Arranged Love: A Ceremony of Risk

By Dan Rousseau

Naomi Joseph found her husband through a newspaper ad, flew halfway across the world to meet him, married two weeks later, and pronounces with confidence, “I feel like I’ve always loved him, like I’ve known him for eternity.”

It is 2:54 PM at Penndale Middle School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. The hallways are clear, but the sound of scuffling feet and squealing chairs seeps under classroom doors. The building is a testament to the versed stubbornness of the East Coast; eighty-year old stone walls, drenched in thirty ancient coats of paint, frame brand-new blue lockers that stand too slim to fit a bag, but large enough to guarantee a home for fifteen-hundred students. Tension is released into madness as the clock strikes 2:55. Doors fly open and students swarm cramped passages. The smell of haphazardly applied cologne, likely borrowed from a father, wafts as a pungent calling card. Careful listening garners gossip of star-crossed lovers, three-day relationships, secret crushes, and the occasional defense of Justin Bieber. Open lockers expose photos of celebrities with sparkling eyes, and saved notes; of the “circle yes or no if you like me” variety. Kids make their way home, dreaming of finding their one true love, as Disney has prescribed. They will likely filter through scores of awkward dates, and several broken hearts in their quest, but Naomi, an eighth grade math teacher, skipped this distinctly American experience. As foreign as arranged marriage may be to her students, it brought her happiness.

When Naomi was nine years old her parents carted her, and her seventeen-year-old brother to the United States from India. What her mother and father lacked in wealth and education, they made up for in desire for their children’s success. The family rubbed pennies together for years, working low-wage positions in factories, slowly finding their footing in the Christian Indo- American community surrounding Philadelphia. Naomi was always cognizant of her parent’s work ethic, eager to respect their sacrifices through her own efforts. Realizing her family’s inability to pay for college, Naomi approached school with steadfast attention and scholarships in mind, “Education was always my family’s number one focus” she explains, “I never went to a school dance, I never dated anyone.” Such a mindset garnered her a full scholarship to Villanova University. Naomi’s determination separated her from her peers. Her mission was honorable: a reflection of her parents.

Now twenty-eight years old, Naomi blends seamlessly into her surroundings. Her speech is fundamentally American: quick, convincing, and bolstered by a smile. She glides through conversation with vigilant eye contact, laughing in all the right places. She does not appear intimidated by questions of her past, firing out breathy answers in machine gun fashion, but her fluid speech is stopped dead in it’s tracks when asked to describe love. Her eyes slowly rise, as if staring through the walls. A five-second pause is followed by a carefully sifted answer, “I was never under the delusion of love at first sight. Love is something you build, it takes work.” Leaning forward in in her chair, she explains her arranged marriage in reverence, “I always trusted my parents, that they would choose the right person for me.” Then gazing to the heavens expounding, “God brought me true love.”

Naomi’s lineage is full of arranged marriages, “My brother, my parents, my grandparents - all had arranged marriages.” Holding her parents in high esteem, she never considered wavering from their wishes to choose her husband, “I would never want to let my parents down. They would be devastated if I didn’t have an arranged marriage.”

Most American girls spend countless hours of their youth living their relationship fantasies through Barbie. Re-naming her after themselves, hastily falling for Ken, but eventually leaving him for an Australian surfer named Blaine. While her peers acted out their dates, Naomi remembers taking a contrasting approach, “I used to make pretend newspaper ads for myself.” Following a common Indian practice, Naomi and her sister-in-law would dream up public endorsements; what would they tell curious men about her appearance, her family, and her education? What dashing man, and his family, would be intrigued enough to inquire?

Marriage in the Indian culture is a specific endeavor, one of checklists, lineage, and careful consideration toward compatibility. As Naomi informs, “Marriages have to be of the same religion, state, and socioeconomic class.” She explains how the operation is narrowed even further, “Looks go into the process. They don’t want to match people together who are different physically because it could cause problems in the relationship.” The general cultural consensus is that tall individuals with long hair and light skin are more desirable. This perception played on Naomi’s mind, “I am considered short and dark skinned.” But that never hindered her faithful, religious stance; she always believed that God preordained her future husband.

