[WashPost] Excellent piece on arranged marriage for Indian-Americans
Tue, 11 Mar 2003 04:01:40 -0800
Of course, I'm firmly ambivalent about the outcome in the piece, but
it's a very well-written profile. Clearly, Paula spent a lot of time
and energy on this, to the Post's credit.
Sudhir's points are spot-on, though -- the conventional axes used in
"marriage ads" are completely skew to our reality.
I'd love to see the letters-to-the-editor... certainly more balanced
than anything I've seen in a while.
PS. Surreal moment of the week: the muzak at Cafe Milano @ UC Berkeley
was... the _Mohabbatein_ soundtrack. Maybe a hundred people milling
about, reading and writing and it clearly wasn't even anything to
comment on. Kind of like the 90+% non-desi audiences at the
asian-american film festival screenings of _Kuch Kuch Hota Hai_ and
_Mother India_. Also, have a look at www.BollyWhat.com ... fresh
translations of undertranslated lyrics. I don't know whether it
constitutes tokenism to note that Meredith, the Columbia Hindi student
behind it, is most definitely non-desi...
The Washington Post Sunday, February 23, 2003 7,793 words
Marriage at First Sight
They date, go to U2 concerts, hit bars with pals. But for the sake
of tradition and family, even some highly Americanized Indian
immigrants agree to wed strangers
By Paula Span Paula Span ( email@example.com ) is a Post staff
She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1
p.m. Monday on http://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
On the evening before her engagement, Vibha Jasani found herself on
the rooftop terrace of her uncle's house in India, feeling a breeze
begin as the sun lowered, gazing out at the city of Rajkot and the
mountains beyond, trying to be calm, and failing. She was about to
cry, and not with joy.
When her father asked what was wrong, she just shrugged; she could
hardly manage a reply. But he knew anyway.
Marrying a pleasant young man she'd just met was not the romance
Vibha envisioned when she was a teenager playing volleyball at
Annandale High; it was not the kind of courtship she yakked about
with her friends at Virginia Tech or her co-workers in Arlington.
This felt like -- and was -- a custom held over from a previous
century. But because she was 25 and not-getting-any-younger, her
parents had prevailed on her to do something she'd repeatedly vowed
she wouldn't: fly to India to find a husband.
She'd spent the past three weeks meeting men -- at least one each
day -- carefully prescreened by her uncle for their
suitability. She'd poured them tea and passed platters of sweets and
nuts, enduring awkward half-hour conversations that seemed more like
interviews. She chose the one she could talk most comfortably with;
they went out together three or four times; she met his family. All
parties approved, and suddenly 300 people were about to stream into
a rented hall the next day to celebrate their engagement, which
everyone seemed delighted about, except the prospective bride.
"Everything's so out of control," Vibha worried. "Things just sort
of happened." She'd gone along with the flurry of events, sometimes
resentfully and sometimes obligingly, but she wasn't sure she could
bring herself to take the next step. Her almost-fiance, Haresh,
appeared to be a nice guy -- mature, considerate. But was he the man
she wanted to spend the next 50 years with? How could she possibly
know after such a brief time? What if, once she returned home to
Northern Virginia, she was miserable with someone who'd grown up in
such a different culture? Or he was? Divorce was not an acceptable
option among Indians, in their home country or their new one.
"It's a shot in the dark," she thought, fearful of making a
mistake. Maybe she should put a stop to it. Her eyes started to
Her father, not a demonstrative man by nature, gave her a hug. "We
only want you to do this if you're 100 percent sure," he told her in
their native Gujarati. "If you're not, you don't have to . . . We
just want you to be happy."
She looked at him -- his eyes were reddening, too -- and felt her
opposition ebb away. "Screw it," she decided. "Okay. I can do it."
So the engagement proceeded last March, Vibha wearing a beautiful
turquoise ensemble called a lengha and a blank expression. Guests
were laughing and celebrating afterward, and she was thinking, with
mingled panic and resignation, "Omigod, I'm engaged. I'm done." She
packed up that night, flew home the following day and began planning
a late-November wedding to a man she barely knew.
Now, with the big event just weeks away, Vibha (pronounced VEE-bah)
flits around the Beltway, booking a deejay, making last-minute menu
decisions, choosing the elaborate henna designs that will be applied
to her hands and feet for the ceremony.
Yet even as she checks off the chores in a notebook she's labeled
"wedding journal," uncertainty continues to eat at her. Should she
really go through with this? Is she doing the right thing?
Vinay Sandhir used to voice a lot of the same doubts about getting
married the traditional way. He'd find his own spouse, he
insisted. He didn't want a lot of familial meddling. He wanted to
fall in love; in fact, "I wanted to be blown off my feet." But he
was still single at 33, so one evening, his parents sat him down at
their dining room table and had that same
you're-not-getting-any-younger talk. So here he is in his home
office in Annandale -- he's an MBA and a management consultant in
health care -- printing out the latest batch of e-mailed responses
to a matrimonial ad his parents placed in the weekly newspaper India
Abroad. It read:
Punjabi parents desire beautiful, professional, never married,
US raised girl for handsome son, 34, 5'10"/150, fair, slim,
consultant in DC area. Enjoys travel, sports, music. Please reply
. . .
