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Love, Devotion Often Bloom in Arranged Marriages

A COUPLE of days after Nepal's crown prince gunned down

several members of the royal family-including his parents-in a drunken rage

before shooting himself, an American friend phoned me at my California home.

"Isn't that a shame," she exclaimed, her voice quavering with righteous

indignation. "It never would have happened if the king and queen hadn't been

pushing that poor guy towards an arranged marriage. What a barbaric custom."

Through the following week, I received several other calls on the subject.

Obviously, the incident had struck a chord with American readers. Perhaps it

was because the story had all the ingredients of a modern day Romeo-and-Juliet

tale: a passionate prince; his beautiful sweetheart who is deemed unworthy by

his family; the authoritarian parents who threaten to disown their son should

he go against their wishes and marry the person he loves.

People in Nepal might still be wondering if other causes-political

manipulation or a conspiracy or inadequate security-might be responsible for

the crime. But, in the United States, popular opinion seems quite clear on the

matter: It's all the fault of that antiquated, tyrannical institution, the

arranged marriage.

But the arranged marriage has many faces, most of which are neither

antiquated nor tyrannical. In many parts of urban South Asia, arranged

marriages have been modernized to suit the needs of a changing westernized

generation. This is also true among diasporic South Asian communities in the

Western world-where, surprisingly, about a third of the young people belonging

to the second or third generation are choosing marriages arranged for them.

When I asked him why, one young Indian-American man said, "My parents are

the two people in the world who know me best, both my strengths and my

weaknesses. Why wouldn't I want their input in the most important decision of

my life?" After a moment, he added, "The alternative doesn't seem to work that

well, does it?"

He had a point. There are fewer divorces in arranged marriages, although I

wonder if he realized that many complicated social factors-from the presence of

extensive family support and counseling to the ostracism a divorced woman

would encounter-account for this.

Gone for the most part are the days when parents decreed and children bowed

meekly, acquiescing; or when in-laws haggled over dowry before the final

decision was reached; or when bride and groom would meet for the first time

under the wedding canopy. More often now, parents (include also aunts, uncles,

grandparents, family friends and neighbors) consult extensively with the bride

or groom-to-be and find out what they would like in a partner.

Then, keeping in mind their offspring's interests, temperament and family

background, they send out feelers into the community. In Indian communities

all over the world, once they locate likely prospects, they create a venue

(often a party at a common friend's home) for the young people to meet

informally.

If the "couple" like each other, they are encouraged to meet again-on their

own or with groups of friends-so that they may get to know each other. The

final decision-to marry or to look further-is theirs to make.

Friends who have been brought up on a diet of Hollywood movies where

couples go off starry-eyed into the sunset, are still suspicious.

"But how can you stand to marry someone you don't love?" they say, with a

delicate shudder. "How can you be happy together?" If they looked backwards

into history, they would see that in many cases their great-grandparents-or

maybe even their grandparents-had done exactly that. Even in the United States

and Europe, there were arranged marriages, especially in small rural

communities.

Paradoxically, it is the first factor-marrying someone you don't love yet

(but are attracted to) that leads to the second one. In arranged marriages, the

wedding is seen not as the culminating point, but only the beginning of a

relationship that is marked more by hope than expectation. Where couples in a

"romantic" marriage might find the reality of everyday life a comedown after

the excitement of the courtship period, the courtship dance in arranged

marriages begins only after the wedding ceremony. As many South Asians with

experience in this matter will enthusiastically tell you, this leads to the

couple falling in love.

Are all arranged marriages successful? No more than all romantic marriages

are. They are far less likely to succeed when someone is forced into one-a fact

one wishes the deceased king and queen of Nepal had kept in mind. But,

ultimately, what makes a marriage work is not how it began-in romance or in

pragmatism-but what you do with it.

Mutual respect, realistic expectations and a willingness to compromise may,

in the long run, be more important than all the undying promises made in

moments of passion. Marriage is a long, hobbled race; it is learning the

other's gait as you go. What matters is whether you are able to find a common

rhythm, whether you can step in time.

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