Looking for the perfect stranger

How a single, successful New York writer ended up pursuing an arranged marriage in India.

Published August 12, 2008 10:19AM (EDT)

It was after three years of living in New York that I began thinking something was wrong -- deeply, heart-wrenchingly wrong -- with the Western dating system. I would come home after an evening of swapping New York "war stories" with girlfriends, in which we regaled each other with horrific dates or detailed every phone call and e-mail exchange from a short-lived fling in order to decipher why our intended had unceremoniously disappeared. Most of these evenings ended up with one or another of us whining about our loneliness and wondering when it would end, to be comforted by yet another in our gaggle that we should just get on with our own lives and not worry about men, and that soon enough, when we were least expecting it, love would walk in through the front door or sit next to us on a flight.

The next week we would switch roles and the whiner would offer warm words of advice and hand-holding to the comforter. I heartily participated in all of these discussions, more often than not as the one plunged in despair when I first arrived in New York, and later, hardened and somewhat resigned, as the one extending succor.

After months of these cocktail-drenched evenings, two fleeting thoughts slipped across my mind, which later would take on shape and bulk and eventually morph into full-blown arguments. The first of these took hold when a friend was complaining how a man she'd met at a party two weeks ago had seemed very interested and had taken her number but had not called since. And today she'd discovered that a colleague she had a crush on had a girlfriend. Two leads that had seemed promising just last week had fallen through, which in New York is enough to induce a midmonth slump.

I bit my lower lip and, ever helpful, said, "What about that guy you were talking about last month, the one you made out with at that bar in Soho?"

"Oh yeah, him. He's too young. I can tell he's not interested in something serious," my friend said.

"Okay, well what about that guy Jason who's really into you and asking you out all the time? I think he's kind of cute," I offered hopefully.

"Eew," she said.

"Okay, what about going online? I know you're not really that into it, but ... I don't know. It just seems like there's no other way to meet somebody," I said, the first tendrils of my seedling thought stretching their tiny arms.

"I tried it. I only met freaks. I was just wasting my time," she moaned. "I just don't know where I'll meet someone."

Then the petals of my thought opened to reveal its essence. Yes indeed. Where are we in the West supposed to meet someone we'd like to marry, or at least be committed to? If we graduate from university without having found someone, we assume we'll meet someone over the next few years. But where exactly?

In many workplaces, romantic relationships are frowned upon, and people are often averse to dating someone in the office for fear it will end badly and they will still have to see their ex-lover on a daily basis. We are told that it's best to meet friends of friends. We all think this is a brilliant idea, until we realize that we've already met all of our friends' friends ... two years ago.

Then of course, there's the online route. Although the popularity of online dating in the last few years has somewhat reduced the stigma of having had to resort to the Internet to find a date, it's hardly a preferred method. Having found a girlfriend or boyfriend from an Internet site still seems the refuge of the desperate and socially isolated. And then there's the nagging little fact that many of us have tried online dating to no avail.

So then what?

This is when I found myself saying to my friend, "You're right. I don't know where you'll find someone, short of bumping into him on the street."

From that point on, I became mildly obsessed with the inadequacies of the Western dating system, or rather lack of it. Where exactly are we supposed to meet someone to marry?

For years, I never questioned the Western dating system. The tenets on which it rests seemed perfectly sound: after meeting a man or woman through work or friends, one gets to know him or her, and if one likes what one sees, one continues to deepen the commitment, which sometimes leads to marriage. What surprises me now is how much this system leaves to chance encounter, to a kind of fate or fortune. For a decidedly unmystical society that seems to have the answer for everything else -- the best medical care, cutting-edge technology, superhighways, and space shuttles -- it seems odd that people are left to their own resources, casting around for another lonely soul, for what is arguably the most important decision of their lives.

If the institution of marriage is present in every society that we know of, from Lapps in northern Sweden to aborigines, and nearly all cultures promote marriage as the foundation of society, isn't it odd, then, that there is very little provision for how it is supposed to occur in the West?

It was so obvious no organized system for marriage existed in the West that people simply failed to blame the obvious for why they couldn't find someone to marry. They were told by their therapists and their friends that it was because they were too neurotic, too unhappy, had to work on themselves before they could be happy with someone else, or that they wanted it too badly. People are told to blame themselves, and they do: they try to lose weight, they develop new interests, they get a nose job. We wonder what's wrong with us when really we should wonder whether there isn't a better way of doing things. It is a curious misplacement for a self-congratulatory culture in which people are constantly trying to shift blame away from themselves.

Once I began questioning the efficacy of the Western dating system in resulting in marriage, I started wondering why it is that wanting to be committed to someone else is too often associated with weakness in the West. I noticed that when people were happily self-sufficient, they liked to preach how they weren't looking for a serious commitment and didn't have time for one. It was only when they were dissatisfied that they began to think of marriage or commitment as a solution. But how many people are happily self-sufficient?

Does marriage have to be a salve to loneliness to have value? Isn't it valuable to begin with? In the West, the modern ideal is to be independent, on one's own, and to be able to make the choice to live with another human being, to welcome someone else as a bonus to one's existence -- if and when one is ready.

Couldn't one be a perfectly sound person who leads a far more purposeful life once engaged in a harmonious symbiosis with another human being? I certainly think so. Moreover, why do we have to be "perfectly sound" before we can meet someone? Why can't we be desperately alone and unhappy and become much more balanced or healthy after getting involved with someone? We've all seen this happen with friends -- "God, Peter seems so much happier now that he's going out with Jessica. He's not drinking as much." Conventional wisdom frequently tells us that we're happier when we give to others and focus less on ourselves, so it seems rather a glaring void that there is no institutionalized system of finding a mate in Western culture these days.

To admit to others that I yearned for a long-term commitment or marriage --which is basically to say that I wanted to be able to think about someone else for a change -- sounded regressive as soon as it emerged from my mouth. It was atavistic in nature, a throwback to a time when women couldn't financially support themselves. It was a piece of treacherous anathema in the age of strong, independent working women.

Of course, marriages were more or less arranged in Western cultures according to one's social status and wealth until the twentieth century, which ushered in a freewheeling era that allowed people to choose their own mates. However, no system stepped in to replace the practice of arranged marriage once it fell by the wayside, leaving a lot of young men and women lonely and frustrated. In the West, people are so resolutely convinced that they alone are equipped to choose their own mates that they readily give up their right to happiness in favor of self-determination.

In India, where my mother and father are from, marriages are routinely arranged by parents and extended family; marriage is not a choice. It just is. There is simply no concept of living a life alone. It happens here and there, but as a mistake, an unintentional slippage in society. In the West, people do it all the time, even relish it, saying things like, "I would rather live alone than with the wrong person." But spend ten minutes with most of these people and it becomes apparent that they are lonely.

I must confess that there was a third idea churning through my head, one considerably less broad and analytical, not to mention altogether more banal. And this thought was completely mortifying, yet enough within the realm of possibility that it kept my eyes pinned back and staring at the ceiling on more than a few sleepless nights. The bogeyman: namely that if I stayed in New York any longer I would end up growing old alone, "treating" myself to brunch every Sunday and the occasional Broadway show.

In my three years in New York, I hadn't come close to even having one romantic relationship. Dating felt like an absurd cat-and-mouse game, where people were more concerned about what they could get away with than with settling down -- "Can I keep dating other men? Do I have to give up my fuckbuddy if I actually like this woman that I'm dating?"

My dilemma was driven home one gorgeous Saturday in late May, one of the first days of the year with a limpid royal-blue sky and an undoubtedly summery climate. In short, the kind of day when everybody floods to Central Park for the first picnic of the season.

My friend Nadia, the one who gamely took it upon herself to introduce me to every available single man she encountered in New York, had invited me to a picnic. Nadia looked radiant, a few months pregnant with her first child. She'd brought three types of cheese -- Brie, Gouda, and Emmentaler -- and crackers, strawberries, grapes, a pasta salad with artichokes and tomatoes, and a few bottles of chilled white wine. I had shown up empty-handed and hungover from a late night out with some girlfriends, in which we ended up talking about ... guess what?

The ever-resourceful Nadia was talking to some of the others, her back to me, and I watched how the sun glinted off of her black, shiny hair. Her husband caressed her head for a few seconds while he said something into her ear. She let out a deeply felt laugh. I noticed the slight bump under her dress. And then I looked up at the sky, the dazzling, mocking clear blue sky. Lording over me, the firmament teased me, "See how happy you could be on a day like this? But you are not, because Kurt/Joe/Mark did not call you back after your date last week. How are you ever going to have a bump under your flower-print dress and a man to caress your head if no one even calls you after going out on a date with you?"

That was when I started crying, right in the middle of the picnic. Not sobbing gustily, or even audibly. But if you'd been looking at me, you'd have noticed a small torrent of tears gush down both sides of my face. Someone did, one of the husbands sitting on my right. He saw me with my plainly damp cheeks and, without saying a word, handed me his sunglasses.

I thought I should say something by way of explanation. He wasn't asking for one, but it seemed the proper thing to do. "I'm sorry, I'm just emotional today. It's ... it's just that dating in New York is so hard. I'm not sure I can do it anymore."

His naked eyes squinting into the sun, he nodded and half smiled sympathetically, not sure, of course, what I was really getting at. It took about another ten minutes to compose myself behind his sunglasses. I finally got up, handed back the sunglasses, said my good-byes, and walked through the throngs of picnickers. As I walked to the street and then to the subway station, my sobs were no longer soundless. They were loud, sniffling, and phlegmy. I was hyperventilating.

When I emerged from the train in my neighborhood in Brooklyn some three quarters of an hour later, it was still contemptuously brilliant outside. All the cafés on my street were crowded with merrymakers. That day, I literally ran home in tears.

I had become precisely the kind of woman I was determined not to become before I'd come to New York: that proverbial single thirtysomething female propped up at the bar waiting for her ship to come in. Despairing of another summer of Sunday brunches with the stodgy and unresponsive company of the New York Times, I knew I had to leave New York, but where could I go?

I suspected I would encounter the same kind of never-ending carousel of dates in other U.S. cities I would consider living in, like Los Angeles or San Francisco. Certainly single girlfriends I knew living in those cities had provided ample evidence of this. And in European cities I would have to learn a new language, not to mention compete with Monica Bellucci look-alikes who spoke four or five languages and could stand for hours in stilettos.

That was when I began to think of going to India. There are more men in India than women, around 930 women to every 1,000 men according to recent census data, the vast discrepancy a disturbing result of infanticide and sex-segregated abortion. And yet, it would work to my advantage, comparing favorably, of course, with the proportion of women to men in New York, which is always cited as something obscene like seven to one. This last figure may be an urban myth, but certainly it bore itself out anecdotally. Most parties I attended in New York featured thirty women and two men.

Statistics may be inappropriate evidence in an emotional argument, but they often are a last bastion of hope.

So I figured my options were simply more plentiful in India. I could go in for a strict arranged marriage, an "assisted" marriage, or I could merely date in a pool far more oriented toward marriage than the one I was dealing with in New York City.

I knew that arranged marriage certainly was no longer as entrenched in India as it was just a generation ago, losing its grip among a modern and urbanized segment of society. Outside of the major metropolitan cities, people still readily submitted to the practice. In cities like Delhi and Bombay, the vast majority of marriages were still arranged, but I'd also heard that a culture of dating and sleeping around was gaining ground. Nonetheless, in India, a desire to be married wasn't at loggerheads with the advances for which feminists had struggled. Even arranged marriage was acceptable in circles one would think had moved far beyond tradition. Bollywood megastar Madhuri Dixit left her career in 1999, when she was the highest-paid actress in the country's history, to marry a nonresident Indian surgeon from Los Angeles. Her parents arranged the union and the couple reportedly only met once before deciding to get married. Likewise, Aishwarya Rai, who was poised to make a transition from a successful Bollywood career to one in Hollywood, damaged her chances for superstardom when she chose to get married to the son of Indian film legend Amitabh Bachchan in 2007. She adopted her husband's last name and moved in with her in-laws.

As I sat on my couch drinking coffee before heading out to the subway in the morning, or in my midtown office struggling to focus on a story I had to submit by the end of the day, I noticed my mind wandering more and more to the idea of going to India.

People commonly go to India to find themselves or to find god, but I went to India to find a husband. I would give myself a year, what I figured was ample time in such a marriage-oriented society. In my mind, my decision also overturned two conventions, which, in the lexicon of the West, could be seen as nothing less than empowering. The first convention is that of an Indian man who has grown up in the West going back to the motherland to find a traditional, virginal, "simple" bride. The second is that of a South Asian woman being dragged back by her parents -- one hears of this more in the U.K. among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis -- to be married off, more often than not to a domineering and narrow-minded groom who restricts the freedoms she's enjoyed in the West. I willingly -- and willfully -- returned to find a modern Indian husband on my own terms.

Going to India to find a husband also raised other considerations. I wondered if I would be able to find someone modern enough in his thinking to be comfortable with a wife having a great deal of her own agency, not just in terms of making decisions for the household but in having a full life outside the marriage -- one that included going out with friends, drinking, and smoking. A woman who has had sex in the past -- and not just with those two long-term boyfriends. I wasn't sure what I would find, but I owed it to myself to try.

By Anita Jain

Anita Jain has worked as a journalist in a number of cities, including Mexico City, London, Singapore, New York and New Delhi, where she currently lives. She is the author of "Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India", from which this is excerpted.

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