Saturday, June 03, 2006

arranged marriages

A German friend here of mine who is also studying in Pune recently returned from a wedding of an Indian friend she had met in Europe, while he was there on an assignment.

The wedding was large. Very large. Some 2,500 guests were invited to the main event. A more intimate gathering of 500 people attending the remainder of the activities surrounding the wedding. There was also a special event for their Hindu guests, an affair attended by 500 of their Hindu friends who were feasted at a banquet hall featuring vegetarian food. Only the very closest 100 or so relatives and family friends would have the privilege of being hosted in and around the house itself, and would take their breakfast, lunch and dinner together at the house. During the five days of the wedding festivities, meals would be cooked, gifts would be given to guests and received in carefully prescribed patterns of exchange.

In short, there was much to be done. My German friend spent most of her time joining in the work with her host’s female relatives, as men and women live largely separate existences. One evening, she had some time to chat with her host, the groom. In Germany, when she had casually asked whether he had a girlfriend, he said yes, a girl in Mumbai, She now asked him whether the bride was that same girl. No, he said. It was the custom of his people to marry cross-cousin. He and his bride-to-be had known each other as children, but lived in villages some four hour’s bus ride apart. In any case, since girls and boys are segregated from the age of 15, they had not had any interaction in years. She had not seen him since then, though unbeknownst to her, he had paid a visit to her village to get a glimpse of her as the marriage negotiations advanced. The girl in Mumbai had not even been considered as a prospective bride. My German friend struggled with her reaction to that. She told me she recognized that her impulse to condemn what she saw as the lack of personal choice and human feeling in this arranging of marriages did not fit well with her observation that the women in the extended family seemed remarkably contented with their lives.

Attempting to help her understand the choices involved, her host said:

“You see how little time I have to spend with you here. Just a bit at the end of the day. It will be basically like that with my wife. The rest of the time, she is with the women of my family. She isn’t marrying me, actually. She is marrying my family. If my mother doesn’t like her, her life will be awful. And if she is not one of my cross-cousins, the rest of the village won’t accept here either, and her life here will be a hell. It wasn’t for myself that I didn’t marry my friend in Mumbai. It was for her. For her happiness.”

Later, when it was time for the bride to leave her childhood home and family to depart for the wedding and the home she would now share with her husband, the entire family wept bitterly. The family had actively arranged for this marriage, and yet they wept when their plan was at last executed. I imagine that at such moment, what my friend witnessed was a rare glimpse at the high value placed on this invisible web that held together that single household, and how highly valued was the sharing of all the small and quiet moments of that household’s life. When the moment came for the bride to leave home, even the men of her household were openly shedding tears, and visibly pained at her departure. My German friend asked them later why they wept so, since as the wife of a cross-cousin they would still see her and she would still be part of the extended family. “Yes,” they said, “We will see her. She will still be part of our family. But she is leaving our house.” She is leaving our house.

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