Chocolate and Gold Coins

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Indian Roulette

At the beginning of Jhumpa Lahiri’s excellent book “The Namesake,” the parents of Gogol meet for the first time in the infamous “interview.” I’m talking about the curious Indian custom of arranged marriage. Ashima and Ashoke have never met each other and know essentially nothing about each other except that their parents think they might be an acceptable match. Ashoke never says a word; he just looks down at his knees. Ashoke’s father talks in detail about the qualifications of his son. The interview lasts for maybe two hours and then each of the principles, the prospective husband and wife, must give either thumbs up or thumbs down. If it is thumbs up, they will wed relatively soon: probably within two months.

From a western perspective, the Indian arraigned marriage appears like Russian roulette with a spouse replacing the bullet: it’s a gamble with your life of the most extreme sort. Of course, love and marriage is always a gamble, and western marriages do not succeed in nearly half the cases despite the advantages of love. However, in the west, at least the participants get to throw the dice themselves, and not let their parents control their fates. Perhaps the advantage of the arraigned marriage is the low expectations that such unions bring: they seldom yield a big disappointment because no one really expected true love.

Perhaps I have a voyeuristic mind but I cannot help wondering what the wedding night for Ashima and Ashoke would have been like. Wouldn’t that first intimate meeting be a bit…awkward? How do people who are strangers and are not really physically attracted to one another find the emotion to perform the act? Of course, some westerners have many casual relationships, and I really don’t understand that either. But, again, it comes down to choice: you get to choose whom you would like to make love to. What strikes me about the arranged marriage is that it seems so passive. How do emotions emerge from a passive pairing of people, or is the sexual union completely emotionless?

On the other hand, perhaps there is genius in focusing purely on the objective qualities of each spouse. One reason why so many western marriages fail is that the two people are incompatible. Why is it that people are naturally inclined to find spouses that are so different than themselves? Perhaps it’s instinct: we always find the girl (or guy) in the other tribe to be especially cute because she (or he) has fresh genes to enrich the gene pool. But marrying outside your own culture creates a natural tension in that marriage: there is never a common vision about how things should be done. And marrying outside of your socioeconomic class is always just folly.

Many people have noted that arranged marriages are more like a business merger than a friendship. The marriage is designed to align two dynasties (minor dynasties in most cases to be sure) and therefore the extended family should have a say in this business decision. On the other hand, this dynastic view of family and marriage reinforces the incestuous process of breeding with caste and sub-caste. (Sunil Laxman has a nice article about caste here.) In a world of love marriages, caste would tend to dissolve over time because, as I said, “The girl in the next tribe always looks cuter,” (and I’m sure the same holds true for the guys in the next tribe).

I have been married for twelve years and observed many marriages; some love marriages and a few arranged marriages. I have seen only a few love marriages that have failed; this might be an example of small sample bias. The arranged marriages I have seen have seemed happy on the surface but there was typically enormous tension underneath: I would say that many of these marriages would have failed if divorce had been an option. But, again, this is a very small sample.

My belief is that the age of arranged marriages will gradually pass. Young people will insist on exercising their own sovereignty over their choice of spouse. In some sense, arranged marriage has qualities like the old socialist system: the decision is made by third parties in the best interest of the greater society and not necessarily in the best interest of the betrothed. In a free market system, the potential bride and groom make the mutually beneficial deal, and third parties either embrace it or sulk. Parents might not approve at first, but if they respect the fact that their children are now responsible adults and captains of their own destinies, they can learn to accept their children’s choices.

The essence of freedom is allowing people to make their own mistakes instead of insisting that they live with the mistakes others have made for them.

In the case of my wife and myself, we dated only ten weeks before I proposed to her. It was totally impulsive on my part and the best decision I ever made. Why was the courtship so fast? When you know, you know. Hesitation merely reinforces the notion that maybe you’re not sure. I was too intelligent to be anything but sure.

There is never a day that I don’t thank my lucky stars that such a wonderful woman came into my life.


  • hi,
    avid reader of your blog.
    was just curious to know more about you.
    Are you an expatriate indian(which seems unlikely to me)?
    What's the indian connection?

    By Blogger shrikanth, at 12:46 AM  

  • Hi Srikanth
    The Indian connection is several fold: my wife is from India, I have been to India, many of my friends come from India (some even before I met my wife), I know many Indian bloggers (and Amit nicely points to my blog frequently), I like Indian food, I like cricket, I am especially interested in the Indian economy...And I am going to be traveling to India in a few month, that will be exciting.

    My point of view is unique: I grew up in the U.S. but know a lot about India. Therefore my observations about India are a little different thant the people who were raise in the culture of India. I'm not saying my view are right and others are wrong... just a little different.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:01 AM  

  • Hi Vikram
    That is interesting.
    My wife actually went through several of them and told me they were very uncomfortable. Luckily for me, Mr. Right was not among those she "interviewed".

