My grandmother would wait for me on my visits back from medical school. Gleeful and matchmaking, she would summon me to her room, shut her door, and bring me close. She would have spent countless hours amassing matrimonial ads that she felt most reflected our values and our family – those ads that were most pertinent to us. Us. It should come as no surprise: arranged marriages are a family affair and one that calculates such entities as last name, region of India, spoken language, education, and so on. Girls were judged on their color, their height, beauty – the description was everything. One’s complexion was graded from fair, to wheatish, to darker complexioned. Pictures were often included. The matrimonial section of our India Abroad publication for the US took up a coveted tuft in the midsection of the newspaper. My grandmother delighted in circling the ones she deemed most promising. I played along out of respect and honor. But to say it was annoying would be a generous appraisal.
It was Saturday, lunch hour, when the doorbell rang. My father greeted a couple and their son. He stood at least 5 feet 10 inches tall, to my recollection. He was about as enthusiastic to be there as I had been. His mother walked in sans flowers or sweets. She was quite pleased with herself and her Bollywood roots. She spared no time in sharing her relations to one or another actor from Mumbai. I was already done with this interview. When lunch was complete, my father asked that I take the young man to our local Indian market for an after meal digestif (paan). I obliged and attempted small talk with the reluctant suitor. He was studying Anesthesiology. And true to its stereotype, enjoyed golfing – his only hobby if memory serves me correctly.
We returned home, mutually bored and without interest in the other. Lunch ended, the pleasantries came to a long-awaited conclusion, and we could finally send them back to Ohio, or wherever they had traveled from to indulge in our brief but purposeful hospitality. My father eagerly asked me what I thought. I remember telling him, “No sparks.” He was none too pleased. He was quick to chide: sparks come with time and cannot be immediate or even important. I listened. I tolerated. And then I left for school.
I do not remember having to do many such lunches or interviews. That an arranged marriage and the expectation of a suitable match was important to my parents remains a strong and enduring memory for me. So many of my older sisters and brothers in America, part of my adopted diaspora, complied with the traditions. Many did not. I remember wanting to please my parents and find a family who would satisfy my parents’ expectations of a marriageable family while also satisfying my own hopes for an Indian American man with values that incorporated Eastern and Western ideals.
I think the concept of an arranged marriage remains strong and vital in its design. But like anything in life, the perfect or most well-intentioned design offers no guarantees.
I will not hold my children to any ideals that are unique to me as a first generation Indian American. My ideals for my children are human ones – kindness, love, empathy, humanity and gainful aspirations are what I wish for my children and for their future partners should they seek a complement in their lives.
Marriage is neither a requirement, nor a destination. If it happens, it will happen organically and by their choosing and design. The pressures I felt to marriage at a marriageable age (which I had clearly defied having tied the knot at the ripe old age of 27, vs 22) will not be theirs. Love and happiness are their journeys and left to their destiny and desire. As for India Abroad – it still abounds with marriable bachelors and women. I neither own the paper, nor anticipate requiring one – either for posterity or for security. My darling Grandma, our story does not travel beyond us. But I remember you with fondness and those discussions on marriage remain storied and sacred, with a healthy dose of humor.