You've heard of the arranged marriage. And you've heard of dowry, the age old concept of giving money to the groom's family for something I don't entirely understand but agree is a social evil. And you've heard of boys making demands: that the girl should be fair and beautiful, that she should have studied in a convent but should not be a nun, unless you count the virginity aspect, but she should also gel easily with other people and so on. And much of this from ugly, pathetic losers.
The empire has struck back.
The arranged marriage market in India, and there's a reason it's a "market", is not the groom's domain anymore. Women, and more specifically women's families, routinely demand more of the "boy"; demands that are not only based on stability, but also on a deep understanding of economics and politics.
Let me give you the four eras I have seen. All are accounts I have heard from those who've been through this first-hand.1995-1998: The H1-B years
"Do you have an H1-B?"
That was the dreaded question. H1-B is a visa for residency in the U.S. which allows you to earn the monthly moolah in dollars. 1995-98 wasn't the most happening time for the Indian economy, so most people wanted to go abroad - and the U.S. was the easiest destination, what with the H1-B visa, companies willing to take anyone, and scores of consulting companies hiring junta for contract projects. A H1-B visa meant weath, stability and a "foot hold" abroad. The concept of downsizing was alien to Indian culture; the only references to pink slips were coloured undergarments.
Scores of eligible gentlemen left for the shores of America, armed with Rasam powder, Ghar ka achar, Ten packets of Maggi and the H1-B visa. Soon they would settle down with a house, a car, and a prestigious account at the ubiquitous Indian Grocery Shop, and the only thing to do next was to find a bride. And then there were girls in India, whose families wanted their daughter to live in a U.S. house, travel in a U.S. car (Oh my gawd, a Hyundai!) and of course, to shop in the Great Indian Grocery Shop.
So the women's families would ask: Have you an H1-B? If not, sorry - we don't like trash. The remaining marriageable folk in India had to deal with the "second rung" of the girl market - the less fair, the less beautiful, and the lower dowry bazaar.
Without an H1-B, an arranged marriage was doomed; the aunts would whisper among each other,
"He's so dark, he's bald also"
"They couldn't find a H1-B, I think"
"Poor fellows. But who will give a H1-B to that girl? She was seen with some boys, by my cousin, and you know how picky these H1-B families are"
"Ya ya, my daughter, I have kept her completely away from all boys.I want H1-B only"
"And at least he should have applied for Green card"
Yes, the green card. Now people had figured that H1-B was a visa for temporary residency - six years at a stretch only - and that for a more longer term settlement, one would need to go down the Green Card route.
A Green Card is for permanent residents - and you can get one only if your company sponsors you. While it was considered a good thing by Indian that a company did, one has to understand the nuances of the Green Card application - you are not allowed to change employers, and if you do, you lose your green card application. The process can take years, and usually does, and during this time the company has the equivalent of a bonded labourer. Who even pays taxes. And cannot vote.
(Personal account: I got a lot of flak for leaving the U.S. in 1997 and staying on in India, despite a job offer abroad. I've never regretted that decision; but a lot of people tried to give me a lot of flak for it. To all of them: phooey.)1999-2000 : No Green Cards please
The Green Card rush was a result of a deluge of H1-B applicants (and the other immigrants). The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) couldn't keep up with the demand (or didn't want to) and Green Card holders took a long
time to get their piece of labour freedom.
But there was one more economic impact. As Green Card holders increased, and arranged marriages went ahead with their blistering pace, more and more applicants emerged for the "spouse green card" - a permanent residency permit for the wife of the green card holder. The INS was flooded and it became known that a spouse green card would take upto three years to come through - three unfertile years from the perspective of the potential bride's family.
The rule then was - H1-B okay, Green card no-no.Counter attack of the Emmigrants
: When it got known that the Green Card was in the final processing period, the H1-B holders would rush to India to get married before the green tarnished their otherwise unsullied H1-B reputation. This resulted in some hilarious affairs - the "Ten Day Turnaround" marriage.
