Summer is upon us, which means that brown aunties all over the world are breaking out astrological charts and biodata is being exchanged left and right, all in hopes of scoring coveted rishtas (marriage proposals) and week-long wedding extravaganzas for their tragically unmarried children. Desi weddings have always remained close to my heart, and some of my most memorable nights involve wearing a lehenga choli and participating in traditional festivities like the mehndi or sangeet. But whenever the topic of weddings is broached with Americans, I’m reminded of the cultural chasm that often separates us, of my precarious balancing act of straddling two countries while never quite belonging to either one.
When I tell my American friends about the two weddings that I’ll be attending in India this August, their faces immediately light up. I get bombarded with a lot of questions: How did they meet? How long did they date? How was the proposal? My friends are inevitably looking for answers reminiscent of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but I know that I’m about to disappoint them.
“They’re getting an arranged marriage.”
Oh, they breathe out. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the tone of their voices is different. The air in the room has shifted, the nature of the conversation has changed, and I feel strangely defensive.
The omnipresence of arranged marriages in my life has caused the idea to become the accepted norm.
Arranged marriages have always presented a unique problem for me. My parents had an arranged marriage, and nearly all of the adults that I’ve grown up around also had arranged marriages. The omnipresence of arranged marriages in my life has caused the idea to become the accepted norm. However, being raised in the United States, the emphasis on values such as individualism and freedom have also led me to believe that marriage should be based on love and personal choice. Indeed, the opinions of my American friends have shaped mine, and their ideas of dating, romance, and marriage have caused me to think of arranged marriages as somehow “less than” other marriages.
But when I look at my parents, all I see is a loving, fulfilling, successful marriage. After nearly three decades together, my parents share an indescribable comfort with each other, the kind of relationship that only comes after building a life together. They know each other’s weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, dreams, fears, and each and every little characteristic in between. It always excites me when my parents tell me stories of their early years together. Whenever I complain about the subzi (curry) that my mom has prepared for dinner, my dad always reminds me that he had to eat lemon rice for their entire first year of marriage because it was the only dish my mom knew how to make. He didn’t want to pressure her or demand anything else since he himself was “useless” and had mediocre culinary abilities, so he resolved to eat lemon rice every day until my mom cooked something else.
The opinions of my American friends have shaped mine, and their ideas of dating, romance, and marriage have caused me to think of arranged marriages as somehow “less than” other marriages.
I love watching home videos of old converted tapes, in which my dad secretly records my mom singing loudly and wonderfully off-key to songs like Lag Jaa Gale (which roughly translates to Hug Me), smiling and yelling at the camera when she realizes she’s been caught. Their marriage has been filled with memories of my dad pulling pranks on my mom, of them traveling the world together, of my mom indulging my dad’s fondness for classic films and listening to him enthusiastically explain the plot of some awful Bollywood movie from the 70s. Their marriage has been filled with thrilling adventures and deep laughter, with genuine friendship and joy, and I don’t think anyone would be able to guess that they chose to get married after the very first time that they met.
To be fair, arranged marriages do have their flaws. There are young girls, barely over the age of 12, who are forced into marriages, and there are women who are attacked with acid or burned to death because their dowries aren’t impressive enough. There are survivors of domestic violence who cannot leave their homes because marital rape is legal and divorce is a social stigma. To me, these problems have more to do with misogyny and marriage as an imperfect social institution than the nature of arranged marriage itself, which is simply a practice of involving parents and families in the process of looking for a significant other. We like to think of arranged marriages as lacking in choice, but my parents willingly chose to marry each other, despite knowing that they could walk away and choose someone else. “Falling in love is a choice,” my dad always says. And perhaps he’s right. Maybe we should start thinking of love as a verb rather than a noun, as something we do actively and intentionally rather than some mysterious phenomenon that we sit around and wait for to happen to us.
My parents may or may not be in love, but they certainly love each other.
My parents may or may not be in love, but they certainly love each other. Sometimes I wonder if American society has glorified romantic love at the detriment of celebrating all the other kinds of love out there. I don’t know how to define what my parents share, but I can definitively say that it adds something incomparably special to their lives. And maybe that’s all that we need to know. Maybe my dad’s superhuman ability to stomach lemon rice for an entire year and my mom’s newfound hobby of singing Lag Jaa Gale at odd intervals tell us more about real, genuine love than conventional acts of “romance” ever could. The relationship that my parents share isn’t one that can be found between the pages of a Nora Roberts novel or onscreen in a Hallmark Channel film, but it is beautiful and meaningful. It is love.