When I announced my engagement, my family stared in mute horror. Actually, maybe that’s not entirely accurate; my mother burst into tears.
I was 19, and my family had immigrated to the U.S. from India only four years before. I’d already acculturated faster than they’d wanted — I wore tank tops, spoke English with an American accent, and listened to country music (though curry was still my favorite food). To add to the horror, my fiancé was an all-American white guy my parents had refused to get to know, in the same way farmers refuse to name the cows destined for the chophouse.
At the time, their devastation had seemed unnecessary, even insulting. Why was me getting married such a big deal? Wasn’t I smart enough to pick out someone with whom I was compatible? Didn’t they trust me? Who could know what I wanted in a lover and life partner better than me?
Marriages can be like menu items at a restaurant: Unique in flavor with markedly different ingredients. This is a story of three such unions: A traditionally arranged Indian marriage, what I call a “modern arranged marriage,” and a typical American marriage. I set out to highlight the differences between each, and came away with something completely unexpected.
“Marriages can be like menu items at a restaurant: Unique in flavor with markedly different ingredients.”
Back then, wrapped up in my own indignation as I was, I didn’t stop to consider what, exactly, was causing my family’s collective heart attack. Eventually I realized every adult I’d been speaking to was in an arranged marriage.
Traditional Indian parents consider it a privilege to not just choose their child’s suitor, but also decide when their child will get married, carefully vet the suitor’s family and extended family, and plan a very elaborate wedding on an auspicious date chosen by an astrologer.
Contrast that to my process — finding my own suitor, not knowing much about my suitor’s extended family, and paying fifty bucks for a Justice of the Peace ceremony for any open date in July — and one might begin to see the source of their panic. We didn’t even have rings.
And this wasn’t even to mention the fact that my parents, like many South Asian immigrants in the diaspora, were terrified about losing their Indian identity. If I married a white man, what would our children’s identities be? Would the cultural traditions that had been passed on lovingly from generation to generation get cut off with me, stirred into the great melting pot and lost forever? These were things that I, in my teenaged rage, did not stop to consider.
“What made their thirty-year-old arranged marriage tick?”
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Chitta, my mother’s younger sister, about her traditional arranged marriage. I remembered only vague stories — Chitta’s beauty had been legendary, and her husband was considered a lucky man. Chitta and her husband, whom I call SKC (short for the more appropriate address, Shree Kuttan Chettan, which my sister and I deemed way too long to say), were two family members who’d tried to (lovingly) convince me that my marriage was ill-fated.
They’d been like parents to me growing up, and I decided I wanted to know more about their story. What made their thirty-year-old arranged marriage tick?
“I never wanted to get married,” Chitta tells me over WhatsApp, our preferred method of long-distance communication. But her father, my maternal grandfather, convinced her it would be the only way he’d be able to rest in peace. So Chitta told him she’d marry anyone he chose…though she didn’t give in completely.
In India, the custom is for Hindu brides to bring their visiting potential suitors a tray of tea and snacks. Chitta refused to do this, and when her elders insisted, she archly told SKC that her mother had made the snacks on the tray because she didn’t know how to cook — a staggering confession for a middle-class Hindu woman in those days.
Luckily, he didn’t seem to mind. “He said he could make eggs and so we’ll survive,” Chitta says, a laugh-cry emoji denoting exactly what she thinks of that now. With that, SKC changed Chitta’s mind, and she became much more enthusiastic about her own wedding.
“Love has different hues,” she says, “and its essence has changed over the years.”
Chitta didn’t really have time to get to know SKC — they were engaged shortly after the astrologer determined they’d be a good match, and then SKC went to London to earn a graduate degree. When he returned, they were married. There were a few low points after, Chitta tells me.
That highly prized comedic element on American sitcoms reared its head: Conflict with the in-laws. They valued traditional norms; she wanted a marriage where she could hold her husband’s hand without scandalizing everyone.
Over the years, she and SKC hit their stride. Their relationship went from pure “chemistry,” as she calls it, to something heartier. “Love has different hues,” she says, “and its essence has changed over the years.”
I saw what she was trying to tell me: Marriage can be challenging even with careful planning by respected elders. Only hard-workers need apply.
On the other hand, my cousin Akash and his wife Lakshmi, both of whom also live in India, have what I call a “modern arranged marriage.” This, at the very least, is no doubt what my family would have preferred me to do. Even though Akash and Lakshmi met and fell in love before parents entered the picture, they still did the whole marriage thing the “right” way.
“Marriage can be challenging even with careful planning by respected elders. Only hard-workers need apply.”
