September 20, 2010

Love and Marriage

... can there be one without the other?

For many Indians, yes. And there is.

While the concept of "love marriages" is starting to become a reality in some areas of India, it's still very much an unattainable fantasy for young, infatuated couples. Something like 80%-90% of Indian marriages are arranged, each with a varied degree of intensity. Marriage is not a life choice in India as it is for us Westerners. Instead, it's a critical point in life which ultimately defines the outcome of one's future. Marriage is also not so much about the couple, but rather the people involved in creating the matrimonial alliance. Marriage brings about a redistribution of wealth between the two families, rearranges social structures, and acts as an instrument of carrying on the families' names.

Therefore, as you can imagine, the qualifications for matchmaking are strict and many factors are taken into account before the two candidates of marriage even meet. Obvious factors include: wealth, personal values and tastes, religion, profession, and age. But, it doesn't stop there. Diet, height, and weight are also taken into account- God forbid the bride be taller than the groom!! Numerology and the positions of stars at one's birth are also computed into a percentage to predict the success of a particular match. A match lower than 70% is not usually acceptable; a low score could keep an otherwise perfectly compatable couple apart. But, I suppose old customs die hard. The most important factor, however, is the reputation of the family. Skeletons in your closet? You can forget marrying that tall, dark, handsome doctor who comes from a "good" family. Caste has always been important, but as I talked to Indian couples and browsed the matrimonials of the newspapers, I learned that this is not the most vital constituent to a match.

Yes, that's right. The "matrimonials" section of the newspaper, much like a Western version of personal ads. These, however, are much more in depth and not so personal as the ads are placed by the parents of the brides- and grooms-to-be. My friends and I read these on a daily basis as some of them were quite funny. Few were borderline sad; I actually felt embarrassed for some of the girls, especially those whose appearances were described as "plain" or "humble." Some parents also advertised that their daughters or sons were studying in America or England and I wondered if they even knew what their parents were up to. I guess it's to be expected, though, in a country where being set up by your parents is the norm. Matchmaking, nevertheless, is big business and many people make a good living off of it. While the matching usually takes place in the brides' and grooms' twenties (or older, depending on whether or not they go to university), it can begin even earlier.

While I was working in the slums of Dharamsala, I was able to take care of a small, undernourished 2 year old girl who I will talk more about in a later post. I learned that she had actually already been promised to another family in the slum for what we might consider to be a very small amount of money. I also met girls who were in their early teens who were already married, which is actually illegal in India. These situations, as I learned, are quite commonplace in smaller villages and slums.

Families would agree that the parents of males tend to be the more fortunate ones as dowry is still required in the matrimonial arrangement, despite the fact that anti-dowry laws exist in India. As with many laws, however, they are ignored. Dowry can be anything from money to jewelry, so long as it is something of monetary value. This isn't so bad for the more wealthy families, but considering India has a considerable amount of poverty, it's no wonder that problems arise from these demands. And they do. And they're pretty horrific.

I first learned of these problems when I was being admitted into the hospital for food poisoning. There was a very large sign on the wall stating that sex determination tests were not offered for pregnant women. I soon found out that this was due in part to the fact that many women cannot afford the dowry payment that is inevitable when having a daughter and, thus, abortion rates are through the roof, or even worse, many baby girls are killed at birth. Lest I not mention the fact that some girls make it to the age of marriage, but feel as if they are burdening their already impoverished parents; suicide is the end result in these cases.

Sometimes, even after dowry is made and a marriage ceremony has taken place, the groom's family will continue to make demands for even more money. When the demands are not met, the bride is killed, usually by means of setting the girls on fire. Think this sounds mid-evil? Well, it happens a lot more than you may think: there are a couple thousand reported dowry killings a year. Newspapers announce these murders on a weekly basis, like this one that happened not long ago. The Indian government, along with the UN and human rights groups seem to be trying to fix these problems, but with a population of a billion accustomed to such traditions, I don't see things changing anytime soon.

Despite all the problems that result from arranged marriages, it still seems that many result in long-term, loving relationships. My host "mother" was forced to marry at the age of 19 to a man in his mid-thirties. Soon thereafter, her sister was also forced to marry the same man. I was surprised how open she was about it, as I'm sure she was well aware how strange her situation sounded to the naive American. Still, she expressed to me how she felt. "At first I thought, 'What the hell is this?!' But as the years went on, I began to love him. Now, I really do love him," she told me. Sure, family titles become a bit difficult to explain, but it works for them.

Still, I can't help but wonder what will happen 5, 10 years from now. Will the inescapable Westernization of the big cities of India affect the mindset of younger generations? What will happen now that the government has proposed laws making divorce easier, introducing terms such as "irretrievable breakdown" of marriage and "incompatibility"? Only time will tell, but I'm confident that regardless of changes, marriage will forever be a cornerstone in the culture of India.

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