Sunita* studied the patterns on the hotel-room floor, only half listening to the chatter of the two families. He sat on the couch, a few feet away. She had never seen him before, but she knew this meeting could lead to marriage and was too embarrassed to look at him. She stole one glance, noticed his fair skin, and looked back at the floor.

The 20-hour flight from Chicago had exhausted her. She remembered her mother’s instructions to “smile and look pretty,” but encased in five and a half yards of light blue, black, and gold, she felt awkward. The sari was alien, like the country that sprawled outside the room. A little after she and her parents arrived that morning, the air-conditioning had gone off. A fan in the corner circulated the moist midday air. Even in January southern India was warm.

Across the table, he talked softly to her father. Nervous under the gaze of his mother and sister, she made sure she chewed with her mouth closed and tried her best not to spill anything. They still hadn’t exchanged a word when an hour later the families ushered them into the bedroom, suggesting they talk and get to know each other.

She noticed then that he had big eyes and straight hair, that he was unsure and almost as nervous as she was. The room had no chairs, and they stood in front of the bed, too embarrassed to sit on it. He spoke first, in their native tongue, Malayalam, asking her about her life in America, her studies, her work. She answered him in her accented, clumsy version of the language. He asked her if she had any questions, and she quickly imitated his, asking about his life in India, his studies, his work. Twenty minutes later they ran out of conversation, the silence grew, the bed loomed in the background. Finally he said, “I think we should go.”

“What do you think?” her parents asked, taking her aside. “I don’t know,” she replied. “What do you think?” “We like him,” they said. Rahul’s parents had taken him outside and were putting the same questions to him.

Later, as the car raced toward her uncle’s house outside the city, Sunita studied the countryside, only half listening to the chatter of her parents. Slowly, the panic began to rise. “This is crazy,” she said loudly. “I can’t do this. Just drop me off at the airport, and I will go back home.” Her parents paused and looked at her intently for a minute. Then they went on talking.

The same day Sunita and Rahul were engaged. On Friday she picked out her wedding sari. On Monday they were married.

That was four years ago. Today they live and work in Chicago and have a 15-month-old daughter. Sunita, now fluent in Malayalam and adept with saris, says, “I have no regrets. I am very happy.”

The arranged marriage has never had a warm welcome in America, where it’s seen as an archaic practice that deprives men and women of their freedom to choose. Yet in many communities here couples are courting each other after their marriage vows. A few cultures have refined the practice into a high art, particularly the Asian Indians, whose numbers in this country have nearly reached one million. Indians have been arranging marriages since around 4000 BC, and now young Indians who have grown up with all things suburban are going through the traditional networks–matchmakers, newspapers, acquaintances–and agreeing to marry individuals they barely know. They are finding out that trying to unearth the right spouse can be embarrassing and exciting, that marriage with a stranger is hard, that love has to be nurtured. They are also finding out that an arranged marriage can be either the start of a lifelong friendship or a tragic failure.

Shekhar was living in India when his parents arranged his marriage in 1963. He was 23 years old. Although his wife was the daughter of a close family friend, Shekhar hadn’t dated her. Her parents had sent a proposal to his house after he finished his engineering degree, and his parents had approved. The correspondence had started, and a few months later the two were married.

In 1987 Shekhar, now settled in Chicago, started actively looking for a wife for his 23-year-old son, Vijay. “Although he has grown up in America, he came up to me himself and asked me to find a girl for him,” Shekhar says. Vijay, who disapproved of Western mores, hadn’t dated in high school or college, and he had specific ideas about what he wanted in a wife: a woman brought up in India but not in a big city, educated but with no professional aspirations, fundamentally Indian but Westernized enough to adjust to America.

Shekhar sought the help of relatives and acquaintances living in India. His sister placed advertisements in the right newspapers, weeded out the letters that followed, and forwarded 35 of them to America. With the help of Vijay, Shekhar narrowed the choice down to five in the space of a year. After a furious correspondence, one woman was selected, and an 18-day trip to India was planned. “I was 90 percent sure that this was the right girl,” Shekhar says, “but we had not made any formal decision yet.”

A few days after he, his wife, and Vijay landed in India, the decision was made. “The first glimpse I had of her, I knew this was the girl,” Shekhar says. “And in three days you could see the smile coming out on my son’s face.”

Vijay says he found Malini to be “very affectionate and nice.” He adds, “There was fear, but at some point you have to make a commitment.” The marriage was a traditional Indian extravaganza, and the couple even had a few days left over for a honeymoon.

