Living Room Bazaars, Arranged Marriage and Rohin Guha

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A few weeks ago, I was texting with a friend of mine as she sat on the tarmac waiting for her flight to depart for Hyderabad. “Yo man on my way to London, so many Punjabis on my flight, lol,” she typed.

“Omg be careful. You’re gonna come home engaged,” I quipped — but my text would skirt fate all too closely in the days to come.

She wrote back, “I know seriously, hahaha,” and our conversation trailed off.

As I put my phone down, the thought of my dear friend being dragged to India for the purpose of fixing her rishta made me queasy. Taken to its very limit, such a scenario conjured up horrific images of brown women being rounded up, transported to strange lands, and having ownership of them transferred to new male authority figures.

But Seeta wasn’t being abducted — she was traveling to her parents’ country, alone, for a vacation. This was a young woman who, like many of my friends in their late-twenties, was establishing a successful career in a respected field and claiming her place within a world. With the summer off, she had a few precious months to recharge before beginning a new job. And she had chosen to spend part of that time by renewing ties with family members and old friends in India.

* * *

A few days later, the red numbers in the corner of my What’s App icon began to climb furiously. I checked in to find heated reactions coming through from many of my friends on our regular group chat, appalled and indignant that Seeta had unwittingly found herself face-to-face with a boy her father’s friends — no doubt with the best of intentions — thought she might hit it off with.

“Guys, I’m dying in India,” was how Seeta gave us the news. “Just went through my first accidental marriage proposal,” followed by the hashtag “#bringmebacktothestates.”

Seeta was in Visakhapatnam, a southwestern coastal city, nicknamed Vizag. Paying visits to friends and relatives is common practice when returning to India. This is an obligation few South Asians would ignore. But to be confronted with the Indian equivalent of an interview-cum-blind date when Seeta was called on to visit a family friend’s home was too much for my friends.

Rapid-fire questions stunned Seeta, caught unawares and unprepared, as they sized her up with microscopic attention: “Why did you come to India?” “Are you willing to move to India?” “Do you cook?” “Do you know Telugu?” “When is your birthday?” She knew that they were asking questions but not listening.

One of my friends exclaimed, “It’s always the girls… Seriously, are we always supposed to [be]happy and ‘on’?”

Another friend wrote back, demanding that all “this guerilla marriage shit has got to stop.” We all knew how exasperated she herself felt. She was a promising young medical student whose parents, halfway across the Pacific, had created profiles for her on several Indian matrimonial websites. Incessantly, they filtered through photos and biodata of prospective suitors that passed their standards before forwarding them along to her, insisting she reach out to each and every stranger.

Seeta felt caught off-guard in these strangers’ home, as if she were interviewing for a job. Well, wasn’t she? This was an opportunity to prepare a perfect thaali every night for a man she would inevitably come to love. If not an interview, then she was walking into a blind date that had replaced the dim lights of a cozy bar with the myopic stares and mawkish smiles of potential rishtedaar, relatives she was in no position to disappoint. I could tell she felt the weight of centuries of traditional values and expectations placed squarely on her small frame.

I felt discomfited that Seeta was seeing people in India who were introducing her to a stranger, especially because the encounter was a complete surprise attack for her. I was made painfully aware of how constrained this thing is that we call “agency.” Seeta had done everything right. She’d opted to visit her relatives on her own accord, without her parents no less. She’d answered these inquisitive uncles’ requirements well enough. And yet she still wouldn’t be off the hook until her uxorial status had been secured and her financial stability confirmed. When would she pass the test, I wondered?

Another friend, recently married, chimed into the conversation. “It doesn’t get much better after you get married because they all expect you to start popping out babies as if that’s your sole purpose on this earth.” If the test had already started, I asked to myself, when exactly had it begun?

The problem that I had with this whole episode, I realized, was that Seeta had been placed in an uncomfortable position with little room for maneuvering the constraints of a looming matrimonial. Seeta was trying to do right by meeting her father’s friends in his stead. Her agreement to her parents included no clause that would allow strangers to simultaneously insult and appraise her. She had to be so delicate to extricate herself from this encounter without offending anyone or burning any bridges. Such was the extent of her agency.

Having had very little experience with pressure and scrutiny from my parents in this area, I held back from contributing to the conversation. All I could offer was an “I’m sorry,” for I recognized that as a man I could never understand the resentment many of them felt at having little control in deciding their partners. Perhaps if my parents had fixed my marriage to a woman against my will, I might more closely understand what rage like theirs felt like.

