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Love, Marriage and Sex India-Style : Parents' Choice of Mate Works Often but There Is Change

December 25, 1985|ELISABETH BUMILLER | The Washington Post

NEW DELHI — 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 Prime Minister 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. Then-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% 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 girls 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 bridegroom after a half-hour meeting.

"I could decide maybe in a day," says Vandini Sawhney, a 20-year-old New Delhi commercial-art student who expects her marriage 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% 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 bridegroom 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.

Meetings Called Breakthrough

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."

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