In my own case, the question of arranged marriage would be brought up every time a relative or family friend asked whether I was ‘available’. If I was in a relationship, the question would be hedged. If I wasn’t, I would be consulted. Since, until recently, I wasn’t sure whether I would be willing to give an arranged marriage a shot, I would shrug my shoulders and the process would be set in motion.
I’ve never met any of the prospects in person but rejected two on the basis of appearance—yes, women do that too—and rejected two more on the basis of accent and conversational skills after speaking to them on the phone. These four set-ups were spaced out over seven years, and after the last I announced that I didn’t see the point in arranged marriage—not when the criteria for shortlists included caste, height, education and horoscopes. I’ve often wondered about how women who are as picky as I am—which many women are—continue to keep the faith, how they push themselves to meet one groom after the other.
Devyani Khanna, 27, has worked in event management in Delhi and Mumbai. Her family has been looking for a groom for her for about three years, and she acknowledges that the process can be frustrating and exhausting.
‘It’s important to take breaks. You never meet one after the other. It’s not easy. Sometimes, it is very depressing, very heartbreaking, disappointing, hard. But this is what you need to ask yourself—do you see yourself meeting anybody? I don’t. I’m very sure that I don’t want to be with someone from my industry, or even a related one, like media. So, that’s ruled out, and the only way to meet someone is through the parents. You have to push yourself, and after a bad experience you have to really drag yourself to meet the next person. But also remember that you need to be open and; willing to let people into your life. So, if you sense that you’re shutting down, there’s no point; take a break. YOU may miss a really good offer because you’re not in the mood, but anyway, you won’t realize it’s a good offer when you’re that unmotivated.’
She points out that it’s not pleasant to keep meeting and talking to strangers. It can leave one feeling emotionally drained. ‘That’s a huge negative in an arranged marriage because it can make you doubt your own self, make you doubt whether there is anybody out there who is meant for you because you meet all sorts of strange people and you have strange experiences. At first, you laugh about it with your friends, but eventually, when you get more serious, you just feel… like, what the hell, you know.’
Devyani has learnt to identify certain parameters that she uses as filters to decide whether she even wants to meet someone. When she started out, she had a checklist. However, she says, over these crucial years, her priorities have changed and her personality has evolved. Now, she trusts her instinct. Her main concerns are in line with those of her family. She will meet a man if he is:
- from a respectable family
Once those three factors have been ticked off, she discards the checklist when she goes for a meeting. ‘Each year, as you’re finding a partner, you meet a few people. So, as you have new experiences, your choices are evolving, your expectations are evolving. Now, I base my decisions on how I feel with a person, whether he can make me laugh, how he treats me, whether I feel comfortable, things like that. I think it has to do with the age group. At 24—25, things like “Is he a reader? Is he tall? Is he handsome?” were important to me. Now, all that is secondary.’
She says the years between 24—25 and 27—29 are formative years in a woman’s life. It’s the gap during which we figure out what we are, what we want from life, and whom we want to spend it with.
‘At 24—25, you’re just out of college, or you’ve worked for a year or two, depending on how much you’ve studied. You haven’t figured out enough about yourself. At the time, you’re still very influenced by what society thinks, what family thinks. If your parents feel a guy is nice, you will be, affected by it, though what they’re looking for is different from what you’re looking for. And when you rebel, you rebel for the wrong reasons. Say, if a guy is extremely good-looking but not well- educated, we’d be so floored by his looks that we may ‘make a decision we will regret later.’
There is another side to it. Devyani agrees that a 24-year-old just may mould herself according to her partner, but she feels one needs to be at least 27 to make a sensible decision and not get carried away by extraneous factors.
That said, the decision to marry depends on conditioning. It may have less to do with age than time spent in the marriage circuit. ‘In my case, my family only got to talking about it when I was around 24. So now I’ve reached the stage where I’m totally prepared for marriage, and I know what to look for. Then again, some women are conditioned by the age of 20 to expect that they will be looking for husbands right out of college, and will be married by 24. So, they too, have spent the same three or four years thinking about it, and maybe they’re as prepared. That’s assuming they don’t find partners immediately. It’s possible, of course, and I don’t think 20—21 is anywhere close to the right age for marriage.’
