Marriages for The National

My Life: Shoba Narayan on her long-lasting marriage
Shoba Narayan
Last Updated: Apr 19, 2011

For The National M magazine

Unlike Kate and Prince William, I had an arranged marriage. Ram, my husband, and I never dated, and knew each other for only about a month before we got married 19 years ago. Our horoscopes were matched, and our families met to evaluate if we were appropriate for each other. Only then were we allowed to meet – in my house, over tea and with a bunch of elders as chaperones. After the initial pleasantries, the elders retreated and gave us some privacy.

Ram and I had a lot in common. We both had studied in the United States – I at Mount Holyoke, a women’s college in Massachusetts, and Ram at the University of Michigan. He was then working on Wall Street and I was back home in India, having quit a master’s programme in sculpture. We talked about our hobbies, likes and dislikes and whether ethics were circumstantial. As he left my home, he promised to phone me. I assumed he never would, that it was a polite way of taking leave.

But he did call. We talked every day for hours and as a souvenir, he preserved that month’s US$1,200 (Dh4,407) phone bill that he could ill afford. A month later, in the midst of one call, my grandmother ambushed the phone and demanded to know Ram’s intentions. Hours of talking for weeks on end by an unwed Hindu couple was simply not done, she said. What would the relatives think? Although Ram insists that my grandmother had nothing to do with it, he proposed at the end of that call. I accepted and the family took over.

A Hindu marriage is called an “alliance” between families. It is less about individual love and more about collective harmony. In a real sense, the man and the woman marry not just each other; they marry into different families. This is imbued in the Indian psyche.

My American friend Jackie once told me that the things she looked for in a man were a sense of humour and the ability to balance out her craziness. For me, a key factor was whether the man in question would get along with my family – not just my parents and my brother but also my grandparents and all the 16 aunts and uncles I was close to. Would he able to laugh at our juvenile jokes? Would he be able to deal with my grandmother’s fierce love for me? Would he be a big brother to my little brother? Would he be gentle with my absent-minded English professor father? Would he treat my mum as if she were his own? These were all the things expected from a good wife in a Hindu marriage, and having become a feminist at university, I expected nothing less of my husband.

We had 1,000 people attend our wedding, over three days and multiple ceremonies. We walked around the fire seven times while Sanskrit chants sanctified our marriage. My husband wanted to go to Greece for our honeymoon, but I chose to stay in India, given that we were going to live far away in Connecticut. It was there that we got to know each other, there that we had our first fight, learnt each other’s habits and idiosyncrasies, and figured out how to maintain a marriage.

I have seen wonderful marriages – my sculpture professor, Leonard DeLonga, had one such with his wife, Sandy – and dysfunctional marriages. When we wed, my husband told me that he believed in the sanctity of marriage; that for him, our relationship was non-negotiable, “till death do us part”. It has taken me close to 20 years to believe him.

I find that marriages that last do so for many reasons, but mostly you have to believe that a marriage is inviolable. If you believe that, everything else is workable.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Banglore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.