I attend an Indian wedding and account for a marrying vendor of socks; I crack the code of matrimonial ads to reveal the eligibility of Ph.D.’s, pigments, and beards.
Weddings are big in India. I’ve heard several processions with banging crackers, pounding drums, tubas and trumpets and loud raucous horns. I’ve stumbled across two in the street. Retainers carried lanterns that lit up the night and sparkled off saris and suits. Just along the lane is a wedding hall where I’ve seen workers hanging chains of fairy lights on trees and lining the entrance steps with pot plants – I’d sometimes hear the wind and percussion players at night. During the first week of the English course in Bangalore, I actually attended my first Indian wedding, for the daughter of a friend who lectures here.
Ravi’s daughter’s do was less flamboyant than those I had glimpsed, in a Methodist church decorated with flowers and yellow ribbons in a fairly Western style. At the end the bells rang ten times, rings were exchanged, and the groom placed a floral wreath around his bride’s neck. It drew her white veil in like a Muslim headscarf – I thought the mixing of East and West in this case seemed a little inelegant. At the outdoor reception in the cool of evening, church songs played softly, lights lined tree trunks and cascaded from branches. Red-white striped curtains muffled Bangalore’s traffic and you almost forgot it was India. Speeches were short and plates piled high. We had to eat in shifts as there were 1000 guests.
That’s not excessive. One day a man at the wedding hall down the road told me they were celebrating his cousin’s marriage and expected 2000-2500 guests. Not for nothing is it said, “a wedding costs one thousand harvests”; guests expect to leave stuffed with food. Marrying off your daughters can be crippling. Rural girls are still burnt to death in “kitchen fires” because in-laws find their dowry inadequate.
Last Friday night on Bangalore’s Brigade Road – lined with McDonalds, KFC, Nokia and Levi’s – I met Abdul, who illustrated the nuptial challenge. He was a middle-class looking bloke with neatly trimmed hair, tidy jeans and sneakers, and a bulky backpack. His father’s death had left him responsible for his two sisters. He was still paying off one sister’s wedding; the second was in eight months. He needed cash.
By day Abdul is an event manager; from 8pm till midnight, every night, he sells socks on the street. He charges 100 Rs for a packet of three pairs, making 30 Rs profit and about 15,000 Rs per month – his day job nets 20,000 Rs. By my calculation, that’s about 17 packets per night. Sometimes, he said, his backpack empties in an hour. That day was slow and at 10pm he’d only sold eight packets.
As we talked, I gave a few coins to a barefoot kid pointing to swellings on his neck and ankles, after Abdul assured me he really was poor and police don’t allow begging gangs (see my change of heart about giving to beggars here). Around the corner, Abdul’s friends in white Muslim gowns were laboriously slipping hundreds of sunglasses from a display rack into individual covers. They said around 8 pairs get scratched every day, slashing their income.
It’s a hard life and saving up for the wedding is not the only challenge to getting hitched. I have before me the matrimonial section of the Hindustan Times, New Delhi edition, Sunday April 1, 2012. Each page has 10 columns of small print proposals: five sides for “Grooms Wanted”, then three sides for brides. It’s a rich source of social data and I perused the entries for several hours one evening.
The first hurdle is to crack the code: “PQ SM 4NM 3-2-1983, 10.23PM / 5’5” Gori”. After comparing adverts with varying degrees of abbreviation, guessing and googling around, I’ve deciphered much but not all of the entries. Many read like a chemical formula. The author of “SM 4 Pb Sr Br NM B’ful Girl” is seeking a match for (SM4) a beautiful girl, who, for a chemistry grad like myself, is clearly marked by lead, strontium and bromine. I’m unclear why these particular elements should be so alluring. I’d have gone for Ag, Au, or perhaps Pt (for non-chemists: silver, gold, or platinum).
Matrimonial ads are surging in popularity, and in 2006 the organised marriage industry in India made US $180 million. India has over 100 matchmaking websites and I read that a few years ago the top two alone had 20 million users. www.shaadi.com (in Feb 2015 it claimed to be “trusted by over 30 million for Matrimony” and it has arranged over 1.3 million marriages) and www.bharatmatrimony.com both franchise off-line centres, often staffed by older women who resemble traditional matchmakers, reassuring prospective parents who feel less comfortable than their offspring online.
