Saurabh Jain and Viman share their stories, tell us what women should be prepared for, and what men are really looking for.
Marriage for men is like puberty for women. – Saurabh Jain
Saurabh Jain, a graduate of IIT Madras, is one of those who married early. And, apparently, he had a hard time defining the criteria he wanted in a wife.
‘So, I didn’t have any parameters, not even caste,’ he says. ‘When I was officially put on the block, a family elder called me up. He wanted to know what kind of girl I wanted to marry. I told him I want to marry a “nice” girl. Someone he’d want in the family. He asked, “How am I supposed to know if she’s nice?” so I said, “Well, then don’t do anything about it. I’m gonna marry a nice person, not a resume.”
Sadly for Saurabh, not everyone thought this way. One of the women he spoke to early on wanted to know why he Wasn’t doing an MBA. ‘I told her I’m a hardcore nerd, I wasn’t interested in management. She told me how her brother went to UT, then went to IIM. Well, good for him, I told her. Long story short, it turned out she was looking for an IIT-IIM guy, and if she didn’t find one, she would force me into a B-school. Wow!’ But he acknowledges that it’s hard to go in without any filters, simply because of the volume of responses. The matrimonial process is such that you get tons of responses. And there are a zillion ads out there, whether online or in the papers. You’ve got to set up filters, otherwise you’ll be inundated. I think this, more than anything, leads to families in the modern age having parameters such as engineer or doctor, working, non-working, and so on. How else do you cut things down to manageable size?’
In his case, age was an important filter. He was in his early twenties when the search for a bride began, which worked well for him, because Saurabh was sure he didn’t want much of a gap in age between himself and his wife. ‘If there is a significant age gap, then one person is going to end up being a lot less mature than the other. Which would lead to problems, obviously. Women mature faster than men — mentally, that is — so, as a guy, you should look for someone a tad bit younger than you. This was the conventional wisdom passed on to me, and I took it at face value.’
Saurabh laughs that he had the advantage of knowing what the process of spouse-hunting involves. A year before he went through the drill, his sister did. ‘I realized it is a humiliating, taxing experience. So I was very categorical with my parents that I decide who to interact with. And they need to pre-filter for creeps. Because, you know, if you end up talking to even one creep, it leaves you scarred and you won’t talk to anyone for a few weeks. But my dad didn’t quite understand this subtle point. Sigh.’
As it turned out, the interview involving his career progress wasn’t the only miserable encounter he had. His dad gave out his number to an engineering graduate who was working with a software company. She called him and asked to meet. He was working in Bangalore at the time, and so they met there. ‘She was … well, enthusiastic. Not a stunner, but hey, looks weren’t high up on my priority list anyway. Went on and on about how she and her friends all wanted to marry IIT-ians. Okay, I was marrying a human, she was marrying a qualification. Anyway. That weekend, I was in Chennai. I often was those days. This girl decides to follow me, all by herself! Yep, I know how it is to be stalked, thanks to the matrimonial process.’
Thankfully for him, his next meeting was with the woman he would go on to marry and have two children with. They knew there was something ‘workable’ in there when their first phone conversation lasted a few hours. ‘Shortly after that, we decided to meet. We were both in different cities, so we met up in a third city. We spent a day together, it felt good, and that evening itself, we decided to get hitched.’
Their engagement took place exactly a month from that first, long phone conversation.
‘You know someone is right for you when you can share stuff with them. When you’re comfortable. I’m quite informal, and she was too, so that was great. We share common tastes and interests, such as travel. So there was, like, a plan for the foreseeable future—at least we can travel together.’
Saurabh knew what was important to him in a partner. He laughs that he used to have a page online—’a personals ad, if you will’—on his homepage, before there were such things as social networks. Top of the list was good conversation. ‘That’s very important from a spending-time-together perspective. And also from a living-together-sharing-the-same-room-and-loo point of view. If you’re going to be saddled with the same roommate for the rest of your life, at least you should be able to get through to them about your personal preferences, no?’
