This is the full transcript of one of the interviews I most enjoyed doing, with Joanna Sugden of The Wall Street Journal. Do check out the relevant article here.
The book looks great, and something that seems like quite an original idea. What gave you the idea for it?
Well, the idea of writing a non-fiction book on arranged marriage was actually that of Meru Gokhale, the Editorial Director of Random House India. When she spoke to me about writing it, she spoke of how there is a vacuum in terms of books that speak about urban, educated Indian women who have chosen to have arranged marriages. So, it was a very specific bracket that we were looking at. And then, I started thinking about friends of mine who have had arranged marriages, and I found that there were a surprisingly large number. Surprising, because I think most cosmopolitan Indians, who may have studied abroad and either stayed on, or come back to work in metropolitan cities, live under the delusion that arranged marriages are redundant and obsolete – that most people find love-matches, and that is it. And that isn’t really the case. I found in writing the book that arranged marriage is still a huge part of our lives, and a lot of people who’ve had relationships before, you know, decide to go the arranged way.
Was that a surprise to you, to find that they are more prevalent than you thought?
Yes, it was a surprise, and it was also a surprise that so many of them were working so well, because the idea of an arranged marriage has been something that a lot of modern women think of as patriarchal. There are many women who feel like they’re being examined like, you know, cattle in a market. But I think that has changed a lot now. I think a couple of generations ago, women would be asked to sing, and…
Is that right?
Yeah, in my grandmothers’ time, they would be asked to play the veena or sing.
To see how accomplished they were?
Yes, and you know, I think it’s quite like what you see in Jane Austen’s novels, where you have women who are taught to paint and sew and play the piano, and all these skills would be displayed every time a prospective groom showed up. And in my mother’s time, I think they had got more radical, and the man and the woman would be given maybe fifteen whole minutes of alone-time, to get to know each other and decide whether they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. And this held true right up to when a cousin of mine got married, about twelve-thirteen years ago.
Yeah. So, I think things have changed quite dramatically now, in the sense that people are set up almost like a blind date, and sometimes the couple is allowed to meet even before their parents do. They usually meet at a coffee shop.
So, you’re set up by your parents, then?
Yes, I think that’s becoming the trend. There are traditional match-making methods too, but I think among people of a certain socio-economic class, the trend is to be set up, and they either speak on the phone or chat over the internet if they’re in different cities or countries, and then they finally meet outside, and decide whether there’s something there. And it usually takes more than one meeting.
That’s sort of a more calculated choice, then?
Yes, it is. But I think it’s different from a relationship mainly in that it’s sort of in fast-forward mode.
Yeah, I noticed that distinction where you say between a relationship and an arranged marriage, there’s a difference – they don’t count an arranged marriage as a kind of relationship. I’m interested in that distinction.
Yes, I think there is a distinction. One of my interviewees speaks about it – Devyani Khanna, who is not yet married, and whose parents are looking for a groom – and she talks about how every time you meet someone a second time or a third time, there is more pressure on you to make up your mind quickly. In a relationship, if you’ve been on a third date or a fourth date, that’s about when you realise this is going to go on for a while. Whereas in the arranged marriage set-up, by your third or fourth date, it’s been taken for granted that you’re going to spend the rest of your life with this person. So, I think it’s much faster and it’s also that you can’t lull yourself into believing it’s a relationship. Because I’ve tried that. I haven’t met anybody in person, but I’ve spoken to someone on the phone for a few weeks. I tried to fool myself into thinking it was a regular relationship, in its early stages, but then things like, “Where do you want to live?” and “What are your plans for the next few years?” and “Are you okay with moving to this city or this country?” would come up, and you know, those are not relationship questions – those are questions you pose to someone when you’re maybe two-three years into a relationship.
Yeah. And “Do you want kids” and things like that?
Things like that, yeah. I think there was one person who asked someone at a first meeting whether he was okay with sending children to boarding school!
And you said you were surprised by how well most of them are working. What do you think is making them work out?
I think people are a lot more open about what they want from a partner and what they want from a marriage. I think even a few years ago, people would try to hide the fact that they had had boyfriends before, especially women, that they had dated before, or that they were not virgin, or that they were smokers, or that they drank occasionally, or things like that. Now, it’s all out in the open. Maybe it’s this whole thing of the world becoming smaller. Or, maybe it’s because there’s a lot more movement in the Indian upper class, which is going out into the world and seeing things. I think India is becoming more of a melting pot. Fewer things are taboo. So, you may not tell your in-laws that you’ve had boyfriends before, but you would probably tell your husband or your prospective husband that you were in a five-year relationship, or that you were in a live-in relationship. I think that’s perhaps what’s making it work.
The fact that there’s a lot more transparency?
Yes, more transparency and more awareness. And maybe also the fact that a lot of women are getting married later. And people are willing to wait for children. In fact, one of my interviewees spoke about how, when her mother hadn’t had a child one year into marriage, people started giving her advice and people would comfort her and suggest that she could maybe adopt. Whereas in our generation, people are willing to wait for marriage, and then wait for children.
Where did you find these women, whom you’ve written about in the book?
Well, most of them are friends of mine. I was looking at a very specific grid – I wanted people who had been married in the past 5-10 years, ideally, or maybe within the last ten years. And I wanted people at different stages of marriage, who had done different things, and also across the country and, you know, people of various religions.
Of the same kind of social class?
