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A couple of wing-backed chairs and sofas sunk luxuriously into the lush wine carpet at the chic restaurant in Hyderabad where Supriya and Kamal had met for the first time last September. Their lives were a world apart: she, 29, was a management consultant, child of a Bengali family settled in Bhopal; he, 32, was an upcoming Telugu actor, a far cry from the line-up of suitable Bengali boys Supriya’s parents had been parading before her ever since she came of ‘marriageable’ age.
Countless such ‘boy-seeings’ later, she found herself face-to-face with Kamal, listening attentively as he talked about his hip Telugu lifestyle. “No averted eyes, guarded smile or pursed lips. The best thing about Supriya was her openness to other cultures,” recalls Kamal. When their conversation went on well past midnight over several plates of Andhra prawn fritters, red wine and the different acting styles of Mithun and Nagarjuna, they knew they had a match on their hands. “It wasn’t as if my pulse was racing, but I did not find myself tongue-tied either,” Supriya reminisces. “I felt an immediate connect with him.” Three months later, it was band, baaja and baraat for the couple.
Inter-community marriages like Supriya and Kamal’s are nothing new, but so far they fell predominantly in the realm of ‘love marriages’. That now is changing, with marriage portals, social media, matrimonial columns in newspapers, even old-fashioned family, friend and religious networks actually ‘arranging’ such matches. ‘Caste no bar’ was once a measure of cosmopolitanism in matrimonial ads; today, even community is not, at least in the cities, sometimes even in the smaller towns. It’s still a small number, a huge 90 per cent of marriages still being arranged within caste and community parameters, but the signs are encouraging.
Reeba and Rajneesh, for instance, first met on an online wedding portal. People are nothing like their profiles on websites, they say, but Reeba found the appealing snapshot of a brawny Rajneesh on his high mountain bike against the looming landscape of Ladakh pretty close to real. “We met in a week’s time and then planned a trip to Lansdowne to see if the magic was still working,” says Reeba, 30, a hard-nosed entrepreneur from Delhi. Rajneesh, 30, her husband now of three years, had his eyes set on photography and design. “We went from Bangkok to Goa to London before finally getting hitched.” And thus it was that a loud, go-getting Punjabi kudi came to be wedded to the quiet, introverted Rajneesh, and to the northeastern culture of his home in Nagaon, Assam.
Yes, they have overcome barriers of caste and community, region and language, but are couples like Supriya and Kamal or Reeba and Rajneesh more the exceptions than a norm that might come to stay? Says author Nandini Krishnan, “The shift in gender roles over the last few decades was bound to be a factor. Criteria have changed too—people are more concerned about what the other person wants from life, where they want to live and so on than where they pray, or what his or her ethnic identity is.”
Nothing exemplifies this better than the ambition Rajneesh has set for himself and Reeba. On to a new business venture, he says, “We both want to be influential and rich, and of course see the world together.” This can have nuances. For Supriya, there are no similarities in what she and Kamal like to do, where they want to go or even the films they like to watch. “But our core values are the same.” And that is what conquers all: hiccups of rituals, language, cuisine. “Our marriage was a hotch-potch affair,” says Kamal. “She wore a Chandni Chowk type lehenga with shimmery bracelets, I wore an Andhra-style kurta with an ornate topor. The cuisine was a mix of Mughlai, Arabic and Bengali, with pineapple tikka, haleem and navratan salad. It was a non-ritualistic occasion. We had relatives and friends from Hyderabad, Bhopal, Calcutta and Delhi who wanted a little bit of both cultures.”
According to matchmaker Gopal Suri, such marriages have actually doubled in the last six years, especially in educated and NRI families. “If they are financially equal, chances are they’ll look beyond their own community,” he says. Gourav Rakshit, coo, Shaadi.com, couldn’t agree more. “Now many Indians believe that the perfect match is more about matching compatibility than horoscopes. Education and social media have made spouse-hunting simpler.”
