When I was a little girl an old man in a dhoti often came to our home unannounced. He removed his shoes outside the door and squat cross legged on the living room carpet. He always carried a cloth bag around his shoulder and a small napkin with which he wiped his spectacles.
My mother was always happy to see him and no matter how tired she was, she ran to the kitchen to prepare hot snacks for him which was always served in steel utensils.
Snack over he extracted some photographs and horoscope from his crowded bag and got into serious discussion with my father. When it was time for him to leave, mother packed for him a customary parcel comprising some wheat flour, rice and pure ghee.
He was what they described in traditional Gujarati households- the brahman- and he was also the community match maker. He was well versed with the family histories and went from home to home carryingkundalis of prospective brides and grooms. The parents trusted his wisdom and unanimously submitted to his foresight.
That is how my older cousins and siblings got married.
Then one day, the brahman stopped coming home. My father was concerned. On investigation my father discovered that after a prolonged illness he had passed away in his sleep and his only son did not want to carry forward his father’s legacy. My mother was distressed. “A home not visited by a brahman can never prosper…” she mourned. My father had bigger worries. He was getting on in age and unsure of hunting a groom for my older sister without the brahman’s able guidance.
Contrary to his fears my older sister got married through a proposal brought by a common relative and is today a prosperous wife and proud mother of two children.
So many years have gone by but finding a suitable partner through arranged marriage is still a matter of concern to parents. While on level marriage websites have replaced the traditional matchmaker and facilitated the process, it has added social and economic pressures on the candidates and their families.
A few days ago I was invited by a friend registered with a South Bombay Marriage Bureau for her 21 year-old daughter. The bureau chief had organized a swayamvar for the prospective candidates and their parents at the Ball Room Taj Mahal Hotel.
It was an unusual gathering where every guest was a stranger. As my friend and I entered the room we were handed over a dossier on the prospective candidates. There was a separate seating arrangement for the candidates. The parents of both sat a few blocks away. At the allotted time a compeer came on to the dais and began with the proceedings.
She invited the candidates to come on to the stage and introduce themselves. The first round was devoted to the girls and all of them were self conscious. The second round was for the boys and all of them were awkward. Introductions completed the guests mingled with each other and some exchanged numbers. A few outgoing candidates made an effort to strike a conversation with a promising partner but majority of them preferred to remain aloof.
At the end of two hours my friend and I wondered if the exercise was worth the while. It didn’t seem so. It was an unfair swayamvar because one, there were more number of girls than boys and two; all the girls were far superior to the boys. All the parents in the audience looked extremely anxious and they were not helped by the inexperienced compeer who was too young to handle such a responsible evening.
During dinner I asked some candidates how they rated the evening. Most of the girls confessed to feeling embarrassed. They said it was like being on display but they had no choice in an arranged marriage. The parents complained that the registration fees are too expensive but there is no other option to find a partner for their children.
While leaving I make it a point to express their anxieties to the Marriage Bureau Chief. She smiles, “They have to be able to take it in their stride. It is destiny. My role is of just a facilitator.”
My mind wanders to the old brahman who visited our home. It is strange but in all the years he visited the family he never said any of these lines to my parents. On the contrary he always managed to bring a smile to their face when he said, “Don’t worry Somaaya bhai she is your daughter but my responsibility.”