The idea of arranging marriages seems like an exotic thing even for modern Indians who see their relationship problems as very different from those of their parents’. India has changed considerably over the past few decades. Indian singles who have grown up this side of 1990 did so in a decade of rapid economic and infrastructural development, with professional opportunities for men and women alike due primarily to the growth of IT. From this milieu have emerged young men and women with hopes of selecting their own partners or “settling down,” and trying to rationalize their personal expectations with what the larger culture expects.
Kamna Mittal and her husband recently shared their experience of creating new, 21st century, options for arranged-marriage practices. Combining both parents’ and children’s wishes, Mittal offers “social mixers” as informal gatherings. While this may seem novel, it suggests continuities with some traditional Indian practice, as the arranging of marriages (traditionally understood as a communal, rather than an individual, responsibility) frequently occurred in informal ways, among “aunties” who would provide contacts from extensive kinship networks. By combining speed-dating with traditional expectations, the Mittals hope to attract more Indian-American singles who are perhaps uncertain as to how, when, and where, they might mingle with other Indian-American singles given their often times exceptionally busy lifestyles
The Mittals hope to make the marriage selection process “safer” for all of those parties who may be involved in arranging a big Indian wedding and required to do so in a contemporary American context, in large part by delimiting the parameters of who gets to participate in the mixer. The parents may call it “safe” because they would approve of the potential mates being Indian at least if not Hindu. This is interesting since speed-dating is usually associated with the thrill of meeting an unlikely match from a very diverse pool of people.
India-American parents and children are willing to forgo traditional caste-based considerations and opt for broader criteria such as “being Hindu” and/or “being of Indian-origin.” As we might expect, the ambiguities associated with the categories “Hindu” and “Indian” are imported into this new social practice. As one matchmaker queries, if a woman says she wants to marry a Hindu, does that mean someone who goes to temple each week, someone who is simply “being spiritual,” or something else entirely? Of course, as in much Indian discourse, heterosexuality is implied among other normative standards that are implicitly shared. And while it isn’t considered “prejudiced” to avoid potential mates from other religious backgrounds, it is considered unseemly to do so based on physical appearance. Such norms, though, are more difficult to maintain in American contexts, with so many dating websites and even Indian arranged marriage web portals where one may customize one’s “search” for a soul mate according to caste, dietary habits, and physical preferences.
Of course, in the non-Indian, American gaze explicit talk of “arranging marriages” may be perceived as a bizarre social practice. Still, arranging may not be so far removed from what virtually all American young adults experiences. When young people meet and are attracted to each other, each evaluates the other on all sorts of grounds. If things become serious, family and friends are likely consulted, who in turn bring with them considerations that reach beyond concerns of the moment, e.g., bank balances and economic potential, education, comportment, the perceived quality of friends and family, cleanliness, to name just a few.
Thus, arranged marriages may render the deliberative aspects of this complex social practice more explicitly than do contemporary dating rituals. If, however, we probed either set of cultural practices, considering the heavy-handed roles that nature and social conditioning play, we may wonder whether, in coming to end up with our soul mates, “choice” plays any role at all.