In the subcontinent marriage generally means arranged marriage. The arrangement isn’t made by the parties concerned i.e. man and woman but by their families with or without the help of matchmaker [Vichola/ Vicholi].
In the past man and woman weren’t supposed to see or meet each other. They were in fact pawns in the games between two families or clans. The major consideration of the families and clans involved revolved around power relations; the arrangement aimed at complimenting and enhancing their social and political clout. Class, caste and ethnicity mattered and still matter. Class has been and still is the crucial factor as it can trump all other considerations. An upper class Punjabi man or woman can marry a Sindhi or a Pathan equal or above in status.
One comes across a classic example in the Damodar’s composition of Heer. Heer is a pre-teen girl when the elders of the family go into a huddle: “Brothers and father resolved this plan, damsel Heer somewhere let’s give away/ One, give her where Pathans originate, beyond Sindh extend our sway / Or give her to conqueror Akbar, then measure lands, tax as we may /Speak Damodar caste Gulati ‘on this very plan we ‘all stay [Translation; Muzaffar Ghaffaar]”.
Hunger to maintain class status and augmenting it is the primary factor. Culture, language and ethnicity can take a back seat. So does the consent of the girl involved. That Emperor Akbar and other Mughal royals married Hindu princesses to strengthen their grip on the empire and expand its base is beyond dispute. This in no way doubts the love some of them had for their spouses of different ethnicities. Individual woman and her qualities carried little weight. Political asset in the person of the bride was the thing sought after.
Emperor Akbar’s grandfather Babur, an enlightened yahoo and a ruthless military commander, after thrashing and overwhelming Yousafzai tribe in the north asked for hand of Yousafzai chief’s daughter in marriage and he was obliged. He had never seen her before nor was interested in knowing her as a person. The lady would stand as a warning to Yousafzai not to dare to harbour the thought of rebelling against the ferocious invader. She was a stark reminder of the past when he humbled her tribe by massacring her people. The man was prone to go on a killing spree, given half a chance. In order to consolidate his power Maharaja Ranjit Singh married women of elitist families that ruled the ‘Sikh Misls’ [states of Sikh confederacy in the 18th century]. Marriage first, love later in most cases! The woman Ranjt Singh loved passionately was simply a Muslim singing girl with no trappings of power. Power and love usually don’t go together.
As to the ordinary mortals, they are prisoners of tradition which lays stress on endogamous marriage dictated by caste and class norms. Middle and lower middle classes prefer arranged marriage. Love between man and woman is rarely tolerated as it is somehow suggestive of sexual contact which is thought to be morally and socially abhorrent, and religiously a sin. Their perception of love isn’t unfounded because love invariably is inclusive of sexual intimacy. Love is only ‘impotence’ when it’s unrequited. Requited or unrequited, love is a taboo. Upper crust and working classes are comparatively more tolerant of such a deviation from the prevalent norms. Among middle classes boy and girl to be man and wife weren’t allowed to see each other in the past. Women of girl’s family would give description of the girl and those of boy’s family that of the boy. It was usually a plunge into darkness.
In the changed socio-economic conditions underpinned by advancement in technology when still camera made its appearance the scenario became a little different. Now photos of boy and girl were exchanged through the matchmaker. Showing photos didn’t mean seeking of consent of would-be partners. Yet it was a step forward in cultural emancipation. At least a sort of virtual contact with between boy and girl! Now in the age of social media with the increased female literacy, boy and girl can see each other in the family gatherings under the watchful eye of their elders. The usual scene shown ad nauseam in South Asian films is somewhat like this: two families are gathered together at girl’s place. They indulge in small talk not realising the inanities of their comments. Banal conversation is actually used as a guile to measure the social and economic status of the host. Suddenly someone shouts where the tea is. Lo and behold, within seconds an overdressed girl pushing a trolley or holding a tray enters the room as if she was ready to act on a cue. The girl is self-conscious and aware that all the members of boy’s family are looking at her in an effort to size her up. He feels as if she is pinned down. All the things are pre-planned and stage-managed. Both the parties know it but take it as if it’s natural and spontaneous. The ritual is boringly hilarious. The weight of dead traditions makes the living half dead. But it’s the woman who is actually weighed down more. Woman has been reduced to a commodity regardless of class and caste. She is a pawn in the game of male dominated power politics of elite and an unpaid worker in medium and low income households of lower orders. Loveless marriage is an albatross around a woman’s neck. And the man! Well, he can make do with conjugal love without loving or being loved. Patriarchy and ensuing power has distorted male psyche and impaired his capacity to rise above the semblance of instinctually driven sexual gratification. Marriage can survive without love as much as love can without marriage. The immortal lovers of our land never signed marriage contract. In Damodar’s tale, Heer after her forced marriage runs away with Ranjha. When captured and presented in the court, she is admonished by the judge and is reminded of her marriage with Khera. She dauntlessly retorts: “God ties the marriages of hearts, judge what will you tie”? Heer treats love as marriage while the judge talks of sanctity of marriage certificate. An adage describes the hollowness of marriage: “Loving couples are rare in the world, the pairs yoked together are aplenty [Jorian jug thorian / nararr batheray]”. Marriage may be a historical compulsion but should we make it arranged or forced and thus utterly loveless? Should marriage be a wound made bearable by living together? “When the wound stops hurting, what hurts is the scar”, says the poet Brecht. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2021