Some of these criteria come from his parents. Vinay (pronounced
Vin-NEIGH) thinks it's pointless to talk about appearances -- though
he himself actually is good-looking, rangy and dark-eyed, with an
easy grin -- since "everyone thinks their kids are beautiful." Nor
does he particularly care which Indian state someone's forebears
come from. But on this issue, he's yielded to the elder Sandhirs,
who will be visiting this evening and will review the new
candidates. They think someone from their home region would prove
Education is something they all agree on. The Sandhir family tree is
heavy with doctors, including Vinay's father and two elder brothers
and their wives. Vinay's intended need not be a physician, but he
wants her to be ambitious and successful, "talented at what she
The "US raised" stipulation, on the other hand, comes from Vinay,
who was 4 when his family settled in Western Maryland. He plays
basketball a couple of times a week, lives to scale mountains
(that's Mount Rainier -- he's climbed it three times -- on his
screen saver) and ski and raft, caught five U2 concerts during last
year's tour. He can't see himself with a woman raised in India,
regardless of her graduate degrees. He wants a partner as
Americanized as he is, "someone who's shared my experiences, someone
I can laugh about things with, someone I don't have to explain
If such a prospect should surface in this batch, his parents will
e-mail her parents, attaching his photo and "biodata," a document
providing particulars and describing him as "intelligent,
independent, dynamic . . . also deeply family-oriented and
compassionate." If he passes muster, her parents will provide a
phone number or e-mail address. Meanwhile, each family will conduct
discreet background checks, making inquiries through friends and
acquaintances to ensure the other is cultured, respectable,
This week's possibilities, Vinay notices, include a health analyst
in Toronto; an MBA from NYU; a Maryland social worker. "She'll
probably get nixed just because she's older than me," he
predicts. Oops, here's a woman he went out with a few times last
year, until she stopped answering his e-mails. Chuck that one.
Which leaves 18 new responses to add to the 30 or so they've already
received. "I didn't see anything totally, totally great," Vinay
says. But he's loosened his requirements, having learned over the
past months that this whole arranged marriage thing is more
complicated than he'd foreseen.
Love and marriage, in that order. The ethos so dominates mainstream
Western culture, from Billboard charts to Hallmark racks, that other
matrimonial approaches barely register. But in much of the Muslim
world, in many Asian societies, among Hasidic Jews, and certainly in
India -- which has sent roughly three-quarters of a million
immigrants to the United States since 1980 -- it's still common for
people to pair up the other way around: marriage first, set up by
one's elders and wisers, and then, with time, love. It's the
historic norm, anthropologists say, not only the way kings and
queens cemented strategic alliances, but the way ordinary folks --
colonial Americans included -- got hitched until comparatively
It's how Vinay's parents married in 1959. Though his mother had
never seen his father (he'd glimpsed her), she agreed to the
engagement because she trusted her eldest sister, who'd set up the
match. Vibha's parents had actually met -- she silently served him
tea -- but hadn't exchanged a word. The album they keep to remember
their 1975 wedding looks wonderfully romantic, with black-and-white
photos of the groom arriving on horseback and the bride garlanded
with marigolds, but they were strangers.
The process is so different now that young Indian Americans, who
tend to shudder at the term "arranged marriage," cast about for more
palatable phrases. "Semi-arranged marriage," for instance, or
"arranged introduction." The updated version is no longer coercive
(both the bride and groom have veto power), and traditional dowry
transactions have largely been replaced, at least among the urban
elite, by mutual exchanges of jewelry and clothing.
Some see these matches as a last resort, but since a single person
who's reached the mid-twenties (for a woman) or late twenties (for a
man) is probably causing an Indian family some anxiety, the need for
a last resort can crop up fairly early in life. So if people
haven't met spouses through school or work, or at networking events
intended to bring marriageable Indians together, or via Web sites
like Indianmatchmaker.com, or through newer permutations like the
speed-dating sessions staged by a District firm called Mera Pyar
("My Love"), their parents may take up the traditional role.
They run ads, canvass Web sites, put the word out on the community
grapevine: Dad's aunt knows a nice Bengali family in Atlanta whose
nephew is an electrical engineer. Mom's medical school classmate in
Detroit has a cousin with a single daughter working with computers
After their parents perform due diligence -- Hindu marriages are
considered a union of two families, not merely two individuals, so
bloodlines and reputations matter -- the children meet and spend
time together and decide whether their relationship has a future. A
voluntary process, no different from having your friends fix you up,
the fixed-up like to say.
But it is different. Families -- many of whom disapprove of or
forbid dating -- don't want to introduce their kids to someone to
hang out with or move in with; they want a wedding, and soon.
Vinay's relatives think that after he's spent three or four evenings
with a woman, he ought to know: She's his future bride or she's
history. ("Not how it's going to work," he tells them.) And while
both generations talk about having choices, most parents hope kids
will choose to marry people of the same religious and ethnic
background, the proper socioeconomic and educational level,
acceptable lineage. Those are the factors that determine
compatibility, not whether both parties treasure walking in the
"It's a little like a debutante ball -- 'You can select freely, from
among this preselected group of people,' " says anthropologist
Johanna Lessinger, author of From the Ganges to the Hudson.
The so-called Second Generation of Indian immigrants (born here) and
the 1.5 Generation (born there, raised here) are growing
increasingly restive at these restrictions. They go off to college,
where many date and have sex while their parents maintain a don't
ask/don't tell policy. After that, though there are no reliable
statistics, a growing number appear to opt for the do-it-yourself
model known as a "love marriage." It's what Vibha and Vinay expected
A preliminary analysis of Indian intermarriage rates in the United
States by sociologist Maitrayee Bhattacharyya, a Princeton doctoral
candidate, documents this trend. The 1990 Census showed that more
than 13 percent of Indian men in this country, and 6 percent of
women, were married to non-Indians -- clearly love marriages, since
Indian families might accept but wouldn't actively arrange such
matches. But the rates for those born in the United States were
dramatically higher, and among U.S.-born Indians under 35, about
half had "married out." Those numbers may decline in the 2000 Census
(that data is not yet available) because continuing immigration has
broadened the pool, making it easier to meet an Indian spouse. Even
so, for many immigrant families the love marriage remains a
So for all the change, the consensus is that most Indian American
parents continue to exert significant influence over their
children's courtships, and arranged marriages are common in Fairfax
County as well as in Gujarat, the northwest Indian state Vibha's
family started emigrating from more than 30 years ago.
Elders are better at this, the theory goes. "At least you know a bit
about the boy, who he is and what he does, rather than just being
emotional, being attracted to physical appearances, 'Oh, he's so
cute,' " explains Vibha's aunt Induben Jasani. "Does he come from a
good family? Does he have good morals and values? Character is
something we can see a little better than youngsters do."
Besides, arranged marriages help keep traditions alive, stem the
tendency toward out-marriage. "There's a sense of ethnic identity
tied up in it," Lessinger says. "This is a way of holding on to
But a bubbly culture-straddler like Vibha -- who's lived here since
she was 5 and grew up watching "Xena: Warrior Princess," who speaks
Gujarati at home but elsewhere uses 80-mph unaccented English
punctuated with like and y'know and kinda deal, who loves Bollywood
movies but relaxes from pre-wedding stress by seeing the Eminem
flick "8 Mile" -- isn't always sure how much Indian-ness to keep and
how much American-ness to embrace. She calls herself "pretty much a
mix," and in trying to negotiate the milestone of marriage, she
sometimes finds herself pretty much mixed up.
"Very hard work, a wedding," says Vibha's father, Ramesh Patel, on a
Saturday afternoon with the event bearing down on them. On the
living room rug, relatives are helping with the task of the day:
dozens of small silver cows, favors for wedding guests, must be
enfolded in red or gold foil, then inserted into matching silk
bags. Vibha, padding around in bare feet and rumpled clothes, hair
in a ponytail, is steeling herself for an afternoon of errands.
"Work-run-work-run" -- that's her life these days.
This Colonial-style home is what families have in mind when they
call themselves, in matrimonial ads, "well settled in U.S.," with a
deck overlooking the yard and a Mercedes in the driveway. It looks
like any of the other houses along the winding street, except for
the rack near the front door where people place their shoes when
they enter, and the carved wooden shrine in the dining room where
her mother, Shanta, prays daily to Hindu deities. The Patels
(Vibha's parents have taken the name of their caste as a surname;
Vibha uses the family name Jasani) bought this place in North
Springfield 15 years ago, when Ramesh was working 90 hours a week in
two different restaurants, saving obsessively to buy a Dunkin'
Donuts franchise. He now owns three, in Maryland, while Shanta
works at the Postal Service facility at Dulles.
Vibha, who moved home after graduating from Virginia Tech in
psychology and management, is in human resources at NCS Pearson, a
half-hour drive away in Arlington. She's the eldest of the Patels'
three daughters, and by the time she'd been out of school for two
years, well, "you have no idea how much the pressure is on for an
"We were worrying," her mother concurs, keeping one eye on the
cow-wrapping. "Time was passing." They would have accepted a
son-in-law Vibha found on her own, she says. "She had freedom. We
didn't tell her no." But "she didn't like anybody. She couldn't find
To Vibha, this constitutes considerable revisionism. Her own
account -- mostly related in a series of cell-phone conversations as
she drives home from work in her slightly scuffed Honda -- reflects
the tensions between Indian customs and American expectations.
She had a couple of fairly serious relationships with men in high
school and college, for instance, but never dared to tell her
parents about them. "It's a no-no; you don't date," she explains
one night, steering past the multicultural neon strip malls of
Columbia Pike and then along Braddock Road -- practically the only
time in the day she's alone and free to talk. Anyway, those guys
were a "didn't-work-out kinda deal." After graduation, she and her
friends went to bars and clubs in the District, drinking and
dancing, playing pool with friends, flirting. A smiley extrovert
with vast dark eyes, she had no trouble meeting men. It was fun, but
"the person you want to marry, you're probably not going to meet in
a club," she decided.
