Arranging Love

The cloudy routes to a life partner


in First Person • Illustrated by Estelle Guillot


Years after my mother had died, on a visit to my father in his childhood home in Nagercoil, India, where he had settled after his retirement, he told me he had always wanted to marry a Tamil girl from a prominent Christian family. Someone who had been selected by his beloved mother, someone who would live among his relatives. A traditional arranged marriage. But he had married my mother because they had “fallen in love.” Why was he telling me this? I remember feeling so sad and disappointed at his words. Had he been regretting his marriage all those years?  

In India, in those days and even now, almost all marriages are arranged. Parents select potential mates for their children, taking great care to find someone from within their religious, socioeconomic, and cultural circles, so that there will be little cause for disharmony. Growing up in India, I remember always telling my friends with some pride that my parents instead had a “Love Marriage,” sickeningly enthusiastic that this would put all their parents’ “Arranged Marriages” to shame. All through my teenage years and beyond, I was fascinated by this idea of the love marriage. Seeing someone across a room, maybe even falling in love at first sight. And that is what my parents had done. They became smitten with each other in their College faculty room. And now he was telling me that perhaps he should have had an arranged marriage after all.  

I sat with his words. I tried the instant replay button on my middle-aged memory, trying to recall everything my mother had told me about their initial meeting, their courtship, their marriage. I wanted to understand why he said those words to me. And perhaps I would better understand why I fell so easily, instantly, in love with a man named Jeff Sugar.  

My parents were young lecturers at Andhra Christian College in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, when they met. My mother was a great beauty and my father spotted her amid other chatting faculty and made a beeline for her. They spent time together at work talking for hours, and sometimes he walked her home from the college. In those days, women were not supposed to spend any time alone with a man, even in full view of others. Most people had arranged marriages, and the couples did not even get to speak with each other before the wedding. So, their spending so much time together openly was considered scandalous, and everyone expected a wedding soon. Then one day, my father left Guntur suddenly and unexpectedly for a teaching job in another city, Nagpur.  

When I was 12, I found a stack of letters tied up with thin satin blue ribbons hidden in the steel almirah in my parent’s bedroom. They were romantic messages to my dad from my mother, pleading, almost begging him to return from Nagpur. They always started, “My dearest Raji.” They were full of love and adoration but also with an edge of panic. She must have known that if they did not get married, there would be no marriage at all for her. No one would arrange nuptials for someone who’d been seen conversing with another man, hand-holding and maybe kissing (I am not sure).  

My mother came from a very distinguished family. Her father, Valaparla Chinna John, was the first Indian to be appointed as the head of a major college under the British Raj. He was awarded the Kaiser-I-Hind, the equivalent award to the Order of the British Empire, from King George VI, for excellence in education. And my mom was his favorite daughter. She had been raised in comfort with lots of servants in the house. She had received no instructions from her mother about how to run a household or how to cook. The expectation had always been that she would marry into a family with prestige and wealth. But then her parents died, and aunts and uncles — inattentive to her needs — did not step up and perform the duty.  

My father, on the other hand, was raised rather frugally by a very strict mother. He was the only son of Packiam Masilamony, a young beauty from a poor family. My paternal grandfather had spotted my grandmother while he was riding by her village on horseback. He told his mother about her and his mother arranged their marriage. When my father told me this I thought it was the most romantic thing I had ever heard. He must have inherited his passionate streak from his father! My grandfather died shortly thereafter, leaving my father’s mother a widow with two very young children. She worked hard and saved all her money to send her son to college. So, my father grew up with no luxuries and he was expected to excel in school and college — which he did. His sister was married off in an arranged marriage right after high school.  

Whether my mother’s letters had reminded him of their love for each other or his sense of duty toward her, my father did come back eventually from Nagpur and married my mother. He must have known the terrible blow that would have befallen my mother’s reputation. She had “kept company” with a man, been seen together, and most damning of all, been seen holding hands and walking alone through the paddy fields with no chaperone!  

My parents had a church wedding with my mother’s relatives in attendance, but no one from my father’s family was there. He was too afraid to tell his mother and face her wrath. It was the right of an Indian mother to select her son’s bride. How could he tell her that after raising him singlehandedly since he was four, he had denied her this much-awaited pleasure!  

In their wedding photograph, my father stood by himself, the only Tamilian in the wedding party among Andhras. My mother had all her sisters and extended family with her. Standing in her wedding attire, a radiant beauty, she is not smiling, as she is always self-conