Sunday, July 21, 1996
She can wed
tradition to today Metro matchmaker reveals delicate balancing
act to 'arrange' a South Asian marriage
WE'RE SITTING in
a quiet corner of an exclusive restaurant in downtown Toronto. I
chose this location so we can remain inconspicuous. The two
young people with me shall be called Vijay and Tanya.
fiddles with her handbag and tries to look confident. Vijay, 24,
twirls his empty water glass, clears his throat for the
umpteenth time, trying very hard to be suave. I try to blend
into the woodwork.
With the three of
us there is no question that I'm the crowd.
I am their
This is Vijay's
and Tanya's second meeting, and their first meeting alone (if
you don't count me). They met earlier at my house when the two
families came together because they had indicated an interest in
finding a suitable match for their offspring.
set up that
first meeting. The two families had never met; when they did,
they liked each other. More importantly, Vijay and Tanya wanted
to "get to know each other more."
And so, here we
are on this chaperoned rendezvous.
I excuse myself
to get some fresh air. The young couple looks relieved. I give
them about half an hour alone. When I return there's a little
more animation on both faces, some laughter (a good sign). All's
well for tonight.
discreetly leaves for a minute, Vijay comments, "She's
lovely, but I'd like to see more of her." I promise to try.
On the way home,
Tanya indicates she likes Vijay. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Now the matter is
out of my hands. Both families will follow up. If the match
works out, I'll probably get a special invitation to the
wedding. If not, we'll try somewhere else.
And so that's my
volunteer job: I'm one of those who helps to bring families
together. But I do this only with people I know.
quite the scene in Canada because the social structure of the
South Asian community here is not conducive to the automatic
matchmaking that occurs in Southeast Asia. There, marriages are
the natural outcome of continuous interaction among relatives,
friends and acquaintances - plus the discreet help of meddling
I consider myself
a bit of a meddler, because I come from a generation of arranged
marriages. I got involved in this interesting exercise for two
reasons (neither of which involve my bank account). My mother
was a compulsive matchmaker and always said, "It's for a
Second, I realize
that South Asian families living in Canada don't have the luxury
of built-in matchmaking. For them, it's important to
"network" and also have venues where eligible young
women and men can meet and interact within the norms laid out by
their community or religion - whichever plays a stronger role in
their lives. People who know people who have eligible children
are always interested in meeting other such people.
Besides, I have a
vested interest: when my two boys come of age, I hope someone
will return the favor.
There are some
unwritten ground rules involved in matchmaking. If the two
parties don't jibe for any particular reason, it's acceptable to
draw back. Usually there are no hard feelings.
don't understand that. They confuse "arranged"
marriages of today with forced marriages - which did occur in
the past and may still occur in small segments of Asian
There also used
to be "totally arranged" marriages - like that of my
sister who didn't see my brother-in-law until the day they got
hitched. Thirty years later, she is happily married, but that
type of union wouldn't fly with today's young South Asian
descendants in Canada.
"semi-arranged" match is the one most acceptable to
young and old. This is when it's set up for young people to meet
and get to know each other, the families approve and the match
The first time I
arranged a match, it was for my brother-in-law, Ahsan. I was
visiting England, he was in Pakistan and I got a message that
there was an "eligible" young woman from a very
respectable family in London. Would I please visit, show a photo
of the pros- t+0 pective groom and check out the family?
I freaked. I
didn't know what to do, how to behave, what to wear. But I made
contact and was invited for tea.
Dressed in my
Sunday best, I arrived at the house and was greeted warmly by
the young woman's family. They served me an elaborate tea (this
was the fun part) and we talked. I met Shanni (the prospective
bride) and was immediately impressed to note that although she
knew I was there to "see" her, she wasn't coy. She
turned out to be incredibly sweet, well-educated and possessed
of a great sense of humor (one of my personal prerequisites).
I knew my
brother-in-law well enough to realize they would get along
together. I showed her his picture and she said, "He's
"this is easy," and reported back to my
that all was well and they could set the wedding date.
What I didn't
know then and learned fast, is that members of the young woman's
family have the right to make their own detailed inquiries about
the young man, because they are, in effect, handing their child
to a stranger.
(The young man's
family may also make inquiries, but only with sensitivity. It is
considered very bad form to in any way suggest that a woman is
less than a suitable mate. The fear is that word might spread,
and dim her marital chances should this match not be made.)
brother-in-law's case, he was called by Shanni's uncle and
grilled to the core. Despite being a smart, personable young
banker, he was sweating and wanting to run away by the time he
was halfway through the "interview." But the uncle was
just performing his duty as guardian of the family.
While all this
was happening, I waited it out in London and, finally, upon the uncle's approval, took the marriage proposal. It was accepted.
Ahsan and Shanni were encouraged to write and speak frequently
to each other on the phone (never mind the phone bills).
Six months later
they were formally engaged; in another six months, they got
married. Today they are happily settled in London, with three
I don't always
meet success in my attempts to match people. There was the time
recently when I thought two young people were perfectly suited
but, when they met, they couldn't stand each other. Before it
became embarrassing to all of us, they said, "Thanks but no
thanks." Without a ruffled feather, we all went our way
looking for other prospects.
Success of a
marriage, any marriage, depends on many factors - the least of
them being how the couple met. To South Asians, marriage is a
life-long bond of pride and honor - for the couple and the two
families involved. If differences arise, the family will help
A factor that may
lead to the success of many arranged marriages is the
expectation factor. Children are told that parents know best,
marriage is forever and love after marriage lasts longer than
instant puppy love.
Take the case of
Usman, 26, who is a brilliant, good-looking doctor with a bright
career ahead of him. A perfect match for any young woman. Usman
lives in Toronto, is totally liberated and modern, and yet he
agreed to let his parents find him a mate.
His mother spent
the past year trying to find a "suitable girl" (as we
say in the South Asian vernacular) for Usman, but one didn't
A month ago,
Usman went to Pakistan for a short vacation, and saw a young
woman his aunt had arranged for him to meet. They liked each
other instantly, met a few times; the respective families
approved of the match. Usman's parents were in Toronto and left
everything in the capable hands of the aunt. A week later Usman
got married. He is back now, beaming with happiness and faith
that marriage is a great institution.
Even in a culture
where family dominates, there are differing views of marriage.
Anu, 17, is typical. She says that when she is ready to marry,
she will accept a match her parents choose, as long as she meets
the young man and gets to know him.
"Even if I
meet and like a boy on my own, my family has to be part of the
arrangement," Anu says. "I won't do anything without
That would make
her the third generation in her family to accept arranged
Pushpa, who is 69, had a totally arranged marriage. Pushpa's
daughter Renu (Anu's mother), now 45, had a semi-arranged
Anu frowns upon
the word arranged. "I'd rather call it an 'introduction,'
" she says.
19, is not too keen on the family involvement scene. "If I
love someone, then it doesn't matter about her family. Of
course, I'd like my family to approve, but it's my life and my
choice. Arranged marriages are old-fashioned and restricted to
the Asian community."
But are they? Not
according to my Italian hairdresser, who is in her 17th year of
a happy, arranged marriage; not according to my Chinese friend
who says arranged marriages are still popular; nor my Portuguese
colleague who wishes there were more matches being arranged; nor
my Greek neighbor who finds arranged marriages a great asset in
Michelle, mother of three girls, a "WASP" Canadian.
"Now that I know how the system works, I'd love for my
daughters to have arranged matches," she says.
"So when do
I register them with you?"
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