Every day provides me with the chance to learn more about Nepalese culture and to gain a better understanding of where the people around me are coming from. A few days after my Tharu feast (miraculously I escaped without enduring a bout of “Delhi belly”) I was invited to attend the wedding of one of Usha’s good friends, Egraj. Egraj had been working for the US army in Iraq for the past 3 years as a cook (his experiences alone are worthy of a blog, but basically the subcontracting by subcontractors means that a lot of middlemen are pocketing large sums of money which the workers in harm’s way never see) when he was summoned home and told that it was time for him to marry a woman he had never met.
Ever since I arrived in Nepal, when people learn that I am married I am then invariably asked (in a conspiratorial tone) “love marriage?” Clearly I am a product of my culture and carry my own cultural baggage and bias, but the idea of “non-love marriage” has always been difficult for me to wrap my head around.
On the ride from Nepalganj to Mahendranagar our bus had stopped at a crowd of people on the roadside to pick up a hysterical, weeping girl who was violently pushed aboard by (as I later learned) her male relatives. One of the bus workers who I had been sharing conversation with nodded towards the girl and explained that it was her wedding day and she was being sent to her new husband’s home.
With this as my only firsthand experience of the institution of marriage in Nepal, I was curious to see if this kind of emotional reaction (and apparent coercion) was the norm.
Hindu marriage is wrapped up in caste identity and those who are bold enough to marry for love between castes risk social ostracism and being permanently shunned by their families. Even love marriages within castes (although generally tolerated much better) are fraught with risk and hardship. With family and culture playing such an important role in Nepali’s daily lives it is easy to see why love marriages continue to be a rarity.
The day began with some light snacking at the groom’s house while he prepared to set off to his bride’s house. After receiving blessings from all the female members of his family, he hit the road in the wedding car while the rest of us tailed him in the wedding bus (most of the groom’s immediate family remained at home to prepare for the party that would take place once he returned with his wife.)
As we approached the border between Kanchanpur and Kaile districts we encountered a potential hiccup in our wedding day plans. The YCL (Young Communist League), was having a strike and refusing to let any traffic through. Luckily, after 10 minutes of intense negotiation they decided to make an exception for wedding parties and with a triumphant gunning of the engine we zipped through the checkpoint.
We encountered another problem when the groom’s car sped past the turnoff to the bride’s house. As it would be inappropriate to arrive at her house before the groom, we ended up waiting 10 minutes during which time he still failed to materialize. I managed to crack everybody up when I suggested that he was trying to escape.
However, I guess he wasn’t feeling that rebellious, as at last his car appeared and we entered the courtyard of the bride’s house. Five hours of ritual and ceremony followed, culminating with the bride’s parents presenting the newlyweds with several cows (apparently the most honored gift one can give) and a sumptuous dinner buffet. By the end of the day, everyone appeared to be happy (with the possible exception of the bride who seemed to glare at onlookers.) Still, it was a far cry from the hysteria and (borderline violent) coercion I had witnessed on the bus.
As a result, I’m still not sure what to make of arranged marriage. While I object to caste-based concepts of identity and the social hierarchies which accompany them, leaving these aside for a moment, from a practical standpoint are arranged marriages so bad? Obviously the families are happy, because they wouldn’t have arranged the union in the first place. With family playing such a critical role in Nepalis’ daily lives, many individuals (who may have other genuine love interests) seem to prefer to defer their individual desires for the harmony of the collective. Furthermore, is our Western institution of love marriage any stronger? (The 50% divorce rate in America would seem to indicate that “romantic love” is not the critical ingredient of a successful lifetime partnership.)
While my initial knee-jerk reaction is to condemn outright the practice of arranged marriage, I am also an outsider and will never fully understand Hindu culture. I suppose in some ways, to ignore the caste aspect of these marriages is a cop out. Yet at the same time, many Nepalis have spoken to me at length about the virtues of arranged marriage and the importance of family harmony. At the very least it attests to the rich diversity of culture and religion present in the world.
Posted By Jeff Yarborough
Posted Jul 6th, 2007