Theatre of the Absurd
Lights. Camera. Drama.
By Priyanka Uchil
“Tut, tut, child! Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.” —Lewis Carrol (Alice in Wonderland)
The Japanese call it miai. A pretty word for a marriage arranged by household elders.
A quick glimpse at the East provides one with a colourful graffiti of varied cultures enmeshed in deep-rooted traditions that leave behind a strong after-taste of heritage. The proclivity toward everything that was and the incorrigible affinity to keeping things the way they were is what defines most of these cultures. It is in diversity that one finds unity, and as far as the average Asian is considered, genealogy is the fuel of the pride wagon. A quick glimpse at the East and one sees a constant peep into the past, and some constant looking over the shoulder, lest the cradle fall.
It is with this emphasis on culture that marriages, especially those in the subcontinent, are arranged in the East. The quest for the perfect bride or the perfect groom is the holy grail of the South Asian family. It is one’s purpose in life to get one’s progeny married. The procedure of selecting the bride or the groom is extensive and exhaustive, and while opinions of the potential bride and groom are taken into consideration, the final decision invariably lies with the more grey-haired family members. The idea being: with experience and age come wisdom, so the older a person the more capable they are of making a sound decision.
This supposition may seem perfect on paper, but when seen through the contextual filter of marriage, it emerges as deeply flawed. Societal, financial and cultural benchmarks are all met in an arranged marriage, but the emotional compatibility of two people—arguably the bedrock of a successful marriage—is blatantly ignored. Can emotional compatibility be veritably judged based on a few chaperoned faux-meetings between the persons of interest? Flawed or not, such marriages are common in most parts of South Asia and have been around for longer than we care to remember.
To give credit where it is due, arranged marriages have survived principally through ancestry, breed and pedigree. In the lower strata, they worked primarily because girls were taught from a young age to accommodate the wishes of the husband’s household and try their best to fit in. Going home was not an option. To be fair however, the size of families was larger, and with so many mouths to feed, a father was considered to have completed his filial duty towards his daughter once she was married. After marriage, she became the responsibility of her husband. With the scene set this way, women had no alternatives but to adjust to their marital households.
Darwin proposed that natural selection is the sustentation of any utilitarian advantage that enables a species to compete better in a given circumstance. It was inadvertently practiced by the more affluent classes of society, to strengthen their pedigree, enhance their lineage and improve the quality of an offspring. Wealth and beauty were undoubtedly the principal yardsticks, and as things stand today, still are, but if one were so unfortunate as to not have one of the two, alliances were made solely on the family name which was, in earlier times, indicative of status and power.
While royal marriages were almost always arranged in the subcontinent, they were not an uncommon occurrence in other parts of the world either. Among the more celebrated royal arrangements is the marriage of Marie Antoinette, princess of Austria-Hungary whose hand was promised to the crown prince of France, who went on to become King Louis XVI. Though Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage to Prince Phillip was not arranged per se, gossip suggests it may have been engineered by the ambitious Lord Mountbatten.
Royal weddings that were not arranged were more often than not unequal marriages. Morganatic marriages have been frowned upon across cultures, because they do not subscribe to the societal standards of what a marriage should be and also result in diluting blue blood. In Japan, brides from such marriages were driven into depression on atleast two occasions; it is said that Empress Michiko (the first commoner to marry into the imperial family) was bullied into a nervous breakdown by her mother-in-law. Princess Masako, a Harvard and Oxford graduate, gave up her promising career as a diplomat to wed Prince Naruhito, only to fall into depression a few years later. Prince William was a happy man when he married Kate Middleton last July; had he been born a century early, the very decision of marrying a commoner might have cost him his title at the very least.
It wasn’t always this way. Before arranged marriages became an accepted part of the ring cycle, history shows alternative and predominantly liberal forms of marriage in the subcontinent. For instance, the Gandharva method, based solely on the attraction partners felt towards each other, was practiced far before 500BC in India. While being perfectly legal, this system of marriage had no rituals, nor did it seek approval from society. Swayamvar encouraged prospective grooms to come seek the hand of a lady (much along the lines of US network ABC’s reality show “The Bachelorette”). Grooms participated in several competitions to prove their intelligence, might and valour. The man who most impressed the incumbent bride would then gain her approval and subsequent acquiescence to marry.
Orthodox traditions are formed when a generation imitates its predecessors without applying much thought to the process. In most cases, since such traditions are passed down through generations the original concept behind them is lost. To chastise society, avoid promiscuity and bring some level of conformity, the systems of free marriages were reigned in and stricter methodologies were introduced. But tying a chastity belt around a land that preached, practised and propagated the Kamasutra seems a little far-fetched.
Leapfrogging into the present
Something changed by the time we grew up; our parents suddenly came of age. I would like to think we were difficult children and wore them out to the extent that they began to find the process of arranging a marriage too taxing. But I know better. One explanation may be that with at least two generations of education now running through most families, some semblance of logic set in. With the formation of urban clusters, social stigmas associated with marrying by choice and marrying social mismatches once highly resonant in communities, has to a certain extent, faded. That most parents have begun to rationalize the decisions made by their offspring as more or less a measure of their upbringing, helps.
What makes it tough for parents to adopt a liberal view on marriages and endorse a marriage of their child’s choice, is the way society is knit in the sub-continent. There are several self-appointed messiahs for blissful marriages, who make it their life’s purpose to get anyone within their line of sight married to anyone on their long list of acquaintances. Marriages in the subcontinent are a large affair. In many parts of India and Pakistan they last for several days, at least. The average upper middle class family spends anywhere between Rs0.5 to Rs50 million on a single wedding. A colleague of mine, who is due to be wed this May, has about 3,000 people on her guest list. With the numbers set this way, it takes a lot of courage for parents who themselves were traditionally married to invest so much money in something they are not completely certain will be approved of or will succeed. So yes, marriages of choice have a long way to go before they can be accepted as the norm, and arranged marriages may very well be around for at least another generation.
But one way or the other, the subcontinent’s wedding scene is on the verge of a revolution. What might have been perceived obnoxious and improbable a few decades ago, is slowly but quite steadily becoming the norm. To borrow from the structured Japanese, the term for this relatively new system is ren’ai. Today, every grandmother worth her salt claims she fell in love with her husband on the day of the wedding and claims, by that measure, hers was a “love marriage” after all. Yes, in the subcontinent, we’ve always called a marriage by choice – love marriage. Only, no longer in hushed tones and definitely minus the coy brides and the grumpy mothers-in-law.
Priyanka Uchil is Features Editor for The Missing Slate and is based in Bangalore, India.