Asia | India – A Marriage of Convenience

Asia | India – A Marriage of Convenience

My day started in bed with the Sunday papers. As normal as this might seem, today was not a usual kind of day at all. This is because today is Monday morning, not Sunday, and I am still in bed, reading the papers from a week ago yesterday. That’s not so unusual, you may think. And you’d be right -I often read the paper a week later – I never seem to find the time on the day itself. I mean, if I’ve got out of bed, got dressed, gone to the shop and bought a paper, I probably had more to do on that particular Sunday than read the paper. Otherwise, I’d still be in my pyjamas padding around the house in slippered feet, enjoying not getting ready for anything, not doing anything. I simply won’t venture out of doors in my pyjamas for a newspaper – I’ve plenty other things I can read without leaving the house. On Sundays, I’m in one of two distinct states: either I’m dressed and am therefore out of the house, or I’m not suitably attired to leave the house, and am therefore staying in.

And I wouldn’t be the first person in the world to call into work sick on a Monday morning and stay in bed reading the paper. So, by all appearances, today doesn’t seem in the least bit unusual after all. I’m still in my pyjamas, still in bed, on a Monday morning after having read last Sunday’s paper. Fairly standard stuff.

I had kept only the Classified section to read.

And that’s what I’ve been pouring over for the past two hours – the ‘Brides Wanted/Grooms Wanted’ section of the Hindustan Times, published in New Dehli on Sunday 26th November, 2006. The fact that I’m reading this paper in Pokhara, Nepal is not significant.

Perhaps not quite your average Monday morning?

When it comes to love, I am a dyed-in-the-wool, committed cynic. I don’t believe in love at first sight, one true love, first – and only – love, or everlasting love; as far as I’m concerned, its all romantic delusion and illusion. “Take off your rose-tinted spectacles and see things are they really are”, I want to shout to lovers deluded by illusions of everlasting bliss. And about marriage? That’s for people who can’t stand their own company, right? For people who either can’t bear their own company, or who are afraid to be alone…or for people who want to have children. Because they are afraid to be alone and want a guaranteed ‘someone’ to look after them in their old age, right? I’m the original cynic when it comes to love.

At six years of age I promised my father that I would never get married and never have children. He occasionally reminds me of my promise; I think he likes to check that I haven’t lost my mind (or plan to) and fallen so completely head-over-heels that I may have considered marriage a good idea. So I probably inherited my cynicism from him. Even though he enjoys a perfectly happy marriage – my mother and he are almost always in each other’s company: they do practically everything together: they run a business together, and they chose to be alone together, often shunning the company of others to be with each other. And after forty-two years of marriage, theirs is undoubtedly a strong partnership. So I’ve never quite understood why he exacted that promise from me so many years ago, except that maybe he knew me better than I knew myself at the time; maybe he recognised something in me that indicated to him I would always take the road to independence, and chose to go through life alone. Maybe he was managing my expectations.

So back to the papers and my thoughts about bride-buying? Enough said? My feeling is that these advertisements reduce women to the status of chattels – and I don’t understand how they can possibly hope to be treated as anything more after marriage. Even so, I began reading…

And soon I found that my initial outrage was replaced by far more than casual interest. Although most of the ads had exceedingly high expectations, demanding only the fairest, most beautiful, the slimmest, tallest, youngest, most professionally qualified girls apply having come from a well-connected, high-status, wealthy family (these were often the minimum requirements, quite honestly), as I read more and more of them, I found myself being touched by their earnest, serious search for love. One email address that reminded me of this greatest human need openly declared what they were seeking; “replies to: [email protected].”.

As I push aside the majority of the overly-prescriptive advertisements, I see there are ads that have flexible requirements too. “Caste no bar.” “No demand” – indicating the family were not asking for a dowry. “Widow acceptable.” One ad I found particularly charming made very modest demands for their son: “All we are looking for is a good God-fearing family,” they wrote. Another family were willing to consider a girl “up to the age of 34 years” for their 40-year old son. In India a girl is considered unmarriageable at 30; they were apparently a fairly broad-minded family. Most ads stated the ages of the potential bride or groom, and in the case of the ‘older’ brides-to-be, they emphatically stated: “looks younger.” Not one was over 28, and most of those who seemed to be apologising for their advanced years were only 26! I stop and think about what it might mean to reach 26 and be told – effectively – that you are unlovable. I can’t breathe. I realise I am holding my breath as I hold the thought.

The classifieds were organised under different headings, generally indicating caste or sub-caste (Brahman, Katri, Agarwal, for example); religion (if other than Hindu); or the region the family was from (e.g., Punjabi). There were also listings under specific professions and qualifications such as ‘MBA’ and ‘Doctor’. All families wanted a well-educated, professionally qualified match for their equally qualified daughter or son, but I thought the special criteria under ‘Doctors’ particularly unusual. Here, most wanted a doctor wife for their doctor sons, to continue the medical lineage, I presumed. Why not share it around? That way, more Indians would have access to free medical care.

There were listings for ‘Non-Resident Indians’ – Indians living and working overseas – with residence permits for Australia, UK and Canada, or “imminent” Green Cards for the US. Almost all of these advertisements stated the estimated annual income of the potential grooms, commonly expressed in the form of: “a six-figure salary (US); eight-figures (rupees)”, though occasionally being crass enough to state the actual amount. These grooms-in-waiting had arranged to return to India the following month and meet with those lucky brides-to-be short-listed by their family. There was also a heading mysteriously labelled ‘Cosmopolitan’, though exactly what that meant I couldn’t really tell. However, it seemed the one particular characteristic all the potential grooms shared was that they were “modernites”. At the end of the classifieds there was a section for ‘Divorcees and Widow(er)s’. These ads stated if the marriage had been legally (and officially) dissolved, if there had been no children (“issueless” was the term used) or if the marriage had been short-lived, and in a few rare cases if the marriage had been consummated. One family put it most delicately as: “without co-habitation.” Others were less diplomatic: “virginal” and “no-fault unconsummated marriage” was also written. At this point, I can’t help returning to my original feelings; that this really is a meat-market, and the ‘purchase price’ is affected by the condition of the goods on offer.

Almost all the grooms seeking a match were described as (very) good-looking, (exceptionally) handsome, (very) fair and (very) athletic – I wondered if there was a tacit understanding that without the qualification ‘very’, it was taken that the groom was distinctly ‘average’ looking, ‘not very’ fair, and ‘a little’ stocky. The brides, too were all described as very fair (this seemed to be the minimum standard of fairness applied to them), very beautiful (same went for beauty), slim, and from a respectable family. Family was clearly important in all cases to all parties, but in the case of women, a “decent” family was mandatory. Those with greater flair (or perhaps greater imagination) described their sons or daughters as “sophisticated”, “charming”, “talented”, “intelligent” and “convent-educated”. I noted that the only instance where a description of the bride’s looks was less than glowing (“pleasant looking”) was preceded by “ultra rich family”.

But, it was an ad on the last page, squeezed between ‘Cosmopolitan’ and the “Marriage Bureaus’ that caught my eye. I almost missed it. It wrote:

“Inviting proposals from smart, attractive, caring, broad-minded cosmopolitan girl (preferably working) for very caring, pleasant-looking jovial gentleman, age 59, 175cm tall. Retired from a senior government position, presently engaged in finance and agriculture business. Already married wife staying with him but terminally ill. Seeking a live-in relationship or companionship with a healthy lady. LADY IS THE ONLY CONSIDERATION. Issue/marital status/financial status/caste no bar.

So something stirred the romantic in me after all. Maybe we’re all just looking for love?

Category : Asia | India , Uncategorized