Naomi’s family never pressed her to marry early, waiting until she was ready to commit before pursuing a match. She had graduated from college, and obtained a solid teaching position before approaching her parents about finding a husband. The decision was met with joy and sincerity. Naomi’s family was handed an immense responsibility; the first place they turned was the Internet.

Millions of Americans attempt to project their best selves over the Net in hopes of attracting relationships. Sites like F acebook and allow segmented looks into lives, a now common pre-judgment of potential mates. The Indo-American culture has followed suit, riding the mainstream wave of immediate personal information to attract potential partners within the context of arranged marriage. Websites like allow families to create profiles for sons or daughters that bypass old world hassles. Unlike common American dating sites, the presented information is very general. Men are not evaluated by their taste in movies or Frisbee golf proficiency, but by their religion, state, socioeconomic class, and outward appearance. These primary tenets provide the basis for intrigue. Naomi’s initial gaze was set on Indian men in the United States. She and her family spent a year scouring the country for a perfect fit, but a low Indian population coupled with her specified attributes rendered the hunt hopeless. Realizing the scarcity of finding a devoted Christian-Indian man in a Hindu dominated arena, Naomi warmed to the idea of marrying someone from India. In doing so she agreed to revert to traditional matchmaking customs. The age-old intentions of newspaper ads provided promise. Indian men often view American women with equal intrigue and skepticism. Some consider U.S. residence as a substantial social symbol - a potential bridge to a successful life, while others look upon Indo-American women with skepticism. Naomi describes this misnomer, “There is the idea that American girls dated a lot, were promiscuous, and only look for husbands in India because they could not find one in America.” When informed of her coming newspaper ad, something she’d been preparing for since childhood, she felt ambivalent toward posting her place of residence, “I kind of felt like I was being shopped around. I wanted to see how many guys I could get without saying I was American.” Apart from her immediate opinion, her citizenship was posted in an Indian newspaper. Inquiries flew in by the dozens. It was now up to Naomi and her family to thresh the interest, hopefully falling upon a man who would see beyond her exterior appeal, and love her unconditionally.

Careful deliberation led the family to settle upon two alluring potential suitors: both handsome, intelligent, Christian men. The determination fit squarely with a family trip to India, where they were to attend the baptism of Naomi’s nephew. In July of 2011 she congregated with her loved ones overseas. Meetings were scheduled with the men of interest. The first introduction was with Ayaan.

Naomi had the opportunity to speak with Ayaan over Skype before departing to India. She paints the interaction as equal parts awkward and engrossing, “He was in a public area, like being in a coffee shop, and his mom was in the room. The power went out where he was, which is common there...he was afraid I wouldn’t pick him because of that.” But in the mere minutes they conversed, across ocean and culture, something stuck with Naomi. “There was some kind of chemistry,” she explains, and in that there was something to build into love.

Ayaan is a loyal person: to tradition and to family. With the passing of his father ten years ago, came the responsibility of caring for his mother; this fused an especially strong bond between the two. His mother’s steady example bolstered trust, an essential element as she took charge in finding a wife for her son. From the get-go, he expressed full confidence in the results of arranged marriage, “I am not a fan of love-marriage (a traditional term for marriage precluded by dating). I think in love-marriage, by the time you get to the wedding, there are no good surprises.”

The initial face-to-face took place at a house in India owned by Naomi’s family. In observance of tradition, she entered a small central room for a time of questioning. Ayaan’s family sat packed on one side, her family to the other. She did not speak unless asked to; reciting straight forward answers to general questions: Where do you work? Where do you live? Naomi remained confident amidst the interrogation, partly soothed by the humble sweat on Ayaan’s brow, “I wasn’t that nervous, but Ayaan was really nervous” she remembers.

