Union Shopping

India's tradition of arranged marriage immigrates to San Francisco and takes a twist

A young man bounds up the stoop of a small Richmond District home and eagerly, but politely, rings the doorbell. He is glad to be out of the car after a two-hour drive from Monterey, and anxious to finally meet Bella. They've talked on the phone a few times, but have never met. Inside, Bella nervously waits. This is the first time she's been on a blind date.

Bella takes a deep breath, opens the door, and looks up at a tall, lanky man who beams with a wide grin. He sees that Bella is beautiful; her dark, curly hair is pulled back in a long ponytail, drawing attention to her warm, brown eyes and nice figure. Bella smiles back, though she doesn't find the man particularly good-looking. In fact, he looks old for his 25 years. But he seems like a nice enough guy; she decides to give him a chance. They go for a walk in Golden Gate Park.

The conversation goes reasonably well. They talk about literature and medicine, as they did on the phone. These are Bella's favorite subjects; she recently finished dual degrees in French and biology at Stanford, and is preparing for medical school.

"Are you planning to visit India anytime soon?" the young man asks for no apparent reason other than to sustain the flow of small talk that has now filled half an hour.

"Maybe this summer, before I go back to school," she says.
"Hmm."
The young man says nothing more, but just stares ahead, deep in thought, oblivious to the late-spring bloom and midafternoon joggers along the path.

"Yes, I can go to India then, too," he finally says. "Do you want to get married?"

Although she has lived most of her life in San Francisco, Bella was born in India and comes from a traditional Indian family. She is in her late 20s, and so, in her family's view, of prime marriage age. Her relatives want her to get married to the right Indian boy, and -- well aware there are plenty of suitors like the young man from Monterey -- they're more than willing to help her find him.

Today's arranged marriages are no longer of the ghodia -- swinging crib -- variety, where infants are betrothed to each other. For the most part, no one is forced to marry anymore; Indian weddings where mates are first revealed to one another only after the ceremony are few and far, far between.

But many Indian families, especially those living in the U.S., feel arranged marriage has a purpose -- the protection of family and culture -- that is just as important, here and now, as it ever was in India. So the tradition is kept alive, but with a modern approach. Families give in, at least a little, to the notion of romantic love, while angling for the benefits of arranged marriage. "It's not the bad, backward thing always portrayed in the West," Bella says. "It's a great way for a woman who absolutely wants to get married ... without having to do all the groundwork. And there are none of the games people play in the regular dating scene."

In arranged marriages today, the arranging really amounts to a series of blind dates, from which the children pick and choose among a pool of pre-screened candidates. Fed up with or turned off by the American dating scene, many young Indians don't mind letting Mom help them find compatible dates. Mom, however, is not always right.

"There can be a lot of awkwardness on those so-called dates when you find you have nothing in common, and the whole point is to get married," Bella says.

Then there are the unspoken assumptions, and the vast potential for miscommunication. When Bella's mother set up her daughter's first blind date, the young man's mother swore that her son -- like Bella -- was looking, in the most casual way, to meet potential marriage mates. He was in no particular hurry, yet suddenly proposed marriage while on a short stroll in the park.

In the modern version of arranged marriage, at least, both parties wield veto power. If an introduction clicks, then continued dating may lead to marriage. If not, the parents keep trying. But successful dates do often produce quick results; it is not uncommon for marriages to happen within a matter of months or even weeks.

Like many first-generation Indian immigrants, Bella initially shunned arranged marriage. Even the most liberal version just seemed too un-American, and American is what she wanted to be. Now, though, she is disillusioned by the Western dating scene, intimidated by its bars and one-night stands. While her American friends tell her to just have fun, Bella wants something better.

"I don't lose any respect for my friends who date around," Bella says. "I just know I'm not able to do that."

For Bella, dating was not the rite of passage it is for most Americans. She and her brother, Neil, two years younger, did not have high school sweethearts or go to school dances. They often spent Friday and Saturday nights at home with their parents. Indian families are traditionally very close, and even rebellion-minded teenagers do not assert overt independence. But Bella and Neil did not feel forced to stay home; it was just expected.

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