A story of marriage and love in modern India:
Arun Bharat Ram had come home to New Delhi after graduating from the University of Michigan when his mother announced she wanted to find him a wife. Her son was prime marriage material -- 27 years old, an heir to one of the largest fortunes in India, a sophisticated man who had gone to prep school with Rajiv Gandhi and who was soon to start work in the family's textile business. But Bharat Ram had dated American women in Ann Arbor, and the idea of entering into an arranged marriage, though expected in India, "did not seem quite right to me." He finally agreed to see a prospective bride so his mother would stop pestering him.
Manju, the prospect, was no less reluctant. She was 22, a recent graduate of a home economics college, from a conservative, middle-class family. She had always known that her marriage would be arranged, but still shuddered when she remembered how a relative had been asked to parade before her future in-laws -- "like a girl being sold."
Arun and Manju met over coffee with their parents at a luxury hotel in New Delhi. Manju was so nervous that she dropped her cup, but everyone assured her this was a sign of good luck. Arun found Manju pretty and quiet; she was impressed that he didn't boast about his background. There were four more meetings, only one with the two alone. Then it was time to decide.
"If Arun wants to marry you," Manju's parents asked their daughter, "will you agree to marry him?" Manju had no major objections. She liked him, and that was enough. A few days later, Arun's mother came to the house. "We want her," she said. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and 1,500 others came to the wedding.
"I didn't love him," Manju recalls of the days after the engagement. "But when we talked, we had a lot of things in common."
"Obviously, I wasn't in love with her," Arun remembers. "But I was quite sure we would be interesting for each other. Whenever we met, we were comfortable. According to our tradition, that would lead to love."
Today, almost 18 years and three children later, the Bharat Rams are a model of domestic contentment. They are the first to say it hasn't always been easy, but their friends marvel at how well the marriage has worked.
"I've never thought of another man since I met him," Manju says, "and I also know I would not be able to live without him."
"It wasn't something that happened overnight," Arun adds. "It grew, and became a tremendous bond. It's amazing, but in arranged marriages, people actually make the effort to fall in love with each other."
Few areas separate the East more from the West than their attitudes toward love, marriage and sex. In India, sociologists estimate that 95 percent of all marriages are still arranged, including the majority of those among the educated middle class. This is changing among the urban, westernized elite, but not entirely. An Indian man will still come home after years of dating American girlfriends to marry someone he hardly knows. The Sunday newspapers continue to be filled with pages of matrimonial ads. Many Indian college women still want their parents to find husbands for them, and are so sure of the wisdom of their elders that some say yes to a prospective groom after a half-hour meeting. "I could decide maybe in a day," says Vandini Sawhney, a 20-year-old New Delhi commercial arts student who expects hers to be arranged. She thinks a minute. "Well, maybe that's a bit rushed. Maybe in a week."
The tradition survives in part because a new kind of arranged marriage has emerged among the growing middle class, broadly estimated as 10 percent of India's 750 million people. It is particularly prevalent in the upper-middle class. A generation ago, even among the richest families, a bride and groom rarely spoke to each other before the wedding. They had no veto power over their parents' choice, and if the marriage was miserable, so be it.
But now couples are allowed to meet several times before making a decision, and a few can go out alone. Some engagements last six months and more. Women can reject the choice of their parents, and many do. This is considered a breakthrough. "Frankly, I don't think it's such a bad system," says Leila Seth, who is one of only 10 women high-court judges of the 400 in India. As a socially progressive mother, Seth has told her daughter that she can make her own decision, but will also help her find a husband if that's what she wants.
Since most Indian teen-agers are still not allowed to date, parents think their children will be unprepared to make choices of their own. The big parental fear is that a daughter will fall for the first man who comes along. This kind of passion is considered dangerous.
"Love is traditionally blind," says Sudhir Kakar, a prominent New Delhi psychoanalyst. "So if you fall in love, you'll be marrying blindly." In America, a young woman can simply move on when that first intense love affair fizzles, but an Indian woman risks gossip that might ruin her chances of a good husband later. When she falls in love she usually has to marry the man. If it doesn't work out afterward, her friends will cluck that her love was immature and foolish.
Some Americans may associate arranged marriages with primitive practices like dowry, polygamy and most recently bride burnings, a problem brought into western homes last year by U.S. newspapers and CBS' "60 Minutes." Bride burnings are murders. In most cases, a wife is pinned down in the kitchen by her husband, her mother-in-law douses her with kerosene, and then she is set on fire and burned alive. This usually follows an argument over her dowry, in which the in-laws accuse the bride and her family of not giving them the money and household goods they say were promised before the wedding. Bride burnings are most often reported to the police as "stove accidents" -- at the rate of two a day in Delhi alone.
But it is important to remember that this is not the norm. The prevailing opinion in India is that arranged marriages work, although "work" is a relative term.
