The Story of an Arranged Engagement

One of my friend’s younger brothers is looking for a wife, and over the last few weeks, I’ve been following his story as it unfolds.

First of all, I want to get it out there that I have no beef with arranged marriages that involve two informed and consenting adults. When I first heard the term, probably sometime in middle school, I was certainly shocked. It went against my American sensibilities that dictated that two people should fall in love before deciding to spend their lives together. It felt strange to me that someone would agree to marry another person without first getting to know them thoroughly. However, after reading more about it and broadening my understanding of the cultures that still rely on arranged marriages, I came to understand it was just another of way of doing things, and like other types of marriages, arranged ones sometimes work out and sometimes don’t. Although I had no problem with arranged marriages before moving to Nepal, I didn’t really understand the actual logistics of arranging a marriage. The logistics are obviously different in different places, but in Nepal, as I’m learning, it’s very much of a word-of-mouth kind of process.

My friend told me a few weeks ago that her brother wanted to get married. When she mentioned this to me, he had just arrived for a three-week visit to Nepal from the US, where he lives. The day after he arrived, she told us that he wanted to find a bride, get engaged, and then have a wedding within three weeks. Engagements and marriages often happen on short notice in Nepal. You might meet up with an acquaintance, after not seeing her for a month or two, and she’ll announce that she’s getting married in a week! Marriage dates are often chosen by a jyotice, astrologer. If you go to see him about finding an appropriate date, he might decide that you should marry in a few months time or, after reading your birth charts, he may also decide that you should do it immediately. The other thing is that getting engaged and getting married often happen within the span of about a week, so for my friend’s brother to be engaged and then married very soon after the engagement is not so unusual.

What surprised me was that he wanted to do everything within three weeks. Usually, at least in my experience, the bride and groom will have known each other for a while before getting engaged. Sometimes they will have been together for many years, as is more common among younger, urban Nepalis who have boyfriends and girlfriends. But even if an arranged marriage is taking place, families will meet their potential son or daughter-in-law at least a few months before the wedding takes place. Hearing that my friend’s brother was hoping to find a bride, get engaged, and be married all in the space of three weeks was quite a surprise. Imagine going from being single, without a boyfriend or girlfriend, to being married within three weeks! Although, because he lives in the US and only rarely gets to come to Nepal, I understand why he wants to rush things.

The process started with my friend and her family branching out, talking to all of their family, friends, acquaintances, close and distant to find out if they knew of a girl who was looking to get married. Because all of this was happening on short notice, my friend and her family really had to bust their butts to find a girl, and it hasn’t been easy. My friend was saying that finding a girl who has a similar educational background and who is not already in a relationship is very difficult. She said that she’s been hearing about a number of potential brides, but then she’ll find out that they already have boyfriends. As “love marriages” become more common, I imagine setting up an arranged marriage is becoming harder and harder.

There are professional matchmakers in Nepal that provide customers with a set of potential spouses for a fee. But from what I’ve seen, people more commonly find spouses for their children through personal connections. The person who identifies the spouse for a family’s son or daugther would be considered the matchmaker, and it can be risky business. If one of the young people back out or the marriage goes south, the matchmaker may end up taking the blame for the failed marriage. I’ve heard some Nepalis say they won’t get involved in matchmaking expressly for that reason.

Another part of having an arranged marriage in Nepal is finding someone of the right caste. Many Nepali families, especially ones in urban areas, are more open to intercaste marriages these days. I don’t think many would go as far to say that they’re okay with their son or daughter marrying a foreigner (luckily I found a Nepali family out there that is 🙂 ), but intercaste marriages are becoming not only more common but much more socially acceptable as well. My friend told me that if her brother had had a girlfriend from another caste, her family would have been fine with it. But because it’s an arranged marriage, they want to find someone within their own caste/ethnic group. Because my friend is Newar, she and her family have been looking for a Newar girl.

While arranging the marriage of someone, finding the right fit can take a few tries. In years past, I think parents would more often make the decision about their child’s spouse for them, but these days, grown children are often given the opportunity to meet their potential spouse, talk on the phone, and maybe go one a few chaperoned dates. While the decision is still very much a familial one, children now have a say.

This period of negotiation also happened with my friend’s brother. A few years back, he started the process of looking for a wife. Pictures and descriptions of girls who were also looking to get married were sent to their house. He then chose a few girls he wanted to meet. But after meeting the girls, something or the other just didn’t feel right, so no engagements moved forward at that time.

But when I saw my friend on Tuesday, she said that they had found a girl they really like. Everything seemed to be going well. They were planning to be engaged on Thursday, and if my friend’s family had its way, they would be married before her brother left this weekend. However, I saw my friend today, and something was wrong. Apparently the bride and groom called the engagement off. I don’t know what happened; even my friend isn’t sure. But I can say that no matter whether it’s an arranged marriage or not, finding a someone you can spend the rest of your life with takes time! And probably shouldn’t be rushed in three weeks.

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9 thoughts on “The Story of an Arranged Engagement

  1. I’ve written just a little bit about my views on arranged marriage. But your post brought up another point that to me is a reason that arranged marriages can be especially hard for girls. You say that you friend’s brother met with a few girls but for one reason or another didn’t choose them. I know that in Nepal and India that usually the boy or the girl is allowed to say “no” to a potential match….but from my readings (blogs and lots of books) it does seem that it is far more likely and acceptable for a guy to say “no” than a girl. I’m currently reading “A Good Indian Wife” and it’s one of many books I’ve read (by indian authors) that seem to showcase the rejection many girls feel from being told “no” so often. I am halfway through “The Full Moon Bride” which also highlights the rejection (and often depression/despair) that comes for girls who get shown but not picked for arranged marriages time and time again. Have you seen this while living in Nepal?

