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Beyond the Horse and Carriage: Understanding Arranged Marriage

Priya Lal

The arranged marriage is in fact far from a single, monolithic institution, but rather a range of ideas and practices that can mean many things to many different people.

"The time has come mon fe Apache/ Fe find one gal and to get marry/ But listen when me talk tell everybody/ Me wan me arranged marriage from me mum and daddy" � Apache Indian, "Arranged Marriage"

In 1993, Birmingham-bred musician Steven Kapur (a.k.a. Apache Indian) broke into the upper climes of the British pop charts with his "Arranged Marriage", a bhangra-cum-reggae narrative of a British South Asian's take on his own love life. Stylistically, the song breaks boundaries; Apache sing-raps in a British-inflected Jamaican patois sprinkled with a hearty helping of Punjabi slang over a mix of West and East Indian rhythms, employing a super-masala approach to fashion his music from diverse cultural sources. But it is the song's lyrics that are most memorable. Apache's narrator presents himself as a sort of ghetto-styled Indian-diaspora playboy with a girlfriend of his own, but one who ultimately turns to tradition to ask his parents to find him a "gal sweet like jelebee" straight "from Jullundur City" to marry. Evidently, the song is a story of contrasts: while on one hand the happy hybridity of the music itself testifies to the joys of eschewing cultural boundaries, the narration seems to reflect a movement to return to rule-bound tradition and an ultimately less flexible conception of South Asian identity.

In interviews, Apache Indian has revealed a conscious distance between his actual beliefs about marriage and tradition and those he espoused in "Arranged Marriage". The song is fundamentally an act of role-playing. Apache acts out the caricatured part of a modern, cosmopolitan Indian bachelor, leaving behind his Western romantic life and his freestyling, freewheeling disregard of tradition to look forward to a future with a "gal to look after me . . . a gal to make me roti". What about the girlfriend? But of course: she finds her way into an arranged marriage of her own! Based on Apache's own reflections and various interpretations of the song, it seems safe to conclude that what "Arranged Marriage" seeks to convey is a bit of the "double life" that younger-generation South Asians, particularly those in the diaspora, lead. On one hand, such hyphenated individuals embrace the democratic romantic opportunities of their Western contexts as much as the educational and economic opportunities that their parents often emigrated for. On the other hand, however, young South Asians grapple with a sometimes very stringent cultural expectation closer to home to obey the imperative of marrying within their ethnic, religious, and even caste community, according to their families' demands.

Though Apache's "Arranged Marriage" dates back to well over one decade ago, the sticky universe of cultural issues the song raises about the relevance of the ancient tradition of the Indian arranged marriage to today's changing social contexts makes its message as salient as ever. To walk through this sticky web of connotations and underlying meanings requires first that we recognize that arranged marriages have long been both misunderstood and vilified by so many within and outside of the global South Asian community. Focusing on the latter, where such misunderstandings are perhaps most acute, we might swing through a few notable cases of the way in which the institution of the arranged marriage has made its way into Western consciousness through depictions in a variety of artistic mediums in recent years.

Apache Indian's music is just one of a range of such popular crossover artistic explorations of the marriage issue. Vikram Seth's epic soap opera novel A Suitable Boy (1993) told the tale of young Lata's run through a string of suitable bachelors in her quest for a happy marriage in 1950's India; the tale ends with young Lata's self-willed rejection of her own romantic interest in favor of the more "suitable" man of her mother's choosing. In the filmic world, Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala (1991) and Damien O'Donnell's East is East (1999) paint a less favorable picture of some of the rigid provincial mentalities underlying the institution of the arranged marriage, highlighting the overt racism of Meena's Indian-Ugandan Hindu parents in an American context and the dictatorial xenophobia of the Khan family's Pakistani patriarch in a British context. Gurinder Chadha's Bend it Like Beckham (2002) plays tangentially with these issues, reflecting the more complex nature of the South Asian tradition at times but also contrasting the arranged marriages within young British-raised Jess's family with Jess's own headstrong girl-power break with that same tradition. Finally, Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001) took us all back to India to expose us to a "modern" version of the arranged marriage in today's Delhi; one in which bride and groom are cosmopolitan and hip, but they are also happy participants in a wedding which was heavily facilitated by their parents.

None of these individual representations are more correct than another, but taken together, they can be quite illuminating. For what is immediately clear even to those unfamiliar with the above works and South Asian cultures more broadly. is that the arranged marriage is in fact far from a single, monolithic institution. Rather, it is a range of ideas and practices that can mean many things to many different people. Different extremes of cultural rigidity can be reflected within this range of avatars of the arranged marriage, effectively precluding broad-stroke generalizations about the single Culture contained within a single Tradition.

