A disembodied screenshot has been getting folks hot under the collar on Twitter. Let me assume that you, my wonderful reader, have a full and healthy life and only use your phone to listen to treatises on dhrupad. And to call your grandmother. Let me tell you about the disembodied screenshot (provenance and veracity unknown) way out in the bloodied fields.
Titled “confession”, the note begins, “29 Female, B.Com, not working as of now. I am speaking to 14 guys through matrimony (assume this is a reference to a matrimonials site) and confused, which one should I choose. Please help:” Then follows the list that starts “Guy 1 -32, Byju’s 14 lpa, Bangalore” and ends with “Guy 14-29, IPAC, 18 lpa, Hyderabad.” Lpa means lakhs per annum here. Twice, in her list, she tersely points out a physical factor like bald or only 5ft, 5 inches. Otherwise it’s all about what is affectionately known as the take-home package.
Though plainly written, the note would certainly have Jane Austen nodding along at this truth universally acknowledged—that money in its many-splendoured monetary instruments is a factor in all kinds of marriage. Or so you would have thought but the level of pouting and bitterness from men (and some women) would make someone think that this is the first time on God’s green earth that a woman or man has applied their cold gaze at a marital prospect.
Many young men have wailed on Twitter that it is this, this, this very brutal objectification that has made them hate women/not trust women/avoid women. Terrible. Some people have mildly pointed out (if into the ether) that 29 Female, B.Com should consider the character of these prospects alongside their annual incomes. Several others have been amused that this slight lifting of the hood on the arranged marriage engine has upset anyone. But many, many people who I would have assumed live in this world have expressed their sadness at the state of the very same world where marriage is reduced to this haiku-meets-sudoku situation. I can only ask, à la Alia Bhatt, what jhumka?
Data journalist Rukmini S., while analysing a 2018 survey of over 150,000 households, has written that “93% of married Indians said that theirs was an arranged marriage”. She points out how little this has changed over the decades—a full 94% of Indians in their 80s, when asked, reported that they had an arranged marriage and over 90% of young married Indians in their 20s reported the same. In India, marriages are almost inevitably both arranged and endogamous. Non-savarna folks often point out the switch and bait culture of their savarna lovers discovering that they “can’t go against their parents” only at the very last minute, when they decide to get married. As of 2014, only 5% of marriages were inter-caste.
While marriage can occasionally be wonderful, its basis is all manner of contracts—both spoken and unspoken. The contract mutates but its basis is convenience. In most societies, it’s extremely convenient for men. It is also extremely convenient for carrying on the institution of family—procreation, status transfer, labour, business, real estate. At the simplest level, the addition of a daughter-in-law is one more set of hands in the kitchen, one more body in the household, capital infusion to add a floor to the half-finished family home. It is unfavourable to women and often just bad for their health, as studies comparing the health of single men, women, married men and women show. Society continues to make it difficult for women to stay single, herding them through peer pressure and everyday hoarding of resources—no access to property, poor access to higher education, difficulty in renting, differential treatment from healthcare services—you know what I am talking about. And once you are in a marriage, oh sister, it becomes a bit of a Hotel California situation for most women to escape or even slowly back out without alarming the animals.
Glacially slow progress has been made in making marriage slightly better through decades of painstaking feminist activism. Dowry, a.k.a. money, though no longer the sexy political issue that made cover stories in the 1980s, continues to be a reason why women are murdered, continues to be a reason why women kill themselves, continues to be a reason why women are beaten. What is a way in which women can lower the statistics of getting beaten in their marriage? Oh, “the ownership of immovable property”, as the eminent economist Bina Agarwal pointed out way back in 1994. Money again.
In comedian Danish Sait’s recent “love marriage” series, the female character, while delighted to be proposed to by her boyfriend, immediately tells him that they need to convince her parents. Disgusted, he replies, “what l**da love marriage is this, I should have given your dad only this ring then?” I don’t have any data to indicate that non-arranged marriages fare any better as egalitarian relationships in India. Is there any less violence, more income parity, more sharing of household income? I don’t know. But my (very unscientific) gossip network suggests that whether appa got the ring or you did, marriage continues to be not a jolly place for women. In Sait’s sketch, the woman’s fears are proven to be well-founded, with her mother (off-screen) hilariously bleating “doctor kari-ri” every few seconds because she is about to die from shock. Her father scolds the boyfriend when he says he loves his daughter. “How can you use the L word in front of elders?” he demands to know.
But everyone wants love. The statistical majority seem to want love within the rows and columns of the marital Excel sheet. 29, Female, B.Com, if she is real and not a digital Bermuda Triangle, has only typed out the formula for all to be reminded. The men wailing at the screenshot may say that “Inhi logon ne mujhe incel banaya” or ningal enne Andrew Tate aaki (translation: it is this cruel world that has made them incels, or Andrew Tate). They cry because they want the seven veils of matrimony to part and see them as they are, their pure selves, their lonely, red, beating hearts. Here is the problem though. To tell a woman you love her might seem scary in the moment. But to not choose marriage at all or to choose a partnership where you treat her as an equal, oh brother, that’s the terrifying take-home package.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.