On writing the conclusion to my first novel, I used a phrase which many of my readers have quoted back at me because they understand precisely what it means to live it. Dadi, my protagonist ends the novel with a wish and a prayer that her grandchildren continue to live their lives The Arranged Way. This encapsulates a code of conduct and manner of thought which serves as a commonly understood currency of behaviour, particularly among the middle classes.
While it is very easy to fall into generalisations, and there are always exceptions to the rule, there is nevertheless a sort of unwritten rule-book for people who live and marry in a pre-planned manner. To live ‘the arranged way’ is, among other things, to submit oneself to the wisdom of the elders (though they may not be very wise), to put the family above the self, and to live within the confines of respectability. Since we live in a patriarchy, the boxes of accepted behaviour are much narrower and more stringent for women than men, but both genders are limited in their life choices by what society, history and culture deem to be the right kind of person to be and the right kind of person to marry.
Being considered suitable is primarily a middle-class obsession. I spent my entire life practicing to be thus, to attract decent proposals. The colour of my skin was fair, and I hailed from a good family (achi haddi or lineage, it was said, which always made me think of cavemen and women waving about clubs made of dinosaur bones to show their superiority over other clans). The texture of my hair was less than ideal so all my pictures from twelve years onwards show me frowning at the camera because my wiry curls were wrestled into oiled braids – curly hair was and still is a symbol of non-conformity and that would never attract the mother of a potential groom. Like a child I was expected to be seen but seldom heard; mum tried to convince me to study home economics because that would allow me to manage a house well; I was supposed to sew expertly but I rebelled at the idea of mastering the cross-stitch, or the proper length of the hem. I was not allowed to frequent restaurants with my friends because girl-groups in public were too rowdy and if my potential mother-in-law were ever to associate me with the guffawing hoydens I liked to be friends with – well, that would never do.
My mother tried to raise a genteel young lady, soft spoken, malleable and accommodating – the ideal daughter-in-law material. In the interest of modesty, I was never supposed to show too much interest in boys, and it is thus fitting that at 26 I was engaged to a man whom I had never met and only talked to on the phone – all engagement photos show his mother putting a giant diamond on my finger. Things didn’t end well. At 29 I was divorced and back at home. I now realise that that the main reason my first marriage didn’t work out was because both families had approached each other with a set of pre-conceived notions of what the role of the husband and wife would be, not towards each other but towards the larger family unit.
A particular failing of the system of arranged marriage in its truest form is the arranged-marriage contract, or the aisa tau hota hee hai manner of thinking – I was expected to be meek and submissive and an expert cook, always well turned out and yes, to forget my old life in order to embrace my actual existence with my real family. Never mind that I never exhibited these qualities at any stage: the understanding was that I was expected to fit this standardised mould of a respectable young woman about to embrace the life of matrimonial bliss. None of this accounted for the individual that I was. This is the primary problem with arranged marriages – there are expectations imposed on newlyweds which don’t necessarily match the people they are.
What is equally perplexing is the central role of the parents in all this: they are the ones who search out potential candidates, select the lucky finalists, arrange meetings, select wedding dates, determine living situations and then dominate the early years of a young couple’s marriage. Many relive their old traumas through their children, others try to re-enact their past. An arranged marriage is like a Pakistani wedding – very much about everyone else and very little about the couple themselves.
This is not to say that arranged marriages are inherently flawed – absolutely not. They can, in fact, be advantageous if parents allow their children the space to cultivate a bond. Many provide the necessary ingredients of accommodation and financial security within which the newly-wed couples can figure out who they are and what they want their relationship to be like. But in my experience, arranged marriages tend to infantilise adults who are considered old enough to marry but are denied the agency of independent choice – they may be able to say yay or nay to the options presented to them but the code of conduct, driven by middle-class notions of respectability and self-sacrifice, is ever-present.
After my divorce, I was on the market again. Whenever I got a proposal, I devised a simple test to figure out whether I wanted to take things forward – a test most repugnant to my scandalised mother. I asked to meet a potential husband alone in a café before the family. This was an excellent sorting process because those who balked at the idea were unsuitable for me. I remember talking to someone’s sister who wanted to come with her brother and eight siblings and two parents to see me. “It’s all about armaan, tamanna, you see.”
Ironically, I met the love of my life through a woman who was known to arrange marriages. I corresponded with him via email, then phone and then met in person. He proposed on our third date and I said yes. Only then did we inform our parents that we had decided to do this thing and politely and firmly resisted pressure to do things a certain way. My husband and I decided when we would get married and how. The parents were invited and involved, but they were not in charge.
Also read: The new in the old rishta culture
I don’t mean to imply that arranged marriages don’t work and love marriages do – both types have ended in success and disaster alike. In any case, I think it’s a false dichotomy – arranged marriages are not devoid of love and people in love often fail to see the reality of the person they are marrying because emotions are at an all-time high. But to my mind, the biggest problem with an arranged set-up is the limited agency allowed to the people who are entering it.
I hope things are changing and I know many young men and women are resisting the nonsense I was put through because that was the way things were done, and having more say in who they marry and how. Many are still struggling with toxic parents and social systems. But until our society understands that marriage is (or should be) a result of choice, consent and maturity, I think all systems and pre-prepared approaches to it will inevitably be flawed.