Wedding Vows Bind Old World and New
By CELIA W. DUGGER
Photographs by EDWARD KEATING/The New York Times
J AIPUR, India -- Vinit Sethi, a New Yorker born and bred, was
wired from days of celebration when he mounted a small white horse
to ride toward his bride. Dressed up like a Rajput prince, he
nervously adjusted his golden turban and the strands of plump
emeralds that hung around his neck.
His wedding procession, led by a lumbering elephant, fairly floated
through the horn-honking, smoke-belching downtown traffic like some
royal fantasy, trailing a band of his Ivy League buddies, merry
revelers in Western suits. Sethi, a 24-year-old investment banker
who loved night clubbing in SoHo, brought up the rear, his horse
prancing past mesmerized beggar children. All were bathed in the
fluorescent glow of green lights held aloft by small men in
His bride, a shy, hazel-eyed beauty of 20 named Anshu Jain, was
waiting poolside at the Sheraton Rajputana. They had never kissed
or held hands. She came from a family in which no woman had ever
been allowed to call her husband by his given name. "For a wife,
your husband is God," she explained. "And you don't call God by his
Theirs might seem an unlikely union, this arranged marriage between
the cosmopolitan American son of Indian immigrants and a sheltered
Indian woman who had never set foot in America. Sethi's friends
from the University of Pennsylvania had warned him that he should
not consent to the match his mother had found for him in India just
because it was expected of him. And he worried he was being "flaky"
to agree to it.
For Sethi, though, the marriage wasn't the inevitability it had
been for his immigrant parents. It was his own choice. And yet in
making that choice, he was casting his lot with a traditional way
of life, one that would bind him more closely to his parents and to
India itself, and sustain that tie into yet another generation of
American children -- his own.
Vinit Sethi of New York went to Jaipur, India, for his bride. His
friends teased him before the ceremony.
The Ceremony photo gallery
By choosing to marry a woman of his mother's choosing, he managed
to be both quite American and quite Indian all at once.
"I had mixed feelings with the concept," he said. "I didn't
necessarily think I would go through with it. But my reservations
got pushed to the side when I met her. I had an incredible feeling
that this was the right thing to do."
In modern immigrant families -- where the bindings between new land
and homeland are stronger than ever before -- the children almost
inevitably find themselves pushed and pulled between the culture
and values of their parents and those of the larger American
society. Such ambiguities are perhaps never more acute than when a
decision about marriage -- the arc of one's life -- is at hand. But
what emerges at defining moments like Vinit Sethi's wedding is the
way many of these children search for, and find solace and
grounding in, their connections to the world back home.
Sethi grew up in a tightly knit community of Indian gemstone
merchants who, over three decades, have carved out a sizable niche
in the historically Orthodox Jewish world of the diamond district
in midtown Manhattan. Even as they scattered to doorman apartment
buildings and to homes in predominantly white suburbs, these Indian
families banded together in their business and social lives. The
sons skied together. The daughters took Indian classical dance
together. And they still unite in Jaipur for events like the Sethi
They have held onto their socially conservative culture, fending
off the onslaught of Americanization, by constant use of those
totems of modernity -- telephone, fax, E-mail message and jet
The fathers go back and forth most often, carrying satchels of gems
folded up in tidy paper packets, each flight a thread stitching
their lives here and there together. But the wives and children
also go to India every year for weddings, family visits and
Because of their wealth and the intensity of their business ties to
India, these families are among the immigrants, Indian and
otherwise, most tightly bound to their homelands. But their
experience is common to immigrants from all over the world who have
taken advantage of skills and contacts developed in New York and
back home to build businesses and transoceanic lives.
Above all, the gemstone traders are held together by what they
describe as a shared Indian idea of family, which sees
American-style individualism as a form of egoism that has fostered
disrespect, premarital sex and other social ills. They are looking
back not just to India, but to a remembered India.
"India has changed tremendously, especially in the big cities,"
said Jyoti Pandya, one of the gemstone traders. "All the young ones
there are trying to catch up with the West. Our children, we teach
them the values of 20 years ago."
The heart of that teaching is an observance of hierarchies, the
child giving deference to the parent, the daughter-in-law to the
mother-in-law, the wife to the husband.
