Interview with Bharat Matrimony: ‘Arranged Marriages are here to Stay’

(Published in Bharat Matrimony's blog, on February 21, 2014, retrieved from http://blog.bharatmatrimony.com/celebrity-interviews/717-arranged-marriages-are-here-to-stay.html)

Are arranged marriages still relevant?

I’m assuming we are talking about their relevance in urban, westernised India. That is the milieu that was my concern for the book, and the ethos is very different from rural India.

Yes, I do think arranged marriages are most definitely relevant, and I don’t think it has to do entirely with Indians being conservative. In fact, I know people whose parents had love marriages, but who themselves had arranged marriages.

Look at the rate at which the industry is growing. I’m sure you have seen a huge increase in the number of members you have had, over the years. From what I have read about matrimonial websites, the number of premium members is going up too, so clearly more people are choosing to have arranged marriages every year.

I would go so far as to say that arranged marriages will always be relevant. As people get increasingly busy and caught up in their lives, it becomes harder to find the time and luxury to get into meaningful relationships. It also becomes easier to break up with someone whom you feel doesn’t get you, because we are becoming increasingly stressed and impatient, and barely have the time for ourselves, leave alone for our partners. As more women climb the corporate ladder, they have concerns over ego playing up in a marriage, and for this as well as other reasons, they decide it doesn’t make sense to marry someone in the same industry. So, arranged marriage is a crucial option.

Cosmopolitan Indians live under the delusion that arranged marriages are obsolete, but they are not, you had said in one of your interviews. Why?

Well, you can’t deny that there is a sort of stigma against arranged marriages. Every time a female friend of mine has said her family is looking for a groom, my instinct has been to ‘rescue’ her. Every time a male friend of mine has said he plans to have an arranged marriage, I think, ‘What a waste’. I usually tell them that someone will come along, and they should give it time, before ‘settling’ for an arranged marriage. Look at how prejudiced my vocabulary is. That is the cosmopolitan Indian for you. I suppose if I were the matchmaking type, I would be trying to set my friends from various circles up with each other. Now, isn’t that a kind of ‘arranged’ meeting as well?

Technically, we all know that an arranged set-up is just another way of meeting someone. But then, it also sounds like an admission that you couldn’t find someone to like you, and to be attracted to you, and to love you, on your own.

A generation ago, arranged marriage was the norm. It isn’t anymore. The world is becoming smaller, and with it, we’re getting more confused. We think of ourselves as modern, and any decision that seems traditional or old world makes us question ourselves.

Arranged marriage is usually seen as regressive and forced. But then, there are women who go into it with eyes wide open, and are contented, and actually speak about how they are glad they chose to marry these men and not the ones they were dating. Many of my interviewees have had boyfriends before marriage.

I think most marriages have become a sort of hybrid. So often, we say we don’t want to waste our time on pointless dating, and that we’re looking for something ‘real’. This means we’re using a check-box theory to screen partners, right?

Even in the traditional, arranged-arranged marriage sense, people get to know each other a lot better now. They go out alone, without being chaperoned.

Also, the entire world seems to be gravitating towards this. For instance, a growing number of people in the West have started signing up to dating websites.

I will admit, though, that I still have a sort of prejudice against arranged marriages. I also recognise that it is a prejudice, without reliable foundations. Maybe I’m both a cynic and a romantic at the same time!

What are the changes you see in recent generations?

If you mean in terms of attitude to marriage, I think people have become progressive in some ways. They realise that people have to meet and talk, without simply saying, “It’s all god’s will” or that it is written in their fates and horoscopes and whatnot. So, the institution of arranged marriage certainly has evolved, to an extent – people in our grandparents’ generation may not have met each other till the day they actually got married, and they probably considered themselves lucky if they saw each other’s photographs; whereas in our parents’ generation, they met and maybe spoke in private for some time before deciding that they were going to get married; in our generation, people tend to meet as if on dates, except they are aware that this isn’t going to lead to a normal relationship with its ups and downs, but that it is going to be an accelerated relationship. The families are waiting like a wake of vultures for their decision.

But it also stays the same in some ways – for example, criteria such as caste and salary are given a lot of importance. There is an assumption that people will get along based on such defining criteria, instead of things that may matter more, such as what they read, how they like to spend their evenings, and what milieu they grew up in. Sometimes, you could both be from the same community, but only be able to speak in English with each other, because you were raised in different places. How can we say that caste circumscribes your life, in such a context?

What are the concerns of today's parents when it comes to marriage of their children?

