July 14, 2009
Before deciding to travel to India I assumed it would be fairly westernized, though obviously with its own spin on the term. With all the talk about globalization and how fast India is growing my mind equated India’s cities with other fast-growing cities in Asia, such as Hong Kong and Tokyo.
I was alerted before leaving New York that Ahmedabad is one of the most conservative cities in India, but I had no idea how that would play itself out. Ok, maybe it would not be nearly as westernized as I had originally thought. What would I be able to wear? Would I be able to run? Could I walk around alone? I know to wear salwars to work, and I wear jeans and a t-shirt when I go out with friends (and I try not to think too much about the heat). I can and do run everyday, in running shorts and a t-shirt. I get some funny looks, but I assume this is just because I am a girl and running (or running at all). Walking around alone is fine as long as I stay alert, which is of course something that comes naturally having grown up walking around New York alone. The answers to these questions were not hard to find, but after being here for a few weeks I have come up with more than a few questions that are much wider in scope.
I didn’t know whether to expect a western, modernized city or a very old and traditional Indian one. I have realized that Ahmedabad is not easily classified. Everywhere I look I am confronted with the stark juxtaposition of traditional Indian culture and Western culture. What does it mean for a place like India to be in the throes of westernization? What will it mean for the people and the culture? And of course, the often asked but seldom answered question, what is progress?
Though of course there are many ways in which I could begin to attempt to answer these questions, I will start with one facet of life that I have found particularly intriguing. I wrote briefly before about how surprised I was to find that many people in India still have arranged or “arranged-love” marriages. I observed situations where marriage was seen as more of a business transaction than the culmination of a loving relationship. The man would work and provide for the woman while the woman would keep house and cook for her husband.
When I first learned about the arranged marriage phenomenon, I assumed it was something confined to the lower classes. I soon realized however that it was something far more widespread than that. Last weekend when I was in Mumbai I spoke to well-educated people of the upper classes and was surprised to learn that many of them would have or would consider having an arranged marriage of some sort. I recently found out that about 80% of the people in India have at least some variation of an arranged marriage. However even if the idea of the arranged marriage is accepted, there is a movement away from not meeting the person at all/seeing them once before the wedding and towards spending time with the person first. It seems to me that this is changing first in wealthier households where access to the West and Western media is more prevalent, however I imagine there there will be some trickle down.
In thinking about arranged marriages my mind naturally began to question what the implications were for the family. In the US, where families tend to be small, if a marriage is not working it is difficult to ignore. Some adults in a failing marriage may choose to stay together “for the sake of their children,” but more often there is the sense that if things aren’t working everyone will be better off with a divorce. Older generations reading this post may point out that the US was not always this way and my sense is that in the next few generations India is also likely to become more this way. However I believe things are likely to change very slowly if at all in the villages where families are large. In the villages people get married for their families more than for themselves. Furthermore, though I cannot speak with authority, I would assume that because it is an entire family surrounding the couple, it is far less of a private loving relationship. As I found the family structure incredibly important when it came to old age, I am also finding it important in sustaining a marriage. There are no doubt many cases where marriages are arranged and the individuals come to love each other; however more often than not it seems that the love and the commitment individuals feel towards their entire family sustains many marriages.
When I first posted about arranged marriages my dad wrote me an email saying to look into exogenous versus endogenous marriages and theories about whether capitalism is destroying the family (this makes sense if you know my dad). My first thought was, “really? If capitalism means the ability to choose to only marry if I love someone and not because it will reflect well on my family or because I will be provided for, then I will take it hands down.” My second thought was that he might be referring to the way in which in a capitalist/westernized system children leave the home and often go very far away when they grow up. (No offense dad but if capitalism means I don’t have to live at home with you forever then I’ll take that too.)
Though I don’t think this is where he was going, if capitalism is a system where the consumer is supposed to have a high variety of options and communism means a more centrally planned system where options are reduced then I do see connections parallels to a westernized versus an arranged system of relationships. In the west we may feel we have a ton of options when it comes to choosing a partner. Unfortunately information is imperfect and so as daters, “consumers of love” if you will, we may make what might be deemed irrational choices. If however our parents/ society is choosing for us then things are likely to be more stable with less heartbreak. (Dad, I clearly did not see where you were going with your note so maybe you can enlighten us all by posting a comment to this piece). Of course in the West we often hear of people, worrying that “I’ll never find anyone,” and the cliché female lament that “my ovaries will shrivel up.” This is not a problem in a system where arranged marriages are common because even if you haven’t found “the one” you still have someone to marry. Dating inevitably is unpredictable and can lead to heartbreak, if I wasn’t such a Westerner I too might ask why one wouldn’t want to avoid such things. Of course there is the upside of finding someone that makes you happy beyond belief. At the risk of sounding silly, I might go so far as to say greater happiness is progress, but this too brings up all sorts of questions of what makes someone happy and the very simple fact that in different cultures different things make people happy.
In India dating is if not uncommon at least unpublicized, regardless of what class you are in. A man and a woman do not hold hands in public. I should not have been surprised to hear that even in the top universities in the more westernized cities boys and girls live in completely separate buildings, but I admit I was at least a little bit. I am curious to find out more about the interactions between boys and girls at school but I am rather confident that it is nothing like Haverford or other schools in the US.
As students go abroad for school and then return home to India I cannot imagine that the dating culture will not become more like it is in the US. Is the dating world progress? Given that I grew up in the US, I want to say yes, but I can’t help but once again raise the question, “what is progress?”
Note: This post has been about how strange I found the idea of an arranged marriage and whether a movement towards a Westernized view of relationships is in fact progress or just different. It is obvious that world of dating is radically different from a straight set-up where the couple decides after one encounter whether a marriage will or will not be acceptable. In another vein, it is worth discussing the importance of caste and “good families” when it comes to set-ups but this must be saved for another post. To go into this topic I would inevitably also have to consider the importance of class when it comes to marriages in the US. Suffice it to say for now that though there is significantly more mobility in the US, people often do marry more or less within their class and nearly always seek the approval of their parents. I am likely to marry someone who has had similar access to education and job opportunities and I know I will want my parents to like him. These issues however fall less under the question of “what is progress” and more under “caste and class: issues of mobility.”