"Ladies have to admit that the husband is more powerful," said
Haridas Kotahwala, a leading trader in the circle that includes the
Sethis and Pandyas. "It is better to surrender than to have all
But while the parents still consider themselves Indians, their
children have grown up attending American schools, going to
American movies, watching American television. Striving and
ambitious, they often chafe at their parents' expectations. Just as
often, they say they value the comfort and security of their
affectionate, protective families.
Over the Christmas holidays, many of them traveled to this city in
northwest India for the Sethi wedding with the nonchalance of New
Yorkers vacationing at a Florida condo. Several, like Pandya's
daughter, Komal, a Columbia University freshman, watched the
wedding with more than academic interest. They are entering their
marriageable years -- and, like many young Indian-Americans,
choosing some form of arranged marriage with open eyes.
"An American girl dates a guy and she doesn't know much about him
-- how he was brought up, his moral standards," Miss Pandya said.
"I trust my parents to look for someone who will give me the life
I've been brought up to have."
But the dissonance between her American and Indian identities
emerged as she talked about her place in such a marriage. In one
breath, she said, "I would never set aside family for career." And
in the next, she said, "I don't want my husband to be my identity."
Then she looked confused: "I'm like, oh yeah, I'm going to have my
own identity and I'm going to be a demure wife. It is contradictory
Just how these young Indian-Americans will seek to harmonize these
clashing values remains to be seen. What is clear is that they feel
little pressure to shed their ethnicity like some unwanted skin.
"It's like P.C. that if my mom wants to be an Indian and wear a
sari, it's O.K.," said Kotahwala's niece, Shweta, a 19-year-old
international business major at New York University.
Instead, they will be sorting out just who they are on their own
terms. Back in New York, Vinit Sethi is struggling to establish
himself and his wife as a couple apart, within the close embrace of
After honeymooning in the old royal city of Udaipur -- and Disney
World -- they have settled into a one-bedroom apartment on
Manhattan's East Side, in a traditional Indian family arrangement,
across the hall from his parents. But Sethi has also undertaken to
expose his bride to the Americana he loves. He has inflicted his
old "Seinfeld" videotapes on her and taken her to Macy's and a
And he has urged her to become a more independent, modern woman --
to go back to college, to wear jeans, to do what would have been
unthinkable to her only a year ago: call her husband by his first
Finding a Match for a Fine Catch
S hashi Sethi is a guardian of family traditions, a woman who has
given her life to her husband and two sons. As her boys grew up,
she devotedly hand rolled the roti for their lunches, pushed them
to study hard, instilled in them the family's religious values. She
never once hired a baby sitter, not even for an evening. And as
Vinit, the older son, came of age, her matchmaking instincts kicked
Shashi and Vinit Sethi in Jaiput, India the day before the wedding.
The Ceremony photo gallery
Mrs. Sethi knew he was a fine catch. At Manhattan's
hypercompetitive Stuyvesant High School, he had excelled
academically, but never dated. At Penn, where he graduated summa
cum laude, he dated occasionally, but never had a girlfriend.
He took a job straight out of college with Lazard Frres & Company,
the white-shoe investment bank, and promptly moved in across the
hall from his parents. Many nights he dined on his mother's cooking
in the room where he had slept on a Murphy bed as a boy.
It was when Vinit was 23 that Mrs. Sethi told him it was time to
stop "goofing around" and marry. If he wanted to pick his own wife
in the American way, she told him, that was fine -- as long as the
girl was a strict vegetarian. If the newlyweds planned to live
across the hall, "I would have to get along with her and she would
have to get along with me, emotionwise, foodwise and livingwise."
Vinit told his mother he had no marriage plans. He had not yet
decided between a match of his own making and one of his parents'.
Either way, though, "I always knew I'd probably end up getting
married to someone who wasn't very American, because I'm not myself
in some ways," he said. "There's a certain level of individualism
in American relationships I don't agree with myself."
So Mrs. Sethi quickly went into action. "I had an agenda," she
said. "I began spreading the word with friends and family in Bombay
and Jaipur." She planned a trip to India, but Vinit, immersed in
his job and in no hurry to wed, refused to go.