In the Indian view, American marriages fail because of the inevitable disappointment that sets in after the first few years of romantic love wear off. Most Indians believe true love is a more peaceful emotion, based on long-term commitment and devotion to family. Few in the West would quarrel with that. But Indians also think they can "create" love between two people by arranging the right condition for it, which is a marriage of common backgrounds and interests.
Americans know that common interests are essential, but see love as a mysterious force that exists on its own. In the West, one of the favorite themes is of star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet whose passion defies the forces of society. But in India, love is believed to flow out of social arrangements, and is actually subservient to them. In the West, love must come before marriage, but in India, it can only come after.
Yet there is something universal about what the Indian arranged marriage seeks to accomplish. Even though it is a concept that makes sense primarily on its own terms, and even though it is often disastrous in practice, it can still tell the West something about the relationship between marriage and love.
Meeta Sawhney is 20, a student in economics at Delhi University, an attractive, bright woman who plans on a doctorate and a business career. She got engaged in August to a man her parents found for her. He is 25 and works in his father's business. His family has known Sawhney's for generations. She saw him often while they were growing up, but never considered him marriage material. "Then one day my mother just sat down with me," Sawhney recalls, "and said, 'we have this boy in mind.' " She had reservations but agreed to see him. They met numerous times last year, and sometimes went out to movies and restaurants alone. But there was no fire between them, at least on Sawhney's part. Then this summer the man proposed, and Sawhney said yes. "He's very understanding, and not like normal Indian men," she says. "He doesn't want me to sit at home. He says whatever I want to do with my life is all right."
Does she love him? "That's a very difficult question," she says. "I don't know. This whole concept of love is very alien to us. We're more practical. I don't see stars, I don't hear little bells. But he's a very nice guy, I get along with him fine, and I think I'm going to enjoy spending my life with him. Is that love?" she shrugs.
Even Indians who live in the West preserve their own ideas of love. Rama Rajakumar, a Brahman from south India, is a 34-year-old supervisor at the World Bank in Washington. In 1971, at a friend's house, she met a man who was a Brahman from her part of India. He was studying at the University of Texas. She didn't hear from him again until two years later, when the man wrote to the mutual friend and said he wanted to marry Rama. The friend quickly took on the role of marriage broker, and wrote to both sets of parents in India.
First, the horoscopes of the prospective couple were exchanged. "They matched perfectly," says Rama Rajakumar, talking during a recent visit to New Delhi. The parents exchanged further details on family background and education. Then photos were mailed. A few months later, Rama's parents declared themselves pleased. Rama, who was 22 and had not had a date with anyone in the four years she'd been living in America, told them she'd marry the man. She had not seen him since the meeting two years before.
"From the very beginning, my mind was set that my parents would choose the right person for me," she says. Marrying an American was out. "Just to cook for a nonvegetarian husband would have been horrible."
The marriage was in May 1973 in Madras, India. Rama recalls that she wasn't concerned about how the two strangers might get along for the rest of their lives. "I still think he's a much better husband than anyone I could have asked for," she says.
But wasn't she worried that she wouldn't fall in love with him?
The question makes no sense to her. "No," she says. "I just thought, he is my husband, and I love him.' "
Hindu marriage is considered sacred, but in the ancient religious texts it is based on the devotional worship of a wife for her husband, much like the love for a god. The two partners were not regarded as equals. A woman lived her life through her husband, and often died with him too, sometimes committing suttee by throwing herself on his funeral pyre. Suttee was outlawed in 1829, although there have been rare cases reported in recent years.
The Hindu religious tradition continues to have a strong hold on middle-class families today. Girls are told from childhood that they will love the man their parents chose. Only in exceptional circumstances, like wife beating, will a mother listen to a daughter's complaints about her husband. Divorce between two Hindus has been legal only since 1955, and is still rare even among the urban elite. Since most women are still raised to be submissive, they usually say these rules suit them fine. And although exceptionally independent women (and men) do break away, that doesn't mean they reject arranged marriages for others. Even Kushwant Singh, the Sikh historian and social observer who finds "the whole institution bloody," is busily arranging two marriages for friends.
Meera Bharany, for instance, is a 30-year-old lecturer in philosophy at Delhi University. She is single and couldn't imagine having an arranged marriage herself, but this summer she was eager to find a wife for her 27-year-old brother, Ramji. Meera Bharany's mother is dead, so she and her father, a rich New Delhi jeweler and art collector, led the search. An impressive industrial family from the Punjab found them first. They had a 20-year-old daughter, Benu. The prospective bride and groom met with Meera and some young relatives over dinner at an expensive Chinese restaurant. "I could tell my brother was definitely floored by her looks," says Bharany, "but he wouldn't admit it."
Two days later she and her cousin sat her brother down in the living room and asked him what he thought. They felt the woman would be perfect for him, but he wasn't sure. "So I said to him," she recalls, " 'if you don't like her, you'll have to tell us why. That way we'll know what to look for next time.' He was hesitant, so we went over what he wanted in a girl step by step. But he was still hesitant. Finally, he had a drink -- and said yes."
