Indians, whether they live in India or abroad, marriages are not remotely arranged in heaven, but are rather, the result of meticulous planning and plotting by relatives, friends and various well-wishers who bring together “eligible” boys and girls. A “good” match is a social triumph in the NRI community just as it is in India.

What lends urgency to the NRI effort and an edge to its collective anxiety is the fact that while an unsuitable match in India would still be an Indian person albeit of a different community or caste, outside India, a “bad” match could mean a foreigner – even worse, a foreigner from a lower social class! In an alien land where social distinctions are blurred, Indian parents find themselves confronting some unexpected dilemmas that they solve in their own unique way. “Our foreign bahu’s father was a partner in an American law firm,” boasts one. “Our foreign son-in-law went to Cambridge,” informs another. Somehow, introducing social ranking pegs that Indians recognise and respect gives a socially acceptable face to a dubious alliance with a foreign family.

NRI children are often confused about the fact that marriage with an Indian person (particularly from the same community) does not require any validation whatsoever.

It is enough to say “my niece got engaged to the Pathak boy” and everyone knows it’s a great match because everyone in the small community that we are addressing in this case, knows that the Pathaks have an ICS lineage, an ancestral house in a posh part of town and the younger set have cushy jobs abroad.

Since they have not grown up in India, my children do not know how to peg everyone they meet into the fine web of social hierarchy woven by previous generations. This is not necessarily a bad thing and makes them much more open-minded than people like me. Mahima and Ashima are constantly amazed at my ability to recognise Indian surnames and slot them into regional communities. So a Khanna is from Punjab and a Purandare is from Maharashtra while a Joshi could be a UP-ite or a Maharashtrian or a Gujarati (but always a Brahmin). However, it is this ability that makes me slot people into preconceived categories and that is surely, not such a good thing.

It is this prejudiced attitude amongst NRI parents that leads to unhappy situations. I know of parents who have steadfastly refused to accept their children’s choices or accepted them grudgingly. Marrying an Indian from another community still raises eyebrows amongst some sections of the NRI community. Isn’t it time we got over these narrow-minded prejudices and took the lead from our NRI children?

Of course, the objection to marrying non-Indians takes us to a whole new level.

We attended a wedding reception recently where it was revealed that the young couple had got married secretly five years ago, but the girl’s parents had refused to accept the white British delivery boy their lawyer daughter had chosen as her life partner! It took them five whole years to unveil their dark (or should I say white) secret!

With Indian parents living abroad, the “danger” that their children will marry someone of their adoptive country is very real. It comes out in all manner of real and imagined fears. “No BMW, I cautioned my son,” said a lady I met at a lunch, while the others giggled. No Black, Muslim or White (BMW) matches permitted seems to be an old aphorism that loops in both the inherent racism and the car obsession of the NRI community so neatly. It deserves a special mention in the long list of visceral reactions to the subject of shaadi with foreigners.

There are others too. White bahus call you by your name (sharam hi nahi hai); foreign sons-in-law cannot put up with in-laws staying in the house for weeks at a time (what does he expect us to do, check into a hotel?); guess what jewellery my daughter got from her German in-laws (a silver bracelet, hai hai); Mrs Kapoor’s angrez bahu put her up in the guest room on the third floor (uff...what of her arthritic knees!). The litany of complaints is endless but if you examine these issues, they are relatively minor cultural differences that can easily be bridged with some understanding on both sides.

Image via YouTube

So why does the whole shaadi debate stir emotions and bring up such strong reactions?

My hunch is that it is an identity question in its most raw form. It is about genes and race and “immersing” yourself in the more dominant culture of the host country as opposed to holding your head above the water defiantly.

Think of the host country as a vast ocean absorbing all manner of different races. Then think of the first-generation immigrant Indian, swimming furiously to stay afloat, often against the tide. Finally, imagine him watching his dearly beloved son go under without a fight – to disappear and become one with the vast blue. Scary? Definitely.

Does the reaction to children marrying a foreigner vary with the socio-economic status and education in the NRI community? Broadly speaking, it does. In the UK, for instance, at one end of the scale you get immigrant communities firmly rooted in the pind or village from where they migrated. They have children who were born and brought up entirely in a foreign land, sound foreign themselves, think like their white British friends and yet have to conform to their parents’ outdated views when it comes to marriage. This is the nightmare scenario that leads to honour killings, forced marriages and the racial stereotyping of Indians as backward.