Which was starting to matter. Apart from the pointed questions about
marriage from family and friends (the Jasani/Patel clan in Northern
Virginia, expanding as more relatives immigrate, now numbers about
80), Vibha herself felt increasingly ready to settle down, as
virtually all her South Asian friends already had. "I was tired of
all these casual relationships," she says. "I wanted something
Her family's first matchmaking effort, an ad in India Abroad, led to
a few desultory dates with men who met their ethnic, religious,
linguistic, dietetic (the family is vegetarian) and socioeconomic
standards. "Didn't click," Vibha found. So her parents returned to
a favorite theme. "They'd bring it up, then drop it, then bring it
up a month later: 'What do you think of going to India to look for a
She resisted for months; she'd spent time in India and feared a
"culture gap" with Indian men. "I'm being stereotypical when I say
this, but I thought they'd want a wife at home, cooking and cleaning
and taking care of them." Vibha had seen her mother play this role
daily. "I'm traditional, but I'm not that traditional. I wanted
someone who'd be fifty-fifty with everything, someone to share the
responsibilities." She didn't think she'd find him in Gujarat.
But the Patels didn't drop the idea, and Indian daughters hesitate
to defy their parents. Many times her mother had prepared vegetarian
meals for Vibha while she was away at college, and her father had
driven nearly five hours to Blacksburg to deliver them, then turned
around and headed home -- how could she now dismiss their wishes?
Her father's eldest brother, dying in a nearby hospice with the
whole family gathered around, yearned to see her engaged --
shouldn't she give him this final pleasure?
"I was just like, okay, I'll give it a shot." She'd get her parents
off her case, she told girlfriends from work, assuring them that she
expected to return unattached. She and her mother left on their
mission a year ago Valentine's Day, with a return flight booked in
At her uncle's stucco house in Rajkot, Vibha donned a salwar kameez,
a tunic over pants with a long scarf. Her uncle had culled 30
suitors from the hundred who'd responded to local newspaper ads, and
day after day, as each came to call, the encounters unfolded the
same way. First, her mother and uncle chatted briefly with the
potential bridegroom as Vibha served refreshments ("I hate
that!"). Then the young people could retreat to another room for a
brief stab at getting to know each other.
The first man to call was a physician, "fairly intelligent,
attractive kinda guy," accompanied by his parents. Their dialogue
consisted of a series of standard questions: Hi, how are you? When
did you arrive? How was your trip? Tell me about your family: Do you
have brothers and sisters? What are your interests? She ran through
the responses -- fine, thanks; yesterday; uneventful; two sisters;
movies and music and computers -- that would soon come to feel
routine. Meanwhile, she was muttering to herself, "I don't want to
do this. Why do I have to do this?" This guy, she concluded, "wasn't
that interested, and I wasn't that interested." Next.
There were engineers and pharmacists and dentists. Some, she could
tell in the first two minutes, were ruling her out because her
complexion was coppery (there's a cultural preference for light
skin) or because she was "normal-sized," not super-slim. That was
fine, because anyone who couldn't see beyond looks, who didn't
notice that she had a brain and a personality, "I'm like, forget
Some seemed a bit intimidated; she wasn't deferential, she was
fluent in both Gujarati and English. A few seemed more attracted to
her U.S. citizenship, marriage being a legal and comparatively quick
route to a green card, than to her. After each session, her family
wanted to know how she liked the latest candidate, whether she
wanted to get engaged, "like I was going to decide on the spot."
Take the "doctor guy," for whom her family had high hopes. He
prattled on about how prestigious his university was and how well he
was doing there; he had the self-awareness of a coconut. Her family
was disappointed by Vibha's blase response. A doctor! From one of
the best schools! "But I didn't believe anything my parents
said. They just wanted me to get married." Next.
Though the encounters got easier as the days passed, and she tried
to keep an open mind as her uncle had advised, she couldn't really
embrace the process. "I'm like, 'No.' 'No.' 'No.' "
The exception was Haresh Umaretiya, slotted in at the last minute
when someone canceled. He came by before Vibha had time to dress up
or tense up -- a tallish engineer her own age, friendly eyes, high
cheekbones, "the first one I had a decent conversation with." He was
interested in what she had to say. When she asked what he enjoyed
doing, "He said, 'I like observing people.' I'm in psychology; we
had things in common . . . He was honest, which was nice . . . I
thought, 'Okay, this could work.' "
He also enjoyed their meeting, it turned out. He thought Vibha was
beautiful, but more important, "if you meet local Indian girls, they
are shy, they can't reply," he'd found. "She is educated. And she is
forward, she can talk." Though frankly, when he called a few days
later to see if she'd like to go out, it was her fever to flee the
house and the marriage marathon, as much as a desire to see him
again, that prompted her to agree.
They went to a local park, bought ice cream cones, sat on the grass
and talked. "Totally general, nothing serious. I loved that," Vibha
says. "It was like meeting a friend. I felt at ease with him. I had
a nice time." A few days later they went to a movie and had dinner
together. Three meetings -- two more than most local women would've
had, an allowance made for Vibha's Western ways -- and then it was
time to meet his fam-ily. "Omigod, a good 20 people came, his
father, his brother, his brother's wife, his mom, his aunt, his
other aunt . . . They're all staring at me. Normally, you're
supposed to bow your head, not look people in the eye; I'm just
sitting there smiling. They're shocked, but they think, 'Well,
she's American, she doesn't know.' " They approved anyway.