Indians can make such instant life decisions partly because their religion gives them a strong sense of fatalism. Strict Hindus believe that their life experience is a result of their karma, which is the accumulated sum of their good and bad actions in the cycle of reincarnation. These beliefs are such a pervasive part of the world's oldest living religion that they influence even the casual Hindu today. Piyusha Mehta, a 30-year-old part-time nursery schoolteacher, recalls she knew after half an hour that her husband would be a good match. "I can't explain this sort of thing," she says. "You meet the person and you know he's right." Or as Ritu Nanda, the 37-year-old director of one of India's most successful home appliance companies, puts it: "It's the biggest gamble of one's life -- so why not just leave it to destiny?" She had an arranged marriage, as did Mintu Pande, a Harvard graduate and a 44-year-old manager in a major Indian computer company. He decided to marry his wife after talking to her for five minutes, but says that what really convinced him was the long braid that fell seductively over her shoulder while she was serving tea.
Even Indians whose parents allow them to date, sometimes ask for arranged marriages, simply because it's one way to avoid the anxiety of meeting the opposite sex. Rajesh Puri, the 29-year-old comic star of India's hit soap opera, "Hum Log," or "We People," is one of the best-known faces in India, and presumably would have no trouble with his social life. But his parents arranged a marriage for him last year, and he says it was the first time he'd ever had any kind of a relationship with a woman.
"I have always been quite afraid that if I loved some girl, and then she ditched me, I couldn't have taken it," he says. "So I deliberately tried to avoid it." His wife is a former sales administrator in a New Delhi publishing company whom he hardly knew. "For me," he says, "my love affair started after my marriage."
Arranged marriage is a perplexing custom in a country that has one of the world's richest traditions of love and passion. The Kamasutra is perhaps the most famous poem ever written on the finer points of lovemaking, and the erotic sculptures at Khajuraho still startle even forward-thinking westerners today. The Indian gods copulate blissfully across the pages of the great epics, and every Indian schoolchild knows the love story of the god Krishna and the beautiful milkmaid, Radha. As described in the ancient religious texts, their lovemaking was so intense that Radha's jewelry "was torn from her body . . . the chignon dislocated . . . she nearly lost her reason and could not distinguish day from night."
But this greatest of Hindu love stories also happens to be about an adulterous affair, not marriage. Radha eventually went back to her husband. Krishna later married Rukmini, more for duty than love, and then turned his attention to fighting demons.
Historically, devotion and duty have been more important than passion in Indian marriage, at least among the middle class. Yet middle class parents are well aware of the adolescent lust that can rage between a young bride and groom who have never had sex before. So parents often make sure that the bride spends some time away from her husband during the bleak chances of my marriage working better," she says.
Some couples in arranged marriages do arrive at a peaceful coexistence by having affairs, but it is done very discreetly. People in New Delhi often gossip about presumed dalliances, but there are no reliable surveys showing how common they really are. Sudhir Kakar says that most of his patients are unfaithful to their spouses, but it is usually within the confines of the joint family -- a woman will fall in love with her brother-in-law, for instance. This is considered less scandalous than an affair outside the home, which might be more easily discovered and talked about.
In fact, arranged marriages can provide unfaithful spouses with all sorts of justifications not available in the west. Sidarth, for example, is an American-educated, upper-middle-class businessman in New Delhi. His name has been changed for this article. He says that he has had casual extramarital affairs, and he assumes that his wife has, too. He claims that this doesn't harm their relationship. His rationale is that his 21-year-old marriage is indestructable because he and his wife have had the intense experience of building something from nothing, of moving from naivete to what he says is a deep bond. His argument is that he will never be able to make this remarkable journey with another woman because he will never be young and inexperienced again.
"Is love so fragile," he asks grandly, "that after one little breeze it collapses?"
In the end, the relationship between love and marriage is so different in India and the West that there appears to be little common ground. Americans may not have figured out marriage and love, but the Indians don't seem to have found perfect answers, either.
"Both in the East and the West, we have very little knowledge of what marriage is," says Promilla Kapur, a well-known New Delhi sociologist who is also a family and marriage counselor. "Young people either think it will be heaven, or that it will be the end of their freedom. It's neither. In marriage one has to go on practicing. And if you enter into it with the determination that you are going to make it a success, then there are more chances for that success than if you have the casual attitude of 'if it works, fine, and if it doesn't, I'll just get out of it.' "
Which could be the main lesson to be learned from the Indian arranged marriage. "Maybe this is part of our psyche that accepts fate as it comes," says Arun Bharat-Ram, the University of Michigan graduate who had an arranged marriage 18 years ago. "But I do think people adjust to a difficult situation much easier in India than they do in the West. I think we are far more tolerant and giving."
"From the beginning, my mother always told me the girl has to compromise a lot," adds his wife, Manju. "She also told me that if you're unhappy -- unless it's really bad -- don't tell me.' But I don't think I've ever regretted my marriage, ever."