The news that she was looking for a bride spread like wildfire. She
received a package from a family friend in Dallas about a relative
in India, Anshu Jain. It included Miss Jain's "bio data," a kind of
resume for arranged-marriage prospects (Age: 19; Height: 5 foot 5
inches; Complexion: Fair), and an unprepossessing photo of an
unsmiling young woman in a stiff pose, one arm crossed over the
other. Mrs. Sethi set the envelope aside, barely giving it a
Some months later, in January 1997, she set out for India. In
Jaipur -- where her father once had an emerald-cutting factory --
she met several nice young women from good families. Then, while
she was in Bombay visiting her husband's family, Miss Jain, her
father and two uncles came to call.
The willowy, soft-spoken Miss Jain walked in looking nothing like
the gawky young woman in the photo. She quickly won over Vinit's
grandmother, uncle, aunt, assorted cousins -- and, most important,
Sethi crossing Lexington Avenue on his way to work at a hedge fund.
"Anshu had a softness," Mrs. Sethi recalled. "She was very down to
earth, very simple, very humble. It just clicked."
When Mrs. Sethi returned to New York, she and her son met for
coffee at Dean & DeLuca near Rockefeller Center. She described the
young women she had met, ranking the top four and their respective
virtues. Always, Miss Jain headed the list. Her background was
quite compatible with the Sethis'. She, too, was from a
conservative family that followed Jainism -- a religion of
nonviolence and vegetarianism, honesty and frugality. Her father
ran a rental car company and a factory that made elastic.
Five months later, Vinit flew to Hyderabad to meet her. At a party
before he left, one of his college friends brought out a cake
topped with a plastic married couple and the words, "Happy 17th
Birthday," suggesting he was going to be married off to a
teen-ager. "I was a little spooked by the whole situation," he
acknowledged. But he told himself he could always refuse the match.
The first day he and Anshu met, they spoke about hobbies, school,
siblings. He was charmed, but felt he needed to know her better.
But Miss Jain's family customarily allowed its daughters only a
brief pre-engagement glimpse of the men they were to wed; a girl's
reputation, essential to her marriageability, had to be carefully
Unbeknownst to the rest of her family, her father decided to allow
another meeting. The next day, he sent one of his veteran drivers
to pick up Vinit. During hours of talk in the back of the car, she
told him of her bare-bones needs: "A guy who's patient and who
doesn't smoke or eat tobacco." He, in turn, told her about his more
complex requirements: a woman with whom he connected emotionally
and who shared his commitment to family.
He knew there was no chance for a third meeting. He had to decide.
He flew to Bombay the next day and waited to see if the spell would
lift. It didn't.
He said yes.
THE GEM TRADE
A Generation Heads for New York
H aridas Kotahwala, dapper in a finely checked blazer and pristine
white shirt, strode through a warren of dusty alleyways in Jaipur's
Tripolia Bazaar, oblivious to the meandering sacred cows and
scrawny dogs, his briefcase swinging at his side.
Hari Kothawala at a gem show in Javits Center recently.
The eldest son in one of the 30 families that dominate the Jaipur
gem trade, the 59-year-old Kotahwala has lived in New York for
He had taken his wife and son to Jaipur for the Sethi wedding, but
on this sun-drenched day, he was on his way to meet some gem
brokers at the family's cutting and polishing factory.
Up a narrow, twisting flight of stairs, he emerged into a courtyard
surrounded by rooms filled with the soft clicking sound of
lapidaries at work. Soon he was sitting shoeless and cross-legged
on a white floor mat, as comfortable haggling for sapphires and
emeralds with the cell-phone-toting brokers as he was a few months
later politely selling those stones from a booth at a trade show at
the Javits Center in New York.
Jaipur had its origin as the center of India's colored gemstone
industry in the 1700's. Today, the gem business is Jaipur's largest
employer and gems and jewelry India's second-largest source of
foreign exchange -- $5.6 billion a year -- after textiles.
The Indian jewelry trade, and the men of Kotahwala's generation,
truly came of age in the late 1960's, thanks to the globalization
of the economy and changing American immigration policy.
Congress had excluded Indian immigrants in 1917. But while the door
was opened a crack in 1946, it was not until 1965, with the passage
of the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, that large
numbers of Asian immigrants began arriving in America.
