Dec 23, 2008

Indian Arranged Marriages

Some of the Indian movies that I watched recently , viz., Rab ne bana di jodi, Poo and Mounam pesiyathey, had one thought-provoking thing in common - they had at least one scene where the parent(s) decide about the wedding of a main character. Indian parents, traditionally, have been considering the marriage of their son/daughter as their main responsibility. So, it is not surprising that the mere mention of 'love' meets with resistance - sometimes strong and sometimes weak, depending on how 'different' the lover is, in terms of religion, caste, social status, family background, and appearance. This post is not to support or oppose arranged  marriage, but my analysis from a sociological point of view.

Why is arranged marriage the #1 preferred option by the parents? They strongly believe that, due to age and hence experience, they are in a better position to find a suitable match for their son/daughter. The 'horoscope matching' is an important part, since the religious belief that marriages are made in heaven and hence several mismatches between the boy and girl in horoscopes usually means a disagreement from the Gods on their marriage the moment they were born. Marriages are considered to be the union of not just two people, but two small sub-divisions of their caste. Thus, it is a chance for 10-15 families from each side to create a bond between themselves. So, the first thing the parents look for is 'a good family'.
A good family usually means reasonably well-off financially, with preferably educated parents and without any huge 'blemishes' by the members. From this moment on, I am going to start giving examples of the cases that I know of. While trying to get their mid-30's daughter married, the parents found a 'good boy' but the problem was that his father had two wives. Though the boy and girl liked each other from their first meeting and were well-matched in terms of their educational qualifications, the girl's parents were worried as to 'what if the son also gets inspired by his dad  and chooses to follow him'. Later, after trying several other alliances in vain, they agreed to accept the boy, but keeping their fingers crossed and half-heartedly. There is a sociological theory called 'Broken windows theory' which says that if one social norm is violated in a place, it is more likely that the same norm and/or other norms would be violated in the same place. The girl's parents must be thinking along the same lines. The boy's grandfather was monogamous, but his dad choose bigamy. So, who was the inspiration for his father? Were they worried that, if the boy tries to pair with another girl after the marriage, his parents would have no moral responsibility to advise him against it? 
There is a belief among the Iyers that a girl wedded to a Malayali iyer family would be taken care very well by her in-laws, because they would treat her as good as their own daughter. On the contrary, a non-malayali iyer family would hesitate to accept a girl from a malayali iyer family due to the belief that the girl would have been nicely pampered at their parents home and so would not be obedient to her in-laws. I know of someone who was married to such a malayali family because the boy's parents treated them well during the first visit and the boy is earning well. She had no choice but to agree for the marriage, and, during their communication before marriage, she didnt like several of his qualties, which were of importance to her. So, she entered into wedlock in dissatisfaction and with no choice left. Soon, she gave birth to a son, and hence, according to her family and the society, she is 'happily married with a son'. On the contrary, though the in-laws treat her well, her husband is indifferent to her feelings in almost every sense, and hence she is largely very unhappy with him ever since they got married. Who would believe if she tells that she is unhappy in her marriage?
