(This is the expanded version of an interview by Arnav Adhikari, that appeared in Tehelka)
You’ve brought together some pretty interesting perspectives on arranged marriages, but do you think when arranged marriages are devoid of free choice on the bride’s part, does it then become an oppressive dynamic?
As the scenario is right now, I don’t think arranged marriages are devoid of free choice. I think arranged marriages work almost like blind dates right now, at least in the sort of socio-economic background that the people I spoke to come from. Often, it’s almost a set-up – you either have family friends bringing a couple together, or you have them meeting over a web portal, and what usually happens is they meet outside, you don’t do the chai-tray thing anymore. So, I don’t think it’s devoid of free choice on either side, the bride’s or the groom’s. No one gets forced into a marriage, but I did meet a lot of people who spoke about the emotional blackmail that happens from the side of parents or elders in the family. And this happens not only with women, but men too. People go on about wanting to see their first grandchildren, and then their first great-grandchildren, and that sort of emotional blackmail is the reason some marriages end badly.
Do you think the internet phenomena, the websites you talked about, have allowed the modern Indian woman a higher level of freedom when it comes to arranged marriages? How has it helped, if it has helped at all?
Umm, some of the people I spoke to told me there was such a huge volume of responses that sometimes it becomes difficult to sift through all of them. So, you set up filters. You set up age as a filter, or education as a filter, or where somebody lives, and those may not be the best filters, so I think that’s a negative.
I think the anonymity has helped, because with newspapers, people know who you are, or you have to give some sort of [contact] detail that may identify you. And then it can become a bit embarrassing, that your advertisement is out there. So, I think the anonymity has helped in some cases.
But the other negative with that is that you don’t know how serious somebody is, and you don’t know whether it’s a prankster you’re speaking to. So I think that’s another factor.
I think it’s interesting that you mentioned that, because I was going to ask you what you make of the matrimonial ads in the newspapers that ask for brides who are fair, and 5’7”, and from this background, and who have this kind of education?
I grew up seeing those ads, but I see fewer and fewer of those now. I see a lot more ads asking for working women, and that’s something I’ve spoken about in the book also. The grandfather of one of the girls I interviewed was saying, “You know, earlier, they wanted a one-time dowry. Now, they want dowry every month.” I see a lot of people asking for women who work. I don’t know about the fair, beautiful, whatever…I don’t see too many of those anymore. Or, I see them from both sides. There are brides who want grooms who are over 6 feet tall. So, I don’t know, I wouldn’t see this as patriarchal, if that’s your question.
You talked about how your parents too had tried to set you up with people. If I may ask, was there any particular incident that spurred you to write this book?
No, I don’t think it was incidents. It was a commissioned book, so it was something that was on the publisher’s mind too, that the marriage market has sort of changed, things have got to a place between the blind date sort of set-up and traditional matchmaking methods. I’ve never met anybody in the arranged marriage set-up. I’ve spoken to people on the phone, and I’ve chatted with maybe one or two, but I’ve never met anyone physically.
Why do you think arranged marriages are still so ubiquitous in the so-called modern India? Why is there not a natural progression to move away from that?
I think the opposite is happening, really – even if you look at the west, you know, where you have dating websites, they’re sort of moving more in the direction of arranged marriages than waiting for love to happen. I think maybe people are so busy working that they don’t have time anymore to meet people. Or, you may just go a really long time without meeting somebody, or without having a relationship that seems promising. For people of our generation, I think arranged marriages were a backup option. But I think a lot of people are beginning to feel that it makes sense. I mean, there are women who date men for 5-6 years, and then find out that they don’t want marriage after all. So, maybe they want somebody who is serious, who is in that place where marriage is on their minds. I don’t know what exactly the factors are for individuals, but I think broadly there are several factors which make people move towards arranged marriages. I think one of them is that there is no time, sometimes, to meet people. Our lives tend to be so hectic. And women tend to be educated for longer nowadays, so you spend a lot of time on your studies, and then on work, and then suddenly you’re 30-31…maybe even 27-28, but people are panicking about your body, and whether you’ll be able to have children, and you succumb.
The biological clock. Yeah, so given the divisive nature of the topic of arranged marriages, how hard was it personally for you to write this book without taking a stand for or against it?
It wasn’t hard, simply because of the people I spoke to, you know. I mean, there were some happy stories. And then there were some terrible ones, some people who’ve had horrid marriages. So it wasn’t hard for me to be neutral. Because I was also trying to figure out whether arranged marriages made sense or not. A lot of my friends have had arranged marriages, and everyone goes in saying there will be compromises, you know, and you can’t get a perfect person, and there are compromises in a love marriage also. But I don’t know, I think whether an arranged marriage works for you depends on the kind of person you are and what you want. So, it wasn’t hard for me to be neutral at all, because just like with love marriages, arranged marriages too can go either way.
You’ve talked about how arranged marriages have evolved today, with avenues like the internet and with education. But do you think, by nature, it’s a regressive tradition?
No, I don’t think it’s regressive. I think at some point, it was just a way of making sure people met, you know. Maybe when the society was more conservative, and men and women couldn’t go out, or there were no social gatherings at which they would be allowed to meet or whatever, it was a way of making sure the human race stayed alive, or that people got together and were looked after as they grew older, that’s probably how it started out. Even now, I don’t think it’s regressive, because people are becoming less conservative, like I said. So, if you set two people up through Shaadi.com or if you set two people up through a dating website in the US, I don’t know how much difference there really is – except that, here, of course, there’s that pressure…if you meet a second time, it’s like things are going somewhere, and third time, it’s ho hi gaya, like one of my interviewees says. The pressure increases. I think that needs to be ironed out. But as an institution, I don’t think it will ever become redundant or irrelevant, because if you look at the marriage portals, the membership keeps increasing every year.
In this book, you’ve talked about arranged marriage for the modern Indian woman. But how do you reconcile the differences between modern, and not-so-modern India?
I wasn’t looking at not-so-modern India at all. In the sense, are you talking about rural India?
Yeah, and also families with a higher level of orthodoxy. What do you think the differences are?
Well, I think one would be the caste factor. I did meet people who have married out of caste within the arranged set-up itself. There are people whom I’ve written about in the book, who feel caste is not an important factor, or that your wavelength isn’t necessarily determined by caste.
The other factor is probably the level of freewill on both sides, from both the bride and the groom. I, for instance, was told, when my family was wondering whether I would take the arranged route, that I was free to meet how many ever people I wanted, and reject how many ever people I wanted. I think, even if you’re not looking at a rural set-up, even within urban families, there is an orthodox point of view, where a girl may not be allowed to meet too many men. Because then, it becomes, “Oh, why is she meeting so many men and not finding anyone?”
My last question is, what do you see as the impact of this book? Do you see this affecting arranged marriages at all, or is there a certain attitude towards arranged marriages that you want people to take away?
I think I want people to see themselves in the book, to relate to the stories, and maybe it will help people who are going through the battles that they are going through, either in an arranged marriage, or before deciding whether they want arranged marriages. Because, I’ve spoken to people who went back to work after having children within the arranged set-up, or who studied after marriage and children. And I’m sure these are doubts that plague everybody who is considering what the right age for marriage is, or when they should have children, or whether they can work after having children. And, again, you don’t want to speak to a stranger about things like that, when you don’t even know him – it feels weird. But then these are important issues. So, I think I want people to relate to these stories, and if they’re going through a bad time, maybe they’ll find some source of support in this; and if they’re in happy marriages, maybe they’ll read some of these stories with smiles on their faces.