Arranged marriage

My friends and relatives know that I live quite close to one of London’s most important heritage attractions. Just at this time of year the numbers of tourists dwindle considerably but then picks up noticeably around Easter. Hordes of European schoolchildren arrive, sneaking cigarettes at the back of the group, or holding hands with their boyfriends or girlfriends.

Then into early summer the nature of the tourists change; more couples and family groups. I notice more tourists of Indian origin from India – you can tell the difference quite easily. Often they are in multi-generational groups. The more of these family groups you see the more predictable patterns emerge; the husband leads from the front, charging ahead, usually 10 yards, with a child, leaving his parents or his wife’s parents behind together with his wife. The body language between both the younger and older couples feels awkward at best. Often it feels the older couple are there almost as a chore; they seem to have no interest in their surroundings. I presume the parents have been invited and hosted by their children almost as a sense of duty.

I do have two questions the answers to which are related: firstly, wouldn’t the grandparents be happier touring by themselves, and second why does the younger man just charge ahead not paying heed to his wife, talking with her, enjoying being together, in one of the world’s great cities.

The second question will be partially answered here and it won’t come as a surprise to you Dear Reader.

My parents had an arranged marriage and my father behaved just as the young fathers did on those London streets; he would walk on ahead and just leave my mother in many places.

Most people including myself find the idea of an arranged marriage a strange foreign concept; the thought of marrying someone you don’t know, and spending your life with them. Defenders of arranged marriage will say your parents have done the matchmaking, found someone of your class / caste who will be an accompaniment to your life. And they say the love will grow as if to denigrate the Western concept of what in Indian culture is called “love marriage”. But let’s not forget that Royal marriages in Europe were often arranged for political purposes; in the era of Jane Austen mothers schemed to get their daughters married off to rich, eligible men.

Since this is a relatively serious piece I’m going to get the personal anecdotes over with early. When growing up in Birmingham I would read the local paper which had many stories of girls and boys being taken to Pakistan and India to be married off. This scared the BeJesus out of me. So for a long time I was extremely wary of my parents’ friends who had daughters about my age. At a secondary school I stayed well clear of a Bengali girl in my class; I think that caution was justified as she had an arranged marriage at 19. This was an extremely rare occurrence among my cohort; I would never have been asked and had I been asked I could have said no. But at the age of 14/15 I wasn’t to know this. Later on in my late 20s my father was called suggesting he had “two eligible sons”. My mother would occasionally give me numbers of her friends’ daughters who lived in London, but after dates with different women I rather tired of the type and never did that again.

I guess I was aware from about the age of 11 that my parents didn’t quite connect – they had nothing much in common. Perhaps before that you don’t think there is anything wrong. My father was well educated and professional while my mother’s schooling was limited; in the West that meant a high degree of dependency which is not what you need when you have a busy and demanding job.

One would see that my parents had very little communication between themselves. My father would come home, make his tea and then retreat to his study until it was time for dinner, generally at the late Bengali hour of 9pm. There was no small talk of the type Sue and I have about our day, just over a cup of tea or a glass of wine. The other thing I realised was that they never called each other or seemingly referred to each other; their names, whether formal or informal, were never used. Nor did they use any terms of endearment. Perhaps this is common amongst Indians or Bengalis; on a number of occasions I have heard women refer to their partners as “my daughter’s father” rather than by name.

Of course it’s very difficult as an outsider to tell how well a marriage works but one can tell how well a couple communicate and interact and that perhaps is a sign. I remember seeing the Indian prime minister and his wife arriving at Downing Street for the G20 meeting and being met by Gordon Brown and his wife; the Indian couple took forever to get in their right places for the photographers. They seemed to have no idea how to communicate with each other. Although I have no definitive information I am inclined to think the marriage was arranged.

My insight from arranged marriages is mixed. Most (if not all) of the Bengali couples, my parents’ friends, that I knew in Birmingham were in arranged marriages. The majority were both of identical caste and academic / professional achievement, with both parties generally speaking English perfectly before coming to the UK. Some of those marriages ended in divorce, the percentage of divorces probably higher than in India. But most of those marriages seemed to be successful, although is just longevity an indication of “success”?

