If you still haven’t watched or even know about Indian Matchmaking which is arguably the most watched show in India (and USA too perhaps) – well, good for you. You have successfully sheltered yourself from a toxic sinkhole that is Indian Matchmaking on Netflix. I binged watched the show with my parents immediately after it released and the experience deserves an article itself. However, this is not that article. As the initial shock, anger and cringe that I felt after watching the show has slowly subsided, I have allowed myself to introspect the baggage of societal conditioning that people of my generations carry while looking for partners- knowingly or unknowingly.
After entering the other side of my twenties, I have attended a record number of weddings of friends and family, most of whom were love marriages. In post an Indian Matchmaking world, it means that the bride and the groom found each other without the help of a person like Sima Aunty. However, it suddenly dawned on me that almost all the ‘love marriages’ were within caste, class and religious groups. There have been a couple of inter-caste couples but both the girl and the boy belonged to upper caste communities and constituted the same economic class. According to the Indian Human Development Survey, only about 5% of marriages in India are inter-caste – though its still unclear how many marriages of this 5% are between individuals coming from Dalit and upper caste communities.
When I left Delhi at 17 for college, my mother specifically told me that I am free to choose a partner of my own choice but I have to make sure that he is from our religion and caste. ‘I am not going to a swayamvar’, I had replied. I have always tried to shun and override religious and caste boundaries that have been cultivated and strengthened for centuries – however, I have carried caste and religious insecurities into my dating life. I used to plan elaborate speeches and counter arguments in case I ever had to present a muslim or a Dalit man to my parents. ‘Will they disown me?’ Was a question that I often asked myself.
Unlike my school which was predominantly upper-caste Hindu, my college was a much diverse place with students from different religious, social and economic backgrounds. That naturally led to multiple inter-faith and inter-caste couples on the campus. However, most of the couples broke up and decided to go their separate ways right before the college ended- and their caste and religion was always to some extent responsible for these break-ups. N, a friend of mine from a Dalit community dated S, an upper-caste Hindu boy for more than three years. S’s family even refused to meet N after they found out that she came from a Dalit community. S eventually got married to a girl from his community which I am guessing was chosen in agreement with his parents.
The story of N and S reflects the reality of dating and marriages in India. As more women are allowed to study beyond high school, dating in your early twenties provides a temporary refuge before they enter the segregated chambers of our society. Though the constant fear of their refuge being discovered and raided always looms over inter-caste and inter-faith couples. Many women I know from college were amongst the first generation to go to college. Their right to education came with multiple ‘conditions apply’ and often faced the threat of being married off before completing their college degrees, if not killed which is also unsurprisingly common – even within the so called ‘educated middle class’ demographic I represent.
The statistics around honour killings paint a rather grim picture and depict how far behind we are when it comes to giving agency to young men and women about choosing their own partners. Though fortunately no women have been killed in my own family, many have endured rampant physical abuse for even trying to toe the line. Last year, my 21 year old cousin was beaten up and grounded for weeks on end after her family read a chat exchange between her and a boy from her college. D, another friend of mine who went on to get a degree in management from one of those fancy IIMs endured physical abuse from her parents throughout her under-grad. She was routinely locked up, beaten and her phone was often taken away from her for long periods of time, all because ‘she spoke to boys’. D no longer lives with her parents and has co-founded her own company but years of physical and emotional abuse has left her with lifelong anxiety, depression and PTSD.
So are we not to be blamed at all for the deeply segregated society we have had to become comfortable with? Not really. Some of us (educated upper caste-middle class) are also responsible for being complacent in carrying forward the problematic caste and religion based prejudices while looking for partners. I know a number of people who would say, ‘We are not casteist but would prefer to marry someone from our own community. Isn’t that should be our choice? – never once questioning why they want someone from their own community, especially in these times where our existence is hardly rooted within our communities of birth. We call ourselves ‘global citizens’ but have accepted an archaic and brutal practice of caste based segregations into our personal lives.
Today when I look at my generation – a generation I thought would rise above the petty divisive structures and rules of our society – I am overcome by a strange sense of grief. Some of us have been defeated, most of us have deflected to the other side, and a very few are still standing with the hopes of finding someone without a biodata.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist-in-making.