The right to ask for what you want
In an arranged marriage set-up, too many things are dismissed as shallow. Often, they are the very things that lead us to fall in love or—in a less ideal situation—to get attracted to someone. These are things like looks, accent, pronunciation, manners and upbringing. While people aren’t always looking for partners who could be runway models, they do need to find something appealing about a partner. Right?
Devyani concurs with this view. ‘You know, I look at things like the way a person talks, his accent, his pronunciation and his sense of chivalry. What I’ve been told is that I shouldn’t be nitpicking, but those small things do put me off, so I’ve not applied that to myself so far. I wonder whether I should look beyond all that sometimes, but I don’t think I will be happy with a man who doesn’t have these things in place.’
To some of us, things like hygiene and demeanour are important, and it’s okay for that not to change. Yes, there is a compromise in a marriage, but one needn’t condemn oneself to a pigsty. ‘One of the things that bother me so much is— what if my husband is not polished? What if he isn’t clean?’ Devyani says, ‘And in an arranged set-up, where do you find the comfort level to tell him something that personal? And by then, won’t he say, “You were okay with it all along, what happened now?” So if a man picks his nose, scratches parts of his body, or does anything else that one finds repulsive, one should know things won’t click.’
She’s quick to add that ‘clicking’ doesn’t mean there should be fireworks and raging chemistry. ‘It’s just that the guy should not say anything untoward, and die meeting should be pleasant. People do talk all sorts of nonsense. Like once, I had a very odd experience. I met this guy who was an IIM graduate. And he was giving me all this random shit about how the moment he’d passed out of IIM, girls were flocking over to him and begging him to marry them. And then he gave me some even more judgmental crap. He said, “I know you Mumbai-Delhi type girls are not narrow-minded, but now this has spread over to small-town girls also. Everyone has boyfriends, they’ve lost their moral values.’’ Then, without any connection to anything else, he said,-‘I don’t want someone who just earns 30,000—40,000 a month, I want a real professional.” I felt like every second sentence was exploding in my head. And finally, he went, ‘Abu let me know because girls only have the choice nowadays.” I wanted to tell him I’d made my choice half an hour ago.’
So, where even education doesn’t come with guarantees, Devyani set up her filters. ‘All right, so you find out there can be really stupid people from IIT or IIM. Being Indian, of course, you expect some level of sophistication from them. First, there was the Moral Values guy, and then there was one more who called me up, and went, ‘Are you free, kya? ” “Based in Mumbai, kya?” I’m like…Whaaat? Whaaat? How can you throw a “kya” into every sentence?!’
She figured out that one of the things the two had in common, aside from the IIM tag, was their small-town upbringing. ‘I’m not saying small-town people are not nice, but you’re very unlikely to be able to ever relate to them unless you’re from a small town too. These are people who haven’t gone out of their Lucknow, or some little village until they did their, engineering. Frankly, they’ll never be able to match up to your level of thinking. Even if they’ve travelled the world, gone to IIT or IIM, whatever, if they’ve spent their entire lives in that little town, they won’t have the extra zing that you look for. Of course, there could be all sorts of people out there, but this has been my experience so far.’
Devyani put down a couple of ground rules, ‘to save myself from all these losers’:
- Never go to meet a small-town person
- Never meet someone who asks you to a coffee shop
‘Let me explain the coffee shop thing a bit. Places like Barista and Costa are perfectly nice places to meet friends. But if I were a guy, I would not ask to meet a woman I am thinking of marrying in places like that. I would like to go to an exclusive coffee shop, in a luxury hotel, where one can talk.
