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The Marriage Mirage

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November 2003
The Marriage Mirage

By ASEEM CHHABRA & DEEPA AGARWAL

A look at why matrimony is becoming elusive, distant and even optional for many Indian Americans.

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If the chorus of the exasperating sighs of the desi singles (and their parents) on the topic of marriage were to be condensed, it would surely create more commotion than a sonic boom. In the words of a youngster at a singles scene, "It's a loaded topic, dude."

Indeed it is a topic more than any, that may well be responsible for the conflicted vexing of the young (and the not-so-young) singles, as well as for the graying hair of their parents.

Not surprisingly. Rarely in eras past, has there been such dramatic social change in the span of a single generation. More so for the young Indian American who, besides the global changes, has to contend with living amidst two diametrically opposed cultures when it comes to issues such as sex, dating, and marriage. To them, the fact that some of their parents tied the knot after hardly a meeting or two is downright unsettling and archaic.

Such friction from the collusion of cultures is quite dramatic. On the one hand, the mainstream generation now considers it a remarkable feat to remain married to the same person for their entire lifetime. On the other, our traditional Indian belief regards marriage as a bond meant for seven lifetimes! (As incredible as it sounds, there are countless bollywood songs attesting to it.)

The result is a Pandora's boxful of questions and quagmires for both, the desi single and their parents. "There are days when it seems like finding the right guy and staying happily married ever after would be no less than hitting the jackpot," observes Ashima Ghosh*, age 35, who has had a lot of time to think about the subject after her recent engagement was called off. "Think about it," she implores, "If all the expectations of our culture, tradition, and of our parents were to be met, along with all our own aspirations and hopes for our mates, not to mention our pragmatic realities as working women, there would be about a hundred-and-one things that have to be just right between the bride and groom for it to work."

Ashima, a software engineer by profession, represents a growing rank of singles in the community who would agree that the odds are increasingly against them. There is a foundational shift in expectations as well as circumstances from their parent's generation. It's a different time, a different place, a different culture. Nitin Dixit, a software engineer from Atlanta observes that "America is a hodgepodge of values, cultures and norms which confuses people; a confusion that I think is great; because this means that they will question not only the purpose of the conjugal life, but possibly also of their very identity and existence. Some may then choose to wed and some may not."

While not much statistical data is available regarding marriage amongst Indian Americans or South Asians, our extensive dialogues over many months with experts as well as others in the community, suggest that we may have hit a groundswell of low intensity pessimism towards matrimonial prospects.

WHY IS MARRIAGE SUDDENLY SUCH AN ENIGMA?

The answers seem to fall in the realm of both, choice and circumstances. Initially, many choose to delay being hitched; later circumstances take over. Then again, there are cases such as those of Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya that epitomize an amalgamation of both, choice and circumstances that conspire to keep marriage a mirage ? always at bay, but never at hand.

Dr. Bhattacharya flip-flops between two different mindsets. When she is busy taking care of patients or writing a grant, she is thankful that she is not married. "I know women who are married and are constantly trying to juggle their children and their careers," she says. The 37-year-old director of research at the New York's Wycoff Heights Medical Center and an assistant professor of family practice at Weill Medical College of Cornell University adds, "The kids require to be picked up for piano lessons and school performances. They can't just leave their kids behind ? it is close to impossible for them to do 7:00 AM conference calls with London."

But at other times when she is not busy, such as when she recently attended the screening of a film about Afghan refugees, she wishes she had a man in her life ? a husband, who would accompany her to these events. "There is part of me who would like to take a guy, go out for a dinner, talk about the film and walk back home," she says.

Bhattacharya represents the face of many Indian Americans who increasingly face the matrimonial conundrum. They are our friends, brothers and sisters, sometimes colleagues ? those who have postponed getting married for career or other reasons or have missed the opportunities presented them. They now see the pool of eligible spouses shrinking and their chances of getting married reduced. Some still hold on to the hope that they would meet the ideal match, while others seem to be content with their busy lives.

As she looks at life and the missed opportunities, Bhattacharya appears to have regrets. But she has not given up hopes of finding the right husband. "As much as I have those busy moments, there is a part of me that feels increasingly that I want to share with someone my life, my CDs, my books, my assets, my thought process, someone who has the same world view as I do," she says. "When I come home with an award or recognition, I want someone to share it with, to celebrate it with someone."

