What influences our youth to set aside their enterprising, free-wheeling spirit to follow the well-trodden path of arranged marriages? Part of the answer lies in the deep socialisation process, which is woven into the fabric of the close-knit extended Indian family, and its rootedness in the larger network of society.

Marriages in India don’t just bring two individuals together but are focused on bringing families closer as well, an arrangement that everybody endorses. The young too seem to believe in the cultural definition of marriage as a family affair, rather than an individual undertaking. Harmony and shared values arising from common backgrounds are seen as more important than individual attraction.

Sociologists Sudhir Kakar and Katharina Kakar explain this phenomena: “Given the deep stratification of Indian society along the lines of caste, creed, hierarchy, social class and education, the young feel relieved that their parents would arrange their marriage and make the best selection within the available pool of eligible men and women within their caste, community and economic status.”

The common grounds provided by an arranged match – familiar customs, foods, relatives, incomes, etc – also helps in negotiating the dark thicket of matchmaking. The upside is also that this aids the adjustment process with the new partner and family, a stand-in for what is seen as the variable element of love.

The parent as authority figure

Such malleable moulding of the young, certainly doesn’t happen in a vacuous space without an entire socio-cultural milieu subscribing to it. The seeds are sowed in childhood, when children are taught to obey an invisible family rulebook, with parents actively discouraging the seemingly undesirable traits of independence and assertion of one’s views.

When it comes to daughters, the disciplining fetters become even tighter, since a tarnished reputation would scupper her chances in the marriage market. “Where are you going? Why? With whom?” are questions from interrogations that adolescent girls are subjected to routinely, as anxious parents try to protect her from the imaginary roadside Romeos, to the real threats of a rising crime graph against women.

While some might deem this as anachronistic and echoing a musty mindset, it continues to be the unfortunate reality of a young woman’s world. The prime minister of the country, Narendra Modi, poised on the ramparts of the Red Fort, delivering his first Independence Day address to the nation in 2014 asked, “Parents ask a number of questions when a daughter goes out, but do they ever have the courage to ask their son about his friends or where is he going or why? After all a rapist is also someone’s son.” He highlighted the suffocating parental control over girls that typifies the discrimination in the upbringing between daughters and sons.

Parental authority is an accepted feature of children’s lives all over the world. But in India it continues well into adulthood. It translates into interference in career decisions, choice of friends, dietary preferences, etc. Despite this over-involvement, the so-called transgressions like drinking, smoking and premarital sex must be surgically hidden from their view. Despite the changes happening in urban centres, large parts of India still have families that view even harmless interaction with the opposite sex with suspicion and deep unease. They jump to conclusions, imagine the “worst”, i.e. physical intimacy, and so, never ease their tight leashes.

An environment which fosters such a pervasive suspicion of the mingling of boys and girls, can hardly have its young find their own partners. They therefore need their parents to step in, while parents view the prospect as their ordained duty. Social scientists have pointed out that, “arranging marriages of their adult progeny is a peculiarly south Asian intergenerational contract entered into by parents, leading to a mutual obligation between the generations.”

Equally, this obligation gives parents the opportunity to exercise power and control over their children, and also gives them the possibility of pushing the interests of the family further. This keeps parental involvement in arranging matches a tightly-protected privilege in India.

In recent times, the arranged marriage system has received some flak from different quarters. “It is a patriarchal artefact invested in maintaining caste purity, class privileges and gender hierarchy,” say several feminist scholars, and some even talk about the tyranny of the household on women.

They recognise both – the global phenomena where the “institution of family (is) one of the strongholds of female oppression”, and the desire to create a new kind of family, one that “would provide the individual’s choices in coming together and building a relationship on their own terms, and not on terms handed to them by antiquity, traditions, ideology – most of which stemmed from patriarchy or male attitudes to female capabilities and roles.”

The traditional, conservative family certainly fails to live up to any of the ideals that would foster gender equality, and is a far cry from the structure that feminist scholars visualise.

Matchmaking in progress

In keeping with the times, marriages are being arranged like sophisticated ventures, designed to cater to the whims of their exclusive clientele. But since the demand cuts across classes, the old practices of arranging matches have not been altogether scrapped. The broker who brings potential alliances to the family, is as much a part of the matchmaking process as the newer approaches.