Because you know how crowded these Barista-like places are, music is playing, and everyone is staring at you—they all know you may be meeting for the first time, because you’re yelling over the noise, telling the other person where you grew up, what you did, what you like and so on. They’re trying to eavesdrop to see what you’re talking about. You know, you often see these people, and you find it really funny. I don’t want to be one of those.’
She feels hotels are quieter, people aren’t staring at the other tables, and the ambience is a little more conducive to actually talking. ‘It also reassures me that they’re on the same wavelength as me, and also of the same social class. I know these aren’t the politically correct things to say, but they do matter. It’s not like my family eats three times a day in a five-star hotel, but going to one isn’t a big deal either. Especially when it’s something this crucial, you shouldn’t be thinking about why you must pay a few hundred rupees more for a five-star coffee. It’s worth it because it’s not some place where people are dumping stuff on the table, and interrupting to ask how the food is, and waiting for you to leave. The whole atmosphere changes and you feel different about it. It shows you that the guy is serious too.’
Then, of course, there are the obvious gauges. If a man doesn’t insist on picking up the cheque on a pseudo-date, clearly he’s not the sort of man you want to live with if chivalry is important to you. ‘Once, a guy expected me to pay, and after that I’ve got so paranoid, I don’t even offer anymore—which is quite rude on my part. And that I don’t even pretend to go Dutch may put a guy off. These are the things you need to get over.’
The bug in the system
While ground rules are good to have, Devyani says it’s important to be practical about things. When you’re choosing a partner to spend the rest of your life with, you can’t simply go by pointers. And what she finds exasperating about the process is the superficiality of it. ‘It has no depth, I don’t know if there is any scope for getting to know a person.’
‘The ambience has changed. You don’t have two families pretending to make conversation while you’re sitting in the next room with a stranger who is just as awkward as you, with fifteen minutes to arrive at a consensus on whether to get married or not. Sometimes, the families don’t even meet each other before the couple do. But the attitude hasn’t changed,’ Devyani says.
You get half an hour, or forty minutes, during which you and your prospective spouse are judging each other’s every word and every move. ‘You have only those forty minutes to impress and be impressed. And there is so much more to that person, and you’re never going to get to know that if you’re not impressed in that time. See, the other guy may have had a bad day, and he’s tired or groggy. And he’s just trying to make conversation, and it’s not as interesting as you wanted it to be, so you’re just going to think “Oh, this guy’s so boring”, and you won’t even give him a second chance. I’ve done that myself. And I think, to have to judge so quickly is very, very unfair. But it’s part of the arranged marriage system. It’s like speed dating, only with your family watching and waiting for results.’ The reason people hesitate to give anyone a second chance is that, despite reassurances from modern-day parents, the pressure does build with every meeting. ‘When you say yes, he was nice, you’re not saying yes to marriage. But both parents start thinking ah, good, it’s happening when you’re really only saying yes to a second meeting because there’s potential.
Everyone’s decided it’s going somewhere, and every time there’s more pressure. Third time, though, it’s like “ho hi gay a’’, and fourth time, it’s roka.’
This is the factor that makes most people dubious about arranged marriages, You could date a man for years, have met him literally hundreds of times, and yet find something about him that takes you aback, that is a deal-breaker. Place against this the formula for an arranged marriage, according to which one must visualize a future from a couple of meetings in which each partner presents a cobbled-together version of everything that is desirable about him or her.
‘This really has to change. There are perfectly good people out there, looking for partners. People who’ve led normal lives, who’ve dated, who know what they want. But with the baggage that comes with a pucca arranged marriage, two people—who are really normal, really nice, really good for each other can crumble under the pressure. You can’t make up your mind that quickly. Parents will always tell you it’s up to you. But, if in the second or third meeting, you realize it’s not going anywhere and you pull out, at least one family gets a shock. You’ll be blamed and cursed, and told you’ve led the guy on. And it’s worse if a guy does this. I think the way it’s structured now, there are still too many disadvantages.’