In Western conceptions of romance, lovers supposedly get carried
away by passion. In Indian culture, the wedding process itself
sweeps people along, a dizzying round of planning and shopping and
crowds and gifts and excitement. Yet even as she agreed to proceed
and preparations were underway, Vibha agonized.
>From her earlier relationships, she'd learned to be a bit wary of
American casualness, people's willingness to dump a girlfriend or
boyfriend and then start dating someone new two weeks later. But she
had also discovered what it was to fall in love. "This wasn't the
same feeling, and I knew the difference so well. I was like, 'Do I
really want to be with someone I don't know, and don't know if I'll
ever love? Whoa.' "
She swallowed her doubts after her father flew over for the
engagement, and they had that teary last-minute talk on the
rooftop. After the engagement party, though, when she and Haresh
were finally alone in a room, he wanted to kiss her. "And I'm just
Vinay Sandhir managed to stave off such dilemmas for years. He had a
grand time in a coed dorm at West Virginia University and still
skis, hikes and tailgates with his friends from the honors program
there. Afterward, he had an "American" girlfriend for six years, a
fact he never shared with his parents and they seemed not to notice,
even though she was virtually living with him, retreating to her own
apartment when they came to visit.
His family is "really conservative" and wouldn't have accepted it,
Vinay believes, "unless I was sure I wanted to marry her and fight
for her." But he wasn't sure.
When that relationship ended, he dated a business school classmate
and a military administrator. Then came the dining room table
confrontation. Like most traditional Indians, his parents don't
consider their parental duty done until all their children have
married. Vinay protested. "I'd say, 'It is done! I'm educated! I'm
successful!' " He usually turned their inquiries aside with a vague,
But this time he said, "Okay, try it your way." Since childhood, he
had felt more American than Indian, but "some soul-searching" after
his breakup had led to a realization: "I don't want to be the person
who ends the relationship with India and the culture of
That meant marrying an Indian American, though on his own terms and
timetable. So he's been good-naturedly working with his parents to
35-word ad and pass along the responses; he's had long phone
conversations with prospects he hasn't met; he's launched the series
of dinners and brunches that will reveal if any of them "knock my
If only he could use that decision software a grad school professor
gave him. "It would be absolutely perfect! It takes qualitative
criteria and gives them a quantitative score." As it happens,
though, Vinay has a nondigital means to the same end -- his father
has developed numeric rankings for the women whose parents respond
to their ad. Call it the Sandhir Scale.
"We're not prejudiced against anybody," says Sikander Lal Sandhir,
after he and his wife, Prabhat, an elegant couple, have arrived at
their son's townhouse and greeted him with affectionate banter.
"We're trying to find common factors, language, ancestral
background, ethnicity, education . . . We might be able to guide
Everyone settles in Vinay's living room, the stack of new printouts
on the coffee table;
his father takes out a pen. Some applicants don't even merit a
score. The social worker, as Vinay predicted, gets an inked N for
Not Rated. "This girl, unfortunately, is almost two years older than
Vinay," his father murmurs in his formal English. "We'd prefer a
girl who is younger; that's the norm in our culture. And it makes
more sense. To start a family at 36 -- as a physician, I know there
could be problems." On to the MBA from NYU.
His scale awards points for education and professional
accomplishment: three for an MD or MBA, two for a CPA, one for a
bachelor's degree. A woman gets a point if she's a Punjabi Hindu
(half a point if she's northern Indian from another state), a point
if she's born or raised in this country (deduct half a point if
she's been here less than 10 years), a point for a desirable family
background. Various physical attributes -- slimness, height, fair
skin, general attractiveness -- can add up to four points. No one's
ever received a perfect 10, but anyone with a 6.5 or higher is worth
The MBA from NYU, for instance, "has been here for a while, and her
family background is similar to ours; the father is a physician,"
Vinay's father muses, jotting notes. With an Ivy League
undergraduate degree, "she gets good marks for her education." He's
unimpressed with her photo ("I think she is so-so"), but overall she
gets a 6.5. He passes the pages to his wife, who approves, and to
Vinay, who shrugs but will forward his standard biodata package.
Sadly, the Sandhir Scale has proved more useful in theory than in
reality. Take the dentist from Upstate New York whom his father had
rated a 9. After several promising phone chats, Vinay flew up to
visit and discovered "a very proper girl" who hadn't left India
until she was 18. They seemed culturally out of synch. "No sparks
or anything," he decided. Not wanting to make snap judgments, he
invited her to Virginia and planned a lively weekend: an Orioles
game, hiking in the Shenandoah Valley, brunch on Capitol Hill.
Still no sparks. Trying to be gentlemanly, he called afterward to
say he'd enjoyed meeting her but didn't think the relationship would
Sometimes an intriguing woman never replies to his e-mail. He's
learned, too, that his initial disinclination to juggle several
prospects simultaneously, which struck him as callous, was unwise:
By the time he'd decided against Candidate A and was ready to move
down his list, Candidate B might already be off the market.