In the uncertain days before marriage portals and dating websites, the broker, whether the family pandit or a professional matchmaker, was the go-to person who knew all about eligible bachelors and marriageable girls in the catchment society. Today’s more competitive environment has only stretched their capabilities further. From bribing officers to gain access to the lists of young men qualifying for government jobs to whiling away hours outside an educational institution in order to convince a young man, about the desirability of a particular match – nothing stops the broker’s ingenuity in her bid to deliver.

And what would the arranged marriage scenario be without relatives? Given India’s complex network of families, relatives are often best placed to find an eligible match for a niece or a cousin’s grandchild. Often, they know the prospective family personally or are connected to someone who is intimately so linked. This reassures the parents that they are not treading in completely unknown territory. They are also encouraged by the thought that their son or daughter would have a partner who has similar sanskaar, good genes, learned behaviour, generosity and grace handed down by the family.

Matchmakers in Cupid’s role

Despite their popularity, matrimonial ads only complement other routes of matchmaking, one of which is the marriage bureau. Despite stiff competition from online portals, these bureaus are mushrooming across cities, fulfilling a pervasive need plaguing their rich, insecure clientele. Having made inroads into the turf of traditional brokers, whose provincial trappings didn’t quite appeal to upper-class jetsetters, the marriage bureau conduits have had an image makeover.

Their business dealings are as quick and savvy as their dress code – bespoke suits and Montblanc pens clipped to their pocket – they mean business, as proven by their score of successful matches. Each one of these bureaus boasts of their “hits” – the marriages cemented through their offices. That is the ultimate criterion of success and forms their tagline.

According to newspaper reports, marriage bureaus often boast about the amount of money spent on the marriages they have arranged, with some figures going as high as Rs 100 crore or more. The brokers claim that they are happy to be rendering a social service. When a journalist asked an “elite” matchmaker, “And what are your rich clients looking for?”, pat came the reply, “Wealth!”

To marry into wealth is the means of pursuing an ideal lifestyle, where brandishing brand names is a conscious assertion of shouting, “Look I have money!” Apart from wealth, “high status” commands a huge premium in the marriage market. As author Pavan Varma points out: “Indians accord a high premium to acquiring status...Nothing reveals the obsession with status more dramatically than the matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers.”

In an analysis undertaken of the matrimonial column in The Times of India, the phrase “high status” is mentioned in as many as 1,532 advertisements. A magazine article on the subject of marriage highlights the role of the broker along these lines: Brokers sagely advise parents to get their daughters registered by the age of 22 or so. “And why?” if a parent queries in utter bewilderment at the prospect of having their girls registered so young, the answers reek of a mindset firmly embedded in the Victorian age. A woman’s greatest qualification is centred on her beauty and so the broker responds, “because women lose the freshness of their looks after this, best to get them married as early as possible.”

For a parent to go through the process of finding a match for one’s child, especially daughters, is an exercise in embracing one of the great lessons of Vedanta – the jettisoning of the ego. It is manifested in every medium where the bride’s parents advertise for a suitable match, and the power equations get established right away.

Nitha Kumar, a doctor in her fifties, after having exhausted other options in finding a match for her 28-year-old daughter, who too is a doctor, decided to brave the portals of a marriage bureau in New Delhi. Nitha had imagined that she was going to expert professionals, who would help her in her quest. Instead she recalls her experience as a montage aimed at the reduction of the self.

The fusillade of questions from the man behind the registration desk, asked with little sensitivity or finesse, were meant to assess her and her family’s net worth in terms of income, social circle, the number of holidays they took annually, in India or abroad, education, and finally the all-important question – how much will you spend on the wedding? This last one would determine the kind of match that the bureau would look for.

As the bureau man concluded, “Madam, the more ghee you pour, the better the taste of the food!” Later, when she was able to put some perspective to her discomfiture, she did admit that given the conditions, the questions served their purpose as the only method of ascertaining the “eligibility criteria”.

The Shaadi Story

Excerpted with permission from The Shaadi Story: Behind The Scenes Of The Big Fat Indian Wedding, Amita Nigam Sahaya, Macmillan.