MARRY FIRST, LOVE LATER
By Jyothi Sampat
"So, how did you meet your husband?"
Savitha groaned inwardly when she heard the question directed at her, and braced herself for the reaction
she knew would follow.
She was standing around with a few colleagues admiring a co-worker's new engagement ring, when the talk
invariably turned to relationships and romance. As a few of the women gushed enthusiastically about their
respective beaux, Savitha remained silent, looking for a way to escape before being cornered.
But, it was too late.
"Um... our marriage was arranged," she replied honestly, hoping at least one of her colleagues would be
familiar with the custom.
"Oh," said a few women in unison, stunned.
"How interesting," said someone standing next to her. "And quaint," she added.
"Oh my gawd!" exclaimed someone else, opening her eyes wide in disbelief.
These are the kinds of reactions Savitha has come to expect from Americans when they hear that her
marriage had been arranged. This is why she tries to avoid the subject whenever possible.
"People usually hear, or pay attention only to negative stories about the custom," she says. "Arranged does
not mean forced. I wasn't coerced into marrying a stranger," she hastily points out.
An arranged marriage is one in which the parents pick a potential mate for their child. A contract between
like-minded families rather than individuals, the concept of arranged marriages remains active in India
primarily because of its rigid caste system.
Traditionally, Hindus have been divided into castes based on their occupation and education. Marriages are
usually arranged between members of the same caste. This ensures that the two families have a similar
background, ideals, religious beliefs, and customs, which in turn is designed to help a young couple adjust
In comparison, a "love match" is one in which individuals pick their own mates, introducing the possibility of
marrying outside one's caste. Such marriages remain a minority in India and most traditional families frown
at the concept because it would involve welcoming an outsider into their fold.
Still, with increased exposure to the West, and a change-with-the-times attitude, many educated families are
now more accepting of love marriages. As Savitha explains, "My family would not have been thrilled to bits if
I had picked my own husband, but they would've respected my decision, provided I had picked someone
with excellent prospects."
Like most things in life, an arranged marriage is fraught with risks. Just ask Sanjay Kumar* a software
engineer living in the United States for the last ten years.
His wedding day was set for December 25, 1997. A month before he was to leave for India to get married,
and a week after the wedding invitations had been printed, Sanjay called the wedding off.
To distraught family and shocked friends, he explained, "I didn't think we'd be happy together. She's such
an introvert. I want someone lively and outgoing. She's a lovely girl, but she's not for me."
Sanjay had been engaged to Priya* for nearly a year. When visiting his parents in India they had arranged
for him to meet her. All the preliminary steps had been completed—the horoscopes of the couple were
compared by astrologers, the families met, Priya saw Sanjay's photographs and resume, and an auspicious
day was set for the young couple to meet as soon as Sanjay landed in Mumbai.
Their first meeting was at a restaurant with close relatives in tow.
"We managed to slip away after a while. We went to the patio overlooking the sea, and talked about what
you would normally talk about on a blind date," Sanjay recalls, nearly 15 months later.
After a few more unchaperoned meetings at various restaurants in the city, they decided to get married. A
long engagement was arranged, so the two could get better acquainted. Sanjay returned to his job in
Phoenix, and Priya stayed back in Mumbai to complete her bachelor's degree in accounting. Over the span
of a year, they frequently exchanged letters, e-mails, and phone calls.
To his friends, Sanjay seemed to be in love.
"It wasn't working out, though," he sighs. "Our conversations were mostly one-sided. She'd reply in
monosyllables, while I did all the talking. I finally decided to cancel the wedding. We just couldn't have been
happy with each other," he says, shaking his head ruefully.
Sanjay's case is an unusual one. In a country where nearly sixty to seventy percent of the marriages are
arranged, the success rate of these arranged matches is quite high.
"In fact," says Savitha, "I know of only three cases in my family where the marriages have not worked out."
Most of her close cousins and friends had their marriages arranged, and have settled in various corners of
Srinivas Rangan came to the United States in 1990 to complete a master's degree in engineering. Once he
landed a good job at a computer firm in Arizona, his parents decided to have him married.
"I gave them the go-ahead because I wasn't interested in anybody over here. Besides, I wanted a traditional
Indian girl as a wife. Indian girls living in America are too modern and independent for my liking," he
When Srinivas went to India to visit his family, his parents arranged for him to meet seven eligible young
"I first looked at their photographs and resumes, and rejected most of them," he recalls. The choice was
narrowed down to three women, and Srinivas, along with his parents, met one family each day. The last girl
he saw was Savitha. He liked her immediately, "because she was so lively," he says. "Also, she was the
best-looking," he adds with a smile.
Savitha, sitting next to him, breaks into laughter.
"Srini was the fifth guy who came to see me. He was the only one who wasn't afraid of our golden retriever,
so when my mother asked me if I wanted to marry him after he left, I said OK."
