A feature almost unique to Indian society is the matrimonial advertisement seeking suitable matches for boys and girls. In India, this matrimonial advertisement run to countless pages each day in various newspapers of the country. A foreigner would be puzzled to think of a reason for this spate of newspaper matrimonial advertisement unless, of course, he knew something of the traditions and culture of India.
During the post-independence period, rapid urbanisation and the disintegration of the old caste panchayats (organisations of particular communities) despite the strong tradition of exogamous and endogamous rules for marriages in India, parents looking for suitable matches for their children were finding it difficult to find partners who complied with these rules. It was then that they took recourse to newspapers that served to publicise their needs in a very wide area. In each matrimonial advertisement, the caste of the person seeking a suitable match is almost always mentioned. A random survey of this matrimonial advertisement revealed some interesting features. In cities, the average age of boys wanting brides was between 23 and 28, while in the case of girls it was between 20 and 25. Of these advertisers, 66 percent of the boys were within the age group 26 to 28 and an almost equal percentage of girls fell in the age group 23 to 25.
It was further observed that most of the advertisements were from the upper middle classes. Further, a majority of them related to persons who were highly educated had well established social and economic standing or belonged to prosperous business families.
A majority of the boys specified employed girls, preferably teachers. Doctors preferred to marry doctors. Educated parents of girls sought doctors and engineers or other professionals while business families looked for boys from the business community.
Apart from this newspaper advertisement, caste organisations and marriage bureaux have come into existence. In the West, these bureaux matched those couples who, individually, had been unsuccessful in finding a suitable mate. In India, however, the matrimonial advertisement is an attempt to fill the gap created by the disintegration of the old caste panchayats that had enabled them to find a match in caste, creed, education, money, social status, etc. This matrimonial advertisement is followed up with an exchange of letters between the parents and a meeting is arranged at the girl’s house. If the parties are satisfied, the marriage is agreed upon.
Despite the expansion of education among the youth and criticism of the old tradition of arranged marriages based on caste and economic considerations, there is still a gulf between ideas and practice even among the most sophisticated classes. There was a tendency among the young people, mostly college students, to follow Western forms of behaviour. Dating and petting have become common in India. However, when it comes to marriage, a majority of the young people follow their parents’ wishes in choosing a suitable partner. In effect, while it was all right to go around with a boy or a girl, and even indulge in pre-marital sex sometimes, the youth were reluctant to marry people who indulged in such activities.
Thirty years ago, the optimum age was 20, or just below – the age at which beauty queens get selected. With emerging demand for brides with higher education and specialisation, the same has moved up by a few years. But anyone pushing 30 has to do some explaining, such as “looking younger than she is”. That is the irony. Young men and women in India climbing up the career ladder through their late twenties face an altogether different prospect; while some men keep on notching gains, women in India start losing heavily in the marriage market.
Beauty is the common denominator, as for as well as offered – some offers with epithets like ‘exceptionally’ or ‘ravishingly’ beautiful.
There is almost an obsessive concern with height. With the ideal around 158 cm or 5 ft., 3 in, many girls are still failing to make it – better nutrition has yet to make its due impact on height.
It is rather intriguing why slimness is so much in demand. Perhaps the term is popular because ‘slim’ is such a nice-sounding word. After all, who can vouchsafe that today’s slim will not be tomorrow’s plump? An obese condition that is apt to attract unwelcome attention is euphemistically described as ‘healthy’.
In our colour-conscious setting, the skin pigment is paramount. The matrimonial advertisement give umpteen gradations of fair: very fair, most fair, extremely fair, milky white. On the other hand, ‘wheatish’ alone is there to accommodate all shades of the less fair. It is a pity, the Queen’s English is not inclined to incorporate this picturesque word.
It is still a sexist world where a girl’s physical attributes are under far closer scrutiny than that of the boy. Any female infirmity, such as stammering or squint, or even spectacles, has to be listed out bravely while boys rarely bother to mention their bodily ‘imperfections’. And this is when males, on average, are heir to more body disorders than females.
However, one significant development has occurred. Instead of keeping mostly mum over the boy’s personality, his looks increasingly find a mention. But mostly remains confined to the word ‘handsome’ or Very handsome’. Indeed, if what is advertised in ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ turns out to be true, we should rate ourselves as the most beautiful people on the planet.
The most popular epithet used for girls is ‘homely’, both offered and demanded. Surely, there are other descriptions of her good nature such as amiable, affectionate, simple-natured, sweet-natured, soft-spoken, cooperative, cheerful or perfect. Yet the adjective ‘homely’1 takes the cake. ‘Homely’ in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, means simple, primitive, unpretentious. Americans are far harsher; the New Webster defines it as plain in appearance, unattractive.
Yet, to us, the word ‘homely’ (taken as home-loving) symbolises the very quintessence of what an Indian male and his family would want off the new bride; at the minimum it denotes a good homemaker, a devoted housewife, an obedient daughter-in-law, and would be doting mother – in short, a giver and not a taker. And the homely part is not to be pared down, irrespective of her being engaged in out-of-home work.
Close on the heels of beauty comes education; the higher, the better, preferably professional or technical with its better potential for earning. Yet the ‘open sesame’ is still convent education—popularly associated with the ease of speaking English and a flair for social mixing. Many bride seekers specify it as eminently desirable whereas some others make it an obligatory requirement. Similarly, on the girl’s side, such education is invariably highlighted. Even a brief spell of convent schooling could qualify for being ‘convented; some have started putting forth phrases like ‘throughout convent education’.
There was a time when a bride wanting to work outside met with family resistance, even hostility. The wheel has come full circle in the last 2-3 decades. Working wives are now preferred, often actively sought after.
At certain levels, a girl’s job and salary become as crucial to her marriage prospects as her looks and family. Of course, some people are seeking career women as wives for more equal partnership – let alone women in India themselves finding work satisfaction as the prime consideration in a double income. With the growing consumer culture and inflation, the attractions of a double income are obvious.
What strikes one most while reading today’s matrimonial advertisement is the growth thrust on money power. Parents of girls enumerate their wealth. And so do the parents of boys. At one time, the only child was thought to be somewhat unfortunate, having missed the fun of having siblings. Now the fact of someone being the only child is boldly advertised for its property potential.
The groom’s side seems to have an easier job in matrimonial advertisement. You list your requirements of the bride and then mainly concentrate on detailing the groom’s income – often mentioned in terms of five figures or six figures or seven figures – and the family property, more so if it includes a house in South Delhi. Age, height, looks, and family do play a part but it is primarily his capacity as a solid provider that matters.
Grooms do not have to spell that they are caring or that they would be a help at home. At best, it is made out on their behalf that they have ‘clean habits’.
Composing a concise matrimonial advertisement for a near one is not such a simple affair. You have to compress a complex human equation in some 50 words-loquacity costs money. To pack maximum meaning into minimum words, a sort of telegraphic language has emerged that calls for some skill in deciphering. ‘Decent marriage’, for one, is a meaning-laden term.
In our matrimonial advertisement (increasingly backed by technology advances like e-mail) while the concept of an ideal husband has remained largely unchanged over the years, the concept of an ideal wife has undergone a sea change in the last few decades. Besides being young, beautiful, slim, tall, fair, homely, well-educated and hailing from an acceptable family, she should be an actual or potential working mate. The Indian woman’s role in marriage as evidenced from this matrimonial advertisement has been changing rather radically as compared to the Indian man’s.