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

AN examination of thirty years' worth of matrimonial ads also reveals important changes in attitude toward the Indian diaspora. The first ad I cited from 1969, when the original swell of Indian immigrants came to the United States, declared that the bride-to-be should be willing to go abroad. This would demonstrate her adaptability: she agreed to endure the hardships of a strange land. But resettlement was certainly not something that either she or her parents would wish for: the popular feeling was that only boys who couldn't make it in the home country went abroad. As late as 1979 expatriate men looking for hometown wives needed to prove their worth and not be finicky: "London settled handsome Gujarati Research Chemist, owning property, car, drawing Rs. 10,000-per month, height 170 cms., 33 but looks 30, seeks matrimonial alliance, no bar, send particulars."

An additional worry for families was that once abroad, impressionable young people might forget their duties to family and bloodline and allow themselves to be lured into marrying foreigners. Here is an ad with a distinctly panicky tone:

Matrimonial correspondence invited for Brahmin Engineer, 27 serving in America, drawing 6,000 per month, from parents of respected Brahmin girl, Medico, engineer or science graduate, immediately, as boy will fly back soon. [3/6/69]

Over the course of the next twenty years the tide turned. By 1989 being a prospective groom or (rarer) bride who lived abroad was a distinct advantage. Someone thus situated could unabashedly demand more.

Australian residents, North Indian sisters (Aristocratic Kshatriya Zamindar ancestry) aged 29 and 27 years, very pretty, and cultured, living in Sydney seek matrimonial alliance with refined Indian gentlemen of excellent family background, prosperous businessmen or highly qualified Chartered Accountants, Actuaries, Dentists, Orthodontists, Medical specialists good natured, very ambitious, willing to settle in Australia. Girls visiting India soon. [2/26/89]

And although England, Canada, or Australia was acceptable, by last year the United States had become the destination of choice, for which many bargaining points were willingly surrendered.

Really beautiful very fair slim tall BE/ME (Comp/Electronic) MCA girl from reputed Hindu family ... for Vaish (Madhesiya), very fair handsome boy 29/180/65 M.Tech Software Engr. in USA on H-1 visa coming India next month. Early marriage. [3/14/99]

By last year The Times of India had a long column titled "NRI [nonresident Indian]/Green Card." And the Internet had arrived in the marriage supermarket. Kalpana Shah, a matchmaker, sent in a group advertisement for eight potential brides (with caste information and vital statistics) who all wanted grooms from "USA/UAE/UK." "All brides are beautiful attractive & slim," Shah assured us. Her Web site is www.kalpanashah.com. A typical entry reads,

At present California/U.S.A. working as a product marketing manager, beautiful, slim, fair, highly educated from well settled family, 39 yrs, Bengali, Education MBA/MS/MSc/BSc from USA. Wanted highly educated officer or well settled businessman first preference U.S.A. based. Caste no bar. [12/29/99]

As more immigrants settle abroad, NRIs are beginning to prefer other NRIs, or at least "Green card holder H-1 visa"—a status that allows the recipient to live and work in the United States for long periods. This is in part to ensure cultural compatibility and in part a response to a prevalent urban legend about unscrupulous Indians who marry NRIs in order to get a green card and then shrug off their spouses with a quick divorce.

Perhaps because Indian women are now better educated and more likely to be financially independent, remarriage has grown more acceptable. The traditional stigma attached to divorce and widowhood has lessened. Whereas in 1969 and 1979 a number of ads specified "divorcees, widows, please excuse," last year several feminist ads read "dowry seekers excused." Now, in columns titled "Second Marriage" and "Cosmopolitan," people seek another chance at happiness.

30/156 (looks much younger) M.Sc. B.Ed., PDCA fair, smart charming cultured convented legal divorcee (few months marriage), Hindu Yogi Bhardwaj learning classical music & dance, father class-I officer seeks caring considerate & anti-dowry match. Jovial, humble, respects human values. Responses only from people who admire & have at least some of these qualities well settled issueless below 34 with pleasing personality. Photo horoscope must. No bar. [9/19/99]

US Citizen, high caste Gujarati Hindu handsome athletic 53 (looking 38) 175 cm 65 Kg innocent divorcee Engineer/Music Composer/Published Poet, looking for a loving wife (35-48) for life. Singer preferred. [6/27/99]

Advertisers almost always characterize a divorce as "innocent," meaning that it did not arise from adultery—which makes one wonder where all the "guilty" divorced parties have gone.

A few lines of tiny print and yet in them are buried the stories of entire lives, tragic or comic. ("Alliance for Kshatriya boy 29/5'8"/5000. Professional harmonium/synthesizer player. Good family background. Partially weak vision.") Laced with hope and desperation, these ads hold out the promise of transformation in a society where one's place is still largely determined by caste, class, and connections.

Middle age divorcee but youthful, internationally travelled, dynamic, successful businessman, Indian, good family Hindu background, now Baha'i believes in one God & humankind as one family, tall 183 cm. fair good looks, pleasant, caring, broadminded, East-west values. U.K. citizen, residing London. Would like to meet pretty youthful girl, loving, sincere, homely, friend, independent, age thirty/forties, reasonably educated with useful profession i.e. artist, music, writer, media, business, medical, computer etc. No bar of colour, caste, religion, nationality, divorcee, veg/nonveg. [1/24/99]

It is easy to fall into a daydream over them, to imagine one's ideal mate. Even I, solidly married for twenty years now, find myself, in reading these ads, stirred by the adventure, the Russian-roulette nature of the enterprise.

I am 42, industrialist successful businessman music lover adventurist, with creative mind fun loving person in need of an alliance who is adjustable good natured independent interested in living life in full swing. Please send photograph ... [1/17/99]

A study of the past thirty years of matrimonial ads points to an interesting fact. Whereas the concept of the ideal husband has remained more or less the same (he should be a solid provider who comes from a reliable family), the definition of the ideal wife today is very different. Whereas in-laws once looked for wives who were young, beautiful, home-loving, and biddable, now (perhaps because of increased input from the prospective groom) it is the educated, professional, adventurous woman, enthusiastic about living in a foreign country, broad-minded enough to consider a divorced man for her mate, who is in demand. Perhaps this echoes a larger pattern of social movement in which the Indian woman's role is changing more rapidly than the Indian man's.

But ultimately, India defies generalization. Just when I think I've figured out the nature of Indian desire, "intent matrimony," and its trajectory over the past thirty years, I come across something like this:

Are you fair beautiful Lady unable to take full-fledged domestic matrimonial responsibilities for career or family commitments then do not deprive yourself the happiness of life. Tall fair loving caring and understanding highly educated successful Bombay based Industrialist is looking for you to share all kinds of happiness life can offer from life-time alliance. Write all details. [3/14/99]
Chitra Divakaruni teaches creative writing at the University of Houston. Her latest novel, Sister of My Heart, was published last year.
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