The 'new' old
Exploring the shifting yet fundamentally unchanged nature of Indian matchmaking
PG Wodehouse once advised that for a marriage to "completely be free of strife…. A man's profession must also interest his wife". Well, he was not much off the mark-nowadays a wife takes a lot of interest in not just his profession but in his cell phone, his movements between office and residence, his colleagues and friends and a host of other activities the poor husband goes about in blissful ignorance. Jokes about marriage are normally shared by husbands with other husbands only on WhatsApp and I know of only one husband who dared to share one with his wife and actually lived to tell the tale! But I digress.
Marriages are no longer made in heaven. They are now conceived, 'handholded' and finally delivered on D-Day through a very earthly process involving match-making aunties, face readers, astrologers, behavioural counsellors, life coaches and a regular dose of reality checks. A recent web series on the profession and travails of matchmaking has stirred emotions as we Indians consider ourselves experts in the art of potential spouse spotting much like safari trackers who spot lions and other rare fauna for tourists in game reserves.
The waves of change have long been lashing themselves like Mumbai monsoons on the shores of an upwardly mobile section of society bringing with it globalisation and exposure to greater choices in life. One would have thought that Seema aunty and her ilk would have either changed professions by now or been reduced to matching couples like a parrot picking up cards on a roadside fortune teller's corner. Neither has happened and matchmaking continues with all its twists in the plot and the usual suspects in the cast. The rules of the game have also remained unchanged. Men can go about their business as usual without the fear of being called rebellious or difficult as the rules suit them while women who show any inclination towards taking a critical or closer look at the specimen on display will be scratched out early from the matchmaker's diary.
The matchmaker series makes the run-up to Indian marriages look like diplomatic waltzing between two countries. Prenuptial negotiations oscillate between warm, open, adjusting, frank, keeping all options open etc. each signalling a certain stage like initial bonhomie, sharing of information, putting the terms on the table, adjusting to the terms with a lot of give and take-one party mostly gives and the other party largely takes — before finally reaching a much-awaited deal ready to be inked and signed. The only difference is that unlike nations who at least pretend to negotiate as equals, here one party lays down the rules and the other party jumps through the hoops hoping not to stumble.
The road to the finish line is full of subtle and not so subtle bumps that give you an insight into how we are still prisoners of the choices we do not make but allow others to make for us. As we follow the drama of negotiations, meetings, cross-examinations, rejections and acceptances, there is a whole book out there waiting to be written on human behaviour. While men in most cases only have to show up at the negotiating table to be taken seriously, women have to pass a number of preliminaries before being allowed to sit for the main exam and interview. They are viewed, assessed and evaluated like a piece of furniture or new curtains which have to match the existing décor of your house. The transiting and difficult role which most Indian women have to don as they approach matrimony strikes home rather poignantly when a prospective bride starts calling her prospective in-laws mummy and daddy even as her own real parents look on with full approval and grateful smiles.
But it's not the poor girls alone who are reduced to wordless wonders in the most important decisions of their lives. Mothers of eligible men can be aggressive interjectors in the matrimonial plans of their sons. Even Jeeves, Wooster's faithful butler who was always lurking in the background with a disapproving look ready to rescue his master from any such misadventure, would have found it difficult to foil their moves despite all the fish he reportedly consumed to nourish his brain. Unencumbered by such an adversary, mothers of eligible Indian boys swoop in like eagles to scan the horizons once their sons start showing signs of being able to tie their shoelaces on their own. Marriage is the tonic every boy's mother needs to reassert her hold on the people around her especially when the husband after years of silent acquiescence has now also become deaf and indifferent. A well-chosen daughter-in-law not only ensures that the son continues to depend on his mother but with time she can also become an ally for keeping him in check should he show any signs of independence like the father.
At the end of the day, most Indian marriages-arranged or otherwise are self-suturing and survive all impediments and deterrents. Once matched, they tend to stay matched, glued together by an extensive web of relationships and obligations. Wounds that cannot be healed are bandaged permanently and alliances that cannot be sustained are put on oxygen and prolonged indefinitely. A few unplug the life support but not many.
Matchmaking aunties may now speak fluent English, fly across continents and engage life coaches to ply their trade but they still need the 'kundli' pandit and the face reader. The clients may be educated, suave, rich and living in the USA but when it comes to finding a spouse it's 'Global to Local'. Indian marriages still revolve around the families rather than those getting married and Indian youth is still far from being 'Atmanirbhar' at least where finding a life partner is concerned.
Views expressed are personal