At 28, Smriti Rao was doing very well in her career. A branding and talent development consultant, she had lived in four metros over the past few years, and worked in fields that ranged from education to brand management to corporate training. Her professional life was on a high, but she was beginning to feel the need for companionship.
‘I think there’s a stage in your twenties when you’re at your narcissistic best,’ Smriti says, with a laugh. ‘It probably happens at different times for different people. You want companionship, but you basically want you—someone who is exactly like you, but a male version. I think it happens mostly to people who get external recognition from family and work. You’re told you’re bright, you’re funny, you’re creative, you’re different, and it spills into this whole self-image where you begin to feel, “Will I find someone who is good enough for me?”
Looking back, Smriri says she was very certain about what she wanted, and what life she saw for herself when 5he was 19-20 years old. Through her twenties, her goals blurred out. The nice part is that everyone puts a positive spin on it, and says how adventurous I am, and how exposed to different cities and cultures. But the truth is that I was just wandering, unclear, and I think just trying to find my feet in something professionally, and also trying to figure out what I wanted from a relationship. I think I gradually started piecing that in together only when I was nearing 30, when I decided to actually settle down.’
But even though she agreed to meet people, her heart was not in it. She giggles that the profile that was circulated in the ‘matchmaking circle’ was practically a CV. It said nothing about what kind of person she was looking for, or what she wanted to do with her life. ‘Not even my hobbies were mentioned. But, I would check out other profiles, and nitpick. I mean, who the hell lists their hobbies as “singing” and “dancing”?’
Smriti feels a certain kind of woman tends to dread the idea of arranged marriage. ‘Maybe it goes with the breadth of exposure in terms of the places we Jive in and the jobs we do. Or, maybe it goes back to the narcissism I spoke about. I got into the whole thing with a very detached attitude, without any expectations.’
One of the biggest challenges she spotted was dealing with the unrealistic expectations and the disproportionate importance our society accords to appearance. Tm sure all women get advice about how you should lose weight, not get tanned in the sun, and that you should do a facial before meeting the guy and so on, and there are women who can let that pass and say “Okay, I’ll do all that so that I can look my best that day.” But people who already have very low self-esteem, or a poor body image of themselves, are likely to take that as a comment on their inadequacy, and that’s what happened to me.’
She realized that one’s choice of partner depends on how one sees oneself at the time. This became the trigger for an unreal weight-loss regime. ‘My weight was just the most convenient thing to control, whether I’m fat or thin, and how that made me feel, with respect to how adequate I am.’
Around this time, Smriti started thinking about the other marriages in her family. Though none of her cousins had had arranged marriages, they had all married within the Konkani community; many had found partners in the family-friend circle. She had never seen herself marrying in the community—her friends’ circle was mixed.
‘I think my upbringing was in a very simple, close-knit, Konkani setting,’ she says. ‘It’s not as urbane and diverse as I used to think it was; if you look inside at the basics of who you are, you realize there’s a comforting sense of familiarity. I think that’s where the readiness to go into an arranged marriage came from.’
When she went to meet Sagar, she hadn’t even checked out his profile or picture. But she could see that he was focused, that he had got into the arranged marriage circuit with the intention of finding a bride.
‘I did have some idea that he was right for me, but I didn’t know why I felt that way. I didn’t have a checklist of criteria,’ she grins.
‘I just knew something fit. I took a blind plunge, and I think I realized what I wanted only once I got married. The kind of person that I am, I tend to go by instinct—whether it comes to choosing a job, or friends, or how I communicate, or whom I trust. I’ve a good, deep, solid instinct on a lot of things.’
Buoyed by her sense that things could work out, Smriti agreed to marry Sagar within a month. She says a lot of things fell in place for her after marriage. ‘Or, maybe my belief in the institution was why it fell into place,’ she laughs.
Turning serious, she says she doesn’t think one can make a cerebral decision about marriage. People may ask you to weigh your options, and set your criteria, but often the flow of your life guides you towards a particular decision.
‘You can set a standard on anything—funniness, or brightness, or language, or how well-informed someone is— but it doesn’t make sense if you’re not sure of what you want,’ Smriti says. She feels it is only in retrospect that she can see what she was really looking for, and that her initial approach may not have been right.
