On Self and Family: A daughter's mitigated defense of arranged marriage

My mother met my father once before their wedding on February 3rd 1991. I have often thought about their first encounter, painted a vivid picture in my mind, one that explored the vectors of their thoughts, apprehensions and attraction. My father had heard that my mother was an eligible young college-educated woman and glimpsed a picture circulating around my extended family. With my 3 year old cousin in tow, (possibly to relieve tension) my father makes his way into my grandfather’s parlor in India hesitantly. After a brief stint with tea and snacks, he and my mother are ushered into a room together where they attempt a conversation. I have always imagined my father to be the one to instigate the conversation. My mother was at one point the epitome of demure; she now is completely comfortable with yelling my name across a BJ-size parking lot. My father does not interrogate her, rather he broaches the subject of her aspirations and whether she would be interested in relocating to the United States. This is the essence of their conversation: to an outsider, it seems like an awkward business transaction, where the alcohol, lawyers and small-talk is replaced with tea, relatives and well, small-talk. To me, however, the image is saturated with subtlety. My parents eyes shyly meeting, the words teasing out aspirations and the thoughts that lingered in their minds as my father walked out of the door.

As you might imagine, I asked my mother, the obvious logical question, “What happened after you guys met?” But the response wasn’t nearly as romantic as I had imagined. “I went to bed and then went back to college and forgot the whole thing ever happened until I was told that he was the one who was chosen 3 months before I was married. I approved and then I was married.” I couldn’t believe there wasn’t any wooing involved. To this my mother responds, “He may have written me a letter in between that day and my wedding day. I forget.”

I don’t want to assume things about Indian culture (everyone’s family is different and India is a pretty sizable country) but I do know that there existed, in my family at least, apprehension about talking about your feelings and what marriage means and all that. So I should preface everything I say with the fact that most of what I understand about marriage, I pieced together from subtle things, my mom’s whispering gossip, a rules of couple fighting worksheet posted on our refrigerator (past where my parents thought my eyes could reach), the briefest glimpse of my parents kissing once when I was 7 years old, and the flowers that my father sent without fail on Valentine’s day (a holiday that is not celebrated in my family) every single year since I can remember.

Ten years later, I’m in college and my friend is talking to me about relationships. She’s talking to me about how her boyfriend doesn’t really know what he wants and she wants to dump him. The first thing I think of is to tell her to stick with it, maybe he’s in a bad place right now, but you put all that effort in, why would you want to cut him out so easily? She disagrees, and I say something about how it would be so easy to just have parents set you up. My friend smirks and gives me this look, “Are you serious right now?” She meant, are you suggesting that I be forcibly set up with a 50 year old widower? Are you suggesting that I throw myself into a feminist’s worst nightmare, completely undermining the last 100 years of progress we have made in women’s rights? But I was completely serious.

This. This is the reason I am writing this article. Arranged marriage has this awful reputation among liberal students my age, and I want to help inform and redirect this misconception. It’s hard to know what works and what doesn’t in a relationship and I realize people have boiled this down to a science. There are these massive manuals and self-help books, entire sections of a bookstore of girls (and guys) pouring out their feelings and giving advice on how to keep love going throughout a long-term relationship. But, really, what does love mean to people who pursue an arranged marriage? 11-year-old me was so confused when I heard my mother’s story about her marriage. I mean, my father writes her one letter in 3 months and she forgot whether it existed? Either my mother was the female equivalent of a stud and had letters coming out of the fireplace and windows or something was very iffy about this situation. However, I realized that the problem really was my own, in that, I couldn’t characterize the type of love that my parents shared, I didn’t even know how to conceptualize a love that wasn’t expressed with kisses and flowers and romantic getaways.

My parents used to listen to this Frank Sinatra song, called ‘Love and Marriage.’ (You’re thinking this fits in way too well but at the risk of sounding cliché, this actually happened.) The lyrics of the song went something like, “Love and marriage … It's an institute you can't disparage … Try to separate them, it's an illusion. You only come to this conclusion: Love and marriage, Go together like a horse and carriage.”

I saw them singing this together on our countless road trips and I decided that, to my parents, love is something you build together. It is a synergistic effort, an effort, at once borne out of an agreement that on the surface reads like a business transaction but through tacit motions and subtleties over years becomes an unbreakable bond. For my parents, familiarity breeds love and affection. How could you not love the person you built a home or raised a child with? My parents probably were not in love when they married but now, after 20 years of marriage, my father calls my mother when he is stuck in traffic and my mother gives my father the best portion of the chicken she cooks. To be fair, this is certainly not the case with many marriages both arranged and borne out of love, and I know that this is a lucky example. But the principle that drives this type of marriage is something that is often considered out of place in an individual-centered Western world. I am sure my parents’ marriage, like many others of their generation, had its faults and issues. But I measure the success of my parents’ arranged marriage based on the fact that in spite of all their differences, they considered their relationship an investment, and when times got tough, they knew they had made an agreement and could not just leave. Like my aforementioned friend, I am sure people who have arranged marriages have their doubts about their relationships. However, the principle that drives arranged marriage is distinguished by this pre-nuptial agreement people make to compromise, to uphold the sanctity of their marriage by realizing they have an obligation to their investment, in spite of all the obstacles they face. And, of course, it’s somehow orchestrated by your relatives.

Although, I’m not really sure that, contrary to popular belief, it is a feminist’s worst nightmare. Arranged marriage does not mean the same thing as it did 100 years ago. Most parents have your best interests at heart. They will not set you up with someone who will kill you or waste the countless fortune they have spent on your education. They like seeing you happy, and well, my parents are slightly superficial (i.e. they have a very good handle on my definition of ‘attractive.’) They also, in general, would prefer to like their son-in-laws, seeing as they will be spending a lot of time with them. Also, you have the ability to say no. And, divorce is certainly not as stigmatized as it was in India 30 years ago. If your husband (or wife) is screwing around, you are perfectly at liberty to divorce them and/or verbally abuse the shit out of them. At that point, it’s just personal choice.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about why my parent’s arranged marriage may have been a little more successful than others. Namely, my father is not a conventional Oriya man and neither my mother the conventional Oriya woman. Though not a single woman in my immediate extended family works, my mother has had three jobs in various sectors ranging from business to healthcare, has her own company and obtained her MPH by going to night school after, might I add, dragging me to swimming lessons and my brother to karate. Supermom. Ironically, my father, influenced strongly by Western culture, encouraged my mother to work and to keep herself occupied and interested. I think those types of arranged marriages, at least in my family, are rare, but when they do occur, they only reinforce the existing relationship. Furthermore, with the advent of Shaadi.com (India’s eHarmony) servicing the men and women of my generation, arranged marriages between working men and women have grown more common. In fact, just by comparing arranged marriage to eHarmony, I have really just emphasized my point that arranged marriage is not such a difficult concept to grasp. Plenty of single women across America have single-handedly orchestrated their own arranged marriages. Feminism, what can I say?

I don’t want to write an article about how arranged marriage is perfect. There are plenty of issues with it, especially in rural India, where selling off your daughter is still a thing. But I also think that people my age should be aware that it isn’t the end of the world and that, in many cases, it can lead to a long and fruitful relationship with this added dimension of security of knowing that your partner is interested in a long-term commitment as well. That kind of security can be reassuring in an age when divorce rates are rising because people don’t feel that obligation to stay together. Truth is, he won’t appear to be Romeo until you’ve lived your entire life with him and, in the end, you can look back and say, “You and I have accomplished a life together.”