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“…It’s probably fair to say that most Indian women have their first sexual experience with a complete stranger. If that were happening post a visit to a bar and a few drinks — horrors. Subtract the bar and add a fire and priest — all well and good…”
I have pinched the above lines from the Wall Street Journal- India Real Time blog of November 6, 2011. These are stark – shocking to some – lines which describe a marriage where the woman getting married has no say. I am one who is completely against arranged marriages of any sort, but that’s not why I am here. I am here because similar thoughts had come to me about someone years ago.
Nearly three decades ago I was friendly with a girl whom I shall call Meera. She was vivacious, intelligent, expressive and had an opinion about everything. She had a dream of becoming a successful businesswoman, and was full of ideas how to go about it. We would spend a lot of time discussing her business plans.
One winter evening we were at a local club where we would meet off and on, and talking about nothing in particular, when out of the blue the following conversation took place:
Meera: By the way, I am getting married.
Me (startled): But we met just a fortnight ago…you didn’t tell me anything.
Meera: It happened all of a sudden, I got engaged last week.
Me (almost speechless): Oh, who is the guy?
Meera: Some doctor from so and so place…name is XYZ…I hardly know him…We are getting married on the 2nd of next month.
Me: What’s the hurry, Meera? It’s all so sudden, isn’t it?
Meera: My grandmother says she’s old…wants to see me married before she leaves the world, and then suddenly this offer came…
Me (agitated): That’s why you are marrying? You have no say in this?
Meera: Sunil, I don’t want to marry…but that’s how it is.
Me: You met this guy?
Meera: Oh yes, first when he came to see me, then during the engagement and then once we were allowed to go out for lunch.
Me: But Meera, you are marrying in another few days. Will you meet him again before that?
Meera: I don’t think so…everything is being arranged by the elders.
Me: Meera, what about that guy you have been so much in love with?
Meera (extremely upset): Sunil, I knew all along my parents wouldn’t have agreed to my marrying him…I can’t even let him know…
She married, of course, and went away. I wondered on the night of her wedding that after all the pot bellied guests had been fed, the fire lit, the priest’s chants over, she would be violated (I use the word ‘violated’ deliberately- she was not ready for this) by a man she hardly knew- she had told me just days back that he was “some doctor from so and so place…name is XYZ…I hardly know him…Sunil, I don’t want to marry…”
We lost touch for many years till we literally bumped into each other. We had a long talk over many cups of tea- she seemed okay, a mother of two- a daughter and a son.
Let me try and quote parts of the conversation:
Me: How have things been all these years?
Meera: Oh, fine, Sunil. He’s a great guy, my children are studying…doing well…
Me: Did you finally manage to start that business you always dreamt about?
Meera (suddenly teary eyed): No, I couldn’t. He’s really nice I told you, and I thought he would agree…I hoped he would agree…
Meera: He didn’t agree. I begged, I cajoled, but he always says ‘why do you need to work?’
Me: You’re happy otherwise, Meera?
Meera: I guess I am…I could have done a lot with my life…but that’s ok I guess…
I sat there staring at her and remembering the Meera I had known years ago. The spark in her was missing.
She telephoned me a month back, telling me her daughter (an investment banker) was getting married. We met.
Me: Congratulations. Who’s the guy?
Meera: Someone she has known for sometime…they studied together, they like each other…he’s a businessman…my husband agreed to it reluctantly…luckily the boy is the same caste…this caste stuff really matters among my in-laws…
Me: And you?
Meera: Oh, I’m absolutely ok with anything my daughter chooses…
Meera: Doesn’t really matter…my in-laws had to agree…
Me: Inviting me to the wedding, aren’t you?
Meera (silent for a while): Actually Sunil, I want to, but my husband…he might not like it.
Me: Meera, we are childhood friends, close ones at that…what’s wrong with that?
Meera (cutting me off): Please Sunil; let’s not make it worse than it already is…he is the jealous kind…I wish you could be there, I want you to be there, but…
I let it go at that. Her daughter married a week ago. I went to the wedding, but stood outside among the drivers and hangers-on, and came away. This was the only way I could pay tribute to a friend who could have been a successful entrepreneur in her own right; and who could have invited me to her daughter’s wedding.
*Photo credit: dweekly (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License)
I am a former bureaucrat, and have worked a lot on gender issues, disaster management
I can’t relate to the objectivity with which you’ve related this story, Sunil, but again, this must be the story of so many women in India. It makes me despise the society we are brought up in.
Hi Sunil, I just wanted to let you know that I’m greatly enjoying your posts. They are very enlightening. It’s been most interesting getting a man’s perspective and insight on different topics. Looking forward to reading more from you.
Every time I read your post…it makes me wonder about so many things we just overlook in our social structure…and it is deemed as ‘ok’…living life on ones own terms is the natural birth right of so many, but family and society comes in between..
Marriage is a gamble endorsed by society cutting across religion,culture, caste etc.etc. This is one area where one willingly pledges the daughter whose chance of being happily married is perhaps 50:50?
I can understand your friend’s predicament. I also see that she is looking for happiness even in adverse situations, There is nothing unusual about it. Most of the arranged marriages in India at least are like that. It is however that a vibrant and ambitious person like Meera should face such a predicament.
your posts are very insightful. Keep them coming.
🙁 It took me a lota pestering to make things happen in my life, else perhaps I would have been one such “Meera” feeling exuberant about my daughter getting married to a guy of her choice many years later.! And the culprits here are not my parents, but the many well wishers.! Who keep pestering them and telling them about why strong choices would harm me in the long run.! Lovely post.!
Thanks everyone. Your comments keep me going!
The topic of this post is very close to my heart – my best friend is facing a lot of pressure from her extended family to stop studying and get married as soon as possible, to someone from the “right case, good family”. She wants to study, and then work, and live independently, and insists she isn’t ready to settle down just yet, but the pressure keeps building, because apparently being unmarried at 22 is already pushing it.
However, I think that in the case of arranged marriages, we sometimes discount the feelings of the man. In Meera’s case (and in a lot of other cases), the husband has “power” over his wife and can limit her dreams, so the marriage isn’t as bad for the man as it is for the woman. But I have a lot of male friends who don’t want to get married but are facing pressure from their parents to get married soon. If they get pushed into it, won’t they be equally “violated” on the wedding night too?
I might agree with you, but in a man’s world, it is so much easier for a man to say no.
I have started readin your blogs and its a great feeling to know there are people who think like you do! I have same opinion on arranged marrgs and feel that at least ppl should get completely comfortable before even thinking about marriage. BUt the society that we live in..oh my god..when i said to my relatives that i will take 6 mnths time to decide if i shud get married to a guy and then take a call..and in between i will be defntly meeting him many times over..my relatives retorted back saying this way there will be lot of misunderstandings between u n the guy coz u will interact and get to “actually” know each other..which is supposedly not a gud idea in case u want to get married! ab ispar kya kahoge! so much so..now even my parents think so and have clearly instructed me that in case the guy is OK..i will b gettin married to him within 10 days. I think that thought itself has kept me away from gettin married and now m 33 ..so anyways im past the shelp life of getting married in indian context !;))))
AKS, this is bizarre, you are not supposed to actually know the person you are supposed to marry; and I like that sarcastic bit about the shelf life of getting married!
Hi Sunil Sir, I am a fan of yours. I am another Meera ( or even worst) I saw my hubby on the marriage dias… Spoke to him after we were married. 15 years… He is reasonably a good man and I did not have that ambitions…But I do not want my daughter getting married to some one she will see on the marriage dias… No way.
Thanks so much. I hope your daughter is able to choose her partner and the direction of her life without being pressurized into doing things.
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