Seeta told me later on that she suspected she would have to meet a few prospective suitors on her trip. But she never imagined that it would happen like this — awkwardly ambushed, helplessly, as she recounts, “thrown under the bus.”

* * *

My What’s App was blowing up the day before I read Rohin Guha’s provocative piece on why he wants his parents to arrange his marriage. Guha, a first-generation queer Bengali writing in Detroit, puts forth several well-considered reasons for inviting them into the selection process — some of them even reflecting what I would want, as a queer South Asian who has grown up in the U.S. He writes, “I simply want to outsource part of the process to people who have a direct stake in me winning at the end. My parents have a direct stake in me winning at the end. Not just in romance, but life in general.”

What Guha seems to be referencing, however, is not a marriage his parents arrange, but rather, what some call “assisted marriages” — collaborative spaces of participation where the balance of power shifts from parents to children, where both sides might have a say. Authority becomes dispersed more evenly across the multiple stakeholders. Guha is describing something of a boardroom, with votes and vetoes, and a more open space of dialogue.

The critical spotlight that Seeta had found herself underneath in Vizag was not an attempt to arrange her marriage. Rather, it was an attempt to assist with it. It was admittedly a good-natured intervention, but one in which the playing field was leveled unevenly against her favor. This was, her elders posited, a helping hand, if we can be generous to them — in case she might need some help in that area.

After all, perhaps Guha’s parents might know more about how to win at marriage (and life) than him. He’s spent a decade dating guys who are just not right for him — a too unstable, too “noncommittal,” too culturally incompetent. A “carousel of horrors,” in his words. I wonder, though, is Guha’s agreeing to an arranged marriage the dividend paid out to his stakeholders?

Guha’s invitation to his parents playfully challenges the outpouring of desi and diasporic narratives that have, in recent decades, responded to and rejected the traditional institution of arranged marriage. For this reason, his clarion call to his parents to find him a husband seems rebellious to the attitudes of many South Asian adults, men and women alike who want to choose their partner. But his call also resists Western neoliberal standards that encourage brown queers to pursue ambitions and attachments fearlessly and autonomously.

Guha’s piece is important precisely because it turns “toward our families of origin,” to use Alok Vaid-Menon’s phrase. “I recognize that for my story to remain true to its origins,” writes Guha, “it needs to connect back to how my family got to the U.S. in the first place. My choices in how I choose to build a family around me need to acknowledge this reality.” Guha’s turn back toward family to play a role in choosing a partner might be, for Vaid-Menon, a political “strategy of intimate organizing.” Guha’s call is one that resists disposability and racism at the hands of the “well-meaning white men [he dates]who believe in the idea of a single monolithic Indian identity — and believe such a thing is shaped exclusively by Bollywood, bikram yoga, and butter chicken.”

Realizing that he wants to involve his parents in selecting a partner for him to marry, however, is a nuanced admission of duty that implicates Guha. His piece reveals the complicated tension between choice and responsibility, made even more difficult by the desire to marry a man. Guha evokes another way of making family, as queer South Asian youth today struggle with how to maintain attachments to their kin, both natural and chosen alike. “I Want an Arranged Marriage” opens to new ways of incorporating parents and partners — or if arranged marriage isn’t new, Guha’s proposal is a reassembly of its traditional building blocks, reworked for a new age.

I have been fortunate, as it seems Guha has been, relatively speaking, with parents who have slowly come to terms with the number of demands I’ve placed on them: I’ve insisted for two humanities degrees, I’ve moved to New York following undergrad, I’ve asserted my sexuality, I’ve asked them to make space in their lives for my boyfriend. In short, I’ve rejected everything they felt would guarantee my security — inevitably, my happiness — for years to come.

As I read Guha’s article, however, I recalled the spasms of guilt and disappointment I felt most acutely as I was coming out to my parents. Guha writes, “In coming out to family, I’ve always thought it silly that the burden of exposition lies with the person coming out. What a cruel and heavy weight to place on the shoulders of a person, likely a kid, who already carries more than his fair share of expectations.”

But in my experience, I’ve always suspected that the burden lies not solely on the queer person who comes out. Rather, the onus is distributed across every individual directly affected by the coming out — albeit not evenly, but dispersed all the same — these are the stakeholders. Would an arranged marriage be, for Guha, a way of appeasing them, of making amends?

