The unenviable phenomenon of being brown, over 30, and *gasp* unmarried.
By now, most of the world has binge watched the Netflix series Indian Matchmaking; a reality television style dating show which holds a mirror up to the South Asian marriage industry. For many Westerners this was their first real glimpse into the inner mechanics of the mystifying arranged marriage. It was equal parts fascinating and bizarre. Sure, they’d asked their Indian or Pakistani friends from childhood about it, but seeing it for oneself serialized on the telly is a whole other thing. How strange it must seem. Putting your love life in the hands of strangers, however benevolent they may appear. For many Desi viewers on the other hand, it was perhaps another reminder of something they’d invariably deal with, or perhaps were dealing with at the time; hopefully without too much scripted controversy and drama.
This last point has become more and more true for those western raised brown folk who are either approaching or well into their 30's, and are unmarried. Or equally as scandalous, are dating someone who isn’t Indian/Pakistani/Hindu/Muslim/Same Caste/etc. *cue the fainting aunties*. How does one reconcile the very real cultural differences that exist between the world you live in, and the one your parent’s want for you? How do you satisfy both competing desires without sacrificing your happiness or your filial obligations?
This was a point that a friend of mine made at a recent dinner. Raju was mirthlessly explaining to the group that he’d spent the better part of the last two weeks fending off his parent’s unrelenting crusade to get him married. He was in town to visit his family and the conversations consisted almost exclusively about his matrimonial prospects. Apparently the idea of an unwed son was anathema to his folks, and they thought it prudent to remind him of that at every opportunity they got.
To provide a little context, Raju is an accomplished attorney who works with and for three-letter agencies that shall remain unnamed, on projects of great national importance. He recently turned 35 (hence the dinner), and was being promoted to an even more impressive posting within the federal legal hierarchy. He also happens to be a veteran, whose served overseas in some very challenging contingency operations. He lives in D.C., is a member of several local bar associations, actively social, and is shopping around for a house in the area. By all accounts, a well adjusted and functioning member of society.
However, in his parent’s eyes- Raju is incomplete. Not ‘finished’. And on some level, however melodramatic it may seem; a failure.
Why, you ask?
Because he’s not married.
Yes. This man, who is highly educated, compensated, and accomplished. Failing. Because he put off tying the knot. Because he’s 35 and doesn’t have kids. Because his younger sister is already married, and he as the eldest son, is not.
Welcome to the Indian Marriage Paradox.
To understand the paradox, you have to start at the beginning. The very beginning.
In the 1950s, emigration out of the newly created India and Pakistan barely registered as statistically significant. The region as a whole was struggling to provide suitable standards of living for large swathes of the population. Even educated South Asians were seeing that their potential to make a life was handicapped by the economics of a developing country. Poverty, coupled with overpopulation yielded a perfect medley of slow growth and low standards of living. To survive, you had to compete fiercely for scare resources. If you were already rich- you made sure that you married your children into other wealthy families so that the money stayed secure. During that time, you either hustled like crazy, or married well.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and suddenly this little place called the United States was passing a series of legislative corrections, removing limits and quotas on immigration from certain countries. It turns out, the people in the USA were doing so well and growing so fast, that they needed skilled and unskilled labor alike in order to keep the party going. While they may not have liked the people who were immigrating into their country, Americans acknowledged the net benefit smart, hard working people would yield to bottom line GDP. And so a handful of enterprising farm laborers and business people took the risk to go across the world to try their riches in the land of milk and honey.
As time went on, and the US economy began to undergo a digital revolution in the 1980s, it needed more brain power. It needed hardware engineers. Software engineers. It needed data analysts. It needed more medical professionals. Professors. If you had a specialized technical or STEM skill set, the US of A needed you stat. And boy did South Asians answer the call. They also brought their cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents and anyone else they could squeeze into economy class of Air India.
Suddenly in the 1990s, you had the makings of a global Indian diaspora. Enclaves began springing up in North America and abroad. Edison, NJ. Jackson Heights, NY. Surrey, Canada. Southall, London. As numbers grew, so too did a desire to bring cling to the home culture. To retain a sense of India, or Pakistan, or Bangladesh. This was also the beginning of the first true generation of South Asians born abroad. The eponymous ABCDs: American Born Confused Desis.This is the generation that my friend Raju and so many others, are a product of.
As many desis who grew up in the western world can attest to- there is a certain framework that parents took to raising their children. It’s unclear where it originated from, but it’s practically identical to the ‘Chinese’ system, popularized by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. If you’re not familiar with Chua’s thesis- it boils down to this: to raise successful children, you need to subject them to a rigorous upbringing in which academic and extracurricular excellence is paramount to all else. As many first generation South Asians can attest to- this sounds a lot like what their parents tried to emulate. Although maybe without the emphasis on learning instruments. Because that just takes away from time you could’ve spent studying.
Under this harsh regime, fun was dead last in the list of priorities. Personal enjoyment was, for many Indian parents of a certain generation, a concept invented by westerners. Fun was selfish. Your duty was to your family. And your family needed you to become a doctor, an engineer, or scientist. Having fun, and enjoying your childhood got in the way of that. If you had to play basketball with your friends, you had time to study another chapter of trigonometry.
This emphasis placed on academic achievement as a road to financial success and ultimately societal stature, meant that many first generation Americans were raised in households that did not encourage dating or socializing with members of the opposite sex. Exceptions to this of course were during social functions centered around religious holidays or celebrating some big event in the community; i.e. someone’s son or daughter got accepted into an Ivy league school. Anything that distracted from the family goal of academic achievement as a vehicle to financial security was a distraction. And distractions were not tolerated.