On one end of the spectrum, the more ugly exclusionary Hindu origins of one strain of matchmaking tradition can be said to be conforming to a narrow, rigid social system that centered around the precept that individuals should breed endogamously within their own caste. More towards the middle, the less uncompromising Hindu arranged marriage closer to the modern ideal disregards caste but still demands that individuals share certain core values � vegetarianism, or a dedication to family life � as well as possess compatible Vedic astrological horoscopes. And finally, there is a large-minded, liberal version of tradition that manifests itself in much of the modern South Asian diaspora and in open-minded social circles within the motherland itself, among which arranged marriages often lose their boundary-sustaining dimension and take the form of merely suggestive matchmaking; effectively involving only arranged introductions, rather than forced couplings.

What is important to stress here is that the array of various traditions of arranged marriage has the potential to be fluid enough to accommodate the enormous socio-cultural changes of the past few decades, satisfy the needs of both parents and their eligible children, and not fall into tropes of separate-sphere anti-cosmopolitanism. So what of the tension between Tradition and Progressiveness, provincialism and multi-culturalism, that Apache Indian's song, Mississippi Masala, and East is East highlight in their treatments of arranged marriage? What of the horrifying reports of child marriages and bride-trafficking in rural India that surface periodically on page 16 of international newspapers? Is the very concept of an arranged marriage � no matter to what degree the "arranged" is enforced � not in some way retrograde, undemocratic, and, um, primitive?

Let's dig in and find out. Hinduism is as famous in the Western imagination for its principled emphasis on notions of dharma (duty) as it is notorious for originating abominable customs such as sati (wife-burning), and the reduction of young women's humanity to the economic asset of their dowry. Of course, ideological distortions abound in most popular Western conceptions of all of these traditions: most notably manifested in the persistence of the rather ubiquitous trope that modern Hindu attitudes towards family, marriage, and gender relations are all bound primevally and inextricably to some sort of mythically barbaric history of wife-killing and girl-selling. That historical tendency towards female disempowerment and objectification that Apache Indian's "Arranged Marriage" mocked ("Me wan gal to mek me roti"), while in a certain sense very real, should quite obviously not, however, be construed as a necessary aspect underlying the arranged marriage nor the structure of the traditional (patriarchal) Hindu family to which the institution of marriage was originally linked.

To clarify, it is undeniable that central to an, let's say, older "prototype" of the Hindu, but more generally Indian family, is a culturally grounded sense of duty to familial relations within a specific socio-structural framework. I refer here to the joint family, in which a woman (the bahu) marries into her husband's family in a symbolic and literal sense; leaving her own family's residence to become a member of her husband's extended household. In this context, the arranging of a son's or daughter's marriage comprises more than just a matching of two individuals, but effectively comprises the selection of a new member of a household, or a new household in which to enter. In its more dreadful form, this mentality can translate into the approach of marriage as a sort of business transaction: the family gains social currency by marrying up a caste, or actual financial currency by marrying into money. But at its best the joint family approach can mean that newly wedded young people are protected by a loving social net, that a bride never gives up her own family but just gains another, and that both sides of the wedding party remain perpetually cushioned from the loneliness and risks of co-habiting alone.

Of course the joint family, nowadays, is no longer necessarily a prototype of any sort for many Indians. This is the age of text messaging and instantaneous travel, of diverse and pulsing metropolises filled with increasingly mobile young people, of the blurring of lines between public and private life. Newer generations of metropolitan Indians have been born into a world of much more free-floating cultural mixing; young people are venturing into higher education and "new industry" professions that both expand their access to alternative imaginings of identity and demand longer hours and increased attention.

Women figure prominently among this group of trailblazing, working movers. And, quite simply, most such women feel increasingly less equipped to cope with both the rigors of their careers and the independence afforded by their public existences alongside their duties in the older version of the traditional home and their restriction to prescribed gender roles within the joint family setup. Just as a more restrictive prototype of the "real American" family � smiling, immaculately-hairdo-ed suburban housewife in apron kissing the manly husband goodbye as he heads off to bring home the bacon � has steadily dissolved since the '50's, so are more rigid conceptions of the traditional Indian family starting to give way to alternative structures of domestic social organization.

It is in this light, then, that this marriage business deserves to be re-evaluated. Family still figures prominently as a nexus of both support and obligation in changing conceptions of Indian culture today, but not necessarily in a tyrannical fashion. Rather, traditions are widening to recognize that young people develop their own nuclear families according to their own, often less provincial visions and lifestyles, as well as merely add spouses and offspring to their original households. The implications of this signify that from the metaphorical ashes of the "old", more rigid version of the arranged marriage, a "new" sort of arranged marriage has arisen: one that seeks to retain the invaluable benefits that family support have to offer while divorcing itself emphatically from a past of closed communities and social divisions.

