That wasn’t as bad as the time I logged on to my computer at home in Fort Greene and got a message that asked, forgoing any preamble, what the date, time, and location of my birth were. Presumably sent to determine how astrologically harmonious a match with a Hindu suitor I’d be, the e-mail was dismayingly abrupt. But I did take heart in the fact that it was addressed only to me.
I’ve been fielding such messages—or, rather, my father has—more and more these days, having crossed the un-marriageable threshold for an Indian woman, 30, two years ago. My parents, in a very earnest bid to secure my eternal happiness, have been trying to marry me off to, well, just about anyone lately. In my childhood home near Sacramento, my father is up at night on arranged-marriage Websites. And the result—strange e-mails from boys’ fathers and stranger dates with those boys themselves—has become so much a part of my dating life that I’ve lost sight of how bizarre it once seemed.
Many women, Indian or not, whose parents have had a long, healthy marriage hope we will, too, while fearing that perhaps we’ve made everything irreparably worse by expecting too much. Our prospective husbands have to be rich and socially conscious, hip but down-to-earth.
For some Indians, the conundrum is exacerbated by the fact that our parents had no choice for a partner; the only choice was how hard they’d work to be happy. My father saw my mother once before they got married. He loves to shock Americans by recounting how he lost sight of her at a bazaar the day after their wedding and lamented to himself that he would never find her again, as he’d forgotten what she looked like. So while we, as modern Indian women, eschew the idea of marrying without love, the idea that we’re being too picky tends to nag even more than it otherwise would.
Still, for years, I didn’t want to get married the way my brother did. He’d met his wife through a newspaper ad my parents had taken out. He’s very happily married, with a baby daughter, but he also never had a girlfriend before his wedding day. I was more precocious when it came to affairs of the heart, having enjoyed my first kiss with cute Matt from the football squad at 14.
Perhaps it was that same spirit of romantic adventurism that led me, shortly after college, to go on the first of these “introductions,” though I agreed to my parents’ setup mainly with an eye toward turning it into a story for friends.
At the time, I was working as a journalist in Singapore. Vikram, “in entertainment,” took me to the best restaurant in town, an Indonesian place with a view of the skyscrapers. Before long, though, I gathered that he was of a type: someone who prided himself on being modern and open-minded but who in fact had horribly crusty notions passed down from his Indian parents. I was taken aback when he told me about an Indian girl he’d liked. “I thought maybe she was the one, but then I found out she had a Muslim boyfriend in college,” he said. I lodged my protest against him and arranged marriage by getting ragingly intoxicated and blowing smoke rings in his face. Childish? Maybe, but I didn’t want to be marriageable back then. Indeed, I rarely thought of marriage at the time.
But for Indians, there’s no way to escape thinking about marriage, eventually. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that shaadi, the word for marriage in many Indian languages, is the first word a child understands after mummy and papa. To an Indian, marriage is a matter of karmic destiny. There are many happy unions in the pantheon of Hindu gods—Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radha.
At a recent dinner party, when I was trying to explain how single-minded Indian parents can be, my friend Jaidev jumped to the rescue. “Imagine you are on a safari in Africa with your parents,” he said. “A lion strolls by, and then perhaps a tiger. Your mother turns to you and says, ‘Son, when are you getting married? You have a girl in mind? What are your intentions?’”
The pressure on me to find a husband started very early. A few days after my 1st birthday, within months of my family’s arrival in the U.S., I fell out the window of a three-story building in Baltimore. My father recalls my mother’s greatest concern, after learning that I hadn’t been gravely injured: “What boy will marry her when he finds out?” she cried, begging my father to never mention my broken arm—from which I’ve enjoyed a full recovery—to prospective suitors out of fear my dowry would be prohibitively higher. (A middle-class family can easily spend $100,000 these days on a dowry in India.) Much savvier in the ways of his new country, my father laughed it off. “But there is no dowry in America!”
Fulfilling his parental duty, my father placed matrimonial ads for me every couple of years during my twenties in such immigrant newspapers as India Abroad. They read something like, “Match for Jain girl, Harvard-educated journalist, 25, fair, slim.” I took it as a personal victory that they didn’t include the famous Indian misnomer “homely” to mean domestically inclined.
Depending on whether my father was in a magnanimous mood, he would add “caste no bar,” which meant suitors didn’t have to belong to Jainism, an offshoot of Hinduism with the world’s most severe dietary restrictions. Root vegetables like carrots are verboten.
Still rather prejudiced against meat-eaters, my father immediately discards responses from those with a “non-veg” diet. There is, however, a special loophole for meat-eaters who earn more than $200,000. (This is only a little shocking, since my last boyfriend was a Spanish chef who got me addicted to chorizo. Once, I was horrified to discover, he’d put a skinned rabbit in my freezer.)
This desultory casting around to see what was out there has become much more urgent now that I’m in my thirties, and in their quest, my parents have discovered a dizzying array of Websites: shaadi.com, indiamatrimony.com, etc. Within these sites are sub-sites for Indian regions, like punjabimatrimony.com. You might be surprised at who you’d find on them: the guy in the next cubicle, your freshman-year roommate at NYU, maybe even the cute girl you tried to pick up at a Lower East Side bar last night.
Far from being a novel approach to matrimony, these sites are a natural extension of how things have been done in India for decades. Even since well before the explosion of the country’s famously vibrant press in the fifties, Indians were coupling up via matrimonial ads in national papers (“Match sought for Bengali Brahmin, wheatish complexion,” etc.).