Like Bhattacharya, Dr. Narsi Narsimhan, also postponed his marriage as his career was picking up ? first while he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas in the mid-1980s and later when he moved to Atlanta, as a professor at Georgia Tech, and now as an offshore software development entrepreneur.

"Until recently I did not feel internal pressure. I am still young at heart. Well everybody thinks they are young," says Narasimhan, who is 41.���If his age is a factor, he tries not to make too much of it. But during each telephone conversation with his mother, "she asks when I am coming to India, and when I am getting married. She even says I am getting older."

Narsimhan has dated both Indian and American women, but increasingly, he finds it hard to fit it into his busy social schedule. Besides being an entrepreneur, he is also the founder of Indian Professionals' Network which has gained him high visibility in the community and keeps him always on the run.

"I feel that if you get married, it has to be your number one priority. Right now my highest priority is building my company, and you cannot have two highest priorities," says Narasimhan.���

Both Dr. Bhattacharya and Dr. Narasimhan illustrate one of the predominant reasons for delayed or averted marital life ? careers! In fact, their growing significance serves as a double whammy against marriage. Careers are increasingly important to both men and women ? leaving very little time, energy, and initiative for much else ? let alone the wedded life. Particularly impacting is the fact that women are now empowered to tackle the single life unlike those of generations past.

Ashima Ghosh, the software engineer does blame her career as the reason for her broken engagement. Elaborating on it, she says, "It's not that my fianc� was old fashioned about my having a thriving career. In fact, he seemed quite open minded and liberal. But gradually, through our courting, we realized that we both had very promising careers and ambitions to match. I was keen on relocating from Memphis, TN to Atlanta to join a promising start up as a partner. He couldn't conceive of moving at his stage in his career. This and many other issues mainly dealing with practical realities such as ?Did we want latch-key kids in our future?' constantly hounded us during our courtship."

"The institution of marriage is still very important within the South Asian community," says Margaret Abraham, professor and chair of the department of Sociology and Anthropology, at Hofstra University in New York. But she also concedes that Indian Americans, especially women are getting married later. Kshama Kakade, proprietor of Vivah, a marriage bureau in Georgia, and the editor of a quarterly matrimonial publication by the same name, observes, "Only a few years ago, a larger number of younger girls were seeking matrimony; today, they are choosing to take more time. The average age group of most of my female clients is approximately 32 years."

The growing importance of careers is just one amongst many reasons affecting matrimony. The changing value system is no less responsible. According to Mumbai based sociologist Dr. Vijya Kamat, the inducement of India into the global economy, combined with the huge exodus of Indian migrants to Western countries has dramatically dealt an about face to the Indian diaspora. Family ties have weakened; traits such as togetherness, tolerance, and adaptability have been replaced by individualism. According to Dr. Kamat, while marriage has always been the brunt of deprecating humor throughout the ages, this is the first generation wherein a certain strata of society have begun to regard it as a burden, or at the least not as a necessity.

What is true for the contemporary Indian society is perhaps even more pronounced for Indian Americans. Indeed, such flippant attitude towards the vows is certainly evident all around. Sujoya Roy, a 37 year old New York-based insurance executive says she likes the idea of being partnered, but not necessarily married. "I feel like marriage is a very legalistic, formal thing and more relevant if you want kids. I have nothing against it. I don't scoff at people who are wedded. But I feel marriage is a word. For me being partnered is important."

Sapna Shahini is even more averse to the idea. Listening to her talk about it, one can see why. Shahini, age 25, who currently lives with her Indian boyfriend, had decided early against marriage, which, to her, is just a formality. She is an Anglo-Indian with an English mother and a Sindhi father. She grew up in Bombay in a fairly liberal atmosphere. "My family is not typical," she says. "I didn't have the idea that I had to get married at a certain age. No one in my family had arranged marriages." She has three older siblings. Her sister married a Palestinian man. That ended in a divorce. Her elder brother had tied the knot with a Swedish woman, and that too did not work out. The third brother currently lives with his girlfriend.

