Some names and identifying details were changed for this article.
She was not exactly my girlfriend, but we were sleeping together and we were not sleeping with anyone else, and in college that meant something. She had gone home to New Delhi over the semester break for her sister’s wedding. Now she was back and I borrowed my mom’s Fiat to pick her up at the airport.
She slung her bag in the back and dropped into the passenger seat. “How are you doing?” I asked as I pulled the little car into traffic.
“I’m engaged.” I sneaked a look at her face, to see if she was joking. Her dark face was difficult to make out, silhouetted as it was by the headlights of the other cars and the illuminated airline signs, but she did not seem to be smiling. She stared intently ahead, as if she were the one driving. “My parents, they showed me four photos, four boys, told me to pick one.” She pulled a Polaroid out of her purse, the lucky boy. She held up the photo so she could see it in the headlights streaming in from the back window. Now she did smile, and I knew I was doomed. “Sanjay.”
I was a computer-science student then and I am a computer programmer now, so I meet a lot of Indians in my work. When the subject of arranged marriages arises, as it does often enough, invariably I feel that quick twinge and I flash back to that night, and the fond way she said her new fiancé’s name.
Last month, I actually visited India, to meet with several companies with which my employer does business. At lunch, the first day, one of the programmers mentioned that he would be out of the office; he was getting married. I asked how long he had known his intended, and he said that he had met with her twice and she seemed very nice.
That was something of a shock. He had met with his fiancée, the woman he was going to spend the rest of his life with. Twice! And she seemed very nice.
Over the next few days, I asked the people I met about their marital situations. If he (the computer industry in India, as in the United States, is male-dominated) was married or engaged, I would ask if the marriage had been arranged. Usually, it had been. If he was single, I would ask if he was expecting to find his own wife or have one selected for him; almost all the people I met were looking forward to an arranged marriage.
And his bride would be selected from a very small group. India is a huge country, of course, but a married couple had to be not only from the same religion, and not only from the same caste, but even from the same jāti, or subcaste. There are 500 jāti in the country, even a large one has only a few million members, and they may be dispersed across India’s large territory.
Plus, just to increase the degree of difficulty, Indian siblings have to marry in order. You cannot get married until all your older brothers and sisters are married; your younger siblings are all waiting on you.
Obscurely, I was disturbed by this system. Not just that arranged marriage was the norm, not even that marriages only occurred with a narrow social group and in a prescribed order, but how no one rebelled against the situation. Everyone seemed to think it was perfectly acceptable. It was normal, literally, since most people did it, but these people do not live on an island. They aren’t cave-dwellers. They live in a 21th-century country. They have wireless broadband in their homes; they watch Orange Is The New Black, buy lattes at Starbucks. They are modern people, more than a billion of them, but, to judge from my small sample, they mostly accept unquestioningly these pre-Medieval traditions about love and family.
It is not that I have an extravagantly optimistic view of the power of love, as conceived of in the Western imagination. I have watched the marriages of relatives and friends go up like Roman candles. I have been married myself for more than half my life. Like the song says, it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. It’s a slog sometimes, it’s mortgage payments and report cards and compromises. The reality is, I cannot say that I am any more qualified to pick a mate for myself than my parents–or heck, my neighbors or the mailman–are to pick one for me.
But something in my heart just rebels against that reality. Maybe I am still envious of “Sanjay”; maybe I don’t want to want to admit my romantic notions are neither practical nor particularly universal.
Whatever the reason, my happiest moment of the fortnight I spent in India was on the very last day. I had to make some new travel arrangements so I stopped by the travel agent in the hotel lobby. I waited with the agent, a pretty girl from the western coast of India, for the airline to call us back about something, and as we waited, I chatted with her about the complexities of marriages in Indian society. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asked, running a nervously conspiratorial glance over the lobby, deserted at 10 am. “I’m in love with the boy next door.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “He’s a Muslim.”
She was wistfully practical. A good Hindu girl, she could no more marry this boy than she could fly to the moon or eat a hamburger. Someday, her parents would marry her off and that would be an end to things. Until then…
She showed me a picture of her secret paramour. Not a Polaroid, of course–this is the 21st century, and she kept a JPEG of him on her iPhone–but her voice had a familiar fondness to it. “Khalil,” she said.
Author Michael Lorton lives in San Francisco, California. He considers himself a computer programmer, in “…the way that Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman.” He has traveled the globe and his first novel, The Missionaries will be out in August.
Hands of bridge and groom image courtesy of Shutterstock