'Arranged-with-love' marriages blend India traditions, modern culture

11/26/2012 12:00 AM

11/26/2012 1:17 PM

Angela Kumar toured the South Asian Bridal Show at the Sacramento Woodlake Hotel last summer, planning her marriage to a man she's barely met.

She sampled spicy hot curries and inspected burgundy and hot pink lenghas – chiffon bridal dresses studded with crystals – and the henna tattoos traditionally applied to a bride's forearms and feet on her wedding day. She soaked up love songs by Raghav, a Hindi R&B crooner from Canada.

A graduate of Sacramento State who works in a bank, Kumar, 27, was born in Sacramento to Sikh and Hindu parents and is very much a modern woman. But when it comes to finding a husband, she's done it the old-fashioned way: She let her parents' generation arrange it.

Kumar reflects the enduring power of arranged marriage among the Sacramento region's more than 42,000 Indo Americans. Arranged marriages, practiced globally for centuries, have disappeared in much of the world, but are still relied on by a majority of South Asian immigrants. In India, the tradition dates back thousands of years, to village barbers and gurus who served as matchmakers.

Even some of those who fall in love spontaneously are having "arranged-with-love" marriages, a hybrid in which both families have to sign off on the union and participate in elaborate nuptial ceremonies.

While Kumar and many other Americans of Indian descent have tried love American style – following the heart – many say they find arranged marriages are often more solid and reliable. When families on both sides get involved, they say, it provides some insurance that the marriage will survive rough waters.

Kumar said she had her heart broken by a guy she met on her own. "I did have a relationship before this, and it didn't really turn out that well," she said. "I met the first guy at a family event in 2001. He approached me, we dated for five years and he cheated on me."

After her love match failed, Kumar went to her parents, immigrants from Fiji, and put herself in their hands. Her aunt introduced her to Raj Singh, who now is studying automotive engineering in Australia.

"I went to India to meet him," said Kumar. "We went on a couple of dates and ended up tying the knot there. Raj is very respectful, and has a really good sense of humor."

He proposed to her on his knees, "so it had both a traditional and modern twist," she said. "Hopefully he'll be here by the end of the year."

Ravi Verma, an Indian immigrant who teaches religion and culture in the Sacramento area, said there are practical aspects to an arranged marriage that help foster a lasting union. In an arranged marriage, he said, "The whole family's involved in both good times and bad. If the couple is not getting along, parents intervene and they fix it."

In a so-called love marriage, he said, "you have no United Nations in your war, no families intervening."

It also helps, he said, that in arranged marriages, "both males and females have very low expectations of love, while in love marriages, often involving outgoing personalities, expectations are very high and there's a high rate of disappointment."

Recent census data bolster the notion that arranged marriages have staying power. In California, South Asian immigrants and their grown children are less likely to be divorced or separated than any other large ethnic group.

In the Sacramento region, just 5 percent of Indian and Pakistani adults are divorced or separated, compared with 14 percent of adults of all ethnicities, according to U.S. Census data.

"In India and Pakistan, divorce is a huge stigma; the culture tells you to stay in the marriage," said Farha Ternikar, associate professor of sociology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. "But in the United States, we believe in individual happiness."

Education comes first

In traditional families, the hunt for a suitable spouse begins in earnest once an Indo American woman completes her education, said Manpreet Gill, 24, a nursing student from Natomas.

Like many Indo American women, she's seeking an arranged-with-love marriage, where her parents give her the leeway to choose a husband – so long as they approve.

Gill said her parents, who run a convenience store in Sacramento, have bought into the arranged-with-love concept. "My mother's very big on me being an independent woman," Gill said. "My parents said. 'If you ever come across someone who's worthy, let us know.' "

This means they can veto her choice, said Gill. "They told me, 'If you pick someone we don't like, we won't have your back,' " she said.

Like many young Sikhs, Gill plans to marry someone of the same caste. She's from the Jatt caste, considered the highest by lineage. "I feel there will be a deeper connection there," she said, "not just for my parents but for myself."

Semi-arranged marriage has worked for Gill's older brother, Bikramjit "Sunny" Gill, who works in the family's convenience store.

His parents started the old-fashioned way, showing him pictures of potential brides. "I rejected more than 20," he said.

Then they suggested he consider Narinder Kaur, the daughter of family friends. The two had once been in the same Sikh dance group, but hadn't talked in years.

"First, we were just texting, then he told his mother, 'I want to meet her before I say yes,' " Kaur said. "We spent two months of phone calls, messages and face-to-face meetings before we told our parents to make it happen."

Sunny Gill liked Kaur's direct approach and intelligence – she's a registered nurse – plus the fact she laughs at his jokes.

"He is really funny. He makes me laugh all day, even at night – even if I'm alone, I'll be thinking of him and laughing," Kaur said.

Engagement ceremony

Earlier this month, they were formally engaged in a five-hour ceremony in Ceres.

Manpreet Gill applied makeup and the bindi on the bride-to-be, along with jewelry. The groom's mom draped her in a hot-pink chuni, or scarf.

The couple sat side by side in gold chairs, and fed each other sweets. Their in-laws showered them with gifts. Friends and family dropped $20 and $100 bills in their laps, a ritual known as shaagan, a token of love.

"I felt like a princess," Narinder said. "Traditional marriages always involve a lot of people, five or six families working together. It's amazing."

Websites abound to help families on the hunt for a suitable match. Vasuda Rathaure, who comes from a suburb of Mumbai, said her mom found her an American husband on jeevansathi.com in 2010. The site – with the slogan "Indian Matrimonials – We Match Better" – will match people by caste, religion, age and language.

"He's two years older; he's in I.T. My mother's brother met him first, found him to be good," said Rathaure, 29.

Her husband, Ashish Singh, 32, came to Sacramento six years ago and decided he did not want to marry someone he just met on his own.

"I want my mother's approval – I trust her judgment," he said. "My mother met her first; we were talking on the phone, on emails for three to four months, asking each other a lot of questions."

They said the first eight months of marriage in Sacramento were rocky. She felt like a prisoner in their apartment, because she couldn't work without her green card and didn't know how to drive. He was often gone for business.

But he taught her to drive, and they've grown happy together.

"I adore her," Singh said, "and I adore my mom."

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