As I mentioned before, while all lovers meet with resistance from their parents, the resistance is unimaginable when it is out of religion. A girl loved a muslim and the parents and relatives were totally against it. She was hastily married to someone from their own caste, but she was quite adament with her love, so they got divorced within a year of the marriage. She then married her lover, and they lived happily. Her family accepted her only conditionally; she wasnt allowed to attend any of their family functions which included the weddings of her 3 brothers. In another case, a tamil iyer guy who came to study in the US met an American girl, who had converted herself to Buddhism a few years ago. They fell in love, and when he told about it to his parents, they were ultra-dramatic and vicious, until the wedding. Though his mom has sort of accepted her fully, his dad insult her even now. She being a buddhist helped in some extent to get his parents' approval. She is living happily too. 
Now, his parents were looking for a boy for his sister. They found a 'good family', 'nice boy', well-educated and good job. As it happens sometimes, he was found out to be even some distant relative, and so got the daughter married to the guy. But, they turned out to be total freaks, and she left him within 3 months. His parents turned nasty and evil against her parents because they were all fake. The buddhist lady blames her sis-in-law for her stupidity in going for such a marriage, because she feels that Indians get education only on what they study, but not on their lives. Also, she calls the Indian parents with such a mindset as hypocrites, since they have the tendency to emotionally blackmail their children whom they claim to love so much. According to her, the Indian parents give unthinkable backlash when the kids dont want their help. Since parents' love should never be in question, their huge interference in the choice of spouse for their children is totally against Hindu teachings.
When we Indians discuss about our marriage process to most westerners, they get shocked at the concept of 'arranged marriages' and ask questions like "how would u know if he wont beat u, how can you love someone whom you hardly know, what if you two are too different in personality that you clash for everything". I strongly feel that there is a huge amount of luck in the arranged marriages, which means we leave the match-making to God. In order to make the arranged marriages to work better, I have a small suggestion, after taking a cue from the movie 'Raman thediya Seethai'.
In the movie, Cheran goes to see a girl and when her parents make them talk to each other in private, he tells her that he doesnt want either of them to decide now. He suggests that they should talk to each other for awhile before conveying their decision to the parents. That is one idea which immediately appealed to me. In the various steps of approval from the boy and girl, usually the two most important steps are seeing each other's foto and talking for a few minutes when he comes to her house with his family comes to see her. How can that be enough to  arrive at the right decision? An open-minded time period of atleast a few weeks is required for the boy and girl to understand about the other person to some extent. True, the chance of faking some qualities and hiding some is there, but hey, one has to take this chance for life.
One last example: A guy who is getting arranged-marriage with a girl is finding some differences with her already. She is very good, very sweet and loving towards him but he feels that her love is suffocating him. He says that he says 'I love u' to her just for the sake of it, without any true feelings. She sings for him songs in the phone but he feels that she is not a good singer and she makes mistakes in her 'sruthi' (He has learnt music). He is already showing a forced-love through fone, though she is not demanding. I feel sorry for that girl, and wish that this fella changes for good after the wedding. Imagine how it will be for her to hear from him in one angry moment that all the 'I love u's that he uttered were all fake!
This post is already quite long and I have more to write.. may be in the replies to appropriate comments. The communication between the pair in the arranged marriage system has changed in the last few years thanks to technological advances. So, unlike earlier times when the couple learn about each other's likings, wishes, and other details after the marriage, they do so now by talking in cellfone/fone, skype/yahoo and also getting to meet in person a few times. Ideally, the parents should ask their children if it is OK to choose a spouse for him/her. And, when they stumple upon someone whom they think is a good match, they should give time and space to the kids to make the ultimate decision. In short, the marriages should change from being 'family-centric' to 'couple-centric'. 