Stepping back to give gyan on what men want, he says that, while everyone looks for slightly different things, the thumb rule is that people want good company, in line with their tastes and preferences. Apparently, the belief that men don’t marry the kind of girls they date doesn’t hold good anymore. ‘If you’re the partying type, you’ll want a party animal for sure.’
He doesn’t agree with the general belief among women that the wife has to make more adjustments than the husband. Men nowadays are careful both in terms of choosing the women they want to spend their lives with, and making sure that they work on their marriage. ‘Hah! Tell my wife I’m not picky and she’ll have something to say to you,’ he says, when asked if men are less picky than women, ‘And I know enough guys who care a lot about their relationships. Who feel bad that their wife isn’t putting in as much as they are. Blah blah blah. Times are changing, buddy.’
When asked about sharing chores, he suggests marriage is a good way to get out of maid trouble. But not in the sense women may take umbrage at. ‘Hello, we’re in 2013. Everyone does chores. Really, if you have too much maid trouble, go get married—and it no longer matters whether you’re a guy or a girl, you’ll get help from the other party.’
He denies that the onus is on the wife to make a marriage work, whether it’s being ready to move house, or dealing with in-laws, or dealing with children. That’s very previous generation. I know enough guys stuck in the US because their better half must complete that useless PhD from some random American university.’
Prodded on the ‘pickiness’ aspect of choosing a bride, Saurabh dismisses the notion that one can stay idealistic about finding the perfect partner. ‘Hah! What nonsense,’ he says. You’re put in the market, and goods age pretty fast in this marketplace. Prospective brides and grooms have low shelf lives. No one has the time to match things up perfectly. If you want perfection, start at least two years before you actually want to get married. Spend a year understanding the goods available. Understanding what you want. You may want someone talkative because all your friends and cousins are the silent types. Then you have this coffee date with a talkative prospect, and you’re like, “Wait a minute, that was noisy!” Pretty soon your list of parameters skittles down to three to four critical must-haves. Everything else becomes “nice to have”.’ While he admits that the question of Are you a virgin?’ is still important to many men, he adds, ‘It gets asked, it gets answered either way, folks still get married. The times they are a-changin’.’
Preparing for marriage
However rosy the courting period may be, once you’re married, you get a rude wake-up call when you’re living in the same space. ‘Living with a strange person takes adapting. You could be in love for a few years and then get married, but even that doesn’t prepare you for sharing your personal space with another person. Of the other gender. Who has a different set of bodily smells, and opinions on the way your clothes smell.’
He has an interesting comparison for what men go through after marriage. ‘Remember when you, as a girl, got up close and personal with menstruation. That’s what most guys go through in the first month of marriage, unless they’ve been in a live-in relationship before. The first month is very chaotic because you’re experiencing another gender’s physicality and emotions. Curiosity and disgust go hand in hand. Men see that their wives menstruate. Women begin to appreciate that belching and farting are natural human processes, but somehow they never manage to complete this process of appreciation.’
So, what women should expect from marriage, according to Saurabh is:
- Gastric human effluents
- Scratchy underarms
- Guys in unsightly undies
‘You know, the usual realities of male human life’, he says. But apparently, there’s a silver lining. ‘Seriously, marriage is actually quite fun and liberating for a lot of women. Lots of folks don’t have control on their lives before marriage because, well, they’ve never known what control is. Then they get married, and there’s this guy to wine and dine you, shop for you, take you around. You’ve got more money to spend. And your own house to set up. You inherit a lot of friends from your spouse, who are often nicer than your own friends, because you were smart enough to marry a guy much cooler than you!’
Viman—Bridging the gap
Viman was born in Bangalore, but his family moved to the US when he was two years old, and he has been living there since. He did visit India regularly over the years, since his grandparents live here. However, he says he is very American in some ways, despite being exposed to a good deal of Indian culture, as it were.
He knew what he wanted in a partner—someone whom he was attracted to, whom he could be proud of, who was different from the other girls he’d met, who knew how to balance multiple worlds, who would constantly challenge him to strive to be a better person, and who could take on the responsibility of being ‘the eldest daughter-in-law’ (since he is the oldest grandchild in his family on his paternal side), someone who was like him, but at the same time was not.