The old way of arranging marriages may seem to have been brought unaltered to America. Parents still make matches through newspapers and acquaintances, and their children, despite their Western educations, still fall into line. Chicago, home to an estimated 80,000 Indians (the second largest concentration after New York), has three Indian newspapers, which together carry 350 matrimonial advertisements a week. The typical advertisement is much like its Indian counterpart: “Well-established Aggarwal parents seek medico match for their attractive citizen daughter, vegetarian, 23 yrs, 5’4″, 3rd year medical student at Indiana Univ., merit scholarship holder, respectable family.”

Moin Khan, a former editor at Spotlight, says, “Most Indians here have arranged marriages. It is very popular.” Two of Chicago’s three Hindu temples are actively involved in matchmaking. The Hindu Temple north of Lemont is putting together a matrimonial directory, and Manav Seva Mandir in Bensenville keeps addresses of eligible Indians. “At any given time, we have 10 to 20 addresses,” says Dr. C.L. Shastri, Manav Seva Mandir’s chief priest.

Yet the stories behind the numbers show that even as the jeans-clad generation is carrying the tradition forward, it is changing the rules. Brought up on American individualism, young Indian adults are demanding a greater voice in their marriage plans, and parents, many of whom had no such freedom, are assenting.

“Once we had reached India I did not pressure Vijay to say yes, even though my wife and I wholly approved of the girl,” Shekhar says. “I talked to him as a friend and a father, and made it clear that there is no perfect person in the world. I told him that he should not hesitate because of minor things–at the same time he should not say yes till he is absolutely sure.”

Vijay was given not only the choice to refuse but also the opportunity to go out with Malini. “I wanted them to get to know each other better,” says Shekhar, “so Vijay took Malini out for three whole days before deciding. Of course Vijay’s younger brother and Malini’s brother accompanied them.”

Some more liberal parents are doing away with the chaperons. Rita, a 23-year-old optometry student from Chicago, saw her fiance alone six times before giving the green light. She sees her story as the modern sequel to the arranged marriage. “I was introduced to him at a mutual friend’s house with the intention of marriage, but there was no pressure on either one of us. I liked him immediately, but I wouldn’t say yes without getting to know him more.” So Rita dated Sanjeev with the full approval of her parents. “One can’t be too strict,” says her mother. “Boys and girls here are mature enough to make their own decisions.” Naturally their dates were Indian versions of the ritual. “We didn’t hold hands or anything,” Rita says.

But the lifting of restrictions has also brought confusion. Scenes that have been played out over centuries now have new lines, and no one is quite sure what to do. Sita, a 26-year-old banker, agreed to a formal meeting with an engineer from Boston but refused to play the “sweet Indian girl serving tea.” That didn’t go over well. “We all sat in the living room trying to make conversation,” she says. “He was talking more to my father than me, but most of the time he just kept quiet. And I kept talking. I probably came across as loud and intimidating.” Dinner at a downtown Italian restaurant followed. Sita, unaware that respectable Indian women don’t drink, especially not in front of prospective husbands, made the mistake of ordering a whiskey sour. “He looked shocked,” she says, “and the evening was all downhill from there.”

Marie, a Chicago-based doctor, met her husband in India the day she turned 25 and married him a week later. She has been married seven years and speaks of her marriage as a logical step she took with her eyes open. “I came to America when I was six years old. I went to high school and college, and I saw the pressures on people to date and find the right person–and I did not want to go through that.” So Marie let her parents pick for her. They narrowed the choice down to three men from India, all of whom had cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds similar to their daughter’s. They were all Keralite Catholics. Two were doctors, one an engineer. Marie met them all and chose. “I knew about my husband’s education, his parents and what they did, his siblings and what they did,” she says. “I probably knew more about him than people here know about people they date. And besides it doesn’t matter if you’ve dated someone or lived with them–you get to see the real side, the ugly side, only after marriage.”

Ask Marie’s brother, Srivanas, an engineer who also lives in Chicago, why he chose an arranged marriage, and he laughs. “It’s much easier,” he says. He met his wife in India, talked to her for an hour, and married her ten days later. He too has been married seven years. “An arranged marriage is a win-win situation,” he says. “Marriage here is based on physical decisions, but long-term marriage is not based on that. It is based on a commonality of culture, education, and background. I really thought about the issue before going through with the marriage, and I think I made the right decision.”

Of course Srivanas was free to refuse his parents’ choice. And this freedom is part of the appeal of arranged marriage. The children are under no pressure to marry someone their parents find, and they are spared the dating rituals of the West. Moreover, says Shekhar, Vijay’s father, “Parents have so much more wisdom. They have seen so much more. What do children understand about love? To them love is making love. But the parents exercise their wisdom in examining the person.” Shekhar believes that not dating makes an arranged marriage work better. “Here a boy dates five girls and then marries one. There are all these comparisons sitting in his head. With arranged marriages, the first person you love, the first person you go to bed with, is your spouse. This is the distinct advantage of arranged marriage.”