At the moment, he's talking with a gynecologist from Alabama and a
Houston computer trainer. The Alabaman was in Washington visiting
her brother recently, so he took her to Jaleo for tapas and to a
Georgetown piano bar.
"A very smart, talented girl," he reports. "Was a connection made,
one way or the other? . . . I didn't feel like I got any closer to
making a decision." The Houston woman will be in town in a few
weeks; they've made dinner plans. Tonight's review adds two more
possibilities to his roster.
He's getting frustrated with the ups and downs and delays. "It's a
lot more give and take than people make it out to be," he's
discovered. Maybe all those parental warnings were on target, maybe
he's waited too long. Certainly, the long-distance process of
phoning and meeting all these people is growing unwieldy.
In fact, he's mislaid the number of that pediatrician in New Jersey
who got a ringing 8.0 on the Sandhir Scale. But he'll dig it out and
call her, he promises his dad. She grew up on Long Island; she likes
music and travel, Vinay's own passions. She sounds interesting.
It has worked this way for thousands of years, immigrant parents
tell their acculturated and uneasy offspring. It works better than
Americans' impulsive love marriages, which so often split apart. "We
have less divorce," Vibha's mother points out. "That's what results
In fact, the advantages and drawbacks of arranged marriages can't be
so easily appraised. The incidence of divorce among Indian-born
Americans is dramatically lower than among Americans generally, but
that partly reflects the continuing stigma of divorce. Even as the
divorce rate among Indian Americans appears to be increasing, the
topic is rarely discussed. Vibha knows people, including several in
her own family, who have divorced, but she doesn't want to talk
about them. Divorce reflects poorly on an Indian family, and some
proportion of arranged marriages endure not because they are
successful or rewarding, but because leaving them would bring such
And many endure because the definition of success differs from
Western ideas. Traditional Indians don't expect a partner to be that
improbable combination of soul mate/confidante/red-hot lover/best
friend. "The husband-wife bond is one of reliability and
dependability and complementary family roles -- raising children,
caring for elders," explains Karen Leonard, author of The South
Asian Americans and a University of California-Irvine
anthropologist. "They may communicate very little in intimate ways,
and it's still a good marriage."
When marriages do go seriously awry, people like Anuradha Sharma see
the fallout. Dozens of support groups have formed across the country
for South Asian women victimized by domestic violence. Sharma until
recently was executive director of Washington's ASHA (which means
"hope" and stands for Asian Women's Self-Help
Association). Operating from a secret downtown address, its
volunteers accompany clients (primarily Indian, Pakistani and
Bangladeshi) to area hospitals and courts and immigration offices,
help them find shelter and, sometimes, obtain restraining
orders. "I've seen the system of arranged marriage work really
well," says Sharma, whose own parents' marriage was arranged. "But
the system has a lot of trust built into it, and, in my work, I've
also seen men very purposely take advantage of that."
Her vantage point -- she's spent a decade with organizations
concerned with violence against women -- acquaints her particularly
well with the most painful stories. Men who live in the United
States sometimes visit remote villages in their ancestral countries,
accept large dowries and consummate arranged marriages, then leave
and don't return. They bring brides here from abroad, exploit and
isolate and batter them, then threaten them with deportation or loss
of their children if they report the abuse.
"I've had teenagers call, or social workers on behalf of teenagers,
to see what we could do for women under 18 who were being whisked
off to India or Pakistan and forced into marriage," Sharma says. "I
met a couple who tried to have a love marriage, and family members
from abroad were stalking and threatening them."
Even without such coercion, some members of the Second Generation
find their elders' matchmaking efforts oppressive. "People on the
outside think arranged marriage is exotic, it's romantic, it's cute
-- like that show 'Meet My Folks,' " says Devika Koppikar, a
congressional aide weary of fending off attempts to get her
married. "It's not."
For years, she laments, her parents have told her she's not
accomplished or beautiful enough to land a husband herself,
circulated her photo and e-mail address without her permission,
enlisted friends and relatives to badger her into accepting men she
has no interest in. There is no model, in Indian tradition, of a
satisfying life as a single person. Feeling angry and estranged
from her family at 31, she's "kind of tempted to just meet someone
and head for Vegas."
Koppikar has formed "a two-woman support group" with a friend, a
30-year-old optometrist who broke off one arranged engagement, then
nearly cracked under her parents' relentless pressure -- "shouts,
arguments, tears" -- to enter another. She found a South Asian
therapist who urged her to move out of her volatile family home, and
after one particularly ugly altercation, she did. "I didn't even
pack a bag," she says. "I felt I wasn't safe, emotionally."