This sea change came at a fortunate time for the gemstone
merchants. The demand for jewels in India had declined
precipitously with the demise of its many princely states after
independence from Britain in 1947. Several pioneering traders had
discovered New York as jewelry exhibitors at the 1964 World's Fair
in Flushing Meadows. The vast American consumer market beckoned.
The Kotahwala matriarch, Shyama Devi Kotahwala, said she worried
that Haridas and his younger brother, Vinod, would be influenced by
"the spoiled culture of America." She fretted that they would
neglect her in her old age, that their children might marry outside
their merchant caste and Hindu religion, perhaps even to Americans.
Still, with great trepidation, the families sent forth their young
men to New York.
Kotahwala arrived in 1968 and rented a $200-a-month studio
apartment in the diamond district, where he lived and worked. To
break into a trade dominated by European and American Jews, he went
door to door with a sample case, a confident, gossipy salesman
slowly building a clientele. The Sethis arrived in New York four
years later, after Shashi's father offered to help her carefully
chosen husband, Dilip Sethi, gain a foothold in the emerald
There were then only a few thousand Indians in New York. In
Manhattan, the traders say they found just two Indian restaurants
and one grocery, where the owner never let them squeeze the
Today, New York's Indian population has swelled to 200,000, and the
gem merchants' trade group comprises 230 companies. Some of the
more prominent clans, like the Kotahwalas, have become to families
what multinational corporations are to businesses -- entities that
The Kotahwala family straddles America and the subcontinent, with
offices also in Idar-Oberstein, Germany; Bangkok, and Hong Kong.
Haridas and Vinod Kotahwala are based in New York, in a modern
office in a sleek high-rise; for many years they lived together,
with their families, in Queens. The other two brothers, in Jaipur,
live with their mother, wives and children, in an aging mansion,
called a haveli, within the terra cotta-colored walls of the old
And the pattern will continue: Haridas Kotahwala has a son In New
York and another in Jaipur, and he recently set up a company for
them, Royal India U.S.A.
Technology makes the Kotahwalas' way of life possible. The brothers
here and there live with ears glued to telephones as they confer
about deals. Their fax machines hum with orders. Their mother talks
to her sons in New York by phone every week. She flies to America,
and her sons and their families to Jaipur. Her hand in the family,
as the matriarch, is still strong.
The family members move easily through the looking glass dividing
the two worlds.
The 11-bedroom haveli, with its worn, aging couches in ascetic
common spaces, is in the raucous heart of the Tripolia Bazaar.
Outside, the streets are choked with bicycle rickshaws, motor
scooters and carts drawn by camels with flowers perched on their
noses and elaborate patterns shaved into their hides. Inside, Mrs.
Kotahwala makes the rules, deciding on the menus (no onion or
garlic), directing the servants.
Periodically, the matriarch spends a few months with Vinod and his
wife, Shushma, 42, in their white stucco house in Forest Hills,
Queens. There, the streets are orderly, the yew hedges manicured
and the only sounds in the house on a quiet afternoon are the
stately ticking of a grandfather clock and the tinkle of a teacup
on its saucer. The two younger children attend private school, and
on the advice of teachers, their mother has stopped speaking to
them in Hindi.
Still, with the matriarch in town, the customs are those of the
"I wear traditional Indian saris in front of her, no pants or
Western clothes," said Shushma. "I cook the way she likes. It's an
In her religious observances, Shushma Kotahwala also follows the
way of her husband's family. She has set up a small shrine in a
window seat of her bedroom, with an incense burner and statuettes
Shushma Kotahwala, center, and her 19-year-old daughter Shweta,
rear right visit with a priestess at a temple in Mathura.
In Jaipur for the Sethi wedding, Shushma and her daughter Shweta
journeyed to sacred places in and around Mathura, the birthplace of
Krishna. As they moved from a windowless temple, where the visage
of the family swami stared down from the saffron-colored wall, to
shops where her daughter bought gaudy prints of Krishna, to the
legendary mountain that Krishna held aloft on his finger, Shushma,
so serious before, became girlish, almost giddy.
The trips to India come with many familial duties, but among the
streaming multitudes of worshipers bearing sweets and tins of milk
to pour on the black mountainside in offering to Krishna, she
seemed exalted, her faith refreshed and her spirit renewed.