* * *

As I digested Guha’s words, I thought about my friends’ outrage as they denounced marriages both arranged and assisted a day earlier. How would different subjectivities approach arranged marriage? A brown woman’s sense of agency is a subaltern voice, a narrative that refused to be silenced that day as my phone blew up. Seeta chose to spend part of her summer in India but hadn’t opted for the awkward set-up she’d been drafted into. She wouldn’t stay quiet about the script that had been flung at her. She wouldn’t agree to the value they’d stamped on her body. In fact, she wanted to scream in Telugu at all of those strangers as they grilled her and scrutinized her into submission.

Five years ago, Guha was professing his opposition to arranged marriage, taken-for-granted within South Asian cultural practice. His logic proclaimed justice for the “empowered woman who puts career and personal interest ahead of marriage.” Yet he also caught his prejudice, recognizing that a woman who enters into an arranged marriage may demonstrate agency herself by choosing a domestic life.

Today, with his realization that he might want to be a part of this ritual, however, Guha enters into shaky territory. He fails to fully account for the circumstances that allow him to ask for his parents’ help. The source of his agency, queer or not, derives from a different subjective position than that of my female friends. I suggest that “Why I Want an Arranged Marriage” attends to the custom with little of the apprehension that I notice is prevalent among the women I know. But that subjective anxiety, felt deep within as the loss of confidence, can only come with experience. Neither Guha nor I can know how a woman’s unease, faced with constrained possibilities, feels inside.

So far, I haven’t provided any of my male friends’ perspectives to the surprise matchmaking encounter we heard about on the group text. As I sat the conversation out, one friend wrote that his sister hadn’t traveled to India for years to expressly avoid the “guerilla marriage.” Apparently the ambush proposal was something I was blithely unaware of. I didn’t need to be worried about these traps laid by scheming future in-laws.

Later, this same friend, a queer South Asian, recounted to me that his parents’ “constant pressure” on his sister to be married put “quite a strain” on all their relationships. How would Guha’s piece look differently had his parents been introducing him to a constant procession of suitors, “each more revolting or unimpressive than the last?” Could this be its own “carousel of horrors?”

Guha celebrates the recent news that a woman in Mumbai has placed a matrimonial ad for his gay son. But if we’re going to institute arranged or assisted marriage for queer South Asians, are we prepared to handle all the anxiety and strain that it might create for our parents and us? Or the ways in which it might further disenfranchise queers of a lower caste or darker skin tone?

As I reflect on how arranged marriages reemerge as many South Asians reach a particular age, Guha’s piece shows how the institution can become a means of suturing ties that may have been ruptured during traumatic moments of coming out, when children break silent promises to parents. An important rite at Hindu marriages is the performing of the saat phere, seven circumambulations made while reciting certain prayers. But these aren’t necessarily contractual agreements exchanged between spouses, as a Judeo-Christian tradition might encourage. These are pleas to the divine to guarantee their health, happiness, and prosperity.

Marriage is therefore not only a contract between partners, but also an obligatory relationship between newlyweds and higher powers to sanction the jodi. This includes parents, as I see it, and Guha’s piece hits at this crucial point. It’s not that parents know best or that they want the best. Rather, it’s a more nuanced understanding of upholding a sense of duty to forces greater than your own. It’s a form of invoking blessings from those unions, both spiritual and parental, that might support a new and shaky embarkation into uncharted waters, what Guha calls “a fucking gambit.”

Ultimately, I remain equivocal about Guha’s piece. I’m not sure whether to be angry at him for unsatisfactorily accounting for experiences of women up against arranged marriage — an institution as sexist, racist, caste-ist, and patriarchal as they come. His experience can never fully relate the burden that women feel as they sit on tarmacs all over the world, destined for futures both secured and insecure with pardesi partners. Seeta felt judged on her worth, she told me after she was #broughtbacktothestates. She confided in me, angrily, “I felt like they had put a price tag on my arm.” Living rooms resemble bazaars.

Instead, then, should I be grateful for Guha’s attempt to recuperate a deeply entrenched, and for some, a meaningless cultural practice on his own terms? Guha seems respectful and considerate as a son — characteristics I admire as an important demonstration of his agency. His invitation to his parents is another form of agency. None of his choices — or any of ours, for that matter — would be possible, however, without the constraints put on us.

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