It is a long wish list, which many of his friends said was unrealistic, and it was further complicated by the fact that he is an NRI, with traditional leanings. Despite his frequent trips to India, there was bound to be a disconnect, which would be manifested in accent, upbringing and worldview, among other factors. Viman admits he was hesitant about looking for an Indian wife, especially one who hadn’t been raised in America. While many of his friends initially preferred a girl from the US, some did not.
‘For me, I didn’t really care too much where she was from,’ he says, ‘partially because I don’t think it’s about exposure to Indian culture per se. Because the “cultural” aspect you can get from just travel to India, but the biggest plus point I had was that I had many cousins in India my own age—about ten of us within a two-year age span—and we were all close. So I understood more of the social aspect of India, what the young kids do, and what their lives are like. Sometimes, there is a fear that girls from India are either too orthodox or not traditional at all. So, definitely there was some hesitation initially, but ultimately what really helped me was that my wife had significant exposure to the Western world. One of her closest friends in med school was from Canada, and so she knew of the little things, subtle aspects of our culture, and that helps us build on it.’
When it came to his parameters for a bride, caste was high on the priority list. He did have cousins who had not married within the caste. ‘I had seen my family’s reactions to their marriages, and I always knew that I wanted to marry within caste, both for my own compatibility and that of my family,’ Viman says. However, he adds that it was not an issue of superiority or inferiority, but had more to do with cultural identity. ‘As a Brahmin, there are certain practices you grow up with, and so I knew I wanted to marry a Brahmin. However, living in the world we do, I think it becomes very difficult if you narrow your choice to your exact same community because your options become far more limited. So I decided any south
Indian Brahmin was okay.’ He would eventually marry a Madhwa Brahmin, slightly different from his own Iyengar Brahmin identity, but he was all right with that. Viman identifies a ‘theory of four’, which he says allows for a good choice in marriage:
- Family compatibility
- Personality compatibility
- A common vision for the future
‘Beyond that, in some sense, I wanted someone whose core was similar to me, but who was also different,’ he says. ‘For example, I’m vegetarian, and I could only marry a vegetarian— not because vegetarianism was the way I was raised per se, but because somewhere along the line, I began to really believe in it. I also love music and culture, and I wanted someone who would appreciate that.’
Though his wife doesn’t love Carnatic music like he does, she did learn classical vocal for several years as a child, and could appreciate it.
One of his other criteria was common communication grounds. His wife was raised in Ahmedabad, but her native tongue is Kannada. Viman’s own native language is Tamil, but Kannada is what he terms the family’s ‘social/regional language’, and so it worked for him.
He was looking for someone who was ‘a blend of traditional with a modern funk’. As if all this were not enough, he also wanted to marry a tall girl.
One can take heart from Viman’s story-it validates the belief that one can actually find what one is looking for the arranged marriage circle, however, high one’s standards are.
He had spoken to many girls, but nothing had worked out. Suddenly, Viman’s father came across a profile online that said the girl was 5 feet 9 inches tall. Her name was Sahana. He contacted her parents, and after they spoke, they passed the information on to Viman and Sahana. Like him, she too was a doctor, and, unlike him, she had had a stint with modelling. He didn’t know about the modelling at the time, but had reservations nevertheless.
‘I wasn’t too enthusiastic about her overall profile and picture initially, because I thought she was too liberal for me,’ he says. ‘She got into a fight with her parents and ended up emailing me. We had some exchanges, and she was studying for her medical boards, so we became friends and talked. After I learned about her modelling and such, I became sceptical.’
He felt Sahana was too liberal, from the way she spoke. Later, he would realize that what is seen as liberal’ in India can’t be equated with ‘liberal’ in the US.
‘Sometimes in India, they talk as if they are super liberal, to be cool-sounding I think, but it is misleading, as we think they are as liberal as women here,’ he says. Meanwhile, she thought he was too ‘wannabe traditional’.
And then I got annoyed by the extra research her family was doing, trying to have people call me and learn more about me, rather than use the direct approach.’
So, they decided a marriage wouldn’t work, but kept in touch, as friends. Other proposals came in for both of them, and they would discuss those with each other. They chatted for four months or so, as friends. Then, Viman had to make a trip to India for a cousin’s wedding, and he laughs that he actually met another girl before he met the friend who would become his wife.