The solution may be casual set-ups, where people are introduced and allowed to date. Devyani says it works better when couples have been set up through friends, with no ‘adults’ involved. ‘Everyone knows it’s a set-up, but they can be relaxed because all that baggage isn’t there. No one is going to be calling up anyone else to find out what you said. At the most, your mutual friend may be an intermediary. But in a proper arranged marriage set-up, you have the guy’s family calling up the girl, the girl’s family calling up his parents, a mediator speaking to both…it’s too much. People need to chill out a bit about this.’
The logic behind this, she feels, is that it prevents heartbreak. At another level, it is seen as more sensible when one is thinking with one’s mind, and not letting one’s heart dictate the course of action. Of course, this also means all emotion is cut out of it, and it turns into a business deal. But it’s impossible to cut out emotion from human beings. While the emotion in question may not be love, a meeting can leave one feeling angry, humiliated and frustrated. It takes the time to calibrate oneself to someone else’s sense of humour, to find out what the other person’s tastes are, and the marriage market doesn’t allow for this. One may take offence at a statement from a stranger that one may find funny coming from a friend or colleague. And when two people are already under some stress, it gets worse.
Devyani warns that there is another insidious process that is set in motion, in an arranged marriage set-up. The norms of eligibility, set by ‘society’, necessitate a certain level of pretence, of lies.
‘For example, I met this guy, whose profile said he was non-vegetarian, and an occasional drinker, but that he doesn’t smoke. But when I went in there, he was smelling of smoke, like he’d just had a cigarette and come to meet me. I rejected him because I don’t like the idea of someone lying like that. My point is that he could have been open about it. But when I thought back to it later, I realized you can’t be open about it.
It’s just not possible in an arranged marriage set-up, because even if you want to be honest, your parents will feel it makes them look bad. You don’t say some things even if you do some things.’
When you’re not even allowed to be honest about yourself, it becomes even harder to know what each person is looking for and even tougher to connect.
The thing is, you do evolve, and so it also depends on when you meet somebody. You may meet someone whom you have nothing in common with at the time, but whom you’ll recall two years later and think, “Oh, he would have been so perfect for me now.” That comes with the territory. But I think, at 27—28, you’ve figured out more or less what you want.’
And at this stage, what one really wants from a partner is acceptance of who one is, and accommodation of who one may become. Because of the way the system is structured, it’s hard to get this right the first time. ‘The most heartbreaking aspect of an arranged marriage is the pretence you’re forced to put on. You never get to know the real person until you’re married. You don’t get to know the person unless the charade impresses you. You may not be the sort of person who likes to dress up, but you are forced to dress up. The guy may not be a talkative guy, but if he doesn’t talk, then he has no chance of being accepted. This judging business is sad, and I don’t want to pretend to be somebody, and I don’t want that person to pretend to be someone else either, but everyone does in an arranged set-up.’
The corollary of putting on a charade is that one starts living the correct life, the eligible life. Devyani says she has been wanting to get blue and pink streaks in her hair, and she’s wanted to do this little experiment since college. However, office regulations wouldn’t allow it. Now, she’s on a sabbatical but groom-hunting regulations will not allow for it.
‘It’s not about how everyone wants a traditional girl. That’s not true. But because of the speed judging, and the fact that you have to bring out who you are in the first impression, you can’t act on an impulse. To me, this is a crazy little thing I’ve been wanting to do. But to a guy I’m meeting, it’s evidence that I’m a punk freak. He’s going to think I have a bunch of tattoos on my body. And he may want someone like that. But that’s not me. So that would be a charade too. Now I don’t know whether I’ll ever get to do the streaks-in-my-hair thing. The most frustrating part of this is the pressure to be eligible— as in, you have to be living that life, and dressing that way, and behaving that way, and appearing that way, just so you become more and more and more and more eligible for the marriage market.’.