U.S. companies typically grant only a two week vacation annually. It was imperative that H1-B boys visit India, do the "interviews" with girls, make their choice and get married. Earlier, such marriages would happen over two or three such visits - a meeting in december, another in January and marriage in March.
With the Green Card imminent, waiting would be catastrophical. So the chat-mangni-pat-byaah scene started to take massive proportions. Meet, select, get engaged and tie the knot: all in the two week vacation.
A friend of my mother's dropped in one day to invite us to her daughter's wedding. She mentioned that the boy and girl only met two days back and that the marriage was a week later. I was flummoxed.Me:
"So early? Don't they want to get to know each other?"Mom's friend:
"No time, baba. The boy has come down with seven friends, and their parents had already chosen 20 girls for them to see, in round robin fashion. If someone chose first, the others would choose from the remaining lot."Me:
"They have even booked the marriage halls. Seven of them. And even the dates are fixed. I am so lucky that my daughter was selected"Me:
"This is nuts! How can you be sure? Doesn't your daughter want some time?"Mom's friend:
"But where's the time? If he doesn't get married now, he will get his Green Card and then we have to wait for so many years no? And they are not even asking for dowry"
Imagine, the pride of one's daughter being "selected" for marriage, round robin, among seven friends. But I digress. The green card had brought this upon us.2000-2002: Not the U.S. please. At least, not an H1-B.
With 2000 came the bust. Not the Pamela Anderson kind.
In the U.S., jobs went flying out the window. Companies shut down suddenly, without any notice, leaving hitherto employed and well heeled individuals stranded in the middle of their mortgage leveraged lives with little hope of finding any lifestyle equivalent employment.
Suddenly the H1-B visa was a nightmare: With the visa linked to one's employment status, the lack of a job meant you either found another job or left the country. There were horror stories of all kinds; the Indian couple that was pink-slipped and had to leave, lock, stock and barrel within a week. Mounting mortgage and car payments prompting people to board planes and rush back "home", leaving empty houses behind and their cars in the airport parking lots. The H1-B engineers playing contract poker to keep their visas, and ending up on the "bench" with no salaries.
Stories spread back home in Indai and obviously the first thing that gets re-aligned is the marriage market. You're an H1-B in the U.S.? You're dead, mate, because no self respecting bride family will even spit in your direction. Too risky, they said.
At this point, the Indian software market was booming. So suddenly those in the Indian Software industry weren't outcastes anymore. With opportunities in India creating cash rich engineers with fancy cars and disposable incomes, bride-families started to accept the Indian located engineer as serious son-in-law candidates. And with Intra-company visas (L1) opening up, the chances for travel were just as good.
So now it was Indian Engineer : 1, H1-B: 0
Note: Green card holders were ok if they weren't in the software industry, or McDonalds burger flippers. And given just those two, I'd have thunk the burger flipper had the upper hand.2003 onwards: Show me the money
And the boom in India has continued. The most recent story I heard was a heartwrenching one: A guy I know was complaining that he wasn't able to find a bride.
"Why?" I ask.
"Because they all earn more than me", he mutters.
"Whoa. What's the problem, then?", I ask, hopelessly unaware that the marketplace works on status, not logic.
He ignores me and goes on.
"And they all want me to own a car and a house. Otherwise, no deal".
Surprise, surprise. Employment is no longer any measure - it's your bank balance. But they can't ask you that, so they will work with visible wealth detectors - the car, the house, the home theatre system. You get 'em first, and then we give you a bride. And you better earn more than the girl, dude; we can't have ya living offa our daughter, get it?
It's amazing how the marriage market seems to be so well in tune with economics - it's not surprising to most of you perhaps, but it fascinates me. As a long term activist against forced marriages, dowry and female harrassment, it is heartening to see women demand their own. And eye-opening to see the male reaction: the bewilderment, the resentment and the unwilling acceptance of the new status symbols.
Marriagonomics is here to stay. Only now the balance has shifted.