The list of advantages described is long. An arranged marriage is not just the union of two people, but also of two families. “With an arranged marriage you have more than just your husband,” Sunita says. “You have his whole family. Like when I delivered, his mother came here and stayed on to help us cope with the baby. You know there is someone watching after you, and they will support you, emotionally and financially, if something goes wrong.” But the support can also take the form of pressure, and when so many people are involved, breaking off a bad marriage becomes extremely difficult. “Divorce is not an option,” Srivanas says. “The marriage is a commitment between two individuals, two families, and the community. So people must make heroic efforts to make it work.”

Dr. Shastri, who has performed innumerable weddings, is convinced that arranged marriages last longer. “With an arranged marriage, there is mystery. And slowly you unfold the mystery. If the mystery is gone, what remains?”

However, the advantages work only for those who choose to play by the rules. Rajeev, Shekhar’s younger son, has been dating an Irish American girl for a year and doesn’t see himself having an arranged marriage. “My parents were appalled when I first started dating in high school,” he says. “They had raised my brother in a very conservative way and expected to do the same with me. But I am nothing like my brother.”

Problems first erupted when Rajeev was a high school sophomore and news of his romance with a classmate reached his parents. “My father lectured me for hours,” he says. “He talked to me like what I had done was a crime, that it was morally wrong and that I should be ashamed of it. I never understood that.” Rajeev continued to date but kept it a secret. Before leaving for college, he had a long talk with his parents. “I told them that I was going to live my life the way I wanted to–and they could either be a part of it, or I would just have to not tell them.” For some time after that Shekhar did not want to hear about his son’s love life, and Rajeev says he went through years of living hell. “I really wanted to talk to them. I wanted them to ask me how my girlfriend is, but I never got that opportunity. I did not understand what they expected from me. I did not understand why I had to hide anything. After all, I am their son. I was produced from their loins.” But Rajeev’s mother was on his side, and slowly Shekhar came around. Rajeev says things are better now. “They have come out of their shell. The day I met Amy, I called them to say, ‘I’ve met a girl and I’m bringing her over.’ Dad lectured me again, but it was a calmer lecture. In fact, he even said he liked Amy.”

“My son is 21, and he won’t marry till he is 25,” says Shekhar. “That is four years from now, and many things can change in four years.” Rajeev knows that if he marries Amy, there will be problems. His mother’s English is not fluent, Amy is only just starting to cook Indian food, and his grandmother, the family head, has often expressed a desire for Indian daughters-in-law. But he’s not afraid. “I sometimes get the feeling that my brother has some regrets and is envious of the way I am leading my life,” he says. “That gives me strength to stick to my beliefs, because I don’t want to have any regrets. I have always taken risks in life–and if I do end up marrying Amy, what’s one more?”

The rice felt like pins under Seema’s bare feet. She slowly stepped on the mounds as the priest read the marriage vows, trying to remember which foot followed which. The first step was for posterity, the second for strength, the third for wealth, the fourth for happiness, the fifth for a healthy family, the sixth to enjoy cheerful seasons together, and the seventh for love and companionship. Seema was hot under her red and green sari and heavy 14-karat gold jewelry. She had never been this dressed up before. Her hair, cut short in the latest American style, had a fake braid adorned with flowers attached to it. Her forehead was decorated with small red and white dots. Her hands and feet were painted with an intricate henna pattern. Seema sat in front of the sacred fire, listening to the priest drone on in incomprehensible Sanskrit into the second hour of the wedding, and decided she had probably never been this bored before.

Earlier in the evening Seema’s parents had welcomed Dev, a Chicagoan, with the traditional mixture of yogurt and honey. Seema had put garlands around his neck, and they had held hands and circled the fire seven times while the priest had invoked blessings. “May you be like waters which join together and become one in peace,” he had said. “May your love remain constant and strong.” Dev had put red powder in the part of her hair and a necklace around her neck as a symbol of his love for her. They had exchanged Indian sweets as a display of their spiritual and physical union, and had lightly touched each other to show the love between them. The 300-odd people who had stood around them cheering did not know that Seema, who’s from Thunderbay, Ontario, had agreed to marry Dev after meeting him only twice.

Nine years and three childen later Seema sometimes looks back and wishes she had married someone she loved. She says she was 19 years old at her wedding and didn’t understand the significance of her action. “I didn’t realize it was a lifetime thing. I felt like it was a movie, like I was watching someone else getting married.” After their marriage, Dev and Seema lived with Dev’s family in Chicago. Seema describes the first few years as turbulent.

