Wanted a Homely Girl- Fascinating Dynamics Behind an Arranged Marriage, Part I of Many

Last June, I wrote a conceptual article on arranged marriages in India. For knowing more about the criteria behind finding matches, I would highly recommend reading this post. Today I want to expand more on the real-life dynamics behind this institution because there is both a lot of hype as well as a real curiousity about it, as evident from the questions I am frequently asked. Since I want to address as many facets as possible and rather candidly, I am going divide my article in parts.

Pouring over my pictures from yesteryears, I came across a couple of photographs which when viewed in juxtaposition show two dramatically different sides of my persona. One is of me as a young woman casual and relaxed in her jeans and the other is of a young lady all trussed up and sitting stiffly. Yes the latter picture is one of a young lady being prepared to meet her future mate. So today I am going to talk to you about how the arranged marriage set-up works based upon my own experience years ago in middle-class New Delhi suburbia.


Me as a relaxed university student completing her Masters...

Me not too happy to be dolled up in this lady-like yet at that time very constricting attire...

Generally, once a young lady completed her undergrad degree, parents would start getting restless about finding a match for their pampered princess. But by the time, the more academically inclined girls completed the next degree, the parents got really determined to start looking around and essentially availing of every opportunity to drag their marriageable age children to social events where the chances of finding suitable matches were heightened.

I recall that once I completed my Masters, my mother often asked me to wear a sari at events where a number of guests were expected, specifically at weddings. While initially it was fun to feel all grown-up along with a sense of achievement that one had not fallen flat on one's face wearing the yet unfamiliar attire of six yards of material gracefully swathed around you , cleverly held together by a many pins to ensure that it did not unravel in public eye - the private terror of almost every novice Indian girl-woman - it became embarrassing after the initial excitement wore off. The matronly women at these weddings would not only check out your worth as prospective brides for their precious princes by blatantly sizing you up, they would sometimes literally while patting you on the cheek analyze your virtuous nature with the family elders, completely ignoring your presence. Just like that! While you pretended to be innocently oblivious, desperately wanting to flee from that setup. Instead you were trapped next to your mother feeling like a pin-cushion barely able to walk small steps in supposedly, the world's most elegant attire. The idea behind dragging the trussed up youngsters to such formal dressy events was to get them noticed as eligible matches ready for settling in holy matrimony with the ultimate hope of garnering marriage proposals.

A query that used to make me and other educated girls mad was when match seekers asked the assinine question as to whether the young woman was homely. Yes, being "homely" was a quality that was sought by almost every would-be in-law. In case you are wondering, if we Indians had some twisted concept of beauty, for some interesting reason, in India, the term "homely" does not mean plain-looking but rather someone with a proclivity for home-making skills and supposedly better family values than a professional girl. The emphasis is on the word "home'! I learned this difference the hard way when in my early years in the US, I called my perfectly attractive new American girlfriend, a stay-at-home mom as very nice and "homely". She almost whacked me till she realized that far from insulting her considerable charms, I was sincerely complimenting her on her baking skills. Needless to say, she ended up roaring with laughter. Of course,I never repeated that mistake. But in all seriousness, do check the lexicon, the word "homely" also means domestic. And even more seriously, being homely was a major marital prerequisite in the world I knew.

Indian culture is peculiar in some respects. While there is the admirable closeness of family and a lot of community feeling,there is also little concept of personal space or boundaries. Invasive personal questions that cross the line easily don't raise eyebrows. For instance, an older woman or man respectfully and generically referred to as "aunties" and "uncles" by the young ones could in such social situations ask without a second thought a young man directly what he was earning, his financial assets, his marital status and similar personal queries in order to check his suitability as a match. In this respect ,as a single woman in the dating world in US, after observing the lies or twisting of truth to a point where it is actually deceptive, I would not mind a few of these tough "aunties" and "uncles" to pry out the truth. But I digress.
This is my twenty year old son at an Indian wedding here in DC. Now the Indian-American kids born and brought up here have diametrically opposite views in terms of having their marriages arranged like back home where parents will start eyeing young folks as potential matches very early on. It is called planning ahead. I shudder to think, how my normally even-tempered son would react if someone approached him with that in mind and then asked those very personal questions....