Yes, of the same kind of social class. I think I was quite lucky in that a lot of these people were friends of mine. Because, these are private, intimate questions, and you don’t feel like asking a stranger some of these things. Like, you don’t feel all right asking a stranger about his or her sex life, for instance.
So, then, are the names changed?
Most are. There are maybe three-four people who chose to retain their original names. But then there are people whom I don’t know in here as well – people whom either friends of mine, or acquaintances of mine, put me in touch with. For instance, there is a dancer who is married to a Non-Resident Indian, and she grew up in India and went abroad after marriage. So, she speaks both about the dynamic of being an artiste married to someone who is not an artiste, and dealing with a different kind of upbringing. And then there’s another one about an Indian raised in the US, and who’s married to a doctor from India. I still haven’t met either. My interviews with them were done over the phone and email.
How long do you give this practice? Do you think it’s something that will just stay, and evolve to adapt to the changing culture, what is your estimation of it?
I think it will evolve. I think it’s here to stay. Maybe families, at least in the urban, modern set-up we’re concerned with, will withdraw a little more over the next generations. But, I think, when you look at marriage portals – such as Shaadi.com, and Bharat Matrimony, and so on – I think they’re quite similar to dating websites in the US and Europe, where you have your profile up, and people can figure out whether you may be compatible. Except, I think now it’s at an earlier, less-evolved stage – I would give it maybe 10-15 years, or even less, you never know how things are going to change, before these evolve into dating websites. Because, as people get busier, just as it happened in the West, they find less time for cultural activity, or for leisure time to get talking and meet people. Earlier, it was that they were too conservative to go out. Now, people are getting too busy to go out and meet people. So, when you have less of a social life, less of a circle where you can meet new people who are single, maybe you would eventually have to look at dating websites evolving in India too. But, I think as a practice, the idea of setting people up isn’t specifically Indian – maybe the idea of arranged marriage, by which I mean getting results so quickly as it were, is specifically Indian, but I think across the world, people do set friends up, or go through websites and find potential partners.
Was there any side of the arranged marriage question that you explored that you didn’t like?
Umm…one thing I really don’t like is this horoscope-matching, because I think it gets in the way of a lot of good matches. Earlier, of course, it was either a forbidden thing for the bride and groom to meet, or they weren’t allowed to meet for more than 10-15 minutes, and if one person rejected a lot of prospective spouses, people would start talking about what was wrong with him or her. But I think now that we are more evolved, I think it’s time for the horoscope aspect to be cast aside.
That’s when you match up whether your stars are in alignment or…
Yeah, that, and whether your birth chart is lucky for the other person, and things like that. And the other thing which I don’t like is that it is so rigidly caste-based, or even religion-based. I mean, maybe it’s more convenient if you belonged to a certain faith and believed strongly in it and are particular about marrying someone who does too. But then, there is no space for atheists, and there is no space for people who aren’t bound by the rigid definitions of caste. I think that’s something which needs to go. And the other thing which I really dislike about the arranged marriage set-up is the pressure there is on everyone to, you know, (a) act eligible, live the eligible life, not smoke or drink, or not admit that you smoke or drink, which is worse, and (b) the fact that with each subsequent meeting with a person, there is more pressure on you to decide quickly whether this is the right person for you or not.
When you say eligible life, what else do you mean, aside from not smoking and not drinking?
One of my interviewees spoke about how she wants to colour her hair, but then just the fact that you meet somebody once, and the first impression is what you assume that person to be, keeps her from doing it. In the sense, for her, it’s a little thing that she’s been wanting to do, whereas a person she meets may assume that she is some sort of punk rocker, or someone with a million tattoos on her body, because those are the stereotypes you associate with someone with coloured hair. So, it’s little things like that, where you need to start living like you would live the rest of your life – you don’t have the freedom to act on your impulses.
So, it sounds like you’re advocating for a more structured situation than is in the West, but a more free situation than is currently in India. Is that a middle way?
Yeah, I think that would be a great middle path. I wouldn’t really say I was advocating anything, because sometimes if you do belong to a conservative set-up, you probably want someone who is as conservative, you know – just as when you’ve been brought up in a freethinking family, and you want someone who has those ideals. I think I would just advocate more transparency in the whole process. That would be the only thing I would advocate, really.
Having written this book, would you be prepared to have a go at an arranged marriage?
I suppose if a reality television show paid me a lot of money, I would be willing to try it out!
But, seriously, maybe it was the process of writing the book, or maybe it was the fact that I’ve been set up earlier, though it never went as far as meeting – I rejected all of them based either on their profiles, or their photographs, because, oh well, I am a bit shallow. But I sort of believe that you meet the person who’s right for you in some way or the other – it could be someone you bump into at some place and you hit it off, or it could be someone your friends introduce you to, or someone your family introduces you to, or it could be someone you meet on an arranged marriage portal. I never had any rigid ideas about that, but I was also never keen to actively look for a groom through the arranged marriage route myself. I always felt there was too little transparency for me to put myself through that process, given the kind of person I am. It may work for other people. And, to answer the original question, at the moment, the option doesn’t quite apply to my life and its circumstances, you know.
And that’s a good thing, because I would probably be too old for arranged marriage anyway. I find that a lot of men are choosing to marry quite young – maybe it’s the fact that they’re making more money earlier, with the entry of multinational corporations in India, and they’re ready to settle down earlier; or maybe people just get disillusioned, they’re sick of being single, and they want to share their lives with someone.