Saturday, January 13, 2007

Love and Marriage in Today's India

Today was extraordinary. During our 11 train ride from Haridwar (near Rishikesh) to Agra we found ourselves in a sleeper cabin with a couple of expectionally bright and thoughtful Indian women and their children. One holds an MA in Political Science and the other is a Professor of Computer science. My discussions with them began with politics and moved onto religion, spirituality and ultimately love and marriage. I had such fun! India is absolutely in the midst of a sexual revolution. The computer science professor spoke about her love-marriage to a man of a lower caste. She had dated only him...and ultimately lives with him (in a private room) in the home of his parents. Being of different castes she's experienced some challenges. The family cooks more simply than her own family does. The political scientist was travelling with her 12 year old son who goes to boarding school. He was filled with modern ideas -- and unlike his mom who is an arranged marriage, he absolutely knows he'll have a love marriage. While his mother explains that arranged marriages provide support from the both families when there are problems, her son is smitten with modern ways! When I ventured some speculations that the breakdown of arranged marriage could easily be seen as a harbinger for the breakdown of Indian society she listened carefully. If extended family is no longer party to a marriage, divorce would be resorted to more readily. Divorce rates are already rising in India both for love marriages as well as arranged marriages. Ultimately if dating hits India in a big way (we just browsed a teen-oriented mall here in Agra with groups of young people going to movies and buying snacks at the Food Court), there will certainly be a rise in out-of-wedlock births...and with India's ban on abortion, independent-minded girls are very likely to become single mothers by choice rather than marrying into restrictive patriarchal families. Even the young men working at the food court counters yacked enthusiatically about their personal interest in a love marriage!

And spirituality? Well our seat mates on the train do not practice yoga nor meditation (clearly more the concerns of new age seekers in Rishikesh) than modern Indians. They spoke about their brand of Hinduism. They were each aligned with one Hindu god, Vishnu either in this original form or in one of his incarnations: Krishna or Rama. Their engagement of spirituality seemed little different than modern Americans who engage in occasional/perfunctory attendance at church or synagogue. Nonetheless they hold strictly to their practice of vegetarianism, contending that eating living things is against their religious/moral code. Sounds so akin to American Jews eating a semi-kosher diet (pork and shrimp are only OK at a Chinese restaurant) or American Catholics who endeavor to eat fish on Fridays with little sense of the meanings behind these practices. Moreover the precocious 12 year old ordered a non-vegetarian breakfast for himself. Meanwhile his Mom munched on home made Indian delicacies. Her sweets were exquisite as was her channa (spiced garbanzo beans).

This data gathering is all working out so well! Somehow I knew that it didn't really matter where I went or what I did during this month in India...that stories would just arrive in my lap. And they certainly have!