Uncertain Objects of Desire

In India, a country that straddles the old and the new, a good place to look for signs of shifting values might be the matrimonial columns of The Times of India
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Illustration by Tristan Elwell

WHEN I was twelve, I spent a summer with an aunt in Rourkela, a small town very different in flavor from Calcutta, where I lived. My aunt taught me to pickle mangoes and to make quilts out of old cotton saris—skills that my mother, a busy schoolteacher, either didn't possess or didn't care to teach me. For this reason I was fascinated by them.

My aunt also taught me a prayer ritual, or vrata, popular among unmarried girls. This ritual involved a weekly fast, an early-morning bath, the gathering of certain leaves and flowers, the pouring of water over a statue of Shiva, and a chant that went like this:

May I have a husband like Rama,
May I have a father-in-law like Dasharatha,
May I have a mother-in-law like Kaushalya,
May I have a brother-in-law like Lakshmana,
May I be a wife like Sita.

If performed faithfully for four years, the vrata guaranteed a happy marriage, complete with doting in-laws.

What Indian girl could resist such a vrata? I performed it zealously for years, in spite of the dubious look in my mother's eye—and the more insidious doubt in my own heart, the result of a convent-school education that scoffed at such "naive" superstitions. Still, I knew that as I chanted, I was calling up, syllable by syllable, the wonderful stranger my parents would select as my mate. (I would eventually get married, years later in America, to a delightful man whom, to my parents' dismay, I chose myself—an example, perhaps, of the unexpected, inscrutable ways in which vratas work.)

Rama and Sita, hero and heroine of the epic Ramayana, are the ideal couple of the Hindu tradition. My peers and I grew up on tales of his courage and caring, her beauty and strength of character, their appreciative and untroublesome in-laws, their mutual devotion in a time of polygamy. But for young men and women coming of age today, in the aftermath of independence and the women's-liberation movement, the old myth is problematic. How can they ignore the way the epic ends, with Rama banishing an innocent Sita from his kingdom because her virtue has been questioned by some of his subjects?

We must search elsewhere, then, for the heroes and heroines of a postmodern India, the new objects of our desire. The movies are one possibility. But the polychromatic Olympian figures of Juhi Chawla and Aamir Khan, the stars of countless Indian screen melodramas, are better suited to fantasy and hero worship. Marriage is a serious and pragmatic commitment, in the traditional Indian context involving significant financial transactions and requiring the blessing of parents and grandparents. In a country that straddles the old and the new, where discos and arranged bride-viewings flourish side by side, a good place to look might be the matrimonial columns of The Times of India, a leading national newspaper. Over a period of time the ads could help us to gauge whether the changes brought about by modernization—such as a growing work force of professional middle-class women, or the establishment of overseas Indian communities in England and the United States—have affected the nation's notions of suitable husbands and wives, or whether such notions, imprinted on our brain cells by centuries of tradition, remain unaltered. I selected ads from the past thirty years to see if I could discover any trends.

EVERY week The Times of India publishes several hundred carefully categorized matrimonial ads. These are mostly organized by community, caste, language, or religion, though new categories have recently crept in: "Doctors," "Working Girls," "Defence" (referring to army families). These ads, with their own vocabulary and shorthand, are the Indian counterpart to the personals found in Western newspapers and magazines (although certain progressive Indian magazines carry Indian versions of those as well). Usually the ads and responses are handled by parents—proof that the arranged marriage is alive and well in India. I have found in speaking with numerous couples whose marriages were arranged that although family compatibility is the starting point for such matches, most of the couples end up falling in love. For a number of reasons arranged marriages have a very high rate of success. One reason, Indians often joke, is that a traditional wedding lasts three to seven days. Most people can handle only one such ceremony in a lifetime.

Reading between the lines of two ads typical of their eras, one from 1969 and one from last year, reveals a great deal about the nature of desired partners then and now, and the protocol for finding them.

Matrimonial correspondence invited from parents of smart, goodlooking girls as match for Gujarati Vaishnav (Khatri), M.S., engineer, 29, employed in New York. Graduate girl preferred. No dowry. Caste no bar. Should be willing to go to U.S.A. [3/5/69]

Alliance invited from parents for Sindhi only fair tall son September 75/177 /10,000 B.Com/DVES well established business non smoker, non drinker, vegetarian from Sindhi tall good looking professionally educated girl. Preferably Doctor/Engineer/ Lawyer/CA response with photograph horoscope compulsory. [3/28/99]

Because parents initiated the marriage talks in both the ads above, a parent had to respond. For a young man or woman to do so would be considered forward. Many Indians believe that wrongly matched stars can create a lifetime of trouble for the couple; thus the demand for horoscopes. Even modern families who declare "caste no bar" will often require them. But caste compatibility is usually important as well. Families may include detailed birth-star and subcaste information in ads. We see this in an ad from 1969 that sought a match for a "Kerala Vadama Srivatsa Brahmin" boy (the phrase describes his sect) and stated, "Horoscopes with 2 'Doshas' [or weak star positions] admissible."

Offering details of the parents' careers and finances is common, as evidenced in an ad from 1969: "Agarwal groom preferably settled in Bombay for a Post Graduate well mannered beautiful girl 22, daughter of a highly placed business executive." Such information indicates the kind of social background the woman is used to, and discreetly invites a compatible match. Not all families are so tactful. One recent ad, as I recall it, reads, "Software professionals, doctors, or MBAs with six-figure salaries only need apply."

Traditionally, parents want a woman who is at least five years younger than their son. Twenty-five for a woman is pushing it. Ads confessing that a woman is twenty-seven or twenty-eight hasten to add that she looks younger. A certain amount of education in a woman is a plus, whether she will work or not. Convent-educated (or "convented," as thrifty word-counters put it) girls are considered assets to their husbands' careers, though some families caution that they are also looking for "religious, homely [home-loving] girl," "modern with a traditional touch." The bride should be fair or at least "wheatish" (skin color creates a hierarchy among Indians). Medium height is preferred—"177" in the "Alliance invited ..." ad above refers to centimeters, describing a woman rather tall by Indian standards, which could be a disadvantage. In India as in much of the world, few families are eager to see their daughter-in-law tower over their son. And always the woman must be good-looking. The ubiquitous demand for "beautiful" women makes one wonder what fate awaits those who are not thus endowed.

The desirable male, on the other hand, is primarily a good provider. "Well settled" is a favorite adjective in the ads; "affluent" is another. Each is at least three times as common as "handsome" or even "smart." And although many parents like to arrange an early marriage for their sons, age is not a major issue. More important is a husband's profession, with women showing a strong preference in recent years for "medicos," software engineers, and MBAs. Equally significant are salary details and family finances, which matchmaking agencies will double-check for a fee.

Matrimonial correspondence invited from parents of South Indian Brahmin girls of Non-Srivasta Gotram, good family background, goodlooking, reasonably accomplished, with ability to converse well in English, age 26-29 height 160-170 cms. for a foreign returned executive engineer, aged 34, earning over 2500—of very good family background, references. Please apply ... giving full particulars together with horoscope. [2/2/69]

Overseas well educated company Director, Hindi, English speaking of Hindu Brahmin family, handsome with beautiful home, car, office, servants and other facilities, age 30. Invites matrimonial proposals from girls, preferably lady doctors and lawyers, wonderful opportunity to establish own practice. Race, religion, caste no bar. [2/2/69]
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