CALCUTTA, India -- Shona Bose's parents gave her all the freedoms afforded to progressive, upper-middle-class Indian youngsters of the 1990s. She attended a coeducational college, was encouraged to get a job with a foreign bank here, went to discos with friends and was told that she could marry whomever she fell in love with.
But when the time came to settle down, Bose -- like most other Westernized young urban professionals -- chose the tradition forced upon her elders: arranged marriage.
"When you fall in love as a teen-ager, you look for different things: looks, glamour -- is he fun to go out with?" says Bose, 27. "I met a lot of people I liked, but no one who was suitable for marriage, because I was looking for practicality also. Love is important, but it's not sufficient."
In contrast to some of their parents, who rebelled in the 1960s and '70s by opting for "love marriages," members of this generation assess their plans for marriage as they might a business plan. Is it financially viable? Are our lifestyles compatible? Is each side likely to uphold its end of the deal?
Urban India is replete with contradictions. While embracing Western consumerism, it struggles to retain its traditions and identity. Not long ago, filmmakers were barred from showing a kiss on screen. Now, Hindi-language movies are packed with scenes of women gyrating in wet saris.
The institution of arranged marriages is anchored in both old and new: The techniques are high-tech, young people are playing a larger role in the selection process, and they have veto power over unsuitable candidates.
This reflects a society in transition. More young people receive higher education, more women work, and the pull of romantic and consumerist visions from Western movies is strong. But there is still a powerful attachment to old values such as the extended family and a strict social structure.
"We are now exposed to two cultures," says Bose, who has been happily married for three years to a man she had met just three times before their engagement. "And we want the best of both."
Young, educated people know that the divorce rate in India, long dominated by arranged marriages, is less than 5 percent; in the United States, by contrast, roughly half of all marriages break up.
India's low rate is attributed, in part, to societal disapproval of divorce. But advocates of arranged marriage also credit the research involved in matching mates. Bose's parents, for example, had, at her request, researched and solicited proposals from parents of men with good earnings potential and higher education.
"Blind love is out; practicality is in," says Madhu Jain, a senior editor of India Today who has written extensively about relationships. "It's Cupid with eyes open."
Until a few decades ago, even the most educated Indian families generally married their children to eligible mates -- based on horoscopes, caste, community and pedigree -- without consulting their children. The bride and bridegroom were often not allowed to meet before the wedding. Even if they did, they could not refuse a match.
Marital customs in rural India and among lower classes, as well as among conservative business families, have changed little. Children are still expected to marry the spouse of their family's choice. Last month, a young couple in a village 50 miles from the capital were beheaded at a meeting of their community for having eloped.
But among most educated Indians, much has changed. Families that once relied on professional neighborhood matchmakers now often opt for computerized marriage bureaus and pages of highly specific matrimonial ads in the Sunday papers, including some letters written by prospective marriage partners themselves.
Young people are commonly allowed to meet alone a few times before choosing. Still, among all but the most liberal, relationships are still quite restricted compared with those in the West. A recent survey of young middle-class urban couples found that less than half had held hands before their wedding.
That pattern did not seem to undermine the unions. Among urban professionals polled in another survey, 81 percent said their marriages had been arranged, and 94 percent rated their marriages "very successful." Half said they favor arranged marriages because "elders know best," an additional 20 percent to ensure that the spouse was of similar social standing, and about 10 percent because they could count on family support in case of trouble.
A poll of college students across the country also found that two-thirds preferred arranged marriages.
Akash Dharmaraj, a family psychotherapist, describes young people's attraction to arranged marriage as a reaction, in part, to "a period in the '70s and '80s when a lot of marriages were on the rocks, and they were often marriages based on love."
Even those like Shalini Arora, a 24-year-old architect who says she cannot imagine having an arranged marriage, concedes: "We all know the failure rate in love marriage is higher. Still, I don't buy the argument that because a marriage doesn't break up that it's a happy marriage."
S. C. Talukdar, a newspaper editor and co-owner of the oldest computerized matrimonial agency in India, claims 42,000 clients whom he can match based on everything from religion and height to hobbies and income.
"When people were rural-based, normally within their own circle, they could find a match," he says. "But now, with urbanization, these close community bonds are lost."
For Talukdar's own daughter, a computer engineer, he found six prioritized matches. They contacted the first, another computer scientist who also loved music and happened to work in the same office as his daughter, "and it was settled there."
"Before, young people were very emotional," he says, "but that emotional aspect is gradually diminishing with the commercialization of life."
A 1973 study of upper-middle-class north Indian women found that 39 percent said love was essential for marital happiness. Two decades later, that figure had fallen to 11 percent.
"When a girl likes somebody, you don't rationalize; it's a heady kind of love," says Amika Raj Chitnis, a 25-year-old lawyer who met her husband through a setup by mutual friends and decided on marriage after a couple of meetings.
"When you're thinking about marriage, one is more logical and systematic about it: Is the person refined, intellectual, a good human being?"
She nevertheless advocates arranged marriage only when the couple is allowed to make their own final decision.
Perhaps most of all, arranged marriage persists because of family ties. Even financially independent couples usually live with the husband's parents. As a result, similar backgrounds and compatibility with one's in-laws are more important than in the West. The payoff is that there tends to be much family support if a marriage runs into trouble.
"Over there, you go to your shrink," Bose says, referring to the United States. "Here, we go to our family."
Pub Date: 9/22/97