Interview with The National, UAE: The modern take on marrying a stranger: arranged marriages in the 21st century

(A shorter version of this interview was published here.)

What were some of the big surprises for you from your research and interviews?

The biggest surprise for me was how willing people were to share their personal stories. I felt squeamish about asking them intrusive questions, but women – and men too – were happy to talk about both the pleasant and the unpleasant experiences they went through.

I was intrigued by the discovery that there doesn’t seem to be much difference between a love marriage and an arranged marriage in the immediate aftermath – all newlyweds face similar challenges. I was speaking to a friend who married her boyfriend of three years, and she told me even the idea of sleeping with a stranger is not unique to arranged marriages, and that however well one thinks one knows a man, living with him will spring its share of surprises. The main problem, I think, is that people can’t turn to their families in dealing with the practicalities of marriage, and this makes it very difficult in an arranged marriage. Everyone wants people to make babies, but no one is willing to discuss physical intimacy, or even attraction.

A huge positive for me was coming across arranged marriages that transcend caste, and even religious, boundaries. I’ve written about a Malayali who married a Tamilian from another caste in the book. Later, I heard about a Muslim woman who was vegetarian by choice, and drawn to Hinduism as a child, and who eventually had an arranged marriage with a Brahmin.

How have the expectations of men and their parents evolved? Have they doubled, in the sense that they expect brides to be homely and dutiful but as before but now also successful career women bringing home good money?

There are certain families who have ridiculous expectations and want a bride who is Indra Nooyi, Nigella Lawson, Sati Savitri, and Gisele Bündchen rolled into one. But I find that men of this generation are far more understanding and cooperative than their fathers – changing diapers and taking turns with night feeds are the norm now, even in India.

The idea that men don’t marry the kind of women they date has become obsolete too. One of my interviewees said he wanted to marry a gamer, and he doesn’t care what else she’s good or bad at – and though I found that funny at first, I later realised it’s not too different from wanting a spouse who reads. If playing video games is your idea of relaxing, you would want to share that with your partner. Compatibility has become more important than traditional criteria for eligibility.

Why have arranged marriages proved so durable? Is it because young Indians are not rebellious enough? Or they believe in them?

I think there’s less cause to rebel in an arranged marriage because most people of this generation – at least among the modern, urban, educated elite I was focusing on – are not forced into marriages. There are exceptions, of course, but people are more aware of what they are getting into. No one wants a marriage to end badly. People tend to talk about things the previous generation may have hesitated to bring up – such as exes, or one’s attitude to smoking, drinking and the odd narcotic.

It may also be that people of “marriageable age” today have usually had a few serious relationships, which have already eroded some of their sharp edges. They’re perhaps disillusioned enough to lower their expectations of a marriage. :-)

Has the Internet both improved and worsened the experience for women?

For men and women, both. For one, it has made people far more transparent. You know where someone has worked, you find out you have mutual friends on Facebook, and you make your enquiries. On the other hand, it also offers a degree of anonymity for someone who wants to stay anonymous. In such a case, transparency becomes a delusion. One often reads newspaper reports about women who have been lured by sexual predators, con artists, and other kinds of criminals.

You said somewhere that you are surprised at how many arranged marriages are very successful. Do you think there is a certain 'slow burn' charm and magic to arranged marriages that people in the west don't realise? I read somewhere about a newly married man being eager to go home to his wife every day because he knew he would be discovering something new about her – stuff like that?

Oh, that’s interesting. Perhaps it’s the ‘slow burn’ charm. Perhaps it’s also that people enter an arranged marriage with more trepidation – in some senses, they’re prepared for the worst. In a romantic relationship, expectations tend to rise with every stage – the first date, the first kiss, the first time you sleep together, your first vacation as a couple, the first things you invest in together, whether it’s a puppy or a table. So, when people who have been dating for a while get married, their expectations of each other rise as well – or they expect things to be a certain way, and are disappointed when they are not. A friend of mine who had an arranged marriage spoke about how, in a love match, one can put one’s best foot forward, even for several years, because one gets a break from one’s partner as long as they live in separate homes. Being with that person 24/7 is a challenge, because one’s ugly side starts to peep through too. In an arranged marriage, people have less time to show their most flattering angles; they are, perhaps, more prepared for compromise, more willing to not have everything.

Do you get the impression that Indian men are just very unevolved and unrefined as compared with Indian women? That's the impression one gets from the book (and from one's real life experiences!).

Haha, I think that’s a tad unfair on Indian men. The men I spoke to have had their share of horror stories as well – one of them speaks about being stalked from one city to another by a girl. He also met a woman who insisted that he acquire an MBA in order to become more eligible. There’s another anecdote about a girl who started firing questions at a prospective partner about his stance on miniskirts and boarding school. That is rather scary. There are sensible, intelligent people of both sexes in the arranged marriage circles. Somehow, they seem to meet a whole lot of freaks before they meet each other.

Do the newlyweds still mostly live with their in-laws or choose to live independently? Any change on that front?

Most newlyweds choose to set up home independently. I think personal space has become far more important to people who are in their twenties and thirties now; and the need for personal space is more widely recognised and accepted by their parents’ generation. Many women who are now in their fifties have had to juggle babies and jobs single-handedly. Their mothers-in-law, and even mothers, were less willing to pitch in. Nowadays, I find parents are far more cooperative and sensitive – they often take on responsibilities without demanding the rights, especially in the socio-economic class I’m looking at in the book. I’ve met some women who don’t want their daughters-in-law around, and some who are relieved their sons have a new mommy now. They feel the need for their own personal space too. :-)

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