I have found that there aren’t many easy ways to explain arranged marriage to my friends. When I first mentioned it, they looked at me sympathetically and told me things like “Oh, but you always have a choice” or “But you’re only 23” as if these thoughts hadn’t gone through my head already. Then, they gave me sympathetic looks and told me “We’re always here for you if you need to talk” and “I can’t believe you’re going through with this” as the date of my wedding to Jay got closer and closer.
I’m not alone, and my story is not too unique. Instead of being told who to marry, now our parents tell us who to meet. They tell us who to go out to dinner with, and who to talk to. They tell us who is eligible and around our age. They nudge us into similar social situations and hope that something will click. They call relatives in India and ask if they know of any nice, eligible boys for their daughter in hushed voices so they won’t be overheard. And while they are doing all of that, they tell us in simpering sweet tones that they are just doing what is best for us and would we please stop teaching them how to be parents.
July 23, 2011 –
“Hey, it’s nice to meet you.” I said to the guy as he sat across from me at the café.
“Yeah. Hi. What’s up?”
“Trust me, this is weird for me too.”
“Oh. Yeah, it’s nice to meet you anyways. So how do our parents know each other?”
“High School. I think. Doesn’t really matter I guess. What would you like to drink?”
“I’ll take an iced coffee. Love the smell, can’t stand the taste. Of hot coffee, I mean.”
“I’m basically addicted to coffee so as long as you don’t mind the smell, we’re cool.”
I smiled a little and felt some tension leaving my body. He didn’t have an Indian accent! But he was going to have to be pretty amazing to cheer me up, because my argument with Dan earlier today had been devastating. I had nothing to say to him when he ended our relationship because he was tired of waiting. I would have been tired of waiting too, if I had been in his place and had to keep everything a secret for so long. We couldn’t have a “proper” romance, he couldn’t meet my parents and promise my dad he wouldn’t bring me home too late. There were just too many pieces missing in our puzzle, and I understood that, but when we hung up the phone, I was crying anyway.
“I’m sorry, this is really weird for me,” Jay said.
“You said that already,” I said, and snapped out of my thoughts – they were leading me to unhappy places.
“Right,” he said.
The waiter came to our table and he ordered two coffees, one iced with milk and sugar. He looked over quickly at me while placing the order, but before he could affirm, I nodded and said, “Yeah, milk and sugar please.”
This wasn’t a date, because Indians don’t date. At least, the good ones don’t. There is no word for “boyfriend” in Hindi. I told my mother that Jay and I were going to talk to each other and get coffee, and she agreed enthusiastically. Probably because the plan to meet over coffee had been the combined idea of our mothers anyway. As I had been getting dressed, my mother had said, “Have a nice time with him. Try to get to know him. He’s a really nice boy, beta.” She only used terms of endearment when she knew I was going to hate what came after, and this was one thing that I was really and truly dreading.
They still never called it a date. It wasn’t a date. We were just getting to “understand” each other, as my dad told me before handing me the car keys.
The coffees came, and his mug of coffee had one of those pretty leafy designs swirled into the froth on top. Maybe it was a latte?
I spent the next hour getting to know him as I had been instructed. It was even more weird than all of the mandatory icebreaker games I had played at club meetings in the beginning of my Fall semesters at college.
August 12, 2011 –
“FINE Ma, I’ll do it”
And just like that, I sealed my fate. To Jay Chopra. There was silence around the table because my parents knew better than to act excited. Maybe they were relieved, and they were probably at least a little bit guilty. What could they possibly say to their daughter after she’s agreed to an arranged marriage? My mother got up to call his parents and invite them over for dinner. She had the decency to do that in the other room.
If Dan had been Indian, I think I could have loved him. I could have pretended to meet him for the first time and gone for coffee. I could have invited his family over to my house and cooked an amazing Indian dinner to impress them.
As it is, I cooked for Jay, his parents, his older sister and her husband tonight. My mother oversaw the whole affair and I kept my tears to myself the entire night. If Jay could tell I was upset, he kept it to himself and the two of us played at acting like we were happy.
Our tikka (tick-a) ceremony was completed that night. My mom procured gifts for the family out of thin air and just like that, I was off the market. I felt pathetic – I had only lasted three weeks.
August 20, 2011
The reality was sinking in, and the nights were getting chilly. Jay and I met each other for the first time exactly one month ago. I wasn’t happy, but my upbringing was forcing me to think optimistically. The rationalizations were killing me but they were better than the burning frustration the rebellious thoughts came with.
They wanted what was best for me. He was good. He grew up here, didn’t have an accent. We had both fucked somebody else already.
The mental list in my head was trying its best to expand. Reasons why Jay and I getting married might not be so bad.
I laughed as I thought about how it took me only 21 days to meet and agree to marry Jay. Just three weeks. My laughter was hollow as I contemplated just how defeated and desperate I must have felt to say yes to arranged marriage and give up a chance at love. “You’ll grow to love him. It’s better that way,” my mom told me, but growing up in America, I simply couldn’t believe that. There was just no way.
My parents’ marriage was arranged. All of their siblings entered arranged marriages too. Stepping down to my own generation, many of my older cousins had married the people they met through family. I had grown up thinking I would break that expectation, smash the tradition and meet the man of my dreams. He would sweep me away and family be damned, I’d marry somebody I loved with all of my heart.
But then, my parents asked me if I would marry Jay and I thought about life without any of my family. That’s why I said yes. It wasn’t because I thought we would make a good couple, but I knew that marrying Jay would mean that I would get to keep the rest of my family, and I loved them more than I loved my own heart’s desires.
Their timing was impeccable. I was vulnerable, bitter, and jaded. I felt like I could blame my parents if our marriage failed. It added a layer of defense, and I ensconced myself in thoughts like these and tried to tell myself that everything would be their fault.
September 3, 2011
Today was supposed to be a really exciting day – it was our engagement. Our mangni (mung-knee). I was dolled up in a new outfit, one of the twenty new ones we had picked out and had custom-tailored for my wedding. This one – a lengha – was an elaborate affair of teals and purples, my two favorite colors combined. There was gold needlework all along the blouse and the long, flowing skirt had splashes of gold-rimmed mirrors sewn onto an elaborate arrangement of flowing layers of teal and purple material.
The excitement of the wedding was getting to me – I had grown up enjoying so many of them, although this one was dampened by my perspective of being on the other side. I couldn’t help but think back to the engagements of my past, where I had dressed up, whirled around the dance floor all night, and enjoyed the buffet and Indian music. They really were joyous occasions, and as engagements go, this was supposed to be the ultimate one. It was my own engagement and I was surrounded by happy friends and overjoyed family and the pure joy on their faces overruled my heart’s doubts for tonight. I was glowing like a bride-to-be and swept away along with their visions of my perfect wedding.
I was starting to warm up to the idea and Jay and I were making the most of it. Having spent practically every single day since we met with him somehow, we were really getting to “understand” each other. We got along, and he helped me plan out all of the little details of our rushed wedding, which is more than I can say for some star-crossed lovers. We had a mutual understanding developing – I can see why my parents had phrased it that way now. He tolerated my friends, and I tolerated his, though the two circles hadn’t really meshed together yet. No matter, after our mangni, we had many more weeks of festivities before our wedding.
I hadn’t touched alcohol since we were promised to one another, because Jay didn’t like it. I also didn’t want to risk the entire house falling apart if he mentioned it to my parents or it came up in an argument. There are some things a lady must never tell, and there was no point stopping the inevitable now. We were getting married. And marriage was compromise.
If you had asked me when my next free weekend was, I would have had to ask you to come back to me next year.
December 17, 2011
Dance. Fireworks. Joy?
It was our shaadi! Jay and I sat next to each other in the wedding altar. I shifted uncomfortably and tried to stop my legs from falling asleep and he poked me playfully. Behind the sehra hiding his face from me, I could see him raise an eyebrow, a gesture I now knew meant he was asking me if I was alright while simultaneously implying that he found my discomfort amusing. I was surprised we knew each other so well already. It hadn’t even been six months but I could see us together.
I mean, I couldn’t see myself with anybody else. And that was a huge improvement in my condition when I first found out that I was going to be told who to marry. Briefly, my attention wandered as I thought about whether my parents had found out about Dan and I. Maybe that had fueled them into finding me an appropriate groom?
I was snapped out of my reverie with another poke on the side. Now he looked a little bit mad, but honestly, this part of the wedding is boring. I’d been sitting here for three hours now listening to the priest drone on and on, explaining my marital duties as a wife and as a woman. I couldn’t help but feel sleepy, and the thirty pounds of lengha, jewelry, and accessories I was bedazzled in weren’t helping my frame any.