"We all have our twists on things and none of us did the conventional thing," she says, adding that she has not seen any marriage really work. Her parents are still wedded. "But they do not have a good conjugal life. My grandparents stopped sleeping in the same bed for decades. My parents, my sister, brother ? no marriage in our family has worked."

It's no wonder she says, "I don't feel the pressure to get married. I am living with someone. Why do I have to have it on paper?"

According to Joseph Padanilam, a 32-year-old, South Asian Catholic, such disenchantment with the vows may also be due to the depressing statistics ? nearly half of all first marriages in the U.S. are likely to end in divorce. While this national average may not apply to our community, our divorce rate is certainly on the rise too. "Seeing your dear ones go through the emotional pain and psychological trauma that divorce brings forces you to reexamine your own marital needs and wants. If neither the statistics nor the experiences of your dear ones slow you down, then the taboo against divorce within our community certainly will."���

Of course, there are those like Mike Sharma* who laughs this off. He is not one to write matrimony off. He believes in its sanctimony and is on a quest for it. Sadly though, he feels trapped between the traditional arranged marriage and the modern dating game. An architect by profession, Mike was born and raised in India and came to Atlanta for his graduate studies. "I think the arranged marriage system, in its old, crude form, is extremely humiliating for both the girl and the boy," he says. "Yet, playing the dating game is no less complicated. It is like walking a tight rope whereby the mind goes through many calculations."

Commenting on Indian American women who were raised here, he says, "I have realized that they have reservations about first-generation or newer immigrants. ?FOB' (Fresh off the Boat) ? the popular reference itself is highly degrading. We are perceived to be less cool or savvy. Consequently, we have tend to have little social compatibility with those women who are raised here and have such preconceived notions." Kshama Kakade too sheds light on this, "Generally, women raised here are less inclined to seek recent immigrants as partners. Comparatively, men raised here are more agreeable to it."

It's not just the recent immigrants who are facing such challenges. There is a whole new paradigm shift in matchmaking that would daunt anyone who is not fortunate enough to run into their soul mate. From family, friends, neighbors and aunties, the matchmaking has shifted to newspaper ads, internet, and now even cell phones that help subscribers find suitable matches? while between business meetings.

"There is no sense of courtship in this technological, fast-paced world," says Giri Coneti, a 29-year-old Atlanta professional. There used to be a time when ice breakers were a norm. There was also a successful method of meeting people. "Now people think icebreakers are archaic and instead embrace an impersonal computer ad to meet and possibly marry," Giri argues. Modern technology is changing the mechanics of communication and not all for the best, he emphasizes. "It belies all dating rituals which may be causing delays in people marrying."

Though, not all agree that successful pairing is such a far-fetched notion even with all our unique circumstances. Chandrika Vira who runs Weddingmantra.com, a site promising ?complete wedding solutions', says she sees happy weddings as a routine occurrence. Indeed, many would agree that there is a vast area of healthy balance between the conservative ways of our heritage and the new realities of our times. Says Vira, "I agree that couples are getting�married later in their lives. However,�this does not mean that South-Asians are losing interest in the institution. Couples are�just taking their time getting to know each other. Statistics on weddings also prove my point.�Over the last two years, while the economy has slowed, weddings have continued their upward trend. Attendance at bridal shows is up and wedding vendors are noting an increased clientele."

"The fact that they are becoming choosier is a sign that young men and women of this community are becoming more aware of the work involved in a wedded life and are looking more carefully for a suitable partner.�This is a healthy indication of the maturity of this generation," adds Vira.

But good luck convincing those like Ashima who find themselves in the rut. The way they see it, there is this sundry list of obstacles such as: careers edging conjugal life in importance, women being empowered enough to tackle the single life, the sanctimony of the marital institution being questioned, the statistics on it being so bleak, and the mechanics of dating getting tougher, to name a few. "With all this stacked up against you, you would think that we (our generation) would be more flexible and relaxed in what we seek from our prospective mate. But no! If anything suitors ? me included ? are even more selective and demanding. To begin with, we require that he has to be the right degree of ?Indian-American'; and then his family (at least the parents) need to be liberal enough to ?welcome home' a women of the times; and then he has to be good looking, suave and with a sense of humor; and then we need to have something in common; and then?" Ashima continues ? leaving no doubt that indeed, for many, marriage remains a mirage.

[Reporting credits shared by Neha Shah]


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