Of all the questions I’ve ever been asked about my Indian origin while living overseas, there’s one that stands out the most: “So, was your marriage arranged?”
I have been asked by friends, coworkers, people I met for the first time, at dinner parties, at barbecues, at lunches. Everywhere. On any given occasion, when I have a conversation involving marriage and India, this question pops up. Every. Single. Time.
It’s never bothered me. I’ve always put it down to the fact that the concept of an arranged marriage is extremely intriguing to anyone who hasn’t been part of a society that practices it. It’s something that has been associated with India for so long that asking about it comes naturally to people. Some are curious, some hesitant, and some downright insensitive, but the motive is usually the same: to try and understand what it is and how it works.
On my end, I’ve never thought about it seriously until recently. I married young but I chose my husband, so essentially what I had was a love marriage. Yet, if I hadn’t met him, I would have been okay with my parents choosing a groom for me.
For years, I have believed arranged marriages to be an integral part of social conditioning in India. This doesn’t mean that people didn’t fall in love or didn’t choose their own partners at all. In effect, we could say that the ratio of arranged marriages as opposed to love marriages was reasonably high. Even until eight to ten years ago, if one met a couple in or from India there was a greater chance that the parents chose the match and not themselves.
What’s interesting to note, however, is how in present-day India, things are changing. And changing very quickly.
I recently returned to the States after spending three months back home. While there, and because it happened to be what we term the “marriage season” (an auspicious time of year to get married), I was part of six different weddings. Two of these were immediate family, one was extended family, and three were friends. Five out of these six weddings were love marriages.
On the face of it, this does not seem like a big number. One can argue this might just be a coincidence. Also, the frame of reference is too small to form a concrete opinion, either way. But what I witnessed was enough for me to take notice and realize that something was definitely going on. It made me want to dig deeper.
I talked to people. Friends, family members, parents — mine and others. Lengthy discussions about whether this was a passing phase, or whether more and more young people were actually taking matters into their own hands. Making their own choices, especially when it came to one of the most important decisions of their life.
The answers I got were mostly in the affirmative. Yes, the trend was definitely there, and no, it wasn’t a coincidence.
This evolution is more apparent, more rampant, in the bigger cities. One might not come across the same numbers in the smaller towns. For a country the size of India, widespread change of any sort takes time. What is undeniable, however, is that the numbers, even in the smaller towns, are way more than what they were a few years ago. And rising.
This is great news.
I have nothing against arranged marriages. People are free to choose who they marry and how, and I’m not going to judge them. But, looking at it purely from a social system point of view, it leaves a few things to be desired. For one, it’s a closed system. When a marriage is arranged, one of the first criteria is that the other person should be from the same community and/or caste. There are exceptions to the rule, but they are few and far between.
For example, a person from Bengal will look for another Bengali; someone from Maharashtra will look for another Maharashtrian. One of the first borders that love marriages transcend is that of caste / community. When people fall in love, they don’t care what state their partner is from. They just follow their heart.
Out of the five love marriages I attended, one was inter-religion and the other four were inter-caste.
In India, marriage is considered not just a union of two people, but rather a union of two families. When two people from different communities marry, it encourages an intermingling of cultures — from customs to food to language. It leads to social tolerance and awareness. And that can never be a bad thing.
Among parents, mindsets are changing as well. Yes, there were those who blame love marriages for the growing rate of divorces, but the majority revealed how accepting the concept of love marriages led them to become more open people.
As the mother of a friend remarked,
When my daughter married out of caste, it was a difficult transition for me. But, seeing how happy she is, I learned to view my son-in-law as an individual as opposed to that guy who wasn’t from my community. This has helped me in breaking a lot of mental barriers when it came to people in general.
This is a far cry from that time some years ago when getting approval from parents and family members for love marriages was difficult. Unless one was lucky, discussions, ultimatums, fights, banishment from the family were all a part of the saga, and I personally know couples that ran away from home to get married.
Not so much any more.
This rapid cultural change signifies an assertive and empowered young generation. At the same time, it’s important to note that arranged marriages are not forced marriages. It’s not as if one is given zero choice in terms of whether they want to marry a particular person or not. Rather, it’s a choice given within a more limited framework. As long as one toes the line when it comes to things like horoscopes, community, and caste, they are free to make the final call based on their comfort.
But this framework seems to be losing its appeal, whether due to more education, more exposure, more awareness, or the simple inherent need to be free of all shackles. The reason could be any or all of these. One of the most progressive aspects of this change is that it amounts to more people taking responsibility for their own life and actions.
In principle, India has a protective social structure. Parents want to protect their children from all kinds of pitfalls at all times. While on the one hand this leads to strong family relationships, sometimes the inability to draw the line can also hamper an individual’s personal growth.
In that sense, this process of mental evolution, however big or small, seems to be on the right track. Eventually, what a friend of mine said rings true: “Love or arranged, the one thing everyone wants in a marriage is to be happy. And that’s a choice we all make for ourselves. No one can ever take that away.”