In many ways, Naina is no different than millennial women I know in the United States.
She is 20 and finishing a degree in psychology at a Delhi university. She wears Zara skinny jeans and H&M T-shirts and hangs out with her girlfriends at one of Delhi’s myriad American-style malls and coffee shops.
She listens to R&B and EDM on Apple Music; her favorite song is “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5. Cable TV is so yesterday; she streams shows and movies on Netflix. Her favorite? “Something Borrowed,” in which a young woman falls in love with her best friend’s fiancé.
But when it comes to marriage, Naina’s views might shock American women her age. She reflects a way of thinking long engrained in the culture of my homeland: Your parents know best.
“I believe very strongly in the idea of an arranged marriage,” she tells me over the phone one recent evening. “Not that a love marriage is not right. But it has been instilled in me to have an arranged marriage.”
Naina spoke to me frankly and asked me not to use her last name. In her family circles, it’s best to not to publicly air opinions on such intimate topics.
I knew that many young urban women in India felt the same way as Naina. I spoke with a few on my most recent trip there and discovered that they, despite exposure to liberal ideals, have held firm to traditions I thought would have fallen away by now.
I was surprised by conversations I had with my cousins and the daughters of friends. I saw them as women who were smart, confident and independent, with aspirations for every success. Yet they preferred a marriage that was arranged for them by their parents.
No other choice
There was no choice but arranged marriage for women in my mother’s generation. She saw my father only once before she married him in 1952.
My grandfathers arranged the meeting in the north Kolkata house where my mother was raised. Ma was summoned into the living room for my father’s father to inspect. He approved of the prospective bride.
Ma had a degree in economics and was an accomplished singer. She was asked to sing at that meeting and, as I’ve heard the story, my paternal grandfather was taken with her voice. But perhaps more important, Ma came from a high caste family of good repute.
After that one encounter, my mother was committed to spending the rest of her life with a man she had just met.
Since then, Indian society has changed considerably. Globalization flooded the nation with Western goods — and ideas. Younger women today are far more open in their outlook than were my mother and aunts.
Even arranged marriages have changed among urban, middle-class families. Parents still introduce men and women to each other, but they are usually given time to get to know one another before an engagement is announced.
I grew up in India at a time when most of my cousins and friends were open to arranged marriages. But once our family immigrated to the United States, my father never pressured me to marry a man of his choosing. And that is the way I wanted it. I could not comprehend making a life commitment to someone I did not love.
That was decades ago. I couldn’t understand why young women today were not more insistent on entering a “love marriage.” The very fact that the term still exists serves as proof of how vastly different the Indian outlook on relationships remains.
Rapid cultural change
Part of the complexities in Indian society stem from the rapid-fire changes the country has experienced. Historian Ramachandra Guha argues that India is undergoing not one but five revolutions simultaneously: economic, political, urban, social and cultural. All at once and at warp speed.
Imagine the tension between centuries-old traditions and the torrents of change.
Still, marriage the old-fashioned way seems to be enduring.
Author Elizabeth Flock explored the lives of three married couples in Mumbai in her book “The Heart is a Shifting Sea.” Flock says she came away with a deep understanding of the hopes and fears of Indian couples. She expected that Western influences had wrought change, but she was proven wrong.
Even though women are surrounded by ads and movies promoting love — obsessive, forbidden, impossible love that defies all societal expectations — Indian society is still not ready for all that, Flock says. A big reason: the stigmas that are still attached to marrying someone from a different faith or social class.
“Premarital sex. Extramarital affairs. Women are testing the boundaries,” Flock tells me. “But (society has) such a stranglehold on traditional marriage that I don’t think will change anytime soon.”
Marriage in India is about devotion to another person. About caring, duty and sacrifice. An arranged marriage is based on a premise of permanence. It’s not based on love that someday might fade, but rather a contract that needs to be fulfilled.
And if a woman is lucky, says Ishita Bhargave, love might show up along the way.
Bhargave, 26, has been married for less than two months.
She earned a degree in civil engineering and was working full time for a construction firm in Ahmedabad before she gave up her job to move with her husband to suburban Delhi.
She describes herself as very liberal and told me love marriages are trendy. But such a marriage was not for her.