Similar to how Americans tend to seek romantic partners in their own social and professional circles, Akash and Lakshmi are both lawyers, and their parents are from the same part of South India. They also belong to the same religion and caste — something that continues to be important to many Hindu Indian families. In fact, Akash’s father and Lakshmi’s father even knew each other peripherally before they ever met.
Still, their match was not an easy one for Lakshmi’s father to stomach.
For one, Lakshmi was already getting proposals from what he considered more prestigious suitors (rumors of a senator’s son abounded). For another, they were so young when they fell in love, both still in college. Lakshmi’s father wanted her to earn her graduate degree at a well-respected university in the States, and he was worried she wouldn’t if they were married first.
So a compromise was reached: They would be engaged, and then Lakshmi would go to America for a year. (Perhaps in a desperate attempt to deny the oncoming freight train of reality, Akash’s father-in-law pushed to have the engagement ceremony without him. Akash hopped on a plane as soon as he heard.)
Marriage brought with it its own struggles. There were adjustments to be made — they lived in a house with Akash’s parents; Lakshmi’s family lived in another state. She had no friends where they were. The road was hard at times; they had to forge their own path through it. And they did. Today, Akash and Lakshmi are happily married with a beautiful daughter and successful careers.
“The road was hard at times; they had to forge their own path through it.”
It seems even couples who look well-matched to the elders in the family may find that marriage isn’t a cakewalk. Unlike Chitta and SKC, Akash and Lakshmi weren’t strangers to each other in the beginning. However, just like Chitta and SKC, they had to learn the art of marriage; looking the other way when your significant other leaves hair in the sink or lets out a burp you find mildly horrifying.
My own story, of course, was a marked deviation from either of these. I was the jet-ski in a parade of stately sailboats — loud, brash, disruptive. “I feel like I won’t ever be able to talk to you now that you’re married,” Chitta told me when I was on my way to Idaho with my new husband.
Her fear makes sense now; there was no precedent in my family for what I was doing. No one knew what to expect. My uncles counseled my mother to be ready with open arms when I came back, heartbroken and single, in a few months.
At the time, I found it incredibly frustrating. I had it all figured out: The right way to get married was to find my own partner, with no input from anyone else. Wasn’t that part of the American dream?
I look back now, nearly fifteen years later, and I can begin to see why they were so afraid. What must it have felt like, when a (young, naïve) part of the family suddenly decided to uproot herself and fly into the wind? What must they have thought of the 40-50 percent divorce rate of American marriages compared to the 1.3 percent divorce rate of Indian ones?
Thankfully, their fears were unfounded. My husband and I are still best friends to this day — no need for that chophouse after all. Still, things weren’t always easy. Just like in Chitta’s and Akash’s marriages, we went through phases of adjustment. To my great dismay, my husband loves to laughingly tell people about our asinine arguments that felt so monumental our first year. Thankfully, we found a way to grow up without growing apart.
“Thankfully, we found a way to grow up without growing apart.”
There was no room for immaturity or the stubbornness of youth if we wanted our marriage to survive. When my postpartum depression hit hard after the birth of our daughter, we had to find a way to stay us with serious mental illness adding a new dynamic. And somehow, just like Chitta and my other married Indian relatives, we’ve managed to field trials we never expected.
Also important: We’ve found a way to pass on the nuances of Indian culture to our children. Although they don’t speak Hindi (or Malayalam, a language which even I never mastered), I make sure to buy them the same Amar Chitra Katha comics I enjoyed as a kid. They know about Diwali, and wear Indian clothes without issue. They’re proud when they speak of their heritage to other kids, which warms my heart more than they’ll ever know. My husband has played no small part in this. He always refers to them as Indian-American, never solely American, and has made a valiant and public effort to learn Hindi (he can now ask for water in Indian restaurants and compliment the chef), among other things.
Perhaps marriages — arranged, not arranged, or somewhere in between — aren’t as different as I’d thought. Maybe the only thing that really matters in the end is the mindset of the two people involved.
Are they prepared to do the heavy-lifting that will doubtless be required at some point? Are they ready to see and share the world with someone who may not view it through the same lens? Make sacrifices for the other person, at the risk of sounding like a played-out Tim McGraw song, just to see them smile?
As Chitta says, love has many hues. We just have to find one that works for us.
* * *
Sandhya Menon writes books for teens. She currently lives in Colorado, where she’s on a mission to (gently) coerce her husband, son, and daughter to watch all 3,221 Bollywood movies she claims as her favorite. Her YA novel When Dimple Met Rishi is out today from Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster).