In Arranging a Marriage in India the author weaves a complex yet balanced tale of a concept that if it were told by a lesser observer would still remain alien and unacceptable no matter the length. Serena Nanda challenges normality, invites criticism of Western standards of love while highlighting the benefits enjoyed by the those participating in arranged marriage, and though she is honest about the blemishes built into its structure she acknowledges the justifications that override them.
Whatever defenses the reader might initially erect when confronted with the idea of arranged marriage or anticipated and torn down when Nanda immediately places its normality in the context of its culture, “so customary is the practice of arranged marriage that there is a special name for a marriage which is not arranged: It is called a ‘love match’”(Nanda, n.d.). By subtly reversing the relationship the reader has with the ‘normal’ as ‘strange,’ the new can be viewed more amiably as novel if not outright understand as natural. It invites you and me to immediately check our privileges and biases at the door, disarming without berating and teaching without preaching.
In her discussions with various families practicing arranged marriage, Nanda is confronted with issues with the Western standard for relationships that while obvious to outsiders seem to be ignored by those of us entrenched within it. She tells us, “One hears that in America the girls are spending all their time worrying about whether they will meet a man and get married”(Nanda, n.d.). This causes her to muse, “the endless worrying about the rules that governed our behavior and about our popularity ratings sapped both our self-esteem and our enjoyment of adolescence”(Nanda, n.d.). When captured and reflected back at us, this causes no end to the reader’s consternation. The romance sold to us by the media and cultural norms is supposed to be light and happy not the source of stress and even depression that we refuse to acknowledge it is.
Conversely, arranged marriage, which is seen as a plot device for trapped royals in Westen fairytales, is explained as the intrinsically longer lasting and happier. After pointing out the sugary fast burning nature of the Western standard of love, basic misunderstandings are addressed (Nanda, n.d.). Children are not compelled “to marry a person who either marriage partner finds objectionable” but “in a country where every important resource in life—a job, a house, a social circle—is gained through family connections, it seemed foolhardy to cut oneself off from a supportive social network and depend solely on one person for happiness and success”(Nanda, n.d.). By candidly addressing the underlying concerns of Indian culture Nanda helps the reader to better appreciate the necessity of the practice.
At first, some of the aspects of the system of arranged marriage provoke Western projection of the insecurities we have about our own traditions. While sons and daughters are judged by family members as too “short and dark” or “fat and [wearing] glasses” such physical attraction is obviously not limited to Indian culture (Nanda, n.d.). Yet Nanda is transparent about the more slippery issue of the system. In the attached “Further Reflections on Arranged Marriage…” she explains the toxic potential for familial conflict. A wife is not just a bride, she is a future in-law and thus “now a source of competition for the affection, loyalty, and economic resources of their son or brother”(Nanda, n.d.). But far more insidious is the dowry death, where she can be murdered when “a groom’s family is not satisfied with the amount of dowry a bride brings to her marriage… [and] may even be murdered, and the murder disguised as an accident or suicide. This also offers the husband’s family an opportunity to arrange another match for him, thus bringing in another dowry”(Nanda, n.d.). Meanwhile, the wife’s family is has lost their daughter forever and while it “calls attention not just to the ‘evils of dowry’ but [more importatnly] to larger issues of the powerlessness of women as well”(Nanda, n.d.). This tragically remains a trait shared with Western style relationships.
Ultimately Serena Nanda portrays her experience with Indian arranged marriage with an honesty that cannot be brushed off as merely eager but demands to be taken seriously and compared to what many readers consider ‘normal.’ While it was refreshing to partake by proxy it's still saddening to see the unfortunate similarities we have with our Indian counterparts, which causes one to wonder if such injustice is a natural state for all humans. Despite this natural melancholy I am forced to rejoice in the idea that eventually as we continue to interact with different cultures new solutions might arise from surprising sources. Humanity has been its burden but one day it might be it might find a cure within. At least I hope it can.
Nanda, S. (n.d.). Arranging a Marriage in India. Retrieved from http://wserver.scc.losrios.edu/~anthro/garr/culturalanthro/CAChapter08MarriageFamilyKinship/india20.pdf