The two were eventually allowed a few minutes of unaccompanied interaction in an adjacent bedroom, although the anxious family’s ears were pressed against the door. Naomi recalls Ayaan’s first words to her as striking and endearing. He said, “I don’t care how you are with me...I want to know how your are with my mom. Will you take care of my mom?” For years Naomi had rejected the notion of the classical housewife. Her independent spirit seeks to be equally yoked. But in that moment she recognized the authenticity of Ayaan’s words, and she flashed back to the gracious care her sister-in-law had given her own mother. Slightly surprising herself she responded, “I will.”

Naomi’s father received a phone call from Ayaan’s family the next day confirming they were impressed by the meeting. He approached Naomi to hear her opinion on the matter, “Do you want to marry this man?” he asked. According to Naomi, this brand of attention to the girl’s preference flies in the face of the United State’s perspective of Christian Indo-American arranged marriage, “It’s not completely the parent’s decision.” She was initially apprehensive, and when the second man of interest cancelled their coming meeting, tension was brought to a head.

Wavering back and forth about the future and its consequences, Naomi consulted her sister-in- law, a close sage who once stood in her shoes. She consoled Naomi, “What are you afraid of? God would not bring you something bad.” Agreeing, in a moment of blind faith, Naomi informed her father that she would marry Ayaan.

Ayaan and Naomi were allowed to talk on the phone during the week leading to their engagement ceremony, and subsequent marriage two days later. The couple chatted endlessly, Naomi explains, “We got to know each other as well as you can in a week.”

The families were rushed to plan a wedding in less than ten days; casting quick decisions on food and clothing, skipping some of the fanfare Naomi had become accustomed to through the American media and friend’s weddings, “I like to bake. I do wish I had a cool cake...and there was no searching for a dress.” The focus through the matrimony process was not fixed on the doilies and custom garters, Naomi points out, “It’s more about the marriage than the wedding.” The ceremony took place on August 13th, 201 1. It was a simple affair. Ayaan stood at the altar, wearing a dark, clean-cut suit that accentuated broad shoulders. Naomi was wrapped in a white Sari, adorned with gold jewelry - a financial safety net given to the bride by the groom’s family. Kneeling before the priest, Naomi was given a ring and a necklace, both hand and heart enhanced by unity. A quick ceremony gave way to a change of garb. Naomi donned a shimmering crimson Sari; Ayaan assumed milky white wedding cloth. Guests attended a brief after party, void of dancing and unnecessary embellishment. With such responsibility placed upon the shoulders of the family, to choose and to support, the eyes in the room were turned obsessively toward the future. As Naomi states, “Both families take a risk.”

Naomi was set to return to the United States five days after the wedding, and was forced to do so without her husband, who was awaiting official paperwork toward citizenship. The two spent those initial days building a friendship on top of a marriage. As quickly as they had met, Naomi was pulled back home; where she waited without Ayaan for the better part of a year.

Vast time zone differences and daily routines tested the grit of the young relationship; 4AM phone conversations, and constant contemplation underscored the unknown. Nevertheless, she recounts those early morning discussions with fondness, stirred with puppy love emotions, “That first year, I could not put the phone down, I was infatuated.”

In the years leading to her marriage, Naomi wrote a series of letters to her future spouse and another to God. She laid out her fears and excitements - her distastes and desires, pleading ceaselessly for a righteous partner. Slowly the voice on the other side of the phone became a comfort, and then something to love. Naomi recalls looking back at the letters after getting to know Ayaan on an intimate level, “He fit every single mold.”

Naomi stood at the airport, nearly a year removed from her newlywed’s presence, holding red, white, and blue balloons; welcoming a foreign body, and familiar voice to America. Difficulties awaited her: language barriers, the challenge of immigrant employment, and Ayaan’s first expedition without his mother. But as he made his way through the airport, and the two reunited in love, she remained confident in a single notion, “God arranged my marriage.”