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

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]

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]