A well matched couple

Midhun Shankar is looking forward to building a relationship and a marriage with his wife when...
Midhun Shankar is looking forward to building a relationship and a marriage with his wife when she arrives in Dunedin later this year. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

Midhun Shankar’s mother helped him choose a bride for his February wedding. Bruce Munro asks what it’s like to have an arranged marriage, and looks for lessons from this ancient practice.

Talk about out of the freezer and into the frying pan.

In just 12 months, 30-year-old Dunedin software developer Midhun Shankar went from self-chosen singlehood to pre-arranged, wedded bliss.

And the strangest moment of all was when he stepped out of a Dunedin winter into a 30degC-plus, South Indian day to meet his prospective bride for the first time.

"It was an unusual feeling,'' Shankar, who works for Allied Technologies, recalls.

It was late-August. He had been welcomed into Meera Mohan's parents' home in the city of Cochin, on the southwest coast of India, for the couple's momentous, first face-to-face.

It was a meeting for just the two of them ... and his parents, his sister, Mohan's parents, her brother, an uncle, an aunt and their children.

Shankar greeted his future father-in-law and brother-in-law while his mother and sister talked with Mohan.

After a while, Mohan's father suggested the couple could go out to the lawn to talk together.

"I was struggling to find a subject [to talk about],'' Shankar admits.

"So, we were just formally asking each other, what have you been doing, how is your work going?''

Being outside afforded some privacy. But, children wandered in and out of ear shot. And, of course, there were the glances from parents and relatives trying to gauge how the detente was progressing.

"So, it was really embarrassing,'' he concludes.

Shankar is one of a huge number of people worldwide who are in an arranged marriage.

It has been estimated that more than half of all marriages globally are arranged. The Statistic Brain Research Institute puts that at about 26 million match-made marriages a year.

Looking in from the outside, from a culture with different traditions, arranged marriages - where one or more family members are involved in setting up a marriage - seem strange, potentially loveless, just not right.

A distinction has to be drawn between arranged and forced marriages. Forced marriages, of girls under 15 to older men, do happen. They are thought to make up 11% of arranged marriages in developing countries.

But, agreeing forced marriages are egregious and distinct from other types of arranged marriages, still leaves more than 40 million people each year who are willingly getting help to tie the knot. That's more than 40 million people who have a divorce rate that hovers at about 6% globally, compared with about 50% in New Zealand and much of the so-called developed world.

Of course, there are a plethora of potential reasons for a low divorce rate in arranged marriages. Some of which, such as gender inequality, and are not worthy of any bridal bouquets.

Many Westerners, however, are clearly looking for a better way than the love-at-first-sight, physically-charged path to relational success. Participants in reality television shows such as Married at First Sight frequently say they have been unsuccessful in the search for love and hope that, by putting themselves in the hands of modern matchmaking experts, they will finally get a different outcome.

Inside the hands: Midhun Shankar and his wife Meera Mohan  and their wedding party on the day of...
Inside the hands: Midhun Shankar and his wife Meera Mohan and their wedding party on the day of their marriage, in February. Above: Shankar and his mother used the Bharat Matrimony website to find him a bride. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

SO, what is it like to have an arranged marriage? Could there be something worthwhile in this approach that, until a couple of centuries ago, was the norm in most countries and cultures?

Shankar, who came to New Zealand in late-2014, says he was happily single well into his late-20s.

His mother, however, was not so settled.

"She was worried about me,'' he says.

"For a couple of years, she would tell me, `find any girl you like, just get married. I want grandchildren before I die'.''

When he phoned home early last year, to say he was ready to look for a wife, his mother was "absolutely happy''.

Shankar also agreed to his mother setting up a profile for him on one of India's foremost match-making websites, Bharat Matrimony.

Three thoughts spurred his acquiescence.

Earlier relationships had not gone the distance, making him more open to the idea of a family "fixer''.

He knew his parents would be happier if they were involved in looking for their future daughter-in-law.

"And to be honest, I was too lazy to put in the effort to find someone,'' he adds with a hearty laugh.

Online is where marriages are arranged in 21st century middle-class India.

Shankar's mum got busy on the site, filling out all the mandatory and recommended fields, including Shankar's religion, language, caste, height, family socio-economic status, whether the family was traditional or liberal and what her son's educational level, job and income were.

Then it was a simple matter of Shankar looking through the pages of women's profiles that the site's algorithms had decided were good matches.

It is just like any dating site, except the stakes and consequences are a lot higher.

Shankar's mum looked as well, and forwarded suggestions to her son.

After half a dozen tentative online contacts with potential brides, Shankar settled on one with whom his mother had discovered an existing family connection: Mohan, also a software developer and now, likely, his wife-to-be.

