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For me, arranged marriage is both familiar and foreign.
“A Suitable Girl,” a new documentary film, which premiered at last week’s Tribeca Film Festival, follows Amrita, Ritu and Dipti, three young, middle-class women in India, as they approach their respective arranged marriages.
Some love my story because it appears to confirm their belief that America is doing it wrong: "Kids nowadays—having sex in middle school! Child brides and dowry burnings on the one hand, or henna and Bollywood on the other. But by the time I turned 20, I knew my arranged marriage was set in stone. Yes, he and I picked each other out of the proposals our families offered us. When Alex and I got married, all we had was our raw selves. All marriages, arranged or not, eventually hinge on compromise and change. Alex didn’t pursue me; in the economy of the arrangement, he didn’t have to. Since neither of us freely chose, neither of us tasted the deep pleasures of being freely chosen.
I grew up in the United States, a product of New England suburbia, evangelical Christianity, Wellesley College, But I always knew my marriage would be arranged. Still, I dated secretly in high school and college, hoping that my parents (conservative, first-generation immigrants from India) would change their minds and terrified at the prospect that they wouldn’t. Saying "no" (though I still longed to) was not an option—the stakes in our honor-and-shame-based family were too high. Based on those 20 minutes in my family room, I decided he was a likeable guy. But accommodating a spouse is an entirely different activity from enjoying her. On the other hand, I’m married to a good man who is my partner and my equal.
The first time I met Alex was on my parents’ doorstep, the winter after I graduated from college. 3, or 7, or maybe even 12; by the time my parents met him at the bus station and drove him to our house, I had long lost count.
For more than a year, my extended family had been laboring on my behalf, receiving and rejecting proposals.
At one point, my mother asked me straight out: “What are you looking for in a husband? And a lot of good stuff happens when you are improvising. We wonder whether our culture has asked too much of us.
When my father at last gave the two of us permission to be alone, I ushered Alex into our family room to chat for a quick 20 minutes and decide whether or not I'd marry him. If Alex happens to be around, they appraise us both, searching for signs of trauma or misery. But the life we live together is still difficult for me to reconcile.
When I tell people here in America that I have an arranged marriage, they react in one of two ways. Eventually, they lean in and whisper, “Well, it ended up just fine, right? For one thing, the words "arranged marriage" conjure up images that have nothing to do with me. Love, though—the practical, everyday love we choose in spite of our differences—is unwavering. Neither Alex nor I, when we describe our first meeting, use words like “attraction,” or “love at first sight,” or “romance.” I don’t say, “My pulse raced when you walked in the door.” He doesn’t say, “I got tongue-tied every time you asked me a question.” Neither of us says, “I really wanted to kiss you when we said goodbye.” In my case, what arranged marriage took away early on was the thrill of pursuit.
Things were getting desperate; I was 22, and apparently throbbing with marriageability. As per custom, I met Alex at the door with averted eyes and a guarded smile, feeling ridiculous in the traditional Indian garb my mother insisted was appropriate for the occasion.
Over the course of the next several hours, I served him tea, sat across from him at dinner, and answered his questions about my education and interests. Alex and I have been married for 17 years, and our relationship is stable.