This recent article about how India’s arranged marriage scene is changing brings to light a relatively new development: the marriage detective. Apparently, people fake details on their marriage profiles and these detectives dig deep to “out” any omissions and/or misrepresentations. Fascinating.

In the not-so-distant past, when marriages were arranged through offline social networks, there was less of an opportunity to fake resumes, I suppose. Mostly, this was because the people who introduced the parents and families to each other or, to use a more correct term, brokered marriages had a certain standing and respectability within the same social circles. They ran the risk, no doubt, of becoming outcasts or pariahs if they did not disclose or lied about important and relevant details. Also, the needs of both parties were not quite as involved as they are now in a more technologically connected and educated India. So, today, the marriage broker’s role has evolved to this combination of a sophisticated matrimonial website plus the intrepid marriage detective.

Growing up in India, from a very early age, I had a firm conviction about not wanting to go through the conventional arranged marriage process. Partly, this was because I did not see any desirable models of arranged marriage couples/families around me. And, partly, this was due to a belief that committing to spend my life with someone would, in turn, require a decent upfront time commitment to get to know, respect, trust and love him for the right reasons.

My conviction only grew stronger over the years as I witnessed the grand production that most Indian weddings tended to be, with their many rituals, the countless nosy relatives, all the giving and taking and irrelevant (to me) excesses. Don’t get me wrong — I understand the history behind the need for rites and rituals and large numbers of witnesses. And, I do believe that marriage is a momentous enough cause for celebration with family and friends. I’m just not a big fan of all the noise and chaos that today’s big, fat Indian wedding typically creates. I also appreciate that, these days, many Indian weddings are far more tastefully and thoughtfully done. Still, if I ever tie the knot, I hope that it will be done with a small bunch of people in an intimate setting.

As the above video and article shows, the process nowadays is better. Especially within the urban middle-and-above classes, the to-be couple is allowed to court and date for a respectable period of time so that they can get to know each other better. This is progress indeed even it is only among the liberal elite.

What has not changed much, though, is the underlying set of values and ideals that drives the filtering, vetting, matchmaking, selecting steps of this entire rigmarole. I conducted a personal survey recently to get viewpoints from parents, husbands, and wives. Admittedly, it’s not very scientific as I could only ask such personal, sensitive questions of family and friends. And, it is definitely not representative of Indian society as a whole. Still, these responses were thought-provoking. See what you think.

Parent (Male): I thought she would be a good match for our son because she had a pleasing, gharelu (homely) personality while being educated enough to blend in well with our social and professional circles.

Parent (Female): She shares our family values. (When pressed gently to elaborate) I mean that she understands a wife’s role and a mother’s role in the home and she would be willing to make the necessary compromises to keep her husband happy.

Parent (Male): He comes from a good family — no drama, no skeletons in the closet and very well-off.

Parent (Female): He’ll keep our daughter in the style and comfort that we’ve afforded her. It will be an easy transition from one home to the other.

Husband: When we were getting to know each other, she laughed at all my jokes. But, more importantly, she calms me down when I need it — I have a very short temper. That she’s also hot goes without saying.

Wife: I thought that, being an only son and coming from a well-off family, he would be a good provider and take care of all my needs. And, he is well-educated, which means that he’ll manage to deal with pretty much anything that life throws at him. I just had that strong sense that he’s the sort of person who can bounce back from adversity, no matter what.

Husband: She has a maturity beyond her years, so I thought we’d get on well. She enjoys travel as much as I do. And, she’s educated and wants to work. All my friend’s wives work. I couldn’t marry someone who just wanted to sit at home.

Wife: He’s stable, well-settled, with a good job and high ambitions. He doesn’t have a problem with my active social life, he said. That’s very important to me. And, though he and I have very different tastes/likes in food and hobbies, I think that opposites attract, don’t you?

There were a few more responses, but this cross-section should suffice to illustrate my conclusions from this small social experiment.

I’d expected that the parents, the older generation, would stay true to the values that they had themselves sought out when they’d been married. And, while it is natural that the current generation thinks a bit differently, it is interesting that there are still strong ideas about the traditional roles of the male as provider and woman as homemaker. Fair enough. All couple relationships, arranged or otherwise, involve a certain amount of role-playing to keep a balance of sorts.

But, the thing that bothered me the most, I suppose, was how most of the husbands described their wives’ desired/desirable attributes in terms of how they enhanced or complemented their own attributes. I did encourage a couple of the husbands to talk a bit about other qualities they admired, loved, respected about their wives that had nothing to do with their roles as wives or homemakers. This is a very difficult question to ask without upsetting or annoying people (particularly, I must add, the average Indian male). What I was trying to get at is whether the wives were being seen as individuals in their own rights. And, to their credit, most of the husbands understood the question. They just didn’t seem to agree with its validity. One responded: “I know what you’re saying. But, I’m married to her. I cannot look at her without thinking of her as my wife and our relationship.” Another one, a very smart IITian, said: “I think you’re trying to ask me whether I think that the sum is greater than the parts. I think it is because she fills my gaps, smooths my flaws. That’s why we work well together.” Yet another one: “It’s no different in the West, you know. I lived there for many years. I even dated a white girl at university. Couples there too look to “complete” each other.”

The IITian had it right, of course. I was trying to get the men to define a successful marriage as one where the sum is, indeed, greater than the parts. But, that can only happen when each person is loved and respected for the whole package that he/she brings to the relationship; when it is viewed as a marriage of equal individuals by both husband and wife and their respective family members. The quick retort, when I suggested this, was that if the couple was happy with how they viewed/accepted each other, who was I to complain? Fair enough.

Again, I am not suggesting that all arranged marriages work out this way. Nor am I suggesting that, in contrast, love marriages don’t face similar challenges. And, of course, this is not how all Indian men think. Still, though India’s approach to marriage has moved forward, thanks to online technology and marriage detectives, sadly, the patriarchal mindset hasn’t quite disappeared. The pool of prospective spouses has been nationalized, offering thousands more choices than the old-fashioned marriage broker. But, the age-old restrictions and traditional requirements related to caste, religion, gender roles, and so on continue to hold strong.

To anyone reading this and contemplating an arranged marriage, allow me to recommend Drs. Arthur and Elaine Aron’s famous thirty-six questions as a way of getting to know and appreciate your future partner as a person in his/her own right rather than simply someone who meets particular needs. Read the New York Times article on it too. [Note that these questions aren’t just to find someone to love but also helpful in creating better friendships, as Dr Elaine Aron has pointed out.]

Let’s end with something uplifting. Here’s the wonderful Sinatra telling us how love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. Enjoy.

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