    It may take a while for the practice to die, especially in the villages. People are tradition bound and it is unrealistic to assume that one fine day every single person will just start dating, when there had never been anything like dating before.

    Of course, one possiblity is that the process will morph over time (I think it has already begun this process). The arrangement will be more like matchmaking, and then the two will date for a few weeks and then decide. That might be the in-between stage in the evolution of Indian marriage.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:11 AM  

  • Michael, such a nice post:)

    this experience is coyly (and ofensively) termed 'bride viewing' - I was fortunate not to have to go thru this at all but that was mostly because I stayed away from my parents working in another city (Bombay while they were in Madras) and threatened never to visit home if they had any such plans! but friends who have, tell me it is a most awkward experience...

    one reason why arranged marriages are still so popular even among educated, otherwise "modern" Indians might be that in India, one does not get married to just the individual but the entire family - and sometimes even the community (as cliches go, this one is abused but so true)
    one of my friends told me that with her busy lifestyle, she felt that it would make her life easier if there was some common ground between her family and her husband's - in which case, there would be no extra effort to adjust to the new family, their culture and so on...

    in marketing terms, atleast the demographic factors between the family are compatible!

    as opposed to this, I guess in the west there are few 'external' variables that matter so much and I am not even talking about the individualistic nature of society there.

    but this middle gorund that you talk about might never come about because you are expected to make a judgment within one or at best two meetings - ask for anything more and it would be viewed as a sign of your agreement - so there is just no way to wriggle out after several meetings (or dates)!

    (long comment, sorry)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:55 AM  

  • Hi Charu
    Thanks for the insights. I think it is true that even in the west the relationship between the wife and in-laws or husband and in-laws can be important. But the major difference is that even if the in-laws are important, it is understood that it isn't their choice, so they will just have to accept whomever their child has chosen.

    The relationship between my wife and my parents could not be better. They just adore her, and my wife is always sad when my parents leave. She tells me that it is rare in India for a wife to get along really well with the husbands parents. It probably is more the exception than the rule in the U.S. as well, but our family was fortunate.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:40 AM  

  • First of all, hello to my namesake.

    Michael, interesting post, as usual.
    You are right in suggesting that the arranged marriages aren't going to die very soon. Probably a mix of parental shortlisting based on demographic concerns (as Charu nicely puts it) followed by some dating might evolve...

    Actually culture/tradition is still quite strong in India. Given the diversity of the country, people of different backgrounds, if they marry, will have a lot to get accustomed to. Though, I think, things are changing now.

    You have not mentioned a very important aspect: the horoscope! If the horoscopes of the girl and the boy are compatible, subcaste or linguistic differences may be ignored. Even Indians not generally superstitious, consult astrologers before making important decisions and this includes marriage of their child.

    In addition, there is a new phenomenon that is coming up: In the woman-friendly software industry, where people get to work together in teams for extended periods of time, girls and boys get opportunities to mingle and know each other (without requiring social sanction). This was seldom possible before. In such a situation, even people who would not normally date, fall in love with a team-mate. This leads to quite a few "love marriages."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:55 AM  

  • Hi Deba and Srikanth
    Deba: Yes, I had heard from my wife that the tradition of the arranged marriage works a little differently today than it did in her parents time. There is evolution I think.

    The horoscope...I do remember that thing. I don't understand how it "works" but I do remember that sometimes these matches will be considered inauspicious if there is a conflict in the horoscopes. Considering all of the many preconditions that Indians families put on a potential match, it is a good thing that the population of India is so large or else the probability of an acceptable match would be nearly zero.

    Funny that you should mention the love marriages steming from opportunities at the workplace. One of our friends here is a very nice couple (with children) of mixed caste who met at the workplace. That's why I think the whole caste nonsense would quickly die in a world of love marriages. People just cannot help who they fall in love with... and that could be a very good thing.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 8:56 AM  

  • Michael, first of all, this is a nice analysis you have here.

    And LOL @ zero probability of perfect match !

    I too have often wondered about the suhaag raat (wedding night) in arranged marriages. In many cases, the couple does actually go through with it, and it can be distressing all around. I, as a woman, simply cannot stomach the thought !

    But as Charu rightly said, arranged marriages do make sense, when you're trying to make the families, social background, upbringing etc as compatible as is possible.
    With previous generations, they were expected to obey and listen to their elders, and were never really compelled to rebel.

    But yeah, things are slowly changing, both in terms of the young wanting to exercise their own choise, and the old, letting go over the need to control !

    But one thing I have noticed. Most arranged marriages have worked. I look at couples from my parents' generation, or for that matter my parents themselves, and see it working. It amazes me no end how they could make peace with, and actually derive joy from such a compromise.