The pair began communicating by email, text and then online video.

In August, Shankar took a month-long holiday in India and the two met for the first time.

After a few more coffee and lunch dates, their parents agreed the match was looking good.

Rings were exchanged and Shankar flew back to New Zealand to work, Skype his fiancee as often as possible and save for his February wedding.

Shankar's immediate boss at Allied Technologies is Raibn Joseph (33), who is also from Kerala state, southern India.

Shankar is Hindu. Joseph is Christian. Shankar chose a modern, arranged marriage. Joseph's was a "love marriage'' with strong family involvement.

"My parents told me, bring the girl and then we'll see,'' Joseph says.

But they share values that shape relationships, both before and after marriage, in a distinctly non-Western way.

In India, the only people who can do whatever they like, with no regard for what family think, are the rich, Joseph says.

Social norms and economic realities mean people are more communally minded and interdependent.

"Individualism is quite a bit less in India,'' Joseph explains.

"Everything is moulded around your family. So, they have a say when you take your life forward.''

When family get involved in selecting a spouse, the aim is a successful relationship, he says.

"Marrying and divorcing and marrying again doesn't work in our system because of all the external factors.''

In a country as culturally diverse as India, that success is given better odds by "filtering'' prospective partners.

"The filtering isn't on looks or whether the two get on well together. That is for the couple to decide,'' Joseph says.

"Financial status, religious status, cultural status, educational level - all these things are filtered when you have an arranged marriage.

"Arranged marriages get a bad name in the West because people think we just randomly marry someone.

"But it isn't that. It's just that we filter a bit and then choose someone from that group, to avoid pitfalls down the line.''

If the marriage does get into trouble, those who helped arrange it are vested in ensuring difficulties, if at all possible, are sorted quickly, Shankar says.

"Since our families are also involved, if it is not working out, the family will be involved to help fix the relationship.''

Raibn Joseph, of Dunedin, says only the rich in India can afford a Western attitude that does not...
Raibn Joseph, of Dunedin, says only the rich in India can afford a Western attitude that does not take family wishes into account when it comes to choosing a husband or wife. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH

SHANKAR and Mohan's February wedding took all day and went well into the night.

The wedding ceremony itself was hosted by Mohan's family.

Shankar, wearing a cream and white silk dhoti kurta (loose trousers and long jacket outfit), was welcomed by the bride's brother. He then sat with Mohan in the mandap, a pillared, gazebo-like structure.

She was dressed in a red wedding sari bordered in gold.

Elements of the ceremony included an exchange of vows, placing a chain of gold around the bride's neck, the bride's father giving his daughter to the groom, giving clothes to guests and drinking sweet milk.

In accordance with Kerala Hindu tradition, the ceremony was attended mostly by the bride's family and friends and a core group of the groom's family.

The evening reception was the other way round. It was held 50km away, nearer to Shankar's home. The 850 guests were primarily Shankar's family and community, plus Mohan and some of her family.

The lavish and expensive festivities ended with a DJ party.

Expectations of an arranged marriage can be quite different from those of Western marriages, Shankar says.

To his mind, just as a focus on physical attraction without first filtering for compatibility can undermine the relationship's foundations, so too an expectation of being in love from the get-go is not a prerequisite for a happy marriage.

How can you expect to be in love if you are still getting to know each other, Shankar asks.

"It's one of the core philosophies of arranged marriages. You don't have to expect love.

"You try to find love as you explore the other person. Eventually the both of you will come to common ground.

"You are looking for compatibility ... The hope is that love will grow in time.

"And in most cases it does. My parents had an arranged marriage and they love each other.''

The two men have seen a little of Married At First Sight.

"Weird'' is one of the adjectives they choose in response.

The use of relationship experts to make matches, bears some resemblance to arranged marriages. But they question whether compatibility is being measured by matching participants' backgrounds or simply by looking at superficially shared interests.

Even if they have been matched, the show's newly-weds often still seem to have expectations of love driven foremost by physical attraction, they say.

"A lot of other things are probably not considered when they jump into relationships,'' Joseph says.

"A lot of these things are filtered in arranged marriages. It is probably why the marriages last longer.''

It will be a few more months before Shankar's wife arrives in New Zealand.

He knows from personal experience how difficult that will be for Mohan.

Much will be unfamiliar; she will not be able to work immediately; he will be the only person she knows.

It will be frustrating and he will need to support her through that, he says. But she is more outgoing than he is, and he thinks that will be good for him.

He does not want to be the dominant partner. She is her own person, he says.

Shankar is looking forward to having someone to share his life with.

He thinks they will travel a lot.

He has a smile and a gleam in his eye as he considers the life that has been arranged for him, the companionship that will grow, the love he hopes will blossom.

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