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‘Indian Matchmaking’ And The Tradition Of Caste Endogamy

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Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there’s no such thing.
Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die,”- True Love, Wislawa Szymborska.

In the Netflix Series Indian Matchmaking, the matchmaker, Sima, reminds us again and again that marriage is a compromise.

It’s an adjustment, a rational decision, a thought-through settlement. You cannot find everything you are looking for in an ideal spouse, you must understand this is how long-term partnership looks like: incompatible but persistence, loveless but stable.

A still from Indian Matchmaking

It’s disturbing because it sounds like a self-imposed delusion. People rationalising their twenty years of efforts to build intimacy and understanding with their partners, by just convincing themselves that this is how marriages in general are.

The episodes are intervened by short snippets of beautiful couples, who have grown old together after an arranged marriage and clearly are still deeply in love with each other. Their chemistry reeks of perseverance, a mutual sense of respect, but definitely not as a compromise.

Compromise or sacrifice is a formal word for negotiation and not for love. It means “this doesn’t match my expectations but I will settle somehow” instead of “this doesn’t match my expectations but I am pleasantly surprised.

Successful arranged marriages are happy accidents, straight out of fairy tales. But why is an exception assumed to be a rule? For some of the arranged marriages, success doesn’t mean they succeeded because they were arranged. They just mean love is a skill which can be cultivated.

The show revealed interesting contradictions that Indian society is infested with. Ambitious and well-educated women visiting face-readers and astrologers to inquire about their destiny. Young men who have returned after expensive education abroad, looking for women that aren’t “too independent” and can take care of kids or the kitchen. Matchmakers who believed women have to be more invested in relationships instead of expecting a relationship of equals.

Image source: Stills from the trailer.

But, the most striking similarity in the cases of almost all the individuals portrayed in the show was, they were looking for someone of the same caste or community. Sindhis preferring Sindhis over others, Punjabi Sikhs looking for Punjabi Sikhs with no history of inter-caste relationships, Indian-Origin Guyana-born American citizens looking for others with exactly the same background. What was this obsession with marrying into the same community? Why are non-resident Indians who speak with an American accent, looking for partners that “care about their culture“?

Dr B.R.Ambedkar wrote in his paper Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development that the fundamental backbone of the Hindu religion was the caste structure, which was maintained through generations by caste endogamy. This is clearly mentioned in The Bhagavad Gita when Arjun says:

Because of the ascendancy of lawlessness, Krishna, the family women are corrupted;
When women are corrupted, O Krishna,
The intermixture of caste is born.
Intermixture brings to hell
The family destroyers and the family, too;
The ancestors of these indeed fall,
Deprived of offerings of rice and water.
By these wrongs of the family destroyers, Producing intermixture of caste,
Caste duties are abolished,
And eternal family laws also…”

Uma Chakroborty writes in Gendering Caste, “The Kamban Ramayana upholds endogamy: Rama declines Surpanakha’s proposal of marriage to him by first using the argument that as a brahmana woman she cannot marry a kshatriya-that would be a pratilomic union which was not permitted in the prevalent structure of marriage.”

“He states, “I am a kshatriya, you are a brahmana, I cannot marry you.” Here Rama is clearly investing in the prescriptions for marriage outlined by the Dharmashastras. In contrast to Surpanakha’s proposal to cross boundaries, the Valmiki Ramayana states that Sita was duly handed over to Rama in marriage according to the Brahma form, regarded as the highest form of the eight types of marriages outlined in the prescriptive brahmanical texts,” writes Uma Chakroborty.

But, marrying into your own caste, would require numerical equality of men and women. Hence widowed women, or “surplus women” as Dr Ambedkar called it, were either pushed into the system of Sati or shunned to prevent remarriage. This ensured, no upper-caste woman ended up marrying someone from the ‘lower’ castes.

Since the same could not be done with men who were widowers (since they were men after all), they were remarried to girls of an unmarriageable age and kept from marrying out of caste. When Brahmins practised caste endogamy, the purpose was to preserve ritual “purity,” control the sexuality of women and retain superiority by exclusivity. With time, the other castes imitated the tradition and it turned into the very meaning of marriage as we know it.

Dr Ambedkar wrote that the fundamental backbone of the Hindu religion was the caste structure, which was maintained through generations by caste endogamy. Representational image.

An important aspect about Indian marriages, which is apparent in the show, is that ‘love’ and ‘marriage’ are separate entities for most Indians. Love is a casual emotion which had no bounds but also no validation. It was immaterial in the larger scheme of things. Marriage was a serious social institution which was consequential and fundamental to the hierarchal superstructure of family. Marriage involved the bigger questions of retaining the status quo, of inheritance and legacy and pride. In this way, marriage is somewhat capitalistic and different from cohabitation or ‘live-in’ relationships.

The majority of people I have met in my life who strongly believed in the concept of marriage gave me a few common reasons to justify their faith in it. Some of them were: a sense of security, legal rights, for social acceptance, to solidify the relationship or express commitment. I found the reasons very personal and subjective, defining marriage as a ceremony primarily performed for self consolation.

Currently, in India, couples in a live-in relationship also enjoy the legal rights that were previously limited to married couples: the right to maintenance after separation, the domestic violence act, inheritance rights for children born to the unmarried couple, custody rights after separation, adoption. This makes marriage an obsolete social institution which could be reduced to a personal choice rather than a cultural compulsion.

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argued that culture-led men and women to have asymmetrical expectations from relationships, with the result that ‘love’ frequently felt like a battlefield of conflicting desires or a graveyard for their disappointments. Beauvoir wrote, “If both partners conceived of love as a joint project, reciprocal and non-exploitative, if both thought ‘simultaneously of the other and self’, they could succeed at ‘finding the appropriate mean’ between narcissism and devotion. It will not deliver salvation. But neither does it settle for the mutilation of subordination in place of ‘an inter-human relation’ and the satisfaction of authentic love.

Marriage is traditionally the destiny offered to women by society. Most women are married or have been, or plan to be or suffer from not being,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir who never married in her life. However, her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre lasted for fifty years.

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