To my non-Indian friends, arranged marriages are an endless source of fascination. And if I make the mistake of sharing that my own parents were picked out for one another by their respective families, conversations take a rather onerous turn, with a sea of neverending questions about the nitty-gritty details of this ancient custom.
So here are the 12 most frequently asked questions I get about modern Hindu arranged marriages. These questions have been answered based on my personal experiences as well as those of my parents, family, and friends.
1. Why go through with arranged marriages? Are people pressured into them?
For some, it's convenience. For others, it's their last resort before buying a cat. But most people of my generation and upbringing look at it like a fallback in the event they find the dating game hasn't worked too well. Some parents suggest it when they think their kids are in a dating rut. Other times, kids tell their parents they're ready for them to set them up with prospective matches because they think those matches might form a more serious long-term relationship.
It's a pretty universal trait in ethnic families for elders to want their children to get married and have kids. But in this modern day and age, no one is pressured into an arranged marriage. The objective is to find a person you can grow old with, build a life with. Ultimately, it is about your happiness.
2. How do your parents find these matches?
There are several sources. Most parents will put their child's profile up on internet marriage profiles, or simply approach families they are interested in. Word of mouth is also a common way to go, with one elder recommending a boy or girl to another elder, who'll in turn recommend them to your parents. There are also local Indian classifieds and paper testimonial columns in Australia.
3. What is it about these potential matches that make them suitable?
I guess it depends upon each family. For most modern arranged marriages, the objective is to find someone who "just clicks" with you, and someone you think you could build a good life with. Of course some people have pretty strict ideas of what they are looking for - a certain height, a certain profession, a strict age range, or at least someone who's settled in their career, and capable of growing with you emotionally.
4. What's the process? Is it a lot like online dating or a blind date?
In a nutshell, your parents pick out a bunch of people they think would be a good match for you. You say "yay" or "nay". If you say "yay", you go on a blind date, meet up with them, and decide whether you want to explore the relationship any further. After that point, it becomes like normal dating. Though, of course, the idea of marriage has already been well-planted into both your heads.
But for some, from more traditional households, the dating isn't so much "dating". It's more a bunch of one-on-one meet-ups to assess whether the two people find each other compatible enough to start a life together. That was the case with my much older cousin who says, "The experience wasn't like traditional dating. But we had a lot of long conversations, though we did go out for dinner and movies sometimes."
Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu explains it all perfectly:
5. Are modern arranged marriages religiously or financially motivated?
Financially motivated? No. Religiously? Well, not exactly. But I'd be lying if I said there wasn't some kind of religious continuity being considered. No one really arranges marriages with people "outside of their community". As my Mum puts it, "Why would I purposefully give you to a home whose customs you know so little about?" If you happened to fall in love with someone outside the community, that's completely different. But when it's arranged, it makes little sense to ask people who are not within your community, who don't understand this system, for their hand.
6. Have there been many same-sex arranged marriages?
There have been a handful of documented same-sex Hindu weddings. But it's unlikely those were arranged. However, there have been stories of parents who've placed advertisement in local matrimonal notice boards for their gay sons or lesbian daughters.
7. Do you feel excited and nervous just a like a normal date with someone when you first meet them?
Well, according to my cousin, who was super keen to get hitched and had never had a girlfriend before, yes. But for a friend of mine, whose parents suggested the option of an arranged marriage because she seemed to be in a dating rut, it was "kind of weird and awkward at first".
For many people, the first time they meet their prospective match, it's in the presence of their parents and extended family. Lots of people don't find this awkward, but for most of my friends who've been raised abroad like me, it's mortifying.
8. How long before the marriage do they meet? Do they get to spend time alone before the wedding day?
Once again, it depends. The marriage isn't a date set in stone. For the generation before me, the courting experience began after they were engaged, and that buffer time allowed for things to be called off if need be.
But for most modern couples, once you're introduced to the prospective match, the normal dating process commences.
9. Do couples have sex before the wedding day?
Well, the assumption is no. But the answer depends on each couple. For example, if you're simply introduced to a partner by your parents and start dating as per normal, sex obviously does factor into your relationship, as it would in any other.
But in most of the arranged marriages I've witnessed, the answer would be no. But that's probably because those marriages were of a different generation. As my aunt describes it, "Sex before marriage would have been a huge no-no for my orthodox Hindu parents."
10. If you know you're getting an arranged marriage, does it help you focus on your career because you don’t need to waste time dating since you know it’s going to be sorted?
As my cousin put its, "It was a fallback for me, and one that really worked. It really only worked as well as it did because Mum and Dad weren't hung up on anything but my happiness. There isn't any corruption in arranged marriages like there was in the olden days."
To him, that really made all the difference, and allowed him to focus on his career without worrying about ending up with someone that wouldn't work out.
11. Where does "love" fit into it? Or doesn't it?
Arranged marriages are about looking for the potential to fall in love with someone. Love is imperative, but it's looked as something the two of you can grow into. The rationale is if you're able to see yourself having a good life together, respect one another, and find each other attractive to some effect, you're bound to fall in love eventually.
As my completely romantic mother says to my sister and me, "The end goal is to find the love of your life. But how you find them is not important. You might find them at the bus stop tomorrow, or at a party next week, or through an arranged marriage. But the point is that you ultimately find them."
12. As a final note, would it be more convenient if Indian kids just fell in love and found a life partner on their own?
Certainly! Do you know how much effort arranged marriages take? Most modern parents are cool with their kids picking their partners. And I know my parents would definitely not prefer to pick out my future husband.
The number of times my mum has told me to do her a favour and "just fall in love already" will shock you.