But as children become teenagers, they began to question systems of control. Many desis, began to question the merits of such a draconian upbringing. Being exposed to the liberal teaching models found in the west, these first generation SA Americans now were exposed to other ideas. They saw how free and fully realized their classmates were. Those kids were encouraged to seek out explore different opportunities. They were supported by their families in their mediocre pursuits of sports, music, or the arts. While Vishal and Priya had to go tutoring over the weekend, Victoria and Paul were able to go on a road trip upstate with friends. In one of life’s great ironies, the very education that immigrant Indians were zealously pushing on their children was eroding their ability to control their offspring’s lives.
Some rebelled. Some took to recreational drugs or found solace in the grunge/alternative scene. Others dated in secret, relying on the confidence of siblings and friends to keep prying adults off their trail. In the more extreme cases, some ran away from home after punching a hole through the dry wall. But by and large, most conformed. Under duress and begrudgingly, but they complied nonetheless.
The net result was a whole cadre of well educated professionals who fulfilled that parental mandate to make gobs of cash. Doctors, attorneys, engineers, and business people. They went to ivy leagues, elite academies, flagship schools, you name it. Literal decades of devotion to their respective crafts. An army of cold-blooded technocrats ready to conquer their industries with the same tenacity that powered them through sleepless, joyless nights in whatever South Asian enclave they clawed their way out of.
Hyperbole aside, there is some truth to this obsession to work. Now these semi-tenured professionals are anywhere from their late 20s to mid 30s and suddenly they find themselves in the precarious position of having money, prestige, and power but no real social life. Some likely never even really had a serious, adult romantic relationship. They’re committed to their craft, but haven’t had the opportunity to fully flesh out what actually makes them happy. They finally, after all these years- have a moment to breathe and take stock of their life.
And suddenly comes the call from the parents.
You’re getting so old, you need to get married. Why are you not married yet? Your aunt knows a boy/girl who comes from a respectable family. We have someone we’d like you to meet.
Recall, these are the self-same people who wouldn’t let you go to a sleepover, or just hang out at the mall. They swore that if you just followed their plan for you, once you finished school you could do whatever you wanted. These same people who stamped out any dreams you had for your own personal growth and development because it wouldn’t enrich the family financially, or grow their status in the ‘community’. The same people who prevented you from dating in middle school, high school, and even tried meddling in college. They now have the gall to call and demand that you get married to someone of their choosing.
But herein lies the paradox for the parents. Desi parents, now getting close to, or at retirement age, realize that they’re not in India. Their children can’t rely on a close uncle or aunt to arrange a marriage within the same community. The diaspora is too widespread. If you want your kid to marry someone who fits all the requirements you have for a suitable son or daughter-in-law, you realize that you need to get a move on. Suddenly, academic and financial achievement are secondary to furthering your family legacy.
Indeed, culturally this is not new. Many South Asian parents view the act of seeing their children get married as the final obligation. After this, they are “done”. They have fulfilled the last great deed, and can now age gracefully till the end.
But now, you’ve got this highly credentialed, educated, young professional who was raised in a freer society than yours. And you have to sell them on marrying someone on the basis of race, religion, color and some antiquated notion of class hierarchy. Somehow, getting hitched to someone who meets all of these qualifications will ensure that they have a good life.
You can see how this would be problematic. Indeed- many who saw the aforementioned Indian Matchmaking were shocked at the colorism, casteism, mysogny, and other regressive practices on full display. For some desis, that’s just a fact that they resign themselves too. It’s their culture, warts and all. And for love of their parents, they’ll go along with it. Maybe, just maybe, they figure- it’ll be different for their kids.
Others have a harder time reconciling that. They want to please their parents, but doing so goes against everything they believe in. Why shouldn’t they marry someone they love, irrespective of that person’s ethnicity, religion, or skin tone? Maybe they’re gay or queer. Maybe they still want to do more professionally and personally before they share their life with someone else. Maybe they don’t want to be married at all.
This is the other side to the Indian Marriage Paradox. Preserving your culture, and your relationship with your family on the one hand. Being true to yourself and your own happiness in the other.
For those outside the culture, it’s easy to indict the arranged marriage system as a backwards practice from a bygone era. But think about what eschewing it can mean. Within some hardcore traditional families, it would effectively mean leaving your family altogether. The same family who lived in squalor so that you could go to the best institutions of learning in the world. Who sacrificed their own happiness so you could have a shot at a life. Maybe not a happy one, but a life nonetheless. Who’ve been saving for decades to pay for your wedding. It’s difficult to escape that feeling of obligation.
At the end of the day, arranged marriages are still active in Asia and abroad. It’s a whole cottage industry that’s adapting to the times with apps and user interfaces that look uncannily like marketplaces. Many people do find true happiness within that model. They have meaningful relationships and their family takes comfort in knowing that their culture is preserved for another generation.
However there are some questions that the desi community, and perhaps the broader South Asian community should answer. Is this really the system we want for ourselves, and kids? Do we want young people to have more agency in their lives? And will doing so erode our treasured culture and practices? It will be interesting to see the evolution of dating and marriage trends as the diaspora grows, and evolves in the coming years. I’m confident change is afoot with the newer generations. Hopefully for the better.
Until then, if any of you ladies are interested in a tall, wheatish-complexioned, Brahmin Lawyer from a good family- Raju’s parents really want to hear from you.
 Pseudonym for the individual’s privacy. Although, I’m sure there is an unmarried, 35 year old, Raju somewhere out there. Good luck bro.
 ABCD was a term popularized in the 80s and 90s to describe the plight of first generation South Asian Americans who had to deal with being both the children of immigrants, but strangers to their native culture.