Even when she was working, she remained at home with her parents. Most Indian boys and girls don’t flee home when they turn 18. Instead, they develop into young men and women under their parents’ wing.
It makes sense then, Bhargave says, that she trusted her parents to look out for her.
“Our parents know us as adults,” she says. “So they are able to find the right guy.”
Besides, she adds: “It is convenient. It’s too much trouble to find the right person.”
Naina echoes that sentiment.
She tells me she had a boyfriend once. She liked him a lot but quit seeing him after her parents told her: “It’s your way or our way. You choose.”
Naina saw only one choice: her parents.
She would like them to introduce her to a suitable groom. She trusts her parents more than herself when it comes to making such an important decision.
“I don’t want to take the responsibility of choosing a man when I am only 25,” she says.
I ask her about the qualities she’s looking for in an ideal husband.
“He should be a nice person,” she replies. “Have good values. Good morals, ethics.”
He should be well educated. And he’s got to have money. That last part is very important for Naina.
“I don’t want to sound like a snoot or anything, but I am used to living a certain way,” she tells me. “I believe if I am comfortable financially, love would be easier. I know for a fact that if there is financial strain, even if you love the guy, it will be hard to make the marriage work.”
The American way
What I gather from Naina and other women I speak with is this: An arranged marriage is convenient. It’s like hiring someone for a top government job and knowing exactly what you’re getting. The vetting is done before anyone signs on a dotted line. And it spares the woman from blame in case the marriage goes sour.
“Ultimately, if I have a problem five years down the line, I will turn to my parents,” Naina says.
She tells me she knows women and girls who are sexually active before they are married. But that is still taboo.
“I think that’s a good thing. It’s healthy, normal. But in India, if you want to date someone like that, it has to be a secret,” she says.
I ask Naina what she thinks about the way things are done in America.
“It’s a different world. I can’t imagine living like that,” she says. “Even though I am exposed to it, it would be a culture shock to me. It’s one thing to know about it; another to live it.”
But what about love? I ask. What about falling madly in love with the man of your dreams? The kind of love in the romance novels she reads and movies she watches that make her swoon over handsome guys and lose herself in fairy-tale notions of relationships.
“It transports me to a land unknown and unreal,” she says. “Watching something that I know is purely fiction somehow allows me to get lost and let go of reality for those two hours.”
And her reality could not be more different.
“I’m not sure I will fall in love with the guy before I get married,” Naina admits. “That happens over time. But I am sure I will like him enough to say ‘yes.’ ”
I ask her how she will feel if she never falls in love with the husband her parents have chosen for her.
Naina tells me that happiness comes from within — not from a new handbag, a vacation or even a relationship.
“These things are easier said than done, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t fall in love with my husband in an arranged marriage. I would sure hope I do, but it won’t kill me if I don’t,” she says.
“We all come alone and die alone.”
She believes her parents love each other, but it’s a different sort of love than the one portrayed in popular culture. Love is only a small component to a successful relationship, she says.
“It’s a love that stems from dependency, habit, need and attachment,” she says.
First comes stability
Flock, the author, followed the three Mumbai couples for her book because she admired them. She thought they might provide answers for marriage that have eluded Westerners, including her own father, who has been divorced three times.
What she found is that though arranged marriages may still be the norm, women in India have developed more of a desire for companionship.
“As I went forward, what was happening behind closed doors was radically different than what was being shown publicly,” Flock tells me. “People were having affairs and secret abortions with lovers. They were really pushing boundaries, while outwardly they were saying, ‘Of course I am going to have the marriage my parents arranged. I am going to do what my mother did.’ ”
Parvati, one of the women in Flock’s book, fell madly in love with the man of her dreams. But in the end, her parents persuaded her to enter an arranged marriage. She now wants her daughter to do the same. Flock says she was shocked by what Parvati told her: She believed the old ways were better; that she would have experienced instability and uncertainty had she married for love.
“Indian women are not brought up to think you will marry for love,” Flock says. “Since you are a baby, your parents contradict what you see in Bollywood.”
Naina is a good example of that. But from our conversation, I gather she’s still holding out hope that the old ways of doing things will not stand in the way of her dreams.
“I would hope that I am destined to fall in love and life has love in store for me in some form or another,” she says.
Maybe then, she says, the novels she reads and the movies she watches will start to make sense.