    I can only base my views on what I have read…..but I’ve read so many books/articles on this from indians that I suspect there has to be at least some truth to it. I can’t imagine how that would affect my sense of self esteem if I was shown off to a stranger and his judging parents and basically told that I wasn’t good enough (sometimes for reasons as simple as lack of dowry). The whole system seems to treat girls unfairly in my opinion. But, my opinion is just that….my opinion 🙂 I don’t judge those that are in arranged marriages or think they are a good thing (I can see the few benefits they offer too….like skipping the stress of dating, etc).

    Just wondered what your thoughts were on this and what you have observed. Have you known any women who have been rejected? How did this affect them?

    • You bring up a really important point. I don’t know that many people close to my age (and who I could ask these questions to) who are in arranged marriages. And I’ve only seen the process happen a few times, so I don’t know much about the the rejection side of it. But I can imagine that the rejection can be excruciating.

      However, I think that the dominant culture in India is very different from the culture in the urban, hilly areas of Nepal (I say hilly areas because I think things in the Terai are different). I’ve only been to India once and only for a short time, so almost all of my knowledge about India is based off of what I read/hear. But it seems that weddings in India are bigger affairs with more money being spent by both families and more at stake. Families also tend to be more conservative and look down on intercaste relationships and love marriages. With so much is at stake, I would imagine the rejection part of it to be more difficult. I wonder if, because not quite as much is at stake in Nepal, women don’t have as difficult of a time when it comes to the rejection.

      The other aspect of it is that I think that women have more autonomy when it comes to marriage in Nepal than in India. So consequently, when a rejection comes, maybe it’s not as big of deal. I’m making huge generalizations here, but bear with me. In some of the ethnic groups that lives in the hills, upper hilly region, and mountains, women have lots of choice about who they will marry and beyond that, they experience a lot of sexual freedom as well. When I lived with my Sherpa host family, I met a number of people who had had love marriages. I also met a number of women who had had sexual relationships before marriage and with multiple partners. All of this was surprising to me because I had initially assumed life in rural areas would inherently be more conservative (maybe that’s a topic for another post). But anyway, there are a number of ethnic groups in Nepal that aren’t as conservative as the Brahman, Chhetris, or Newars, although I think that members from these three groups may have by influenced by the customs in other parts of Nepal. So consequently, women in many parts of Nepal have more autonomy and freedom which could possibly make a man’s rejection of their marriage proposal not as big of a deal.

      This was such a rambling comment! And maybe I made too many assumptions here…

  2. @KC,
    During my arranged marriage in India, 20 girls rejected my photo, despite me being a rich green-card holder. This was many years ago, when India was still a poor country
    In many cases, I got an explicit spelling out of why they rejected my because, they didnt like my photo.

  3. I got this from somebody’s post from Facebook, although a joke, it shows how things are changing these days.

    ‎17th Century Mom to her son
    “Plz marry a girl from Same Caste”.
    18th Century Mom to her son ” Same Religion”
    19th Century Mom to her son ” Same level”
    20th Century Mom to her son ” Same Country”
    21st Century Mom “Anything ok….But a Girl”.

  4. Nepai Jiwan — you are right that in India things are far more conservative and complex than what you have described. Love/choice marriages are not encouraged especially if its an intercaste/inter-faith relationship. I guess we are still in the 17th century from nepalidawg’s joke;-).

    Arranged marriages can work wonderfully if the person’s concerned are matured and allowed sufficient time to know each other before they commit. Have written about it in my blog. But 3 weeks is too short a time to evaluate anything about your life partner! That too for a guy living in the US, I would have assumed he would want some time and independence in choosing his bride!

  5. NJ-thanks for your sharing your experiences. I was surprised to hear about how the Sherpa family and some village people were actually less conservative. I wouldn’t have thought that at all. My Nepali boy is from a “modern” family in Kathmandu but they still expected him to have an arranged marriage within his caste. My feeling is that kind of thinking severely limits choice of life partner in a world of billions of people. Thankfully they are slowly (very slowly) starting to come around but having known Simba for nearly 5 years I still haven’t even talked to his parents on the phone. It is strange to me that his mom would rather him marry a virtual stranger than someone who has known him and loved him (the good and the bad) and stuck by him for so long. But I digress….I’m getting on my own little personal venting rabbit trail here 🙂

    Barani-wow, I’m sorry you had to go through that and I’m sorry if I implied that guys never feel the sting of rejection in India/Nepal. For either sex, I think being paraded in front of judging and critical eyes (either in person or in photos) for a potential marriage would be a painful and awkward experience But I know my perspective is strongly rooted in western tradition. It is hard for me to imagine that my self esteem would remain intact if I was repeatedly rejected by a guy or his family (Simba’s parents not jumping on board right away is hard enough). Of course there is rejection in every culture, but in America there is room to “feel out” if someone is interested in you and take it from there. I can’t remember a time in my life where I felt truly rejected by a guy in a direct way…but I think that’s because our dating scene is kinder in that sense. I’m not sure if that makes sense or not….I probably shouldn’t try to write thoughtful replies at 3am. But regardless, thanks for your comment and for correcting my thoughts that it’s mostly the girls who have to deal with that.

    • Except for Bahun, Chettry, and Newar, and may be few other castes, it was perfectly OK to do a “run-away” marriage (girl and guy decide to get married, they go in hiding for few days, or the guy takes the girl to his house, afterwards families meet together and perform the ceremony). This was a common practice in most Mongolian-origin Nepalese (Rai, Limbu, Sherpa, Gurung etc.) in villages from generations.

    • So its not about being more conservative or less conservative, its just about following the tradition and getting things done the same way they were done for generations.

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