Rearranging the age-old tradition of arranged marriages.
While emancipated single women in societies that make way for such progression invest themselves in an earnest quest for Mr. Right — the one with a distinctive pedigree and profile — there are countless women around the world who are bound in matrimony without their consent. Those amongst us who have not dealt with the social diktat of arranged marriages have undoubtedly heard the stories. Woeful tales, often. An arrangement that couples two people, sometimes two strangers too young to drink or drive, in a lifelong relationship that by definition requires physical intimacy, if not some variable of love.
The custom endures to this day in many cultures even as women continue to break through the barriers in all arenas including the gladiatorial terrain of politics and big business.
I grew up in that world — an India where the average women was expected to do nothing more (or less) than manage quotidian household chores. Her identity was defined quite simply by the man she ‘belonged’ to — her father, and then a husband. Women from middle class families were sometimes permitted to pursue careers in education. Teaching was viewed as a ‘safe’ profession, one that required limited interaction with adult males. Sure there were a few who veered off the conventional path, sometimes with parental sanction, often through runaway rebellion. Such anomalies were extremely rare in the lower rungs of society where caste and class came into play. There was absolutely no hope for the daughter of a maid servant to escape a preordained life of subservience. And an arranged marriage.
I remember clearly the countless people who came into my home daily to provide some service or another — the milkman making an early morning delivery on the heels of the washerwoman dropping off a fresh load of clean, well-ironed bedsheets. The two gardeners — one in charge of the ‘kitchen garden’ where carrots and grapes flourished and the other who tended to the roses and pansies in our expansive front lawn. My mother, a home maker par excellence who managed this bevy of domestic helpers, ensured that our ‘servants’ were treated well and their children — boys and girls — received a good education. Often, servants from other homes would seek her assistance in acquiring admission for their sons in coveted academic institutions and securing scholarships. My mother would help only if they consented to educate their daughters as well.
A dynamic woman with inimitable grace, my mother was well-respected in our small hometown. When she came knocking with a bottle of home-made wine (grapes from our garden were fermented and distilled to heady perfection) and a jar of fresh mayonnaise created in her prized Osterizer blender (viands hard to come by locally back in the day), no principal could turn down her petition to grant a deserving child the opportunity to forge a future.
And so, it was with much pride and tears of joy on a recent visit to Atlanta that she shared with me the exciting news about our gardener’s daughter. Yes indeed, much of our conversations revolve not just around friends and family back in India, but all the domestic helpers she has known over the years — those who have been off her payroll for decades but continue to visit her with stories of success of their children and grandchildren. They come with boxes of mithai, sweetmeats that must accompany any felicitous news in India, and she receives them all with with boundless joy.
The gardener’s daughter, now a medical assistant in a leading, state-of-the-art hospital in the city, turned down the boy her father had selected for her to marry.
The girl tuned down the boy her father had selected for her to marry!
Not good enough, she said. He lacks ambition, and dresses sloppy.
The strength and determination to say “no.”
The clarity to know what she wants.
The freedom to choose.
These are the hallmarks of progress. Real progress.
But what is often overlooked in such remarkable stories is the balance young girls (if they keep their wits about them and do not get caught up in a whirlwind of newfound money and freedom) are able to strike between traditions and trends. While the modern freedom-flaunting youth from wealthy homes are quick to dismiss conventional norms as archaic and absurd, those who achieve success and autonomy the hard way are often more willing to find common ground between opposing currents.
The gardener’s daughter who earns more in a month while working in an air-conditioned building than her father does tending to flower beds in scorching heat and finger-numbing cold in an entire year told him to keep the search going. She values his opinion. She has promised to meet every suitor he lines up. But she will select the one she wants to share a life with. The one she can love. Yes, love can follow matrimony. She knows that. Like my mother whose marriage was orchestrated by her parents. A marriage that brought her more joy than she had ever imagined.
Sometimes a “maybe” is a better choice even when one has earned the freedom to say “no.”