‘We met just casually for dinner,’ he says. ‘Since we had become friends and I was there, we thought we’d associate the name with the face. We had a great dinner conversation, and then at the end, since our parents had talked a bunch of times, we decided to meet the next day, and it kept happening. A week later, we got engaged, and a few days after, I came back.’ The one thing that didn’t quite fit in with Viman’s checklist was that he ended up marrying a doctor. ‘I wanted someone who was not in medicine, so our lives would not be consumed by our profession. My fear was that sometimes, with doctor wives, their profession may not always allow for the flexibility there needs to be for the type of life I was looking for. Sahana, however, wanted a doctor— – someone who could understand why her life could be crazy at times. So from my end it was a coincidence, from her end, it was intentional.’
Retrospectively, though, he says the fact that they’re both doctors allows them to understand a huge part of each other’s lives, without much explanation, and they can share the day’s events with each other and appreciate what the other goes through. The trade-off is that they’re not as exposed to other professions or schools of thought, but clearly, one can live with that!
Now that he knew who he was going to marry, there was the matter of whether she could adapt to life in the US—a big concern for anyone making the transition from India to America. Most of us have seen images of a country where taxis are readily available, where people seem to spend all day at cafes, and everyone can apparently afford a posh apartment in Manhattan, while being unemployed. Viman feels TV and flying visits have given people a false idea of America. In other words, globalization has made things worse by replacing ignorance with preconceived notions.
‘I think people watch TV thinking that is how America really is, and India is changing rapidly to try to become like what they see on TV, and that is not the complete reality of America,’ he says. ‘TV doesn’t show the conservative cultures such as the Baptists, or Mormons, or Hasidic Jews, or Black Christian faiths. TV only shows the common themes of Urban America, just as TV about India here [in the US] usually shows poverty or tourist sites, but doesn’t show the science or the middle class of India. Indians don’t always see that we wash our own dishes, clean our own bathrooms, do our own laundry, and we don’t really have the help of maids or luxuries that even middle-class India can afford. I think in-person exposure is huge.’
Many of Viman’s cousins and their friends in India are surprised that he doesn’t eat meat, that he loves Carnatic music, and that he knows more about that than about Western music, and that he can speak and write several Indian languages. He points out that there are two types of NRIs-those who are more Western, and those who are more traditional.
‘There isn’t a whole lot of middle ground in the folks I’ve met. I fall into the more traditional types, in which case, we tend to be more traditional than our peers in India, who are using the TV and media exposure to the Western world to try to be like that,’ he says.
The realities of life in America would force one out of the world of sitcoms and dramas. Families tend to live in suburbia, and suburban life isn’t really about desperate housewives wearing Gucci, and falling in love with plumbers and gardeners. The realities of an American wife include having to drive to the supermarket, and run errands in addition to going to work.
‘I definitely thought about these things. I didn’t want to marry a girl who couldn’t do the basics at least. I think, as an immigrant, you want your wife to at least be able to do the things your mother can, to put it bluntly. So, marrying a girl who was afraid to drive wasn’t for me.’
Viman feels the transition is easier for girls who grow up in urban India. Sahana, for instance, had her own car and had been driving in India for many years. ‘Ironically, it was she who picked me up and drove us to the place I chose during our first meeting,’ he laughs.
The fact that Sahana used to be a model convinced him that she wasn’t quite the ‘typical Indian wife’, but someone whose personality could accommodate a blend of the East and West. ‘While she’s not overly traditional—as I am—she acknowledges and values tradition, and that’s fine by me.’
But the hurdles that a couple comprising an NRI and an Indian brought up in India must mount don’t stop at the wife being able to drive.
‘There are lots of challenges,’ says Viman. ‘One is the mindset. Here, we are taught to be more independent and choose what is best for us. Sacrifice is a hard concept to accept sometimes, but is more readily acceptable in India—which makes NRIs seem much more selfish, because we are taught to fight for what we want. That’s a huge challenge. The second is the involvement of family and extended family—people raised in India are far more accepting of social rules and things to live by, whereas NRIs are much more independent, and don’t readily accept doing something some way, just because an elder told them to do so. NRIs are taught to ask questions and understand why, whereas in India, asking why is considered a sign of challenging authority.’