Young Brides, Boys With Prospects
S hushma Kotahwala had more than one wedding on her mind on her
winter trip to Jaipur. The time had come to begin looking for a
husband for 19-year-old Shweta.
Mrs. Kotahwala herself had married at 20, after learning the
refined arts of embroidery, stitching, doll making, classical
Indian dance and English literature. Her arranged marriage, she
said, was her destiny -- and it brought her to America. "Nobody can
change their destiny," she said. "That's what I believe and what
most Indians believe."
Her daughter's destiny, Mrs. Kotahwala said, is likely to lie in
India, in an extended family with her husband and his relations --
and that means her youth is crucial. If a woman is 25 or 26, "It
becomes hard to mold the girl into the family -- and you get
divorce," she said. "If the girl is young, she can be molded and it
will unite the family. She won't have an independent way of
A woman in her mid-20's may also have lost her physical charms:
"Maybe the boy can reject you because you don't look good."
Mrs. Kotahwala passed out Shweta's bio data to close friends and
relatives, including her brother-in-law, Pramod Kotahwala, who
lives in Jaipur and so would continue the search when she returned
to New York.
Kotahwala explained the practicalities of arranging a marriage. In
Shweta's case, he said, the goal is to find her a family from a big
city since she is accustomed to life in New York. Whether the young
man is from Bombay or Delhi, or even Singapore or Hong Kong,
matters little. "Ultimately, these families are based in India," he
said. "The connection has to be started here."
And the young man should have prospects: "We're looking for a boy
who's settled in a business, not a profession, taking his own
decisions, not necessarily earning much. I want to be able to smell
the growth in him."
Shweta's wedding itself will be a costly multiday affair. He
estimated the expense at $200,000 to $300,000 -- for clothes, a sum
of money to take with her into the marriage, a set of jewels and
the celebration for 3,000.
The Kotahwalas live simply in the Jaipur haveli, in part to save
for the weddings of the family's unmarried daughters and for the
jewels of future daughters-in-law.
"The son's wife has to have the same jewels as the other
daughters-in-law," he said, "or she will have a complex because she
is living in the joint family."
Shweta, who was born in India and has gone back and forth all her
life, says she welcomes an arranged marriage, even if it takes her
to Calcutta or Bombay. "I just want a cosmopolitan city," she said.
"I don't want to go to Kentucky."
She also wants to finish college first, which should take a year --
and her parents agree.
For the first 13 years of her life, Shweta and her immediate family
lived in Queens with her Uncle Haridas's family. She knows life in
a joint Indian family and the art of compromise that keeps it
operating smoothly. She enjoys living in a house where she is never
alone. While other children played Nintendo after school, she was
home squabbling endlessly with her cousin Vishal. "He'd want
falafel," she said. "I'd want pizza."
Indian culture is deeply rooted in her.
"If I want to walk away from it -- out of the house -- I can," she
said. "But I don't need to. I don't want to. I'm happy. That's a
part of who I am. That's my individuality."
THE WEDDING DAY
Jewels and Silk And American Rap
T hey came from New York and Houston, New Delhi and Jaipur, the
hundreds of people who poured into Jaipur's main auditorium on Dec.
25 for a gala evening of talent-show performances by the young
friends and family of the Sethis. The women wore their finest saris
in vivid hues of orange, pink and red. Their ear lobes, necks and
fingers glittered with emeralds, diamonds and rubies.
Young men and women danced to Indian pop. Sethi's younger brother,
Vaibhav, a student at the University of Michigan, lip synched to
the rapper Notorious B.I.G., then performed a rap of his own.
It all started out way back in January,
When Mom met Anshu and this story began.
Mom thought, "Wow, she's perfect for my Beta."
But Vinit said, "No, not know, maybe lata."
The brother wound up with a typically Indian wedding wish: "Now let
the wedding proceed, let's have some fun. This little story's over,
now let's see a Sethi son."
Anjali Rawat dancing at Vinit and Anshu's wedding.
Two Worlds photo gallery
"The New York girls" -- Shweta Kotahwala, Komal Pandya and a
Barnard College freshman named Anjali Rawat -- swirled and
undulated across the stage to the beat of Indian movie tunes,
singing along in Hindi.
Miss Rawat was awaiting her own arranged marriage in Jaipur the
following year to a young man from a family of Indian
industrialists. They were engaged when she was 18, just after she
graduated from the Brearley School in Manhattan.
