Matters of the heart

Matters of the heart
As Rina checked to make sure her kajal hadn’t smudged, her mother walked in. She adjusted Rina’s dupatta and smiled softly at her in the full length mirror. “Come, it’s time.” Rina picked up the laden tray from the dining table and walked into the living room, her eyes cast demurely downward. As she bent to offer the tea and samosas, she risked a quick glance at the young man sitting on the couch. Nilesh, they had said his name was. He looked a little different from the photograph her parents had shown her. As she finished serving everyone and sat down on the chair next to her prospective mother-in-law, something niggled at the back of her mind. And then it came to her. A few weeks ago, her best friend Tanya had come across a cute guy on a dating website. She had giggled excitedly and swiped right. Several days of enthusiastic flirting followed, and they planned to meet soon. Come to think of it, they were supposed to meet today, but he had cancelled due to family commitments. Now Tanya’s cute guy sat across from her, sipping tea and blushing as his mother extolled his many virtues.

This story is fictional, but could just as easily be real. Social media has shrunk the world, and with millions of users getting added every day, the odds of bumping into someone you know have dramatically increased.

Dating dilemmas

Jokes apart, ‘tis is a good time to be single; with dating sites making it much easier to find “the one”. Love marriages no longer invite stigma or smirk, and family functions and college canteens are not the only places where true love blooms. So what if most of these places are in the virtual world? The relationships are no less real. Or at least some of them are. Remember the story about the sweet old man who posed as a dashing hunk on Facebook and fell for a beautiful woman? He went to meet her, but discovered that said beautiful damsel was actually a toothless old lady with a flatulence problem. Fortunately for him, the woman was not his wife, or his next door neighbour! Makes one wonder, if this had been the pen-pal age, would this story have had a different ending?

But not all online love stories end in catastrophe. Nupur, a Pune-based IT professional, met her husband on Aisle, a dating site for people looking for serious relationships. Brought together by a shared love of biking, the couple is now happily married. “I was open to an arranged marriage, but most of the men I was meeting seemed to be either wimps or chauvinists. I needed to expand the search.”

In fact, there are many who dismiss arranged marriages as the last resort for the desperate. I recall a fascinating conversation with a friend who insisted that arranged marriages went against the Darwinian concept of natural selection. According to her, if a man could not attract a mate, he should remain single. His “line” deserves to end, because that is as nature willed it. By interfering in this process, we were weakening the human species. An interesting, if provocative idea.

So does that mean arranged marriages are a thing of the past? Quite the opposite, much to the relief of legions of friendly neighbourhood aunties. In every community, these unofficial but undisputed matchmakers keep meticulous track of eligible brides and grooms, putting in a word here, giving a nudge there, all to get the marriage wheels moving and ensuring the continuity of the community. Their prodigious memories store many zettabytes of crucial data — which boy does not know how to wash his own clothes and which girl cannot make round rotis.

Once revered for their connections, these aunties and uncles are facing stiff competition from matrimonial sites, dating apps, and social media in general. There is a red door marked “redundant”, and technology is ushering them towards it.

Parental guidance

While the format of arranged marriages may be evolving, the institution endures. And even though they are not unique to India, they are still uncommon in many parts of the world. I recall one particular lunch with foreign colleagues, where the topic of marriage came up. “I hear you guys have arranged marriages in India?”, one of them asked me. Conversations around the table stopped, chopsticks paused in mid-air. I shrugged. “But how can you marry someone you don’t know?”, the colleague went on, unable to mask her horror. Clearly, arranged marriages were going to follow elephants and snake charmers into the “it happens only in India” memes.

But the question made me wonder, what makes arranged marriages work? Many of them are not successful, but the divorce rate in India continues to be among the lowest in the world, and arranged marriages seem to fare better than love marriages. This holds true even after adjusting for an overall increase in divorce rates, as more people choose to walk out of bad marriages.

What explains this? One possible reason is that arranged marriages are configured for success. Parents and elders of the community assess mutual compatibility of family backgrounds, interests, lifestyles, etc. These seemingly inconsequential external factors serve to minimise potential points of friction, and help prepare the ground for a stable relationship. This due diligence was perhaps even more relevant in the joint family setup, where compatibility with the entire family was important, and not just with one person.

Vishranth, a Bengaluru-based techie, explains, “I married the girl my parents chose for me. An arranged marriage makes the entire family happy, and they stand by you later in times of good and bad.” The second part is especially true; being involved in the “selection” process means that families are more invested in the success of the relationship, and they step in to patch things up in the event of conflict. However, this is also the criticism levelled at arranged marriages, that family support sometimes crosses the line into family pressure. Couples are pushed to maintain the illusion of peace even if they are probably better off going their separate ways.

Another factor is that most couples approach arranged marriages with a degree of apprehension, which translates into caution in the way they treat each other. This allows room for a mature relationship to develop based on mutual respect. This is in contrast with the no-holds barred sense of entitlement that can accompany love marriages.

One might argue that expectations tend to be lower from arranged marriages. Traditionally, marriage was simply a necessary rite of passage, and was defined by duties and responsibilities. Happiness could be a pleasant side benefit, but it was rarely a consideration in itself.

That said, arranged marriages sometimes have unintended consequences. Arjun, who works for a fintech company, says, “My girlfriend was beautiful, but the girl my family chose came from a wealthier family. I had a tough time breaking it off my girlfriend, but the money has made my life so much better.” However, he admits to spending a lot of time these days following his ex-girlfriend’s updates on Facebook. “She has a fantastic job and has gone on to do really well for herself.” Who was it that said, “There is no pain sweeter than the pain of regret”?

So are arranged marriages better? Who knows, really. Like Vishranth says, “Some people find love before marriage, others fall in love with the person they married.” One thing is for certain; online dating or no online dating, arranged marriages are not going away anytime soon.
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