In a country still divided by caste (see my post here), I’m encouraged to learn that the younger generation is starting not to care. A few years ago one survey found that 64% of Delhi men thought inter-caste marriage was okay, though only 24% did from Chennai in the south. I was pleased to see ads that say “caste no bar”, though unsure how enlightened “upper caste no bar” is supposed to be. Entries grouped by region fill many columns in my paper, but there are still sections for specific castes. The longest is for Brahmin, the uppermost caste who are traditionally priests and have the most exclusive purity regulations. Some wanted a specific sub caste like “gaur Brahmins only”. The four major castes have thousands of subdivisions and even untouchables often despise lower ranking outcastes.
My overwhelming impression from the paper is that, even if caste consciousness is thankfully decreasing, it is being replaced by class snobbery based on physical appearance, professional status, and wealth. Many entries seek a PQM or professionally qualified match, often working in a MNC (multinational company), although some blokes prefer a “homely” girl (a euphemism for barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen?) Many specify their own salary in LPA or lakhs per annum (1 lakh =100,000) or modestly demand a match with “salary in six figures pa”, if not seven. Entries read like mini CVs, listing qualifications for “convented” girls who attended good Catholic schools, to MBA, MPhil. and studied in England, or “completing Ph.D. Ivy League University”.
There are sections for Doctor, Engineer, MBA/Professional, and parental professions are also flaunted: daughter of bank manager, colonel or business mogul. Candidates are frequently “hailing from a respectable high status family” and seek a “decent marriage” with a “stld” or settled family. Sikhs seem to pull out the most stops, purchasing the pricey ads with bigger print, standout shading and floral borders. The following filled half the column height:
South Delhi based renowned, sophisticated, sikh family having various multifaceted business interests seeks alliance for their very pretty and enterprising only daughter… We wish to hear from an educated very smart and enterprising boy from a similar status business/industrialist/highly placed professional open minded family with refined taste in life.
A 2009 Nielsen survey of 1000 Indians found that 70% of women are more likely to marry a clean-shaven man. For a bearded bloke, Sikh adverts had a further delightful twist. Conservative Sikhs wear turbans and trim neither hair nor whiskers, unlike some of more liberal persuasion. The divide is evidently of matrimonial moment. One prospective groom comes “from Non-Trimming Non-Drinking family”. One girl’s family “seeks turbaned Sikh boy”, while another “seeks shaven Sikh”. And I loved this modest special:
An Affluent Sophisticated Cultured clean shaven Sikh business family living in a posh area of S. Delhi seeks alliance for their slim, fair, beautiful, highly qualified and homely daughter.
Girls in their late 20s, shockingly late to be single, mostly “look much younger”, and many girls have a “wheatish” complexion, which I understand means midway in shade between despised dark and desirable fair (see details at www.wheatishcomplexion.com). A few ads mentioned the pigmentation disorder of leucoderma which I’ve seen and brings social stigma: “smart girl having white spots” or “has 2% white patches”.
On one page of my matrimonials is a Hindu advert with two swastikas. It was a religious symbol from millennia before Hitler, but Mein Kampf was prominently displayed at the airport bookshop (and is applauded by some Hindu fundamentalists). Caste racism extends to skin colour here and whitening products are widely advertised: Aryans reign supreme. Bollywood stars are generally pale-skinned and some endorse whitening treatments; feminist and social rights groups have accused them of racism and demoralising women by promoting lighter skin as superior and dark as despicable. There are more recent male treatments like Fair and Handsome, but the most prominent is for women. Its website www.fairandlovely.in says:
Fair & Lovely was launched in 1975 and Indian women finally found hope in a tube. In a very short time, Fair & Lovely would become women’s accomplice that would provide her with the natural fairness that she always longed for.
Typical advertising videos (watch some here) show a girl with a dark face who once slouched around in depression, unwanted by boys and bosses alike. Then Fair & Lovely “gave her the confidence to achieve her dreams” by bleaching her face. Now she dances in ecstasy with white streamers, trailing handsome men and earning mega-rupees. In other ads, a prospective dusky-skinned bride had feared rejection because the boy’s family wanted a fair bride, or the horoscope wasn’t quite right. Then the magic of Fair & Lovely “changed the stars of her destiny” and gave her nuptial bliss.