Varanasi, India – RJ is engaged to a beautiful girl, but getting married is the last thing on his mind. “I’m only 26,” he said. “I’m so young to marry.”
It’s not unlike a conversation I’ve had with several of my American friends, but RJ is Indian and his wife has already been chosen. “She’s very nice girl,” he said. “But I don’t want to marry her.”
Despite its negative reputation in the West, arranged marriage tends to work quite well in India. Parents choose a partner for their son/daughter based on a variety of things we might call superficial – looks (including darkness of skin), family history, societal status (caste), financial background, etc. – and more often than not, the bond grows into a strong friendship, sometimes even love.
“I’m thinking different than most people,” said RJ, who recently moved to Varanasi at his father’s will to take over the family business there. Like other Indian males, his entire future, including his career, has already been decided, and he thinks he should at least have the freedom to choose his wife. “My thinking is different than others,” he told me, as if to say most others enter into arranged nuptials willingly.
But I don’t think it’s so. With the development of Western customs in India, and the success of Hollywood blockbusters, Indians know how it works in other countries and many of them vie to make their own choices. However, rebellion isn’t an option. Like any other Indian child who opposes his parents’ wishes, RJ knows he can only postpone the wedding date for a few years before he must succumb.
We chatted for a while under the dim streetlight, staring at the ever-burning fire of life on the burning ghat in Varanasi, where I went to get a second look at the public cremations, and RJ went to pray to his beloved Gods, and for his future.
I felt his pain as he talked, but tried to ease it with the notion that my country, as he often referred, doesn’t have a strong institution on marriage. That our divorce rate is over 50% and “my people” often marry more than once, or live unhappily because of decisions they’ve made.
In India, marriages tend to last. Each partner knows his/her role in the relationship, and they work together to make a home and a family without giving much thought to what else might be out there, because acting on those thoughts isn’t an option.
“But I don’t have a sari,” I stammered, buying myself time to consider the opportunity. I will rarely say no in such exciting circumstances, but I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a date with expectations before I did.
“It’s no need,” he said, “but if you want to buy one I know a good shop for a nice one. You can see Indian style.”
I decided he was harmless and agreed to go. Weddings are usually the most colorful, jovial displays of cultural tradition one can be fortunate to encounter while traveling through a foreign country, and I expected the same in India.
I chose a purple silk sari, the most common textile to wear to a wedding, and purchased the 5 meter (6 yard) length of fabric that would later be tucked, folded, draped and pinned into a variety of styles before settling on this one.
It was already late when we arrived, and I worried we had missed it. “They are running a little late,” said RJ, as if 10pm were a perfectly normal time to start a wedding.
Most Indian traditions (there are many) involve an elaborate parade on the groom’s journey to the wedding quarters. He’s hoisted on a chariot or a decorated elephant, accompanied by a troop of his drunk and dancing friends, and followed by a loud band to announce his pending nuptials.
Eventually, the groom entered on the shoulders of his friends, yelling and dancing in good spirits. The bride arrived solemn in a bejeweled red sari, with enough gold jewelry to bury a king, including an oversize nose ring with a chain to her ear, a sign of a wife’s commitment to her husband (many women keep a small nose piercing after the wedding, as well as a bindi between her eyebrows and a ring on her left hand).
They quickly took their places on the golden thrones in the corner, without so much as an embrace.
There was a short ceremony where golden platters were exchanged and the bride walked in a circle around her new husband, but the majority of the night consisted of them posing for the cameras while the crowd shuffled in and out behind them.
When I asked my friend, Swati, why, she said it was because she has so much to do. But to an outsider, it looked like this woman had shared feelings with my date, RJ, and getting married was the last thing she had wanted to do.
Unfortunately, I thought the best part about this Indian wedding was wearing my sari and taking photos. I didn’t get the cheerful feeling I have at friends’ weddings in The States; a feeling that stems from the obvious joy beaming from the newly married couple; from their closest family and friends joining them in well wishes and sharing excitement for their future; from everybody eating cake, imbibing and sharing the moment. Instead it felt routine and forced, but I suppose that should have been expected from an arranged marriage. The man and wife barely knew each other before this night, and they suddenly had a lot of expectations ahead.
The photo shoot continued long after RJ and I left, but I wished the new couple a happy future filled with laughter, happiness and, hopefully one day, love.
Have you ever been to a wedding in another country? Where? How was it?
- Indian Wedding: Unification Of Two Souls, Families And Cultures (indianweddingideas.wordpress.com)
- Indian Wedding (princeofdu.wordpress.com)
- Keith and Phylicia’s Wedding (tannerkidd.com)
An Indian Wedding in Varanasi