‘I had lost faith in my ability to pick the right kind of people, and the problem was that I wasn’t clear about what I wanted. We don’t realize that people can be articulate in different ways, and creative in different ways, and funny in different ways. This search for someone who is exactly like you satisfies a very transient need. I was very, very worried about not finding someone who will understand the things I said, the way I said them. As it is, even among my friends, there’s just a handful who do. But I think that sort of thinking is highly overrated by us, since it’s clearly not catering to more fundamental, significant parts of us.’
The significant part, she would later find, pointed to a deeper yearning, for respect, affection, acceptance and stability The fact that someone who caters to one’s idea of a perfect partner often fails to satisfy these needs can lead to a disconnect that is frustrating.
‘At some point, you see that all your relationships are reflections of your sense of self, and then you don’t know what you want in a man.’
Under such circumstances, how do you go about your search for a partner who fits in with what you need?
‘You can’t hide and seek. The problem is there are lots of us who don’t want to put ourselves out there, but still want to find a life partner,’ Smriti says. ‘You need to be willing to take a chance. You can’t project something else, or be someone else in order to be more acceptable in the marriage mandi. You have to brace yourself, and go out there, meet people, maybe be a bit vulnerable.’
Of course, one of the big worries is that one may end up saying too much, revealing too much about oneself to a stranger, with whom there may never be a connection. Smriti says one’s willingness to put oneself out there often depends on one’s acceptance of oneself. There is a lot that we ourselves reject about our lives, especially the things we did in our twenties.
The challenge is to find someone who’s open and mature enough to grant you the acceptance that you may not grant yourself about yourself, she says. ‘One of my scariest experiences was introducing Sagar to old friends,’ Smriti recalls. ‘I didn’t plan a meet-the-fiancé sort of event, though he actually arranged for me to meet his friends. But a couple of months before our wedding, I decided to introduce him to my friends from Mumbai, where I went to college. And I was a real brat back then. I’d be running about in shorts and playing basketball, and that’s who they know me as. I realized how much I’d changed since then only when my colony friends went on about how I’ve become so quiet and so inhibited and so different, and what’s with all the gracefulness! And then, you start wondering about whether you’re faking this. It feels like two islands meeting—the early-twenties’-Smriti and grown-up Smriti—and I was very confused. Suddenly, there was this big fear that Sagar would reject who I used to be.’
The first year of marriage will be filled with more such fears and doubts, Smriti says, and how you deal with them sets the tone for the marriage. Whatever your instinct says about a person, and how much ever information you gather about him, marriage is a new ball game.
‘The thing you come in most unprepared for is the realness of it—the decisions you need to make, the kind of different aspirations you both may have, sharing what makes you happy and exposing what makes you sad, who demonstrates affection, who takes charge, etcetera … this realness of making it work.’ This realness can manifest in ways we shudder to think about before tying the knot. ‘Marriage involves seeing each other at their ugliest worst. Like sitting with a red, snotty face, or bawling about the stupidest thing. Then you wake up the next day, still feeling attracted to that person. Everyone talks about compatibility, about measuring how suited you are to each other a little ahead, but I think you can only know compatibility if you truly know what you want. And you figure out only when you have it whether you want it or not. It’s a big chance to take.’
The important thing is to give oneself enough time to understand the other person, and vice versa, Smriti says. One will continually find out things about one’s partner and about oneself, and somewhere, a couple finds harmony. And when that happens, the plunge is so worth it!
A friend of mine told me about a cousin of hers who had been registered on matrimonial websites as well as marriage bureaus. Her profile was a three-page resume, with emphasis on her culinary skills and her knowledge of handicrafts. The response was disappointing, and expressions of interest came in mainly from families that the girl couldn’t see herself marrying into.
When her B-school graduate brother came down on holiday, he had a look at the profile, and decided it needed to be shaken up. ‘It underplays her talents, and we need to showcase her better,’ he said.
He set to it with the same approach he would use on a company profile. He put down the languages she knew, emphasized that she had grown up in various environments-southern India, north India and abroad—and that she was ‘easy to get along with’, had good interpersonal skills’, that she was willing to travel, and open to new cultures, and therefore all right with settling abroad. He wrote that she had done a diploma in fashion design, which showed the world she was traditional enough to pose in a Kanchivaram sari, but hip enough to dress models up. Finally, he revamped the pictures they had uploaded, and the responses began to flood in.