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India embraces matchmaking on reality TV

Netflix documentary sparks a debate about arranged marriages

"Indian Matchmaking,"an eight-part documentary for Netflix made by Oscar-nominated director Smriti Mundhra, has opened up the proverbial Pandora's box on the custom of arranged marriages in India. 

The show chronicles the work of Sima Taparia, a real-life matchmaker from Mumbai who offers her services to rich families in India and abroad looking for a "suitable match" for their children.

Through an ensemble cast of astrologers, face readers, priests, prospective grooms, brides, and parents armed with endless lists of demands on caste, height and skin color, viewers are taken on a voyeuristic tour of the complicated process of matchmaking in India, where 10 million nuptials take place every year.

The controversial series has triggered multiple memes, jokes and criticism on social media. It is also polarizing public opinion among those who prefer love marriages and those who endorse arrangements. In the process, however, the biggest casualty has been nuance, with not even a nod to the golden middle path.

When I got married, my husband and I were introduced through senior family members. We dated for six months to test our compatibility before getting married on Feb.18, 1990. So was ours a love marriage? Or arranged? I'd say a nice blend of both. My husband insists it was love. The love, he jokes, followed the marriage.

Our arrangement was a huge leap forward from my grandfather's generation. Grandpa saw his wife for the first time on their wedding day. He narrated with great relish a story about how he lost sight of his petite bride at a bustling railway station the day after their wedding. "I was petrified that I'd never find her again," he recounted with a chuckle, "as I'd forgotten what she looked like!"

'Indian Matchmaking' series has triggered multiple memes, jokes and criticism on social media (Screenshot from Netflix).

The Indian arranged marriage system harks back to the Vedic period (1500 B.C. to 500 B.C.). At that time three factors governed such alliances -- preserving the family bloodline, social status and money. The Rajput kings of medieval Rajasthan, for instance, used their daughters and sisters as currency to appease more powerful kings or to forestall invasions. Marital alliances were also leveraged for "enlarging one's territory, ending enmity, and for increasing power and status," writes Sabita Singh, a history professor at the University of Delhi, in "The Politics of Marriage in Medieval India" (2019).

Caste continues to be a key determiner in marriages. Indian Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee, co-author of the 2009 study "Marry for What? Caste and Mate Selection in Modern India," writes that "despite the economic importance of this decision, 'status'-like attributes, such as caste, continue to play a seemingly crucial role in determining marriage outcomes."

India is not the only country where such betrothals take place; the tradition also has deep roots in Korea, China and Japan. Travelling in South Korea, for example, I learned that the country's elite often rely on marriage brokers to find suitable matches. Alliances are formalized only after careful vetting of the two families' statuses, political views, and the attractiveness of potential spouses.

China outlawed arranged marriages in 1950. Previously, however, the search for economic security had for centuries formed the bedrock of arranged matches. "For generations, parents arranged their children's marriages by following the principle of 'matching doors and windows,' where a couple's compatibility was assessed by their social and economic standing," write Christina Zhou and Bang Xiao in "Marry first, then fall in love" (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2018).

In Kenya, I was fascinated to learn from the Masai tribe how African tribal societies traditionally preferred marriages within kinship, clan or tribal groups. "Such nuptials also strengthen bonds between tribes," a Masai leader told me.

Western culture is also no stranger to arranged marriages, despite its progressive approach to relationships in the 21st century. In pre-modern Europe, affluent parents often offered their daughters in marriage to families of equal or higher economic status. In return, women were expected to bring money, goods or property to the alliance, run households and bear children.

In England, for example, the law gave most husbands substantial rights over their wives' property until the late 19th century, leading some men to think of their wives as chattels. This custom forms the central plot of John Galsworthy's "The Man of Property" (1906), which chronicles the life of Soames Forsyte, a wealthy English solicitor who considers his wife Irene to be his property. The marriage disintegrates after he attempts to enforce what he sees as his sexual rights.

As Forsyte discovered, there is no way in which arranged or semiarranged marriages can survive without that essential component called love. It's hard to fathom, otherwise, how grandma and grandpa remained blissfully wedded for 60 years. Or why my husband still gets me roses on the 18th of every month 30 years after we said "I do"!

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based writer

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