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Do you take this stranger?

A visit to India offers a new look at arranged marriage

June 26, 2008|Swati Pandey | Times Staff Writer

GORAKHPUR, INDIA — It was near midnight at the Railway Club, a posh spot at the train station in Gorakhpur, close to the Nepal border. Hundreds of guests had gathered four hours earlier to eat made-to-order dosas and Indian-Chinese fusion finger-foods, to watch green, red and gold fireworks explode over palm trees and to dance to bass-heavy Bollywood tracks.

My cousin's wedding would soon begin.

A family astrologer had recommended the date and advised that the wedding start after 10 p.m. and conclude before 4 a.m. Those last hours would end six days of ceremonies, the first reunion of my maternal family in two decades and my first full Hindu wedding. They would also end my uncle's efforts to arrange a marriage, and a future, for my cousin.

All of it -- the years spent selecting a suitor, the final minutes of anticipation, the newness of the couple, a man and woman not shaped by former loves and heartbreaks -- was romantic in a way I hadn't expected. Growing up in America for all my 25 years, I'd long ago given up on the tradition, but by midnight, I had started to wonder.

What I never realized, as a googly-eyed adolescent who had imagined eloping with a George Clooney type, was that "love marriage," as many Indians call it, is the aberration.

Arranged marriages are common in countries and cultures that came belatedly to Romanticism and rock 'n' roll and whatever else gave rise to what we call youth. It's difficult to quantify them because the term is such a broad one -- encompassing a childhood betrothal and a parent's mere suggestion of a vetted match.

My cousin's arrangement was closer to the latter. Her father found Vishal through one of my paternal cousins. Shockingly for this conservative swath of north India, sometimes called the "cow belt," he set a date for them to meet without a chaperon.

"He looked better in person than in photographs," Garima Upadhya, 26, said, recalling their first meeting. "He was always laughing and joking."

They next met at their engagement party in Gonda, Garima's hometown. Two months after that they would be married; the all-nighter wedding would be the most time they'd spent together.

That's still more time than my mother had with my father before marrying him in 1969, in the same house where Garima was raised.

They met face to face when my father looped a garland around my mother's neck at their wedding. They moved to the U.S. within months.

My father attended school while my mom improved her spoken English by watching daytime television, the teacher to so many immigrant women. Whereas Garima called her sister's cellphone only hours after driving off with her husband, my mother had to save up for a short, staticky call home.

She tried to hold on to her old life and customs, but when she patted the part of her hair with sindoor, a red powder many Indian women wear to denote their marital status, Americans worried that she was bleeding.

She wears it only for special occasions now, and so, for Garima's wedding, she applied sindoor and piled on the other many accessories of married Indian women: thick gold bangles, anklets, toe rings, a wedding ring and a mangal sutra -- a gold-and-black beaded necklace.

Beside her, I felt nakedly unmarried and young.

For five nights, the guests arrived at dusk at the house in Gonda.

The first ceremony was the sangeet, a sort of bachelorette party. A crowd of 200 women drummed tablas, danced and sang funny ad-libbed songs about the groom.

I had seen one sangeet in the U.S., performed on a stage by a handful of women. It was more a folk art display than a boisterous, inclusive party. Still, it was something.

The next day brought a ceremony that's rare in India because it requires a body of water within walking distance. A nain -- a jack-of-all-female-trades hired to preside -- began the ceremony by painting in red ink a thick line around each woman's feet, in the manner of Hindu goddesses and old-time Bollywood actresses. The ink would last longer than the days of celebration. She made sure to break mine at the heel, signifying that I was unmarried.

Then the nain led us, a line of singing, sari-clad women darting between motorcycles and rickshaws, to the nearest pond.

There, my mother dug a mound of dirt that we would take back to Garima. In an earlier time, Garima would have sculpted it into a hearth for her new home.

My grandfather explained the ritual. "The bride is being uprooted from her family," he said in his nimble English. "And so the women uproot the soil."

While we sang and prayed, Garima packed and gabbed constantly with her future husband on her cellphone.

Despite her unabashedly joyful voice, I still found myself wondering why she decided to have an arranged marriage. All our cousins had had "love marriages" and had still won parental approval, however reluctant. My parents have never expected me to have an arranged marriage, even if they praise the practice and occasionally name-drop eligible bachelors.

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