I first met Manvi when I was 15 years old in Japan on a cultural program. We clicked right away and spent most of the trip hanging out. She told all about India and sparked my interest in the fantastic country. I had no idea that six years later I would be attending her arranged marriage in India!
When the opportunity finally arose for me to take a trip to India, I packed my bags and flew to Kerala in the south, with a plan to meet her at the end of my two month trip before I flew out of Delhi.
About one month in, I’d made it to Mumbai. I got a message from her: ‘Hey Ellen, Good news. I’m getting married. Next month. On March 10.’
March 10!! That was about two weeks away. Weddings in India happen quickly, I thought to myself. The reason that it was happening so fast is that certain times of the year are appropriate for weddings in the Hindu calendar for maximum auspiciousness. It was either March 10 or months later (considered far too late).
So the date was set and I had to get my arse to Delhi quick smart for my dear friend’s wedding.
There was one more detail she told me… the marriage was arranged.
What Ellen Rose?! You went to an arranged marriage?! Are you crazy?
The term arranged marriage may raise thoughts of twelve year old brides, sleazy old grooms and sexist dowry payments in rural villages. However, this is the modern India of educated urbanites!
Arranged marriage is not forced marriage
An arranged marriage simply means that the parents select the spouse for their child. It doesn’t mean that the bride and groom are dragged kicking and screaming against their will to the ceremony. Many factors are taken into account in selecting an appropriate match. Financial prospects are considered, as well as compatible caste and horoscope (Manvi’s intended was a diamond dealer, lucky lucky girl). Personality, hobbies and interests may also be taken into account.
The majority of marriages in India are arranged, while love marriages remain the exception. Love marriages are still considered mildly scandalous among educated mordern city types, and a cultural offence deserving of death in some rural areas.
In Manvi’s case, the groom wasn’t a stranger. They’d met before and spent some time together, not to mention the countless secret giggly video calls leading up to the big day. I felt confident that she had the complete freedom to say no if she so wished. I am certain that she consented to the arranged marriage believing that it was the best choice for her. And she’s not alone, many young Indian people I spoke to looked forward to having arranged marriages of their own one day.
Accepting the family’s choice
If you’re anything like me, the idea of allowing mum and dad to pick the man I’m to spend the rest of my life with sounds utterly terrifying, but maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea.
To be honest, I don’t always make the best choices about who to go out with. Emotions easily cloud judgement and we don’t always make choices in our best interests. It’s certainly plausible that the family closest to you, who love you and know you and want the best for you could make a better choice than yourself. Parents obviously have more experience in actually being married and seeing many relationships run their course over their lifetime.
In India, it’s not two independent people coming together to form a new unit, but two families coming together to form a bigger family. It’s a tight-knit community and connections go beyond the newlyweds and extend to the others around them. It’s important that the families get along and the couple (particularly the bride) can assimilate into their spouse’s family. This adds to the logic of arranged marriages.
But what about L-O-V-E?
It wasn’t long ago when Western marriages were based on status, money, procreation, trade and politics.
Then people like Jane Austen came along inspired us all to find partners we actually liked and had feelings for. This has since escalated to the point where love is now considered to be the only really important consideration. We glorify ideas of impulsive elopements after whirlwind romances, and somehow imagine that they end in a life-long fuzzy warm feelings of love.
Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection. – Jane Austen
In Western reality, divorce rates are high, and feelings are fleeting. However, divorce rates are low in India. Sure, this could be because divorce is frowned upon culturally. But maybe there are other reasons worth considering too.
Maybe our expectations of love are too high. The idea that one person can fulfil your sexual and emotional needs while also raising children together, washing the dishes together, supporting each other in careers and co-managing finances puts a lot of pressure and expectation on a relationship.
Realistically, two people living together without wanting to murder each for their annoying habits is enough of an achievement.
Entering an arranged marriage is a gamble. You know it could go badly, but you’re committed to making it work for your own sakes as well as for your community. You’re not deluded into the idea that you’ve created some magical fairytale where you get to live happily ever after. He might not be Prince Charming, but he’s the guy you’re gonna enjoy life with and (hopefully) learn to love.
Can ‘true love’ come from an arranged marriage?
Love doesn’t have to be something that you feel the instant you first see someone, that never fades so long as you live.
It can be a feeling that can grows as you spend time with a person, have experiences together, and get to know each other’s idiosyncrasies. You can choose to cultivate and nurture those feelings and grow a love even more powerful than one that originated in passion alone.
Maybe loving someone is a skill that you learn and develop over time as you understand them better. It’s something you have to practise and work for, in order to build the strong relationship that lasts for a lifetime.
In this way, perhaps an arranged marriage can result in the fairytale love that we all dream of.
Aren’t you a feminist Ellen?
Some problems with arranged marriage in India
In saying all this, it must be acknowledged that the arranged marriage protocol is still hugely seeped in patriarchal values where women are viewed as property (Although I’d argue this is true of Western marriage also).
Leading up to the wedding, Manvi mentioned her discomfort playing a meek, obedient blushing bride during the ceremonies, when in reality she is a boisterous girl full of heart and endless dance moves. The role her community expects her to play doesn’t allow her to be fully herself, at least in the context of her wedding.
Hindus marry within their caste, which reinforces this unequal and discriminatory system.
Elements of the dowry system still remain, which presents women as burdens that need to be compensated for, instead of assets to the family in both the economic and social spheres. The bride goes to her husband’s family after the marriage, again reinforcing the idea of women as property to trade.
Domestic violence, child marriage, forced marriage are problems in India. Particularly in rural areas, those who fall in love or have relationships outside of the arranged marriage protocol may face violent consequences or ostracism.
Bad parental choices that don’t have their child’s best interests at heart have undoubtably led to many unhappy relationships.
So it certainly has some downsides that need to be mentioned, but these are largely societal/cultural problems, and not specifically against the idea of your parents choosing your spouse.
Now the we’ve sorted out the philosophy, let’s get to the actual wedding!
Attending the wedding
I was lucky enough to attend the rituals leading up to the wedding. We had so much fun being painted in beautiful Mehandi designs and joining the religious preparations. Manvi’s family were so sweet and kind including me in everything.
The wedding was a truly spectacular affair. It felt like a fancy ball from a Jane Austen novel, with the mothers coming out to see the girls all dressed up and to find a suitable match for their sons.
I got to wear a pretty Indian dress, and it was the only time I wore make up during my entire two months in India! It was so nice getting dressed up after being a dirty backpacker for so long.
The food was ridiculous. It was like a festival of delicious vegetarian food from all corners of the country and all guests (especially me) took advantage of the huge quantities available.
The arrival of the bride and groom was spectacular, but it wasn’t until the rituals later in the night that things got serious. As they performed rituals around the fire, Manvi’s hairline was painted red like a married woman to the cheers of families.
I felt the most special part of the night was when she left to go home with his family. The crowd of Manvi’s family were all sobbing (I couldn’t help but shed a few tears too). We walked to the car to the sound of celebratory drums as we all hugged her goodbye.
It’s different to a wedding in Australia that celebrates a couple that have probably already been living together for a few years already. It was a change of identity, from daughter to wife. It was a change of social role in the community, and her life won’t be the same again. It was beautiful, special and emotional, and I wish her all the happiness in the world.