Arranged marriage: Choosing a different path

Kiran Shaheen, 55, ran away from her orthodox home in Patna, Bihar, in 1973 to seek a life of her own. Today she works as a teacher, journalist and political activist. | Photo by Ujwala Viswanath

Story by Bethany Trueblood

On a summer night in 1973 in Patna, Bihar, a 15-year-old girl has a decision to make.

She has passed her school exams and awaits entrance into a university. But her orthodox Hindu parents from conservative Rajasthan won’t permit her to continue her education. If she stays at home, an arranged marriage will be her fate. Her duty will be to her home and she will never attend college.

This is not the life she wants.

At about 11:30 p.m. the house is quiet. The servant with the gate keys is asleep. The girl, who looks hardly older than a child, has made her decision: Her heart thumping rapidly against her ribcage, she cautiously draws the keys from the sleeping guard and slips out of the house without anything but the clothes she is wearing. She will never see her family again.

Today, at 55 years old, Kiran Shaheen remains a single woman and works as a journalist, teacher and activist. She completed her education at Magadh Women’s College, where she was admitted after spending an entire day outside of the minister of education’s office.

“I told him I escaped from my home and I want to continue my study,” she said. “I want to do something for my society and I want admission in the college and the hostel.”

The minister wrote letters for her, admitting her to the university and to the hostel.

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Arranged marriage: Living with abuse


Manjali Bhagwandas has been struggling with domestic abuse in her marriage for nearly 14 years. She is now taking a stand against it for herself and her children. | Photo by Bethany Trueblood

Story by Jennifer Gotrik

Manjali Bhagwandas didn’t know what to expect on her wedding day 14 years ago.

She had been shown one photograph of the man with whom she was destined to spend the rest of her life.  Prior to the wedding, all she knew about him was that he worked for an oil mill.

When she was 18, Manjali’s parents selected a 21-year-old man named Rakesh to be her husband.  As part of the wedding ceremony, the groom’s parents were given a dowry of a black-and-white television, jewelry, a cabinet, and utensils.

Two months after her wedding, Manjali was preparing dinner and relaxing in her home.  Rakesh arrived home in the late afternoon, showered and took a walk by himself.  When he returned, he approached Manjali and began hitting her repeatedly. He did not speak a single word.

This day marked the beginning of physical abuse throughout the marriage.

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Arranged marriage: Making it work

Srimati Udupa only met her husband four times during their engagement. She met no other marriage prospects before her parents set up their marriage. | Photo by Bethany Trueblood

Story by Hailey Konnath

Srimati Udupa was scared.

Dressed in a green traditional saree with a red border, the teacher was about to get married in front of 500 people on the patio outside her home. Like all women in Samagodu, a small South Indian village, she would be moving away from home and joining her new husband’s household. She would have new responsibilities and maybe have to give up her job.

And she’d only met her husband-to-be four times.

Marriage for many women in India is not about love. It’s about families getting along. It’s about convenience. It’s also about class. About caste. About finances. About location.

“The village culture is like that,” Srimati said.

Srimati knew from the time she was a little girl that her parents would be choosing her husband. She could’ve married for love if the man were from the village, of the same caste, or a certain surrounding area and her parents knew his family. But someone like that was hard to come by.

Her older sister and brother were already married. At 25 years old, she was next in line.

The people of the village and workers from the area gathered to see her entrance into life as a married woman that winter. She felt nervous about joining a family she’d only met once. But this was her future. And, although reluctant to leave her current life, she was ready.

Narayan Udupa was a rickshaw driver for schools from Mysore, a nearby city. Narayan and Srimati’s brother shared a mutual friend. He was from the same caste as her family and had met her parents. She met him only once before the engagement began.

In a six-month engagement, Srimati saw her fiancé infrequently. He would come from his city for coffee or to talk. He was the first and last man she ever met with marriage in mind. She was not given a say in the matter.

Aditi, Srimati and Narayan Udupa created a happy family from an arranged marriage, as is common for many Indians.Srimati Udupa only met her husband four times during their engagement. She met no other marriage prospects before her parents set up their marriage. | Photo by Bethany Trueblood

Twenty-two years later, Srimati is happy. She and her husband take care of a family’s home in a South Delhi colony. They cook, they drive, they do some cleaning. They have one daughter. And Srimati said she agrees with the arranged marriage concept.

“It’s better to be peaceful and in an arranged marriage,” she said.

Arranged marriages can be successful because they are matched so carefully, said Dr. Ramani Sundaresan, a psychotherapist in New Delhi who often works with married couples. They match background, religious beliefs, communities and other societal traits.

“It makes it easier (than traditional courtships) because you are already given a head start,” she said.

With marriages that aren’t arranged, like Sundaresan’s own first marriage, unanticipated differences may arise.

“You fall in love and then you discover there are so many things else,” she said.

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Indian brick layers show strength

Shanti Bai takes a limited break from her work. Bai was constantly running back and forth with bricks. Photo| Matthew Masin

Story by Carly Shinn

Shanti Bai paid 15 rupees, or 35 cents, for a one-hour bus ride to New Delhi. She spent the next eight hours working to build an entryway to one of its parks.

The three red brick walls are being constructed with wood poles for scaffolding and just a hammer and trowel. No levels, no fancy blueprints.

Bai and the two men working with her received their job assignment from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. MCD is among the largest municipal bodies in the world and provides civic services to more than 13.8 million citizens in the capital city.

A mother of four, Bai does a majority of the labor required to build the structure. From carrying bricks on her head to mixing cement with her hands, Bai will continue to work on the project until its completion. For one week of work she will earn 200 rupees, or $4.50.