That’s a tough question. There is no single answer, because it varies from family to family. Geography and upbringing matter too. But to give you a sort of broad, generalised answer, I think parents still think of it as a duty. Some are very careful, especially if they have seen marriages disintegrating in the family. Others are keen to tick it off a list – ‘Get son/daughter married. Done? Phew.’

Of course, parents do want their children to be happy. The problem is, there is a huge disconnect between this particular generation and the last. Technology has played a role, social and historical movements (such as feminism, LGBT activism, rationalism and the struggle for racial equality), have played a role, economic opportunities have played a role. So, it is very easy for parents to say, “Oh, you people don’t compromise. You don’t adjust.” But they’re being naive and dismissive when they say that. Parents need to understand that their offspring are going through different stresses, and have different concerns from those that they did. Also, the fact that there were fewer divorces in their generation does not necessarily mean that there were fewer unhappy marriages. If at all, it means there were fewer options for, and less acceptance of, divorcees.

Parents, especially in North India, tend to feel like they have been treated with respect if their children ‘listen to them’ and get married to the person they choose. Among the women I spoke to, the opinions were vastly different. One said that her parents found her a better boyfriend than she had found herself. Another resented the pressure her parents had put on her, forcing her into a hasty decision, and the marriage eventually ended in divorce.

How do you see arranged marriages evolving over the years?

I think one of the biggest evolutionary leaps is the fact that there are online portals. I’m not saying this because this is an interview with you, but because I think it’s the closest we have got so far to dating websites. I would like to see these portals evolve to accommodate online dating, rather than offer only matrimonial hook-ups.

It’s hard to say how they will evolve. But I have a feeling some of the criteria I spoke about, like religion, caste and so on, may break down. One of my interviewees for the book had an inter-caste arranged marriage. She is an Army kid, and her husband is a Major in the Army, and so they have a lot more in common than their birth-charts suggest.

What do you think are the advantages of arranged marriages?

I guess the top-of-mind answer is that you can custom-order a partner. Or so you think. You can tick a lot of things off your list, and find the perfect paper match. But this may not translate into a great match when it comes to the practical experience of living with someone.

Most married people tell me that it soon becomes immaterial whether it’s a love marriage or arranged. You’re getting used to a new family, and living constantly with someone is very different from meeting him even every day and speaking to him for hours and then going back to a separate home and bed. And it’s not like people just nod and say yes to whichever profile they like in an arranged marriage set-up. Often, instinct plays a big role.

One advantage of arranged marriage is perhaps that the families feel more responsible for the marriage, but this can go either way. When a couple is trying to work through its problems, interference may be the last thing the marriage needs.

But I’m fairly sure the pragmatism and trepidation that one walks into an arranged marriage with are fairly advantageous. Many of my friends have gone in completely blind, or expecting the worst, and are pleasantly surprised.

You had said you were surprised how successful arranged marriages were? Did your research for the interviews in Hitched reveal something?

I think I was responding to somebody asking me whether I had chosen only happy stories for Hitched, and whether I had disguised the unhappy marriages I had come across. There are, in fact, two accounts of very unhappy marriages in my book. But I find that many arranged marriages are successful. And it surprises me because I have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that you can decide to marry someone based on a few meetings, during which both people are terribly nervous.

Many of my interviewees felt it’s a question of compromise, and as long as you’re willing to be pragmatic and reasonable, you can have as happy a marriage with someone you find in a matrimonial column or a marriage portal as you can with someone you run into at a coffee shop or traffic signal, or train, or whatever Yash Chopra got his couples to do.

To sum up, my takeaway from the research is this – most people get into marriages, both love and arranged, without knowing what to expect. If it works out, they think they did the sensible thing. If it doesn’t, they think they were misguided, or that they made a mistake.

After the success of Hitched, are you continuing to work on marriage as a theme?

I’m not entirely sure. Some of my readers, and a lot of people who like wordplay, have been telling me I should do a sequel on divorce called Ditched, and a sequel to that called Bitched, and maybe a prequel called Bewitched. Others have been saying that I need to do one from the men’s perspective, since Hitched focuses on women.

 

Honestly, I’m still rubbing my eyes at the sales figures, because an author’s biggest fear is that his or her first book will not be a success. It seems unbelievable that it’s actually flying off the shelves.

 

For the moment, I’m working on two novels and several plays. One of the novels is a comedy of manners about marriage, so it’s definitely a theme that interests me. I may work on more books of the kind. I’m certainly open to it. But I have various other interests, in terms of genre and theme, so it’s hard to say what will happen in future.

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