In the less extreme and more common cases, it leads to NRIs looking for matches within their own and restricted circles. I remember telling a close friend, who is British Indian, that by looking only for other British Indian men, she was restricting herself to only about 2 per cent of the country’s population. What about the other 98 per cent? She looked at me as if I had said something heretical. Years of being single later, she decided to broaden her dating forays and went from “young Punjabi professionals” (I promise you, they exist!) to mainstream dating agencies and found a white British guy whom she calls her husband today.

Then there are those elite NRIs for whom white is right.

Ballet lessons, riding in Hyde Park, French rather than Hindi as a foreign language, expensive private schools – their children have been through it all. Little wonder they think of themselves as global citizens. Their marriages to foreigners (often of the same class) are greeted with squeals of delight by parents who say, “Sarah is such a de-light-ful girl,” with their well-bred stress on “light” showing just how far they have come from their Indian accents and roots.

So how do these people fit into the vast ocean analogy? With material success, these people have learnt to ride the waves in the sea and their children marrying “out” are acquiring a surfboard to help ride the waves even better. They do not fear immersion, they are the elite and they will always be above water, so to speak.

The vast majority of NRIs, however, remain ambivalent about the subject of marriage to foreigners. I have a friend who always talked of giving unconditional love to children so long as her son had a foreign girlfriend. The day he proposed to her, she brought up so many conditions, it made her lawyer son’s head spin!

The reaction seems to depend entirely on the circumstances of each case and there is a definite preference and hierarchy even amongst the vast pool of foreign spouses. For instance, Europeans are preferred to the Americans and the British because they are more “family-minded” (whatever that means). Children from stable homes are preferred for obvious reasons. “Okay, so our daughter-in-law is American, but her parents have had a solid marriage for twenty-seven years.”

East Asians are liked for the obvious reason that “they have Asian culture in common with us.” Myths have reinforced this complex hierarchical structure of spouse preference, but it does provide mobility and there is much jostling going on to get onto the next higher rung. So, heaven forbid, should your daughter marry a black person, you can actually transcend that by claiming he is related to the former American President!

Having established that marriage is of pressing concern to most NRIs and they continue to see it through the Indian lens of a social contract rather than the joyful union of a couple, what are the means adopted to ensure that NRI children are gently steered in the direction of matrimony? Especially in a world where it is rapidly becoming old-fashioned and irrelevant.

While the traditional meeting-in-the-drawing-room kind of arranged marriages are dying or dead, the “encouraged” or “introduced” marriage is thriving.

NRI parents realise that their offspring live in a universe of “foreign” people and their fears that one of these foreigners might slip into their gene pool makes the interest in “encouraged” matrimony even more keen.

They also realise that their Westernised offspring may not want to say yes or no after a casual viewing, so dating with an eye on marriage is encouraged. I have heard many Indian parents with children of marriageable age pronounce Western dating websites as an Indian concept. “What do these websites do if not match up boys and girls according to age, looks and educational background? We Indians have been doing this for generations through arranged marriages!”

This sort of talk encourages their children to agree to introductions within the Indian community and why not? Every trick in the book must be employed to keep them within the Indian family. However, the chance of an “arranged” introduction succeeding, that is, leading to marriage, is much higher if Indian parents walk the talk. If they claim that they invented dating, then dating rules must be followed. There must be no pressure to marry – let the young boy and girl spend as much time as they need with the other person and give them the assurance that they can walk away without any repercussions.

The Jewish community is widely held up as an example of how genes and wealth can be kept within the community. I have heard Indian parents talk wistfully of how well the Jews have managed to preserve their heritage and traditions. Some go a step further and organise Jewish-style “minglers” for their single kids.

One innovative Indian hostess came up with the idea of a BYOB party with a difference. The BYOB in this case was Bring Your Own Bachchas! Needless to say, it was a big success. Conversation around it was carefully couched in general networking terminology. “We brought our children because we want them to have really good Indian friends, just as we have had through the years,” said one mother who had specially flown back from a brief holiday in the US to attend the occasion. What she did not say was that she wanted her daughter to pick a spouse from a select group of well-placed NRI boys whom she had known since they were kids.

Excerpted with permission from East or West: An NRI Mother’s Manual On How To Bring Up Desi Children Overseas, Vinati Sukhdev, Westland Books and BGB.