In reality, Savitha confides, she was getting a little tired of the rigmarole involved when eligible bachelors
and their families came to see her. She had to look pretty, act coy, speak only when spoken to, and stoically
bear the scrutiny of the boy's mother and his other female relatives, who mentally sized her up as a
Savitha always knew she would get married some day to a man of her family's choice. She had just
completed a bachelor's degree in commerce, and was cooling her heels at home before starting a master's
degree in accounting. Well-meaning relatives began prodding her mother to start a search for a suitable
husband. Her father had passed on a few years ago, and the onus of arranging a match for Savitha, the
eldest daughter, fell on her mother's shoulders. Savitha had gone through high school and college without
falling in love, so it seemed natural to her when her family started inquiring about eligible men in the
When Srinivas and his family came to meet her, Savitha instantly warmed to them. "His mother did not
seem intimidating at all, and Srini was so funny, he had my whole family in splits," she recalls.
Savitha and Srinivas were allowed to talk privately for an hour in an adjoining room, while their families sat
in the living room.
"We spoke about ourselves a little. I told her about my life in Phoenix, my job, friends, etc.," says Srinivas.
"I sized him up as a potential provider, and I decided he fit the bill," declares Savitha frankly. "He had a good
job, a good education, and seemed nice enough. I hoped he would be a good husband too."
Srinivas and Savitha got married 19 days after they first met. They recently celebrated their fourth wedding
anniversary, and are the proud parents of a baby boy.
"We're both happy. I don't think I would have done any better if I had arranged the marriage myself," says
When asked if she loves him, "Yes," Savitha replies, without hesitation.
Like most young brides, when she initially came to the United States, Savitha had a lot of adjusting to do.
She left India a month after the wedding with her new husband who was still practically a stranger to her.
"In India, you're constantly surrounded by family. There's very little privacy," explains Savitha.
When she came to the States, she found herself very isolated once Srinivas went back to work. "It was so
quiet in the apartment complex where we lived. I didn't even know who my neighbors were. I used to wait
for Srini to come home every evening so I could have someone to talk to," she recalls.
Unable to work without a permit, and not knowing how to drive, she found solace in television, which helped
acclimate her quickly to the American accent.
"The talk shows and soap operas shocked me at first," says Savitha. "It seemed to me that Americans were
preoccupied with sex. I still find a lot of programs pretty trashy."
Once she learned how to drive, and could legally work, Savitha found a job in an accounting firm, and
became more independent.
Now the couple has numerous friends in the large Phoenix Indian community. "About 15 of us get together
nearly every weekend," says Srinivas.
Most of the Indian couples they know are the product of arranged marriages as well, and the women share
similar trials of adjusting to life in the United States.
One of their bachelor friends, Ravi, states matter-of-factly that "Compatibility is what I'm looking for before
marriage. Hopefully, love will follow. I want a mate I can relate to on an emotional level first," he explains.
Ravi does not really believe in love at first sight.
"Infatuation, maybe, but not love," he says. "The first time you meet, you can only ascertain if you will get
along or not."
Normally, the boy's family initiates the marriage discussion with the girl's father or the family elders. Both
parties ascertain the class, financial situation, and reputation of the other. If everything is satisfactory, and to
their liking, the boy and girl are allowed to meet. If they decide to marry, the parents settle the amount of
dowry the girl's father is expected to give the groom's family.
"That doesn't happen to everybody, though," Ravi hastily points out. "My parents are pretty progressive
people, and will not take dowry. That's just not how we function," he stresses, shaking his head.
The bride's family traditionally incurs all wedding expenses. In an attempt to outdo their neighbors and
friends, many people go into debt as a result of making a wedding.
Ravi's parents have met a lot of eligible girls they have liked, but one hurdle to a successful match is Ravi's
status as a permanent resident of the United States. If he marries a girl from India, it will take her at least
three years to obtain an American visa and thus be able to enter the country.
"My parents are really anxious. My mother visits fortune-tellers, and goes to the temple regularly to pray for
a good match for me. Personally, I'm tired of all the red tape. I'd rather arrange my marriage myself," says
He has advertised for a bride in the classified section of many local Indian newspapers in the States, and
has registered at various matrimonial web sites.
"I'm still waiting for Ms. Right," he jokes.
"Actually, we're all searching for a nice girl for Ravi," adds Savitha. On her part, she regularly forwards him
advertisements she comes across on the Internet from Indian women seeking grooms, and has asked her
mother and in-laws in India to keep an eye out for a potential bride. "Life is too lonely here to live without a
partner," she says, looking at her husband who nods in assent.
Would they arrange marriages for their children in America?
"Only if they want us to," says Srinivas sagely. "A few people living here still do that, but I won't bring my
children up with the idea that their marriages are going to be arranged someday."
"It would be nice if they married Indians, though," adds Savitha wistfully.
Asked if they had fallen in love before or after their marriage, Savitha and Srinivas gaze into each other's
"Who cares?" they say.
Jyothi Sampat is a freelance writer living in Phoenix, Arizona whose own successful marriage was arranged.