With a laugh, Devyani recounts a story she heard from a man she met, about his last experience with a prospective wife. Apparently, the girl came in with a questionnaire in her head. As soon as the hi-hello part was done with, she had asked him about his views on miniskirts. A few rapid-fire rounds later, she had got as far as the number of children, and what sort of education they would have. She had, wanted to know if he was open to sending them to boarding school, and he’d finally said, ‘I don’t think I want to entertain such questions.’
‘I was laughing so hard, I was like you have to be joking!’ Devyani says. ‘I mean, what kind of girl asks things like that of a man she’s meeting for the first time? So, then, we Concluded that maybe this girl had had fifty to seventy meetings or something, and she just wasn’t interested in chit-chatting. You know how you get so bitter and disillusioned when you keep meeting, and then it starts becoming a very mechanical thing.’
Or maybe there is something completely wrong about a system that expects people to make up their minds in a single meeting. Of course, a good meeting does not mean marriage, but a bad meeting does mean the marriage is off. The set-up doesn’t make allowance for bad days and honesty.
‘The sad part is that there are normal guys and girls out there, but they won’t open up, because there are all these restrictions on what is considered eligible, and most won’t dare break those. People cannot behave like people—a young man and a young girl can’t have a stress-free, free-flowing conversation because you’re constantly judging and gauging. In a real arranged set-up, that’s how it is.’
The horoscope hurdle
As if all the restrictions weren’t bad enough, there’s also the question of horoscopes. While many people are open to their children having love marriages, an arranged marriage comes with all the traditional trappings, including horoscopes. It’s hard enough to find a person whose photograph doesn’t put one off. And within that, it’s harder to find someone whom you know you may have dated if you’d been introduced under different circumstances. And when all this is right, there is yet another hurdle—horoscopes,
‘I’ve known some people who say let’s not even consider horoscopes, it’s a big enough deal to find people who want to meet each other. That said, everyone is a little happier and feels more positively about things when horoscopes do match. I do, too. Maybe there is some science or logic to reading the stars, maybe it bodes well for the longevity of a relationship. But I wouldn’t dismiss something just because it’s not a match. Of course, there are lots of families who won’t proceed unless the horoscopes match. And though it can be disappointing, and irritating, especially when you know it could work with that guy, you need to accept it. I tell myself I wouldn’t be happy in a family that gives more importance to horoscopes than to whether a guy and a girl gel when they meet.’
But Devyani adds, ‘It’s annoying when someone wants a horoscope even to decide whether you should meet, but that we’re also judging them in saying this, smacks of narrowmindedness. Maybe something has happened in the family, maybe One person believes in horoscopes, but they could turn out to be; really nice, broadminded people. So, I think, you do what you must, and leave the rest up to God or fate or whatever you believe in.’
Horoscopes are sometimes asked for because they make for a more polite excuse than the truth—that someone is unattractive, or unable to make conversation, or in any other way undesirable. In this case, they’re handy to have as a sort of insurance. But in this case, they’re not particularly relevant as a hurdle, since they don’t stand in the way of the couple having a meeting, albeit a disastrous one.
After some time, it is possible for the idea, that one may meet one’s partner for life, to start fading.
However, Devyani is optimistic about the prospect of an arranged marriage and says one shouldn’t get into the negative mode. ‘It can happen that you meet the person the first time, and you feel so comfortable that you don’t feel like it’s the first time, and you don’t feel like you’re meeting him with the agenda of marriage. I’ve been told by friends of mine that it’s happened to them. That there is chemistry, and you’re clicking, and you know “this is it’’.’
Most people do believe in destiny, but one does need to be level-headed about things too. Having a panic attack can put paid to destiny. Devyani agrees. ‘If you think a guy is nice, don’t get bogged down by anything else. Try to forget the people breathing down your neck, and what meeting two or three times or whatever could mean. Just go for it, I do think what’s meant to be will happen, and what’s not meant to be won’t happen. I don’t know since it hasn’t happened to me yet, but I’ve been told that it all suddenly falls into place and clicks, it just happens. Maybe there’s some sense to it because everyone says the same thing.’