It’s no longer unusual to see singles sign up on countless matrimonial websites, microblogs and regional sub-sites, with the ‘Community no bar’ tab against their customised profiles. That is exactly how Leela spotted Nitin on a matrimonial site two years ago. “He hadn’t even uploaded a picture, nor was he the curious sort. But somehow I felt I must pursue this,” says the 29-year-old visualiser working in Delhi. And when they met a couple of days later, it felt ‘Oh so right!’ What didn’t help was the fact that Leela came from a strictly vegetarian, teetotaller, conservative Bihari family, and Nitin, 30, from an outgoing Tamilian one, and is someone who loves his beer, his Chicken 65 and late-night revelry that came with being the manager of a top Delhi restaurant. Worse, none in Leela’s family had married outside the community before. A bit of coaxing later, the two decided to go for an all-out Bihari wedding.
Compromise and adaptability thus are two factors such marriages hinge on. And not just before the event. “When I was a bachelor, I had a freewheeling existence. My house was in a disarray, but now Leela insists on the minutest of details—from the colour of furniture to the choice of cutlery,” says Nitin. It hasn’t been an easy transition for Leela either. “I was a shy girl who generally kept to myself. But you should see me now: I watch late-night films, try out new recipes, even drink once in a while!”
It was bound to happen. Beatrice Jauregui, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who has worked extensively on inter-community marriages in India, says people are moving away from their home communities for education and work to large urban centres. “Quite naturally, they’ll be involved in a larger geospatial spread of activities, meeting different kinds of people.”
Yet, says sociologist Surinder Singh Jodhka, the phenomenon is found more among upwardly mobile families. The middle class, he says, is increasingly looking at similar professional backgrounds over other factors. Youngsters travelling through the country on work, staying in different cities where they may be posted, cities becoming more multicultural have all contributed to this trend. High-rise apartment complexes in cities like Pune and Gurgaon also throw people of different regions and communities together, bound by the common way of life in the city.
At the engagement ceremony of Raghu and Mayuri in Thane, there are some 40 people gathered at their spacious residence. Even in this motley group, it’s easy to tell the boy’s family from the girl’s. They come from the border region of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, wearing their nose-rings on the right and speaking a thickly accented Marathi. They may be sparring over whether the milkier Marathi coffee beats the sharper version of the south, but they have agreed on the match. “We knew the boy is from a decent family and that is enough,” says Mayuri’s mother, multi-tasking briskly through the maze of activity at home. Raghu, 30, is a scientist in Minneapolis; Mayuri, 28, a dyed-in-the-wool academic. “We were both looking for sensitive, educated companions, irrespective of community,” says Raghu. “Our parents of course shortlisted profiles, looked out for the astrological signs and then gave us the go-ahead,” says Mayuri, dressed in a bright pink embroidered sari and a baroque Marathi nosepin. “But we had clear notions of an ideal match, having lived and worked overseas for a long time.”
Planning for the big day was a bit frenetic, though. “Coming from different regions, our parents would not understand what the other was saying and often ended up agreeing to something they didn’t know,” Mayuri chuckles. Her folks had spoken to Raghu on the phone several times, but never met him.
Bridegroom Shabaab hadn’t seen Priya either, except in a family photograph. But the young entrepreneur had marked her out, the girl in the yellow suit. Their mothers had met in Delhi, become good pals, chitchatting over cups of chai, exchanging sweetmeats during festivals, sometimes even plotting to get their children married off. Never mind that Priya’s was a Hindu family from a small town in Bengal, and Shabaab’s folks are liberal Muslims from Bihar. “Our folks knew each other well and introduced us, silently hoping it would work out,” says Priya, 26. Three months later, the qazi came home to officially stir the Bengali Hindu-Bihari Muslim potpourri. Not religious but cultural differences caused some initial worry. “There was some resistance from friends and a few relatives, so we decided to bridge the gap by hosting a grand reception in Delhi,” says Shabaab. “With the aroma of mutton korma, kasturi fish and freshly warmed rosogollas in the air, it was impossible not to set aside the differences!”
Such differences sublimated, will marriages continue to be a function of karmic destiny in India? Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Arranged Marriage, believes families are becoming more accepting of the new trend, allowing couples to make independent choices even within framed set-ups. Arranged marriage as we knew it is being rewritten. It’s now called the Re-Arranged Marriage.
By Priyadarshini Sen with Prachi Pinglay-Plumber and Francis Maindl