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Marriage traditions changing for Indian immigrants

Balaji Raman, right, and his wife Sangeeta Akundi.

Balaji Raman, right, and his wife Sangeeta Akundi. She was quickly accepted by his parents, Sundaram and Malthi Raman, in the background. Akundi is Hindu, her family comes from a home state in south India near the Ramans, and the couple’s horoscopes were compatible. (June 29, 2012) Credit: Daniel Brennan

Sundaram Raman, of Elmont, and his wife, Mathi, had braced themselves to accept that their son and daughter might find spouses on their own, rather than through a traditional arranged marriage.

"When we are in this part of the world, one thing that me and my wife spoke of is you cannot expect the same thing you can expect in India, the traditional thing," Raman, 73, who immigrated to this country with his wife and children in 1980, said recently. "We have to change ourselves."

They quickly accepted the young woman their son Balaji married June 17: She is Hindu, her family comes from a home state in south India near their own, and the couple's horoscopes were compatible.

It took two years, however, before they gave their blessing to their daughter's choice, a Muslim U.S. Navy veteran born in Guyana of Indian descent, whom she met in college. The Ramans were upset he wasn't Hindu but eventually gave in. "We wanted her to be happy," he said.

A nearly 2,000-year-old tradition in Indian culture of parents arranging marriages is changing rapidly, as children born or raised in the United States reach marrying age and increasingly choose mates -- often of other faiths or ethnicities -- who they meet socially, in school or at work.

Other young adults use websites that connect marriageable South Asians in the United States -- tools that have grown popular in rapidly modernizing India too.

When Shaadi.com, an Internet matchmaking site that means Marriage.com in Hindi, was launched in the United States in 1996, about 70 percent of profiles of eligible brides and grooms were posted by family members.

Today, 80 percent are posted by the young people themselves, said Anjan Saikai, a Shaadi.com vice president in New Jersey. The site, based in India, has 20 million members, with almost a million in the United States. "More and more now, people find their own mates and go back to their parents and say 'I've found somebody,' " he said.

 

Meeting her soul mate

Tejas Bouklas, 24, met her husband James, 26, in a classic American way: They became friends, then dated after working together on the student newspaper at Stony Brook University. He is from East Setauket with a Greek-Orthodox father and Jewish mother, said Bouklas, who lives with her husband in the Bronx while attending graduate school.

At first, she said, her mother wouldn't talk to her upon learning of the relationship. But Bouklas' grandparents, living in India, persuaded her mother to accept it. The couple created their own marriage ceremony, drawing from Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Hindu rituals. "When you know you've met your soul mate, it's hard to think of other issues," she said. "We fell in love with each other as a person and when you strip away all the culture, that's what we fell in love with. It felt very natural to us."

Arranged marriages are traditional in South Asian cultures among Hindus, Muslims and Christians. (They are common, too, in some Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries, and Orthodox Jewish sects.)

As recently as a generation or two ago, the bride and groom would be matched by their families and meet only once or twice before marriage. Now, introductions are arranged, but young people can say no to a prospective mate. If they say yes, an engagement, not a dating relationship, ensues.

Professor Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian/ American Center at Queens College, said marriage customs are changing because of the "multicultural American population in which these Indian-Americans are participating." Parents "don't want to, but ultimately they feel they have to agree with what their sons and daughters are saying," she said.

Traditions still hold some sway: Those using a site such as Shaadi.com will typically seek mates of similar backgrounds, she said. Religion, language and differences among India's regional cultures are key factors, she said. Hindu caste and horoscopes may play a role, too.

Professor Sunita Mukhi of Stony Brook University said various versions of arranged marriages or meetings are still common even as modern methods win acceptance.

"What prevails despite these modifications is that parental approval is still paramount," Mukhi said. "The young couple seeks at the very least the consent of the parents. Still!"

One recent Stony Brook graduate, Kadhambari Sridhar, 23, of Queens, put it this way: "It's a matter of who you want to keep happy . . . I want to keep my mom, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles happy, but not [necessarily] my second cousins. It's a definite priority to keep my mom happy."

 

It's not dating, exactly

Parthasaradhi Pillai, 61, of White Plains, recalled how his son, Swami, 31, found his fiancee, who lives in Delaware, via a website, but sought his parents' permission to continue the relationship: "You cannot call it dating. It's not American-style dating. It's knowing a girl with the consent of the family."

The U.S.-born Swami was formally engaged in an elaborate ceremony at the Ganesh Temple of the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, Queens, in June.

Pillai said that the family of his son's fiancee, Rachana Patel, came from Gujarat, a state to the north of his home state of Kerala, but "since we both are Hindus, it's OK. Things are loosening up now."

While finding a love match on their own is the first choice of many young Indian-Americans, the traditional path may still be Plan B. Professor Mukhi said the option of having parents "arrange a marriage for you is a security South Asian kids have if their forays into romance and spousal choice fail."

Ronuk Vazirani, 30, a bank manager, is active on Shaadi.com and open to parental help after an engagement with someone he'd met in college fell apart. Vazirani, who lives with his parents in Woodmere, said traditional marriage is "the only option for someone who doesn't want to go through a long dating process and potentially not have it work out."

Naveen Anumolu, a 30-year-old engineer from Melville, always thought he'd meet someone, fall in love, and get married. "It was harder than I thought," he said.

He agreed to let his Indian-born parents help, and a woman they found in India "had all the right qualities." Last November, they married.

"Life teaches you when you know, you just know," he said.

His Indian-American friends still wonder "if my marriage will last, and some are upset because they feel now they will be forced to do the same thing by [parents] saying 'See? Naveen was born here and he did it,' " he said. "Non-Indian people don't understand it at all . . . but when I explain, they seem to agree, and some often ask me to help them get arranged. When they meet my wife they say, 'Wow, she is awesome, you got lucky.' "

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