Language can become another problem, especially if the NRI doesn’t speak an Indian language. The same goes with living with in-laws—many Indian girls are not willing to live with their in-laws.
‘Some of the Indian ways of doing things don’t always work here,’ Viman warns, ‘like sitting around when you are pregnant, and having someone dote on you, or making all these homemade herbal concoctions for newborn babies, and so on.
For women who are planning to migrate to the US, especially after marrying men raised in America, Viman says it’s important to not just learn about the person, but understand why his life is the way it is.
‘I would say learn more about the culture, when you are considering marriage. Ask that person questions about day-to-day life, ask questions about hypothetical scenarios, talk to friends of the person you are interested in, so you have different perspectives and are not biased.’
Of course, one of the most difficult aspects of migration, for a modern, educated, intelligent woman, is that it necessitates a long period away from family before she can get her visa. The other option is to stay away from one’s husband, while waiting for her dependant visa or green card to come through. It’s important to understand the various options that are available to one, before marriage, because that could also help one choose how one gets married.
It is possible to go to the US on a fiancée visa, provided the legal marriage hasn’t yet happened, even if a religious ceremony has. Then, the couple can get legally married in the US. This gets processed faster, and women will not have to stay away from their husbands while they wait for green cards. If a couple gets legally married in India, the immigrant will have to wait for a green card, or arrive on a dependant visa, which would have certain restrictions on working.
‘I have had many relatives go through depression and such by having to live away from their husbands,’ Viman says. ‘However, I find that many girls adjust well with modern technology–Skype, FaceTime etcetera have drastically changed things, and have allowed much more regular contact.’
If women cannot immediately work, Viman suggests they take evening adult community education classes, or develop hobbies that allow them to meet other people—especially women from the US. That will also help them become more independent and close the cultural gap to an extent.
In addition, it will allow interaction with people who are not necessarily from one’s own community, or even race.
It’s easy to make friends just with Indians in America—that too, immigrant Indians in the same community group—but that is the biggest mistake they can make because they create their own barriers and never leave that world to see what America really is,’ he says.
When asked what men generally look for in a wife, Viman draws a distinction between what men see as important, and what women do: ‘You want your wife to be physically attractive—I don’t know if women will ever understand this from the man’s point of view, but there has to be physical chemistry to even have something go forward. A woman can, over time, fall in love with a guy she initially didn’t like. And with women, the emotional bond tends to create attraction a lot—the more emotionally connected, the more attractive a guy becomes. For men, it still is much more physical—the way she carries herself, dresses, and so on is important. So without that initial attraction, the relationship really won’t move.’
The next thing is that most men don’t want drastic changes in their lives. So, he says, they look for women who can fit into that life—a man often wants a woman who may be ‘a missinga piece in the puzzle of his life’.
‘The value system of a woman is also very important because you are entrusting your future generation with this person,’ he says. ‘In terms of education, this is mixed—some men care a lot about this, some do not. Some men will feel that they earn enough and such on their own, so don’t necessarily care one way or the other about how much money the woman brings home; other men want earning women, partly because it’s hard to survive on a single income, and also because a woman who is more independent doesn’t depend on the guy for every little thing.’
There are other variables, such as how well she gets along with the family—the importance of this depends on how close the man is to his parents.
However, Viman is candid about the fact that a lot of men want wives who are willing to adjust, rather than be fiercely independent. ‘Most guys still want to be the primary breadwinner and the leader of the family, and women who are too independent may not work out for them.’
Do men really give relationships as much thought as women? Apparently, sometimes, they give them more thought.
‘It depends on what the relationship is for,’ Viman says. Tor a girlfriend or short-term relationship, men don’t think. It’s about the moment, enjoying and having fun. For long-term, there is definitely a lot of thought—which is why a woman’s typically afraid of the non-committing kind, the guy who has been in a relationship for years, but won’t ask the girl to marry him. In that case, I think men think a lot more than women do because once women are in the relationship, that’s it—they are in it. Men have to feel like there is no other woman they would want, to be able to settle down with a woman.’