J said...

Great post, Raju. Completely agree with you. Parents involvement in decision vida, intha relatives elaam vanthu pesuvaangha, I hate that.

mitr_bayarea said...


one of your best posts ever, will recommend those who ask me to explain arranged marriages to read your post. Some of the examples cited by you were very interesting, maybe several case studies can be written about these ):

Raju said...

J, thanks. Yeah, for the relatives too, it is very important that they find the boy/girl likable. I have seen this leading to some relatives trying to get a girl close to them married to a boy in a close family, for the simple reason that they will have respect whenever they visit the family. Some kind of 'nandri visuvasam'.
Mitr, thanks. Hmm.. as I mentioned, each case points to a unique sociological point in the case studies.

Anonymous said...

Do you know when this arranged marriage thingi started?

vm said...

Whatever it is, our before marriage dating isn't the same as westerners'. In our system, we "date" knowing the outcome.

Me too said...

Nice analysis! This is a never ending topic!
I would say, marriage like birth is a huge gamble, arranged or not! B'cos 'love is blind' too. I know a case where this girl made a bad choice in love and got married against her parents' wishes. Now she has no support from either side! At the same time, people comparing divorce rates of East & west and attributing it to the arranged marriage system makes me cringe. Staying married unhappily is not a success.
When I heard that one of my brother's friend has married an American, inspite of all my exposure, it still took me by surprise! In the movie 'Flavors', the old couple's(Wagle ki duniya jodi, who comes to see their son getting married to an American) actions and reactions to their angrezi bahu was so sweet!
It was so funny when one of my north Indian friend who is brought up here in the US and has half her relatives settled here for decades told me that her family was upset b'cos one of the cousins had chosen a south Indian guy to marry!! The length of my comment is competing with the length of your post!

ramya said...

Raju, very nice post.. I have seen many unhappy arranged marriages.. yeah.. marriage is a gamble as Me too said.. it turns out bad forsome.. ok for some.. disaster for some.. painful for some.. happy for the lucky ones..

Cooler said...

Very interesting post. Several of us recently had a discussion about arranged marriages with an Indian friend. Since the rest of us are Americans, we all found the idea fairly terrifying. But in our conversation a lot of points you made came up. It makes for a fascinating discussion, and can be insightful to what we think of ourselves vs. how others perceive us to be.

Anu said...

Raju.. definitely a great post.. I agreed with you most of the time.. except the last sentence. I think marriage is not only a joining of two individuals but two families, irrespective of kind of marriage - love or arranged. Being a product of 2 generations of love marriages, and entering into an arranged one, I think I have seen enough good and bad in both sides.

I have seen couples in love, so totally lost in the concept of it, that they dont know the other person in reality till after the marriage.I agree that parent dont have the right to force their children to do anything, but nowdays the individuals entering into any arranged marriage, do have the right to say "NO". Just bowing to peer or parental presseure, is an excuse. If they are old enough to say they want to get married, they are old enough to stand up. And with the changing times, parents do seem to keep their children in the loop in most cases. If the guy or girl put up an appearence or facade of the real self, its hard to figure it out, irrespective of an arranged or love marriage.!

Raju said...

Anon, good question. I think the answer lies in the Indian tradition of child marriages, which was abolished only 80 years ago. So, I believe that the parents had to choose a partner for their young child according to their wish. This is what must have started the system of arranged marriages.
Vm, very true. So many things prevent either of them from stopping the marriage once the engagement is done - printing and distribution of the invitation, proximity of wedding date, 'vidinja kalyanam', kind of stuff.
Aparna, yep.. never-ending topic indeed..
The case you mentioned is very valid to the social mindset of forgiveness. While the western society is willing to forgive when someone says that he/she made a mistake in choosing and marrying a partner, ours isn't. It makes sure that the person repents having made the wrong choice so much that they wish time would reverse. Western outlook of unidirectionality of time, which gives them the solution of moving forward in life is quite practical.
About 'Flavors', yeah i remember the Srivastav jodi quite well. Cute indeed. Totally harmless.. :)
As seen in so many ABCD-like movies, marrying within the caste system continues to exist in almost all NRI communities in all parts of the world.

Raju said...

Ramya, thanks..
What a gamble it turns out to be. I think we all have to undergo several risk-minimization courses in order to make wise choices. It continues to be a gamble because (a) the parents feel that they are much more experienced than their children and hence take up the decision-making process, (b) the children are so nicely cocooned at their homes that the don't learn the important life lessons.
Cooler, welcome here..
Yeah, I remember my discussions with American friends. Interesting view on the perceptions.
Anu, thanks..
What I meant in the last sentence was that the central focus while match-making must be on the two who get married. Only at the next level must the role of the family get importance.
I agree with you about 'Lost in love'. Such marriages are like 'therinjey kiNathule vizhura' case.. unfortunately it happens bcoz of factors such as 'first-love-must-win-at-whatever-cost' senti feeling, 'all-my-friends-know-about-us' discomfort, guilt due to varying levels of physical interaction, naive optimism that things will improve after marriage, etc.