Even Vibha -- whose parents treated her much more respectfully,
whose decision to marry Haresh, however difficult, was her own --
hopes her youngest sister, just 13, takes a different route. She'd
be pleased if Shetal, born here and less
tradition-bound than Vibha, could skip "the big ordeal": parental
pressures and cross-cultural tensions, a compressed courtship,
language difficulties and hassles at the INS office. "I want her to
find someone here, on her own, fall in love, get married, be happy,"
If young Indian Americans raise their children differently -- and
people like Vibha and Vinay vow that their kids will be free to
date, to be open about their romances, to marry whom they please --
then the arranged marriage may not survive more than another
generation or two in this country. In India, too, love marriages
have grown more common among urban sophisticates.
In matters of courtship and marriage, in fact, young, well-educated
Indians often have more social freedom than their American cousins,
whose parents' values were fixed when they emigrated decades ago.
"They still think of the norms they grew up with as the only
acceptable ones. They haven't been able to change, seeing that as a
betrayal of Indian-ness," says Padma Rangaswamy, author of Namaste
America and a Chicago historian. "But Indians in India are happy to
change and don't have those hangups. My friends' children in India
are all finding their own spouses."
That Vibha didn't shocked her "American" girlfriends. A couple of
them met for lunch a few weeks after her Indian sojourn, and she
stunned them with her news and her engagement photos. "I looked at
her like, 'You're kidding me,' " says Tiffany Obenhein. "Serve
somebody tea, have a conversation -- and bang, you're getting
married? It seemed awfully fast for Vibha, who's so American." It
took her friends a moment to recover and offer hugs and
But then, the whole venture felt pretty fast to Vibha, too. Back
home and back at work, arranging for a priest and a florist and a
hall at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt, "everything was so
rushed," she says. "I didn't have time to think, and nothing was
Haresh arrived in September, after six months of exchanging e-mail
and instant messages with his intended, and moved in with her and
her family. They got to kiss, finally, slipping off to the basement
rec room for privacy, and Vibha was reassured: "He was a great
And yet . . . In mid-October, they'd planned to get their license at
the county courthouse and be legally married, in order to speed up
the immigration paperwork. Vibha canceled the appointment. "I'm
like, no, I'm not going to do it. I wasn't sure. Plus, I was sick."
A week later, however, they went ahead and were married in a quick
civil ceremony in a lawyer's office, and afterward Haresh made her a
promise: He'd never lie to her. She thought that was sweet, she was
"definitely moved," yet she didn't feel married. Or even, she
acknowledged, in love. Haresh, the more amorous of this pair, sent
her doting e-mail messages and a mushy birthday card, and she kept
them all and waited for reciprocal feelings to smite her after the
big Hindu wedding still to come. "I can't say I love him, but I'm
pretty close," was her assessment. "And I know it's going to
Because the thing was, he'd been growing on her week by week, with
his quiet thoughtfulness, his steady support. "He puts up with my
dad, who's hard to put up with," she reported from her car one
night. "I run around doing all this wedding stuff, and he runs
around with me. There's always family around -- we haven't really
spent much time together -- but he hasn't complained once."
To Vibha's amazement, he pitched in with dish-washing and vacuuming
and garbage-toting; it turned out he'd lived for a time with his
grandparents, and helped with household chores when his grandmother
was ill. This was major.
"Indian men don't tend to value the role women play, but he
understands what they go through and respects it. He's like, why
shouldn't women do what they want to do?" He didn't even care if she
changed her last name or not, and since he didn't care, she decided
On the Hindu New Year, Haresh was out doing errands with her dad
instead of celebrating with the rest of the family at her aunt's
house, and Vibha was ticked. "And then I went home and I was in my
room and I'm waiting for him to come tell me 'Happy New Year,' and
I'm fuming!" she recounts. "And I'm still mad about it the next day
-- and it hits me. Whoa. I missed him."
So the wedding, a four-day extravaganza for nearly 400 guests, is
On Thursday night, a mehndiwalli from Gaithersburg came to the house
and painstakingly applied paisley henna patterns to Vibha's hands
and feet while her female relatives warbled traditional songs. The
darker the mehndi, the more your husband will love you, goes the old
saying, by which standard Vibha will have a deeply devoted mate.
Friday night, a few hundred people gathered at the Durga Temple in
Lorton for garbas and dandia raas, the traditional Gujarati dances
Vibha has loved since childhood, and she and her sisters and Haresh
went flying across the floor until they were sweaty and exhausted,
and her hair was coming unpinned.
Saturday, the family gathered for prenuptial ceremonies at the house
("Omigod, that was looong").
On Sunday, her wedding day, Vibha surprises even herself with her
serenity. The photographer is urging her to smile; the decorator is
setting up a glorious gold-embroidered white canopy (called a
mandap); there's nothing left to prepare or decide. She might as
Wearing a ravishing embroidered lengha and extravagant amounts of
gold jewelry, her face flecked with traditional bindya dots and her
neck encircled by orchids, she's ready to be escorted to the
ceremony on her uncle's arm. "Have you seen the mandap?" says
Chetan Desai, one of her closest Virginia Tech buddies. "It kicks
Under the canopy, with the bride and groom seated on silvery
thrones, the songs and prayers continue for several hours in a mix
of Sanskrit and Gujarati with a touch of English. The priest lights
the sacred fire in a ziggurat-shaped brazier and Vibha and Haresh
slowly circle it four times, symbolizing the stages of life and
religious duty. They ask for prosperity and redemption from sin and
future calamities. "Let us be like the earth and the sky," which are
never separated, the priest intones on behalf of the groom. "Let us
join our forces, let us have offspring, let us live a life of 200
"I accept you as my husband and I offer my body, mind and soul to
you," is the bride's response.