These were the ugly realities that I had been oblivious to when I attended weddings growing up. I never really thought about being in the bride’s shoes. They were uncomfortable, and I caught myself before I sighed out loud and annoyed Jay even more. The mutual suffering was sure to create some memories we could bond over later. Most of my guests were wining, dining, and dancing. The only people who sat around the altar for this part were the immediate family; everybody else was happily eating and talking quietly amongst themselves. The older aunties were eying my friends, and I could see them mentally sizing everybody up and making more matches in their heads. Thinking things like “Oh she’s the perfect height for him” and “Look at her manners, bringing her parents food before getting any for herself.”
As much as I was enjoying the decor, the dress, and the food, the fact remains that I was about to marry a man who I barely knew. Of course, the past six months had helped and we were certain we wouldn’t kill each other, I didn’t know whether he snored at night, or if he was better at waking up in the morning than I was. The things that mattered were still a mystery, and although the little girl in me found a sadistic appeal in the uncertainty, the mature romantic in me was still trembling with trepidation. I was fighting my natural impulses with my inbred ones, and trying to sort out the inner turmoil.
The priest was still droning on, though it seemed as though he might be approaching the end of his speech – he was now gesturing at us with wild hand motions, and I looked sheepishly at Jay, afraid I had been caught again. He was still staring devoutly at the priest, but before I could poke him, his sister reached over for my hand and placed my left hand over his right. This would probably be the most prolonged physical contact we had ever had.
I tried better to pay attention to what was going on and I felt Jay swirling his thumb around my knuckles. I wasn’t sure if the gesture was absentminded, but I liked it.
February 14, 2012
“Jay, really? Pick up the damn dishes for once in your life,” I yelled.
“Sorry babe. I’ll get them, just leave em there,” he said.
I turned away from the dining table toward the dishes in the kitchen and walked right into him. I stepped back and glared at him, mad that our first Valentine’s Day together as a couple was complete shit compared to the ones I had fantasized about. No breakfast in bed, no romantic movie, and no kisses. He was a complete bore. I guess that’s what growing up in business did to him.
“Well, it’s Valentine’s Day. So…so happy valentine’s day?” he said.
“Why do you say it like it’s a question?”
“It is though isn’t it? Are you happy? Are we?”
“I see a pile of dishes in the sink, I haven’t properly cleaned the house in a week, and there were no chocolates on my bed this morning. So yeah, I’m pretty unhappy.”
“Here, let’s stop arguing. Happy Valentine’s Day. I’ll do the dishes and make tea, you go sit on the couch and find a movie to watch or something”
“Kay, bring popcorn”
It was a different kind of Valentine’s day, but like two roommates faced with the knowledge that they couldn’t live apart, we really were trying to make the most of it. It wasn’t love, and I was still torn up about it, but he was beginning to be comfortable and dependent, which is what my parents might have wanted for me after all.
The mysteries were beginning to unravel at last. He only snored at night if he ate something right before bed, and I snored when I was really tired – an embarrassing fact that he still hadn’t quit teasing me about. And I knew he woke up early in the mornings because by the time I got out of bed, the shower was cold and he had coffee ready on the table for us both. So it was a good partnership. We had the teamwork thing down, now it was the relationship that we needed to build.
When he came into the living room, he brought the tea, but also brought me flowers, chocolates, and a note as well. A rare glimpse into his heart, it read:
I know our romance wasn’t ideal,
But our relationship and marriage is real.
Please keep believing that it will work –
You may not have fallen in love with me,
But I know that we can love each other.
March 15, 2012
I had just finished telling Jay how my best friend and I had mixed up The March of Ides with the Ides of March in high school, and how I had never been able to remember which one was right ever since when he leaned over and kissed me on my lips for the first time – it’s the kind of fact that you know you’ll never forget, and I filed it away in my mind right next to “almost falling asleep at my own wedding” and “accidentally pushing Jay off the bed on our first night as a couple.”
There were no fireworks, and I wasn’t tempted to kick up one of my stiletto’d feet like they do in the movies. But it was nice and it felt right. When I pulled away, I was blushing as though he’d kissed me goodbye at the front porch after our first date. I guess that’s the day our courtship really began.
I’m copy and pasting this from my Google drive, I’ll fix formatting issues in a bit