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The Journey That I Can Never Forget

Last weekend was an important anniversary for me. 

October 13.

That date, in all of its bittersweet glory,  is indelibly marked on my brain.

It was the day that I set off on a very long journey, embarking on a fresh, new life to a different continent – with fear and confusion uppermost on my mind.

Picture an unsophisticated, super-naive just-turned seventeen year old girl from quite a few years ago in India. 

It was an India that was before economic reforms, its first “shining”/”rising” periods and before we had the emancipated Indian youth of today. Oh yeah, it was also definitely before personal computers, the internet and global connectivity had made their arrival on the scene. I know, I know, that’s tough for some of you young ones to imagine.

And social media meant tea and a newspaper with your neighbor. It was not even a gleam in anyone’s eye. (Hint: Mark Zukerberg – born: May 14, 1984 – had not been conceived. In fact, had his parents even met yet?).

In case you didn’t get it, I’m giving you just enough information so you can guess at the general time frame and visualize that environment.  Got it?

So, this girl was a typical teenager but one who had led a fairly sheltered life with a loving and protective family, and therefore you could say that she was not quite grown-up and certainly not worldly yet, especially when compared to similar aged kids of now. Or then.

Before she knew it or could absorb its impact on her future, she found herself engaged to be married to a person that her parents had picked out for her. He happened to live and work in the United States of America, an Indian immigrant in that too-faraway land of dreams. 

When she got engaged, she had completed her tenth grade and done a few months of “Pre-University-PUC” in college, essentially the beginning of what would have been her junior (11th) year of high school.

A few months after the engagement and right before the wedding, lo and behold, for the very first time, she actually met the guy who would be her husband. [I know, I know – its simply mind-boggling how this sequence of events unfolded, like it was the dark ages – which it most certainly wasn’t. Even I’m bewildered whenever I think about it! ] 

And then, before she knew what hit her, the wedding festivities came and went.

She was left in a complete daze, this teenage bride.

The process to get a green card when you marry a legal immigrant living in the United States takes a protracted amount of time today – a couple of years. If you’re lucky.  I have met many people in this situation, always, always complaining about this delay.

That year, however, it took only a few weeks.  That young bride, she just wanted to weep in frustration at the speed! 

I still remember how she prayed that this milestone would be delayed, wishing that it would take much longer – so she would not have to leave behind her parents, her friends, her family, her country so soon –  everything that she was familiar with in her life.

At that point in time, the very last thing she wanted to do was to abandon her comfort zone and race off to that distant and mysterious country and a brand new life.

To make matters worse, an entire army of family members came to the airport in Madras to wish her Bon Voyage. I mean, she was actually leaving all of them! And everyone and their mother (literally!) were weeping away to glory.  😦

How could this have happened?

As she sobbed and boarded her maiden flight (fumbling with her seat belt, not knowing what that contraption was there for, or how to unobtrusively figure out how the darned thing opened and closed…), there was no hope, no joy and very little expectation

Uppermost in her mind were fear, uncertainty and confusion – about what turns her life was about to take.

Landing amid the ocean of chaos that was JFK airport at the other end of the journey was  not designed to calm her either. Pure culture shock!

The feelings of that journey are all so strongly etched, that no matter what happened afterwards, the heavy-duty emotions of October 13th endure still. Even more surprising – smaller memories such as the smell of that Air India aircraft when I first entered – even these have not faded away!

Fast forward and retrospect.

Yet, without that unwanted journey many years ago, there’s so much in life that she would have missed out on. (Yes, it’s so easy to say. Now).

Little did the young girl of that time realize that this journey would be one of the best things to happen to her!

That she would reach adulthood away from India and all that she was familiar with, but that everything would work out just fine. That she would survive. And that she would embrace (practically inhale!) each and every break that the land of opportunity would throw her way. And even some that it didn’t.

And that her most precious coup would be creating and nurturing a family, together with that long-ago stranger. 

Little did she know.

[Hmmmmmmm…I guess my parents knew what they were doing after all.  😉 ]

Emotionally, that was one heck of a wrenching experience.

Which is why October 13 is such a red-letter day for me. It’s one that I will never forget.  

Leaving her ties to India was truly heart-breaking for that green girl.  Yet what wonderful cards life dealt her after the fact – with so many ways in which to learn and grow. Not all ups, mind you, but ups and downs.

The yin and yang.  

What did I tell you? That’s what this life of ours is all about!

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P.S.  And who ever imagined that I would be back as an expat for any period of time? To experience and savor the yin and the yang of (a new) India…I’m soaking it up like a sponge! Lucky me.

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In India, Marriages are Made in Heaven. Or Shaadi.com

There’s Change. And then there’s Change.

India is a-changing. Rapidly. I’m not sure how many times I’ve written this. It’s becoming rather boring, even to myself, to keep repeating this mantra. But, what can I say? It’s what has happened to this country during the long period when I was living elsewhere, oceans away.

For change to be pervasive or significant, you have to imagine what it means for a nation of more than 1.2 billion people. Kind of like the changing of direction of a massive ocean liner. It won’t happen in the blink of an eye. But over a couple of decades? No question about it! In so many aspects of life, work and living in India – change is visible, dramatic and immense.  

But not so much in the case of Indian marriages. In this case, there’s probably been more of a very slow evolution, than any kind of revolution.

