Ama, my maternal grandmother, was an accidental matriarch. She was pushed into that unenviable position in our strongly patriarchal Kumaoni Brahmin community by the sudden and untimely death of her husband.
She’d had little formal education and her command over English was also a bit shaky, but when Ama spoke about tradition, she usually had truth as well as wit on her side. Marriages, she said, may have been conceived in heaven, but since they have to be solemnized on earth, it is pointless to expect divine help in finding a perfect match for one’s child.
Look at King Janaka of Mithila, she’d say, the most learned astrologer-scholar of his time, and he couldn’t foresee when he married his daughter Sita to the prince of Ayodhya that she was going to be exiled to a forest, not once but twice by the Ayodhyawallas, while her husband, the divine incarnation of Lord Vishnu, just looked on! No, Ama said, we mortals must fall on our own resources and an occasional use of guile and subterfuge to check in on the candidates while matchmaking was perfectly justified.
Amazing how relevant Ama’s tactics remain to date.
The phobias, the neurotic timidities and aggression that guided matchmaking and the marriage ceremony in her days are still around. And most Indians are still a little wary, if not totally outraged at the thought of their young falling in love and choosing partners.
On my writing desk wedding invites lie all swathed in expensive silk, some studded with crystals and inlaid with gold and silver threads. Inside, they name the couple perfunctorily and then go on to list parents, grandparents, great grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, siblings and a dozen nephews and nieces as folks that await your darshan (darshanabhilashi) and merciful presence (kripakangshi) at some half-a-dozen festivities. The kangaroo-like pouches within the cards carry at least sub-invites that list these fringe functions “ring ceremony, cocktail, mehndi, ladies’ sangeet” and god knows what else.
But, even though the flesh is willing, the ever-wise spirit tells me it is actually rather weak and unlikely to withstand so much merrymaking in a week. So I keep throwing the cards out and rescuing them with the good intention of sending a “thank you and bless the happy couple” note later. The sheaf keeps accumulating tea rings and finger marks and one day, after the wedding season is long over, I consign them all to the trash basket with a sigh.
In Ama’s time, the family elders were supposed to know best, period. Matchmaking firmly excluded the boy and the girl and was carried out entirely by families in consultation with the family astrologer, the local barber (since he regularly shaved and massaged all eligible and non-eligible males in the area) and sundry close and trusted relatives.
I recall Ama dictating to me one such letter of “observations” to a non-resident relative regarding a particular young man who had been recommended by someone as an eligible bachelor to the parents of some unnamed marriageable girl from our vast clan. After the routine … “May peace be upon you, worthy of all high titles, Shri so and so,” Ama came to the point, “since you had asked me to check on Shri so and so’s chiranjivi son, I note below my findings. Of course the young man has an impeccable lineage and counting seven generations from his father’s side and five from the mother’s, one could detect no blood relationship, so that particular aspect, too, is taken care of.
“The young man is said, moreover, to be of a most obedient son to his mother, and a good earner. Physically, he is somewhat dark of mien and, according to Ramnath Baaji, the barber, has a cast in one eye. As I observed his gait from my house, his left leg seemed a bit shorter than his right. Upon enquiry I learnt that his mother, while she was expecting him, had stepped out to see an eclipse which resulted in the aforementioned anomaly. However, as a groom he is alright. Don’t just gape at me, write girl, write !” The last command was barked out to me. “But Ama,” I remonstrated, “after naming all those awful physical defects, how can you say he is okay as a groom?”
“Shut up!” said Ama, “who are we to find fault in another’s son? And in any case, if finally the parents decide to marry their girl to the bloke, can you imagine how foolish that can make me look? How does it matter if a sweet made of good ghee turns out a little misshapen?”
Those of us who have begun to challenge the traditional ways of matchmaking, but expect perfect matches nevertheless, are haunted by the question. Will this marriage last? Choosing a job is not hard for our young because the nature of most jobs is clear and they can easily check if their skills match the requirements. But since most of them still continue to grow up—in the most profound sense, virtually fatherless, can they be entirely trusted when they reach the age of consent to choose a bankable partner? Sons, who have grown up with daddy always at work/asleep after a long day/out playing golf/tennis or simply brooding in his study know as little about women as they do about being men. Ditto for daughters.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com