That said, he acknowledges that in general women have to make more adjustments, depending on the situation. ‘I have asked many of my female friends, who are all professionals, and the general consensus is that for a relationship to succeed, the woman does sometimes have to make more adjustments than the guy. And I think, sometimes, it’s inherent personalities— there is an element of ego in being male, in being the “man of the house”, and a woman who threatens that ego isn’t always attractive.’
Viman and his wife now have their first child, and they expect there will be challenges both for her and for them. ‘I mean, one parent is an NRI, and the other is an Indian immigrant. We had different upbringings, and different views.’ When asked what challenges he thinks he may face, he jokes, ‘Let’s save that for your next book—raising an Indian in the Western world.’
What men want
When I spoke to some of my male friends, both married and unmarried, I got something of an insight into the standards men really set for their wives. Here’s what they had to say:
- ‘She needs to have had a boyfriend, at least one … because I don’t want some Miss Goody Two-Shoes who’d give me grief over all my exes, and want to know whether I’m having affairs when I meet them. She has to be okay with the fact that I’m friends with my exes.’
- ‘She needs to like video games. I’m not kidding. I play video games to unwind. Ideally, she should be a player too, but if not, she has to be willing to learn. I don’t want someone grumbling that I spend all my time on the computer. Because what other people do with the crossword or a book, I do with gaming. I don’t think non-gamers get that. I don’t want the sort of marriage where each person is resentful because they don’t get the other.’ ‘I’m particular about appearance. Long hair puts me off I don’t know why, but it does. If a girl marries me, she needs to either have short hair or be willing to crop it short. And I don’t like fat women. I know this may not be true, but I feel they’re lazy. I take a lot of care of my own body, and I would be put off by a woman who didn’t care. People may call me shallow, but you can’t deny that in a love match, you’re first drawn to someone because of physical attraction. Why should an arranged marriage be any different? That said, if a woman bowls me over so completely that I can look beyond all that, I’m not going to ask her to chop off her hair, or hit the gym. And that would be love, anyway, even if I meet her in an arranged marriage set-up.’
- ‘I’m the possessive kind, so don’t know how I would feel about a woman who’s had boyfriends before. It’s not simply about virginity. Just the idea of exes troubles me. Maybe because I haven’t been in a serious relationship myself. So, I would be paranoid that she would be comparing me with someone else. Or, that I’m the last resort. The reason I’m looking to get married is that I want to share my life with someone else. I don’t want to marry someone who’s doing this on the rebound.’
- ‘I don’t think the question of a modern woman who hasn’t dated even arises. Forget a modern woman, chances are you wouldn’t find a gaon ki gori who hasn’t had a boyfriend. I honestly don’t give a shit about any of that. I mean, I’ve had relationships myself, and my girlfriends were not creatures from outer space, they were women too. Some, I considered settling down with. So, why should my wife not have the same right to date that they did, and I did? But that said, I don’t want to know the details. If you want to discuss your exes, talk to your girlfriends, not your husband. Whether they were heroes or losers, I don’t care. And I don’t want to speak about my relationships either.’
- ‘I went bride-hunting the traditional way. The parents would speak, and then we’d go over to their house, and the bride would be in some inner room. First, there’d be some polite conversation about the traffic and weather and my education and how it’s all right that I didn’t go to IIT. Then, there’d be an awkward pause, and some friend or sister would be sent to bring the girl. She’d be all decked up, and wouldn’t look at me, and there’d be a lot of giggling, and the said friend or sister would nudge her over.
Then, someone would suggest that we speak to each other. We’d end up speaking about where we studied, and the weather, and why I didn’t go to IIT. In my wife’s case, she opened the door herself. And she was wearing an ordinary salwar-kameez, and no make-up—at least, not like a sixties movie star that’s the level of make-up I can spot. She said hi, and was chatty, and she made us all feel comfortable and wasn’t awkward. She and my mother started trading jokes. And when I spoke, she listened. I knew I liked her immediately.’