The Curious Case of Arranged Marriages 

This has been a country of arranged marriages over the ages, specifically way back since the fourth century.

So, just because the country has opened up to the West and just because of global mass media and communications, it doesn’t mean that centuries of tradition can or will become undone, especially when it comes to such life altering decisions.

Sure, there are some changes, especially in the metros, where marriages of ‘the other kind’ [regularly referred to as “love marriages” 🙂 ] seem to be more commonplace, but even in the metros, arranged marriages continue to rule the roost.

Marriage is still considered in India as uniting families rather than individuals.More of a family alliance than a union between two souls, that’s for sure.

These arranged marriages originally became a practice for the elite in society to maintain their high status. Gradually it became pervasive in Indian society in general, where each class sought to maintain its respective status.

A Central Fabric of Indian Society. But Why?

According to sociologists who have studied this broad phenomenon in India, historically and even today, arranged marriages serve various purposes in most of the diverse communities across India. 

1. Maintains social status and satisfaction

2. Gives parental control of children’s futures

3. Preserves ancestral lineage

4. Provides an opportunity to strengthen the family sub-group

5. Allows the consolidation and extension of family wealth and property

6. Enables the preservation of endogamy, the practice of marrying within a specific ethnic group, class, or social group, rejecting others (on such a basis) as being unsuitable.

When you think about this carefully, it’s easy to veer from the good to the ugly. It’s a dichotomy. On the one hand, you have something that is very practical. On the other hand, that same something is also rather cold. And, where in all of this is there any room for that concept called romance

The Modern Matchmaker

Into this old country with timeless traditions, enter shaadi.com (Note: “Shaadi” in Hindi means wedding).This was back in 1996. The founder, Anupam Mittal was a single guy who was having trouble finding the right girl to marry. So, he decided to marry technology to tradition and create shaadi.com. Or so the legend goes. From what I have read, he has remained single. But that has not stopped him from being the online facilitator and the “arranger”, so to speak, of countless Indian arranged marriages.

You have seen companies that have mission statements that speak of various prosaic or esoteric missions. For example, there are some staid one’s such as Microsoft’s

“…Helping People and Businesses to Realize their Full Potential”.  Oh…kay.

Or something fun, like Zynga, the games company, which describes itself as such –

Zynga wants to give the world permission to play… 

That’s pretty neat. Still, shaadi.com has a higher purpose. Here is how it describes itself –

using our services to find happiness.

It goes without saying that these folks equate marriage with happiness. Some would say that was a pretty contentious stance to take. But not many in India, I dare say. 

This online marriage broker is obviously doing something right in this country of a billion plus people. This site is ranked in the top 10 most visited sites of India.  They’ve hit a sweet spot, for sure.

Besides, it was also ranked as the most innovative company in India by Fast Company. Perhaps that’s because of the the way it applies technology to marriage – making it easy to use, safe, private, comprehensive – offering a whole host of variety, selection criteria, and ultra customer-focused.

So, how does it work?

Essentially it’s like a dating service except that there is only one real goal: M A R R I A G E. You can think of it as a dating service customized for Indians, with all the quirks and traditions that they are used to and need.

Versatility, Thy Name is Shaadi.com

In India, it’s not always the individual to be married who submits a profile on shaadi.com. Carrying its well-established tradition forward, it could be parent(s), sibling or some ‘elder’ in the family who decides that the candidate wants marriage. So, essentially, in these cases, you have just moved an “offline”, analog process to be online and digital. According to the site, a whopping 30% of profiles are submitted by someone other than the marriage prospect. This goes back to my theory that the ‘business’ of marriage in India has not changed much over the centuries.

No doubt shaadi.com is providing a valuable service to a country that is still very traditional in its approach to marriage and life in general, by using technology to expand the universe of the prospective groom or bride (or their parents) to find their mate for life.

In addition to helping the traditionalist, there is also something liberating about this process because even as this site enables the conventional Indian approach to get results, it also offers an opportunity for people to move beyond caste, community, religion and language  – should they choose to do so.  For example, perhaps an individual chooses to find and meet someone who has similar interests, rather than similar castes or backgrounds. They can do so now in the privacy of their home unleashing the power of their advanced search feature…all at their fingertips!

The service uses a subscription revenue model but I have yet to find any financials of this private company. However, with 15 years of history, this company has managed to touch over 20 million Indians globally and claims to have arranged a whopping 2 million marriages. Wow!

In addition, they have a mix of 70% Indians living in India and 30% Indians living outside of India. They have an impressive six million unique visitors every month with three million active members currently. The ratio of male to female between the ages of 21-35 is 65 to 35% – I’m not quite sure what conclusions to draw from this difference.

Shaadi.com may be the most well known and successful marriage site in India, but as you can imagine in this massive market, there’s room for copy cats, some backed by big name companies. So, here are a few more with some interesting names-

jeevansathi.com (“lifelong friend”)

simplymarry.com – labels itself as the first “metro-marriage” site.

bharatmatrimony.com (“bharat” – another name for India)

lifepartnerindia.com

vivahabandhan.com (“marriage bond”)

marriageexpress.com – Hmmmm, that sounds kinda fishy….

and of course, secondshaadi.com.  Why ever not?

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Photo credit – Traditional Indian Wedding: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/bd/Indian_wedding_Delhi.jpg/500px-Indian_wedding_Delhi.jpg


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