Vibha's Tech friends, most of whom have love marriages, are keeping
a watchful eye on her. They've been a little worried, knowing
Vibha's "adventurous spirit," about an arranged marriage to a guy
from India. "How's this going to work?" Desai had wondered. "What
if he's expecting some old-fashioned, stand-behind-your-man Indian
But seeing her calm gaze during the ceremony, noticing how glowy she
looks at the reception afterward, they feel reassured. "We know her
fake smile, her 'everything's all right' mode, but this was real,"
Desai says afterward, when Vibha and Haresh have left for a week's
honeymoon -- by a wide margin, the longest time they will ever have
spent alone -- in Hawaii. "He was happy, she was happy, she was at
peace with herself. She was a bride."
That pediatrician from New Jersey? "We had a really good
conversation" on the phone, Vinay says. "We had the same
perspective on this whole India Abroad/meeting people stuff
. . . She's very smart, she has passion for her work." She would
shortly head overseas, and he wanted to meet her before she left, so
they agreed to rendezvous in Philadelphia on a Friday night. Vinay
bought tickets to a Sixers game, feeling upbeat.
Alas. "It was raining. It was miserable," he reports. "She was in a
bad mood from the get-go." Arriving 45 minutes late, she stepped
into a puddle en route to his car, complained about the long walk
across the parking lot to the arena, barely initiated a conversation
the entire evening. "I don't know if it was me, I don't know if it
was the weather, I don't know if it was her day," Vinay says,
nursing his disappointment and a glass of pink guava juice while
relating the sorry saga to his visiting parents. Her pager went off,
he adds, but she didn't have to leave, although he began to wish she
did: "How bad is it that you're hoping some kid is sick enough that
she has to go in to the hospital?"
En route to a restaurant in a neighborhood neither knew well, "she
proceeds to bitch for 15 minutes in the car about how she couldn't
read the map." An awkward dinner, a quick drop-off at the train
station, "and I don't anticipate ever having to talk to or hear from
her again. Because it was the worst, most miserable date of my
life. Number one."
He's starting to wonder about this whole arrangement business. "Deep
down, I don't think assessing someone from pictures and biodata
tells you anything," he says. "There's probably lots of decent
people we overlooked. There really isn't a foolproof way of doing
But he's still in touch with the Alabama doctor. He sees the Houston
woman when she's in town visiting her brother. And there was an
interesting ad in India Abroad his parents recently responded to:
Invitation for handsome, caring, outgoing, broad-minded,
well-settled professionals, 31-plus; for beautiful, v. fair, slim,
educated U.S. raised daughter . . .
Back from her honeymoon, Vibha Umaretiya seems liberated from frenzy
and pressure -- and from doubt. When she's with Haresh, she's
giggly and charmed; she finds reasons to touch his shoulder, and he
squeezes her hand. When she's not with him, when she's finally able
to put away her cell phone and actually talk over lunch at the pizza
place across from her office, she's expansive, buoyant.
"Now that we're married, I'm okay," she announces. "No more ifs or
ands or buts."
Perhaps it's wise that Indian wedding rituals have expanded to
incorporate such Western ideas as honeymoons. On Maui there was time
to just lie on a beach and listen to the waves, time to get to know
the man she'd wed.
"He's really very romantic, more than I am," she confides. On the
plane, he kept his arm around her practically the whole flight. At
their hotel, he catered to her, fed her morsels from his plate. "So
much care, it was just incredible. I'm like, 'Stop the madness.' "
Not that she really wanted him to stop. "He made coffee for me in
the morning! I'm like, omigod . . . He was so sweet; he makes it
really easy for me to like him."
But what about -- that annoying Western question -- love? A pause.
"How do you know if you love someone? Does a light come on over your
head?" Haresh wants to get his master's degree in engineering; he
thinks he could finish in a year and a half. Vibha may decide to
start a business one day. They want to buy a condo or a townhouse as
soon as they can, have some time as a twosome before the children
arrive -- at least five years away -- and possibly his family
arrives, too, if they choose. And because Haresh is soft-spoken and
understanding and fair-minded about women's roles, and because she
also wants him to do what fulfills him, they will have a good life
"He's my man, and he will be my man up until the day I die, or
whatever," she muses, launching into a monologue. "The way you feel
about a person is constantly changing, y'know? . . . Maybe there are
days when you don't want to deal with him, maybe there'll be days
when you don't want to miss a second with him. Do I look forward to
spending time with him? Yes. Do I look forward to getting to know
him? Yes. Do I like him for what he is? Do I have a deeper
understanding of him? Yes."
So how their meeting and their future were arranged, with all the
attendant anxieties, is starting to seem beside the point. "For me,
it was the right thing," Vibha says. And she laughs. "I never
thought I'd do it this way. It's really weird how life works,
y'know? But I'm happy with the way it ended up. Seriously happy."