“Dev’s parents were expecting a traditional Indian daughter-in-law,” Seema says. “I was expected to serve them tea every morning and cook a full Indian dinner every night. I had never cooked at home before, and now I had to cook for six people. I couldn’t wear dresses in the house because my legs showed. I couldn’t sit next to my husband or call him by his name because that wasn’t ‘OK.’ I couldn’t talk to any other male friends because that meant I had no morals. Sometimes my mother-in-law wouldn’t talk to me for days, and I wouldn’t even know what I had done.” Seema says her husband usually took his parents’ side. “Dev did not realize what marriage was about. His thinking was, ‘My wife will do what I want.'”

“Seema kicked me in the back, and I kicked her in the front,” is Dev’s only comment on those early years. The marriage steadily deteriorated until Seema filed for divorce. Then she decided to give it one more shot. “Dev is the father of my children. And when you’ve had that relationship with someone, you can’t just walk out of the door.” The two moved into their own house.

“Arranged marriage does not necessarily mean happy marriage,” says Bhadra Bhuva, who is president of Chicago’s Club of Indian Women and runs the club’s 24-hour referral service, the Indo Crisis Line. She sees the other side of arranged marriage, mostly the abused wives. She says importing spouses may ensure a wider selection and greater control over the Indian-born spouse, but it often leads to problems. The most common problem is the result of young men who have girlfriends in America being pressured to marry women from India. “They tell the girl only after she has come here,” says Bhuva. “The girl is in a foreign country, she doesn’t know anybody–what can she do? It is a cruel punishment.”

There are no statistics for divorce among Indians, but a home for battered Asian women opened in Chicago on November 15, 1990. Apna Ghar (“our house”) has already given shelter to 24 women. Kanta Khipple, its director, tells the story of a woman who waited three years for a green card so she could join her husband in America. When she arrived, she discovered that he had a girlfriend. “She did not know the first thing about America,” Khipple says. “We helped her with everything from grocery shopping to bank accounts. She has been through so much mental torture. It will take a long time for her to socially and economically rehabilitate herself.” Khipple thinks it’s difficult for arranged marriages to work here. “At home it continues to work beautifully. But there parents really look into the background, there is the support system provided by the community and the family. If there is a problem, there is someone to turn to. Here the community leaders have not paid attention to these social aspects. There is no support, and it doesn’t work as well.”

Jamil Chughtai, a counselor at Asian Human Services, says her agency deals with the problems of 80 to 100 Indian or Pakistani families every year. “While they range from alcohol to sexual abuse, I would say 75 percent of them have their roots in arranged marriage,” she says. She believes an arranged marriage can work if the couple is open to it and committed. But, she says, “there is a bad side, and the Indian community does not want to hear about it. I think in arranged marriage women especially are jumping into a lake when they don’t know how to swim. Of course eventually they learn. But it’s so scary.”

Love came as a pleasant surprise to Sunita. She had agreed to marry Rahul after meeting him once, hoping for security, companionship, and children from the marriage. “I wasn’t expecting love in the romantic sense, because I thought, how can you love somebody you don’t know?” Rahul joined Sunita in Chicago two months after their marriage in India, and love crept up on them slowly.

“The first year of marriage is hell for everybody,” Sunita says. “I don’t care if it’s a love marriage or you’ve lived with the person.” For her and Rahul, the battle involved more than learning to share a bedroom. “We spent the first couple of months just getting acquainted,” she says. “It was like courtship here. There was a building of trust, friendship. We spoke a lot about each other–about his childhood in India, mine here. But there was a slight language barrier. My Malayalam was not fluent, and neither was his English. So sometimes things didn’t quite translate the way we said them and conversations took a little longer.”

The two also had to work their way through their expectations. “He wasn’t sure how I would behave, because I was brought up here,” Sunita says. There were trivial things, such as Rahul insisting that Sunita watch Indian movies with him. “I didn’t care for Hindi movies then,” she says. “I didn’t understand the movies or why my watching them with him was such a big deal.” And there were substantial things, such as Sunita working to support the family while Rahul went to school. But as the couple maneuvered past the first anniversary, the crisis point passed. “Love came as a realization that we were no longer two people but an extension of each other,” Sunita says. “It was a realization that this person is your own, that when he is happy, I am happy. Today, my husband is my best friend.”

Dr. Shastri says that Hindu scriptures state that it is imperative to fall in love with one’s spouse. “Love after marriage is possible,” he says. “But this is not the love that comes at first sight. This is the love that comes with commitment.”

Even Seema maintains that she finally fell in love with her husband in spite of their overwhelming problems. “But it did not come easily,” she says. “We have worked very hard on it. I started really caring about him only in the seventh year of marriage. But today our relationship is solid. Dev has realized his faults and he really appreciates me for sticking it out.”

Yet she laughs when asked if she is happy. “I am not unhappy. I am content,” she says. “When you are married, you are married for keeps. There is always a way of working it out. You have to grow up. You have to learn to forgive each other.”

*The names of all the individuals whose marriages are discussed have been changed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.