The basic tenets of older-style arranged marriages are, in this sense, evolving. Love no longer need chronologically follow marriage; room has been made for romance and attraction before the official ceremonial joining of lives (after all, we're talking about the part of the world that has produced Bollywood with its zillions of cloying, wildly romantic love-at-first-sight films). And, importantly, the subjects of such love in the new matchmaking framework may exercise their full rights to choose a partner in many circumstances, and from a larger and larger range of options. For the "new" arranged marriage allows for ample courtship periods and the possibility of denial, and often operates with only the loosest of basic guidelines for a potential spouse's laundry list of personal "qualifications": good education, solid career outlook, common sense. In this context, many children more than willingly entrust their parents with the location of an assortment of suitable partners for themselves. Then they leave the rest up to chemistry

In this sense, the "new" arranged marriage uses family merely as a networking resource, a useful base from which to extend the pulsating feelers necessary to uncover potential appropriate matches and facilitate initial introductions between possible future lovers. In effect, this more subtle system acts as a sort of modified dating service, albeit one that sometimes still carries with it the load of several undeniable assumptions and expectations. Central among these is that the potential spouses whom the arrangers seek out will be, if not necessarily wealthy, light-skinned, and high-caste, then at least a fellow South Asian. For it does take two to tango, and in the diaspora in particular the fact that an arranged marriage necessarily narrows the circle of potential matches on an ethnic basis does bring up a whole host of problems of its own.

Yet it is possible to acknowledge this fact without caricaturing the entire constellation of traditions within the Culture that has produced arranged marriage or pathologizing the (changing) practice of arranging matches itself. For example, in recent years Indian matchmaking has gone high-tech, and a patch of marital websites have sprouted across the internet like weeds, including sites like,,, and The name of the latter reveals the blurring of the once hard line between "loose" Western norms of courtship (a.k.a., "democratic" dating) and specifically fixed Indian norms of pre-selected partnering. And a quick peek inside some of these sites discloses the extent to which the approach adopted by new Western initiatives in social networking (such as the popular so closely overlaps with the neo-arranging marital services arising out of older Indian tradition.

To revisit our starting point, then, it seems far too reductive to assume that Apache Indian's "Arranged Marriage" is about just the juxtaposition of absolute cultural poles and some unyielding construction of Indian-ness that young people in the modern South Asian diaspora have to unequivocally decide whether to inhabit. Certainly, young self-fashioning diasporic Indians from Canada to Kansas may view the arranged marriage as a symbol of the larger tension they experience between their families' still common expectations of them to maintain a distinction between their public (Western) and private (Indian) existences. And naturally, frustrations arise when parents focus on the most quantifiable of material details in the spousal search for their children who might consider such factors irrelevant; children who view mystery as an integral part of allure, who consider sanitary family interviews of potential mates as akin to evacuating the thrill out of love itself.

But the more profound and difficult point that all planetary dwellers, regardless of color or country, should recognize is that the arranged marriage is not by definition an antiquated, dying practice incompatible with today's cosmopolitanizing contexts. If, rather, South Asians proceed in the utopian direction of integrating cultural currents and dipping into newer forms of older traditions as an empowering rather than limiting tactic, then it seems that the "new" arranged marriage is more alive then ever. Amma and Auntieji with their keen eye for eligible mates need not be bearers of a high-pressure, rigid conception of Indian identity that precludes individual play and cultural mixing. The matchmaking relative, rather, may merely add to the range of options at today's young South Asians' disposal for self-fashioning.

In a larger sense, the same bulging metropolises and patterns of globalization of the past few decades that have facilitated the penetration of multicultural possibilities into personal lives have altered our species' mating patterns, so to speak, in very real ways. Creatures of the age of pluralism across the globe are also marrying later, working more, and, some might venture, living more atomized existences. True love might not come sailing into the life of a peripatetic postmodernite as "naturally" as Western myths of romantic relationships assert. But biological clocks still tick, and the human need for companionship remains very real. Personal ads, blind dates, and networking parties are all usually considered acceptable, even sometimes innovative, paths out of the confines of singledom in the West. Are the marriages they lead to any less authentic, any more unprogressive than the storybook matches of high-school sweethearts or spontaneous love-at-first-sighters? Of course not. Are, then, Indians who submit to the matchmaking services of their families, then, necessarily submitting to the imprisoning forces of antiquity? The answer seems clear.

Spontaneous origins don't make love any truer. Forced marriages don't form foundations for happiness. Somewhere in the middle of these two statements lies a murky terrain of swirling romantic possibilities, in which the arranged marriage and the love marriage blur together and start to lose their stereotypical cultural associations. A vast group of modern young South Asians across the globe stand somewhere in this middle territory, and they turn today to the universe of traditions that is the arranged marriage somewhat ambivalently. That they do so means not that they pledge themselves to unequivocal conformity with outdated traditions, but that they agree to increase their chances, perhaps, of finding a soulmate who shares their very ambivalence towards this aspect of their heritage.

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