    I guess the key is that, for them, it was never a compromise. It was the only option.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:54 AM  

  • Interesting perspective Michael...

    I actually have some friends who are in arranged marriages, and who are enormously happy. Their chemistry and how much they care for each other is quite obvious...and some of them (older than me ofcourse) have been married for 8-1o years....
    You wouldn't guess they an "arranged" marriage if you saw them. Infact, I've lost some money on bets this way with some of them :-)

    So...clearly the system can work. But I don't know if it would have worked for me.....but I was lucky and found someone...

    So, a lot of this is obviously individual dependent, and there is also the "modern" system where the two concerned parties can meet and interact with each other, often for some time (days/months) to know each other, and see if they'll get along.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 12:17 PM  

  • Hi Michael,

    As Sunil and others have pointed out, arranged marriages are definitely evolving; more and more, we see people making their own decisions. I cannot think of any of my friends who did not have a choice in saying 'yes' or 'no'. They got to interact with the prospective spouse for a couple of months atleast before making an 'informed' decision. I have started to think of it as an introduction made by your family rather than you meeting the person in a bar, or library or something.
    Yes, you don't know what books he reads(which is why it wouldn't work for me :)) but atleast he is screened by what he does for a living rather than how many drinks he can down in a night. Ofcourse, there is much more pressure here than in a 'love marriage' where you can take things at your own pace, but given some time this might get there! And yes, I am definitely amazed at the number of arranged marriages that actually seem to work.


    By Blogger Veena, at 12:50 PM  

  • Interesting post! Agree that arranged marriages might be on their way out, atleast in the form they are in currently. Inter-cultural weddings are more unpredictable and fun imo, everyone fights about everything since all traditions are so different and hopefully, it will all end well!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:02 PM  

  • In the flow of cosmic time social changes are inevitable. Culture is not stagnant. It evolves along with the evolution of a society. India is a perfect example for that. Old ‘spiritual India’ had a very different perspective on marriage. Arrange marriages were formed as per the spiritual and social needs of the people of that time. Current society that is more materialistic and outward looking, again, has a different perspective on marriage. Therefore the ‘old way’ of doing it will eventually replaced by the ‘new way’.

    By Blogger pippala leaf, at 7:44 PM  

  • Hi Ash, Sunil, Veena, Bride, Patrix, Madhu, and Uma
    Very nice comments all around. I agree with Ash and Sunil and others who point out that sometimes these marriages work very well. The people are compatible. I also agree with Patrix when he says that sometimes its hard for outsiders to tell when an arranged marriage isn't working so well.

    The difference is that when love turns sour it often turns to anger and hatred and lots of yelling. When compatiblity without love turns sour it merely turns to indifference. The couple merely stops talking to each other. No anger, no fighting, no emotions because there never were any. The just coexist and stay out of each others' way. I've observed this.

    I would not want to minimize the value of this system of matchmaking in finding compatible mates. One reason so many love marriages are between seemingly incompatible people is that people are lazy when they date and only go after the low hanging fruit: those people that are readily available. The matchmaking process looks far and wide to find compatible mates. And compatiblity is an important ingredient in love.

    The main down side of arranged marriage is inherent racism and ethnicism associated with it: parents will only choose people in their ethnic caste, subcaste, etc. If arranged marriages were to die out and only love marriages happened, then quickly the 200 sub castes would melt down to maybe 4 or 5 main castes, which I guess would be an improvement. And over time, there would be big chunk of the population that would be of mix caste and maybe mixed religion (Hindu Muslim, Hindu Christian etc) and they would be a force for tolerance.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 6:13 AM  

  • Hi Patrix
    Considering Sunil Laxman's recent post of dowry, another reason for love marriages would be that they might end the detestible dowry system.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 12:13 PM  

  • Almost 2,500 years ago, Chanakaya legalized eight different types of marriages in India. One of them, the "Gandharva" marriage is perhaps the purest form of love marriage possible - boy meets girl, there is instant love, they decide to get married on the spot, to signify mutual committment & a lifelong bond, they exchange garlands and/ or other gifts, only the trees, flowers, birds & skies are "witnesses". Legal marriage - case closed.

    By comparison, today's western 'love' marriage should properly be viewed as 'self-arranged'.

    What's my point? It is wrong to essentialize India as the land of arranged marriages. Someone once said that whatever you say about India, its opposite is equally true. The gandharva marriage of shakuntala with king dushyanta preceded the mahabharata by 10 generations. Without this "love marriage", the mahabharata itself would not have taken place.


    By Blogger sanjay, at 8:50 PM  

  • Hi Sanjay
    Point taken.
    The "Gandharva" is something I never knew about, except I had heard fable in which I think that took place.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 2:58 PM  

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