Anonymous said...

The main drawback between arranged marraiges and others is this: arranged marriage in indian context is like buying vegetables, there are other options in stock so time can't be given to meet/talk etc. Another thing, when chatting, the axe of marriage acceptance/rejection hangs on the head of the boy/girl. This means that their whole personality is tied to getting hitched...i.e. u will not see the natural behabiour of that person. That's the critical difference when boy meets girl outside, where there are no such compulsions.....

Anonymous said...

add-on to above post, another point: I feel many boys/girls still adhere to "arranged marriage" in India still as a method to escape responsibility... if the marriage works, they intend to show their adaptability, but if it doesn't, they can always blame their parents...
Childish it is, but u are right, a strange aspect of our culture is not to let children grow up and take responsibility for their own actions....:(
But this childish aspect makes us hardworking and quite adaptable, as can be seen; Indians can thrive anywhere!

VijayGanesh. S said...

Hi Raju, do continue to visit my blog. I liked your blog and i book marked it.

Now, reaction to your post: 80% of Indians can get married only bcoz of arranged marriage ! and it would remain so for some more time to come.

Raju said...

Anon, I dont truly understand ur 'buying vegetables' example. I agree with you about the 'hitching' part. Most often than not, people simply want to act goody goody to impress the fiance.

'Escaping responsibility' is one reason but the main reason is the social structure of the strong hands of the parents, I believe. Even when marriages dont work, I dont think they blame the parents.. The parents still blame the couple for 'not adjusting to each other' and/or 'not trying to understand the other person fully' and/or 'being very egoistic'. If all these fail, they can simply blame on 'Karma' and escape.. Hardly do the parents take the blame..
The other thing I dont understand from what you said is the link between Indian's thriving tendency and the childish aspect. Anyway, I must say that your points were well received.. Thanks.. :)
Vijay Ganesh, welcome here.. :)
Agree with you.. I think the number is more like 90 of 95%, I would say..

Anonymous said...

Sorry - I'm really going out on a limb here. I'm from Chennai, and live in the US now. My parents are in an unhappy arranged marriage of their own. I rebelled and am now happily married - to an American woman - for 8.5 years. I don't want the prejudiced comments please (I've received enough hate mail from my parents to last a lifetime) but you can imagine their backlash. I know I've made really "outside the box" choices, and I'm grateful that my cousins and aunts and uncles and even grandma are still very close to me and accept my decision. However, my parents will never come around. Thanks for this article. I liked your unbiased sociological discussion.

Anonymous said...

This generation is razor sharp. Basically they need to learn to say "**** off" to their relatives, get married and move on.

Anonymous said...

I think choosing an arrange marriage can be very painful, if the person isnt given a choice. I married Indian and I am hispanic rasied old fashion. We married in love but his family would never accept us being together so because his parents have more power, he has to divorce and be in a an arranged marriage. How cruel can that be when I was rasied one man until death brings us apart. I have such a hard time accepting to be apart but most of all my life is ruin.

Anonymous said...

Genial post and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you seeking your information.

Nandhini said...

Hi raju,

I agree with you. In olden days girls and boys strongly believe that marriage should be fixed by the families. They accept the differnces between them (whatever it may be). But now the trend is completely changed. Boys and girls are looking for similarities. Here the neeed of understanding between the boy and the girl is playing a vital role. So, as you said the marriages shoild change from family centric to couple centric..

Raju said...

Anon, Sorry for not replying sooner. I am happy to hear that the choice u made has turned out to be a good one. Thanks for your kind words.
Anon2 i am so sorry to hear that. It is very unfortunate. Hope you are doing ok now.
Nandhini, I fully agree with u.. parents must realize that age doesnt equate to experience, which in turn doesnt equate to wisdom.