My cousins in India that had arranged marriages, almost all, have all stayed together. But a number of girl cousins have adamantly refused to get married; whether this is because of their own experiences of their parents’ marriages or more a rejection of the traditions is uncertain. But their conduct suggests that India is changing; it may be more acceptable for a woman to be unmarried.

Meanwhile, a recent survey in India suggested that there is continued support for the tradition of arranged marriage; NDTV (an Indian TV news channel) in association with Ipsos reported that 74% of Indians supported the tradition (although there were regional variations with Bengalis to my delight being the least supportive). The survey was conducted among 30,000 respondents. Anecdotally it is believed the number of “love marriages” has increased. The survey also found that 89% of respondents preferred to live in extended family households which would be anathema to most British readers. But there is probably a connection; if you are in an arranged marriage, and in an extended household then your husband’s family are your family too and you have a ready source of new friends if you don’t get on with your husband. Of course the husband would never move into his wife’s family home.

Meanwhile, an academic paper surveyed 783 families in Kolkata who had advertised in the newspapers for brides and grooms for their offspring. The researchers found that 30% of respondents had accepted an out of caste partner, 40% eventually found a partner through other channels (friends, family networks and presumably the Internet), and that 20% entered into a “love marriage”. The latter number is interesting since it suggests that offspring had presumably kept their affairs / relationships from their family, and only the fact that their parents had begun looking for a partner forced them to reveal all. It should be remembered that the sample is limited to those using the newspapers. Such people are generally English speaking and high caste. Many groups might use other channels from the outset. I might also add that Bengali attitudes are not necessarily reflective of the rest of India. (“Marrying for What? Caste and Mate Selection in Modern India” – Banerjee, Duflo, Ghatak and Lafortune, 2009)

So, despite the pace of change in India the concept of arranged marriage still holds sway. From various conversations with friends I understand that in the home city of the hi-tech industry, Bangalore, young educated managers still expect to have an arranged marriage. They often plan 2-3 years in advance, thinking for example that they should get married at 24/5, or when they’ve completed their MBA, or Masters. Of course at such an early stage they have no idea who they will marry. To the Westerner (and I am one) this sounds cynical.

But let’s not forget this is not “forced marriage” but a situation where each party would meet any number of potential partners before there is a meeting of minds. There may be some supervised or chaperoned meetings.

My anecdotal experience of my cohort in the UK (Bengali Hindus 2nd generation raised in Birmingham) suggests there were few arranged marriages. One woman was “married off” relatively young (at 19/20) while another woman married a groom “imported” from Kolkata. Not surprisingly that marriage ended in divorce. Of the rest of the cohort some married partners from other Indian regions, but UK born, and the majority have married native British partners. I would think that the rates of marriage between Bengali Hindu second generation and white native British partners are probably the highest of any ethnic group from the Indian sub-continent. This is mainly due to the fact that there is little or no parental pressure and that Bengalis, of both sexes, are highly integrated at work and in education. It should be remembered that Hindu Bengali first generation (i.e. my parents’ generation) were educated and professional before they arrived in the UK. There may also be a tendency to avoid arranged marriages because of any possible and perceived stigma. In addition, there is probably an aversion to potentially being in a loveless arranged marriage and possibly emulating the young and old couples on holiday.

Although there are significant western influences in India it appears that the institution of arranged marriage there is strong and will remain so for the foreseeable future. But what of arranged marriages in the UK amongst the sub-continental Indian diaspora? My group, Bengali Hindus, are clearly not representative. It would appear that some groups originally from the Indian sub-continent have high rates of intermarriage, probably arranged amongst the diaspora. This trend looks likely to continue. Amongst some other groups there would appear to be large numbers of arranged marriages, particularly to brides “imported “from their parents’ home region. However, recent government legislation will make it difficult to “import” partners with Britons having to show at least average incomes, the ability to support their partners without recourse to benefits, and their partners showing competence in the English language. Despite this arranged marriages in the UK will continue for another couple of generations, perhaps to the surprise of some.

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