these meteoric times, the Indian semi-arranged marriage is an odd little warm-blooded creature lurking in the shadow of the dinosaurs. It may yet have its day.

 “A version of this article originally appeared in India Abroad Magazine, New York, in 2014.  It is being reproduced here under the author’s international reprint copyright.”

Experience Further: I was living for a dream, loving for a moment/Taking on the world, that was just my style/Now I look into your eyes, I can see forever/The search is over, you were with me all the while

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Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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