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February 2009

By Rajesh Oza

Dear PMG:

Almost all of my friends have either married someone they met in college or are planning to marry someone from grad school or work. I really feel like this is the right way for me since I think it is essential that my husband-to-be and I have similar backgrounds and interests. Of course there is the chemistry factor called love. But I have yet to meet my life’s soul mate. Meanwhile, my parents insist on an arranged marriage to someone from our narrowly defined caste and community. When I say that I would prefer to marry someone with similar interests to mine rather than someone chosen for me, their smiles fade as they tell me that it would be incredibly sad for me to lose my connection with our homeland and our traditions.

I love my parents and don’t want to hurt them. So I focus on my career and avoid this important part of my life. Until now, that whole thing about ABCDs never made much sense to me; everything was good at home, school, and work. But now that I’m in my mid-20s, my world of eternal sunshine feels confusingly cloudy. I would appreciate any helpful thoughts.

Dear Friend,

“Marriage is a matter of choice.” (M. K. Gandhi).

Gandhiji’s invocation of choice is necessary but not sufficient for the all-important matter of marriage (all-important for most people because it informs the central relationship of their adult life). Your quandary is no doubt between parental past and spousal future. But were life as simple as a choice between the past and the future, the present would most often win: it was your ancestors’ lives; it will be your descendants’ lives; but it is your life, so you must choose your own path.   

The dilemma behind your confusion is not just that of those tagged by that unfortunate four-letter acronym you reference. While it is true that the so-called American Born Confused Desis struggle with cultural identity, young adults in India are similarly working through the choices offered by tradition, modernity, and postmodernity. Indeed, this is not even a 21st century predicament, but a much older one. In his landmark, two-volume Society in India (1970), the anthropologist David Mandelbaum wrote, “The choice of a spouse remains very largely a matter for negotiation and decision by the family elders. Young people, especially those with a high school or college education, are preponderantly in favor of securing greater freedom for themselves in the choice of a spouse.” Mandelbaum creatively subtitled the first volume “Continuity and Change” and the second volume “Change and Continuity.”

Because of the importance of your question, the next two columns will be dedicated to exploring viable responses. Next month’s column will consider marriage from the perspective of continuity and change; the subsequent month’s column will be from the perspective of change and continuity.

[This is part one of a three-part discussion on marriage]

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