While she had always known that she would "be arranged," she said
she was shocked that it had happened so soon, and threw a few
tantrums. Eventually, though, she accepted it, and with
considerable sadness has given up finishing her education at
Barnard and her dream of becoming a television news anchor;
instead, she will follow her husband to London or India. "I wish it
didn't have to be this way," she said, "but I can't really do
anything about it."
Vinit and Anshu watched from the audience. Since their engagement,
they had come to know each other by talking for hours by telephone,
running up $500-a-month bills at 69 cents a minute. Still, they
seemed a bit awkward and frazzled later that evening as they stood
together, she in a long white dress, he in a suit. Their hands
Vinit Sethi rode to the ceremony on horseback, his way illuminated
by green fluorescent lights.
The Ceremony photo gallery
The next afternoon, the Sethi family and friends gathered beneath a
gaily colored tent for the wedding procession. Vinit smiled broadly
when his college friends clustered around him, joshing him about
the wealth of gemstones strung around his neck. "He's the million
dollar man," one said, to the laughter of all. But when they
drifted away, Vinit remained on his horse, alone, his expression
frozen into a tight, distracted smile.
At about 7 P.M., he reached his bride at the hotel. But only after
a five-hour reception around the pool did the marriage ceremony
itself actually begin -- at a time the astrologers had designated
as the most auspicious.
Deference to Mummyji
S ince the wedding, Anshu Sethi and her mother-in-law have settled
into a comfortable rhythm in the long hours when their husbands are
at work. Anshu pads back and forth across the hallway between the
apartments, a sweet-tempered companion always happy to bring a tray
of masala tea and salty snacks to afternoon visitors or to learn to
cook the dishes her husband likes.
Most evenings, she and Vinit, who now works at a hedge fund, have
dinner with his parents, then retire to the apartment his mother
redecorated in soft greens, with a small shrine in a kitchen
cabinet stocked with incense, a prayer scroll and a Jain painting.
When they go out, they seem like any other young couple newly in
love -- teasing, holding hands, sharing food from each other's
Vinit's mother declares that she has found a new daughter in Anshu.
And she loves having her son and his wife so close by.
"I've told Vinit," she said, "'Living with you is the happiest
thing that can happen to me in my life. But I'm not going to
blackmail you for your presence. It has to be your and Anshu's
Anshu seems to have slipped easily into the life of her new family.
Which is not to say that there haven't been some adjustments. The
new Mrs. Sethi sometimes finds herself caught between the different
expectations of her mother-in-law and her husband.
There is, for example, the question of what she wears. Mrs. Sethi
has insisted that when Anshu is at home, she wear a salwar kameez,
a long flowing tunic over pants -- no jeans or Western attire. "I
have many friends in the building," the mother-in-law explained.
"The Rawats and Jhalanis, those ladies all wear saris and so do
their daughters-in-law. Salwars are one step more casual than
Vinit has conceded defeat.
"It's law," he said. "The jurisdiction of Shashi Sethi decides
Anshu will wear salwars in the house."
He and his mother have also differed over Anshu's education. Anshu
had already graduated from a college in India, but Vinit felt
strongly that she should begin earning an American degree soon
after the wedding. His mother, though, was cautious about moving
the young woman too far, too fast. In the spring, Mrs. Sethi still
felt she needed to accompany her daughter-in-law whenever she left
"Vinit has to take an interest in her growing up, expanding her
horizons," his mother said. "I also don't want her to limit herself
just to the house. But right now, I'm not ready for her to go alone
in New York City. She seems like a foreigner, not because of dress,
but because there is a look of curiosity on her face that makes her
Anshu herself was torn. Her parents in Hyderabad had warned her,
she said, that the issue should not become "an object of my
mother-in-law's discontent with me."
The push-and-pull of the joint family, though, has had a happy
outcome in this case. Anshu has applied to college for the fall.
She is now venturing out on her own to the placement tests and
"Mummyji supports it now," she said.
The newlyweds plan to have children in a few years, and have
already decided they will speak Hindi to them. Like his parents
before them, Vinit and Anshu will fly often to India to see her
family and his, propelling their children into the back-and-forth
life that knits India and America together.