In my case, I think privately, my mother was just making a token attempt to do the traditional thing about showcasing her daughter at these events because being a true intellectual herself and a feminist under the guise of a homemaker, she privately always pushed me to have a fulfilling career first. Yet, being a product of her times, I believe she also was torn about going with cultural flow or standing up for her emancipated beliefs. I do believe we struck a happy medium since I married after I had established myself fully in a rewarding career despite not very unsubtle social pressure to the contrary.

To be continued... Stay tuned-I have lots to share, but till then let us venture over to Carrie's Phriday Fiesta.

Comments

wow...You just taught me something. How very interesting, thanks so much for sharing. And what a handsome son...I have a young daughter ...
~~tonya~~ said…
Very interesting. Great pictures. TFS!
Anonymous said…
Interesting. . so from what you have written it sounds like parents attempted to match up their grown children, and not while they were still little, right? And there were no dowries, right? I like the part in which young men had to reveal how much they earned. Could you imagine that, here in the U.S.? Very funny. -DT
Inger-Lis said…
I love your title! That story about using the word homely is hilarious and definitely illustrates how different cultures can really collide! Loved it!
newlyweds said…
Wow how very interesting. I never knew the dynamic behind Indian arranged marriages. I can't wait to hear more. Also I love the different meanings behind Homely! I think we in the US should use it the way they do in India.
careysue said…
So interesting. Reading your blog is like reading a book I love it!

If I were an Indian girl, and they were looking at me that way, and asking questions I think I'd want to cry! Raksha-do they still do this now? At least I'm not homely! haha maybe I would be i don't know.

You are fascinating. Write on!
cyclingred said…
That was interesting. I remember being surprised one day when talking to my neighbor Usha about how she met her husband and she told me the marriage was arranged.

But to your pictures. I don't think you look any happier in the relaxed jean picture than in the other one. :)
Malini said…
To add to the flavor of the arranged indian marriage system, it wasn't only the girls but the boys were also on display.In fact where lies the difference in a classified advert, shaadi.com or an online meet your mate dating service? isn't it old wine in new bottles?
Raksha you are looking beautiful in the saree and maybe it is personal experience but arranged marriage is the best thing that happened to me. It has been a great journey discovering the joys of life together with the excitement of something new at every corner
Teri said…
I will not miss any parts of this discussion. I have always been curious about this practice of arranged marriages. I do not judge since I come from a totally different background. Thanks so much for sharing all that you do. As always, VERY interesting!
The Egel Nest said…
I am familiar with arranged marriages only within the Orthodox Jewish community...a community that I sometimes am social with. It is interesting how many similarities there are!! :)

Bradley
The Egel Nest
Gori Girl said…
I've always associated the Indian English word "homely" with the German word gemuetlichkeit - they both seem to be words describing the cozy atmosphere of the ideal home; American English is missing out by lacking such a word.

Anyways, good explanation of how arranged marriages work - or at least how they worked in the not-too-distant past. Do you think they're still like this in (urban) India today?
Sandi McBride said…
Such a handsome young man, I'm sure he'd be getting his cheeks pinched and mother's asking how "homely" he was, lol! Not so different here...I remember my Aunt Florence pinning Mac down and trying to find out his income, warning him that "she's spoiled, totes her Mama's checkbook when she goes shopping for clothes"...but it didn't scare him off...here we are 40years later...by the way, have I mentioned how much your son resembles my nephew David?
hugs
Sandi
Anonymous said…
Nice pics, Raksha especially the sari one!!
Jayshree said…
Interesting blog but arrangements of marriage and relationships are more universal in spirit than one realises. Girlfriends often try to fix up their friends with interesting single men they might know. The internet is flooded with a zillion dating websites where we try to do the fixing ourselves! On and on it goes. The idea of matchmaking has existed since times immemorial across borders and cultures.
RBK's Realm said…
Gori Girl,

Apologies for the long delay in responding to your question about whether the system is still prevalent in India- and the answer is yes but of course without the coercion involved as things are very different there now. I plan to address that in my next part.

But in the interim-Jaysree's comment here explains a lot also.

But stay tuned for more updates once I get the time and inspiration to start my real writing again... I am in a bit of limbo at the moment.
RBK's Realm said…
Egel Nest thanks for visiting and you have made a good observation -again also noted by Jayshree in her comment here.

Please do come again and offer your feedback.
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meera said…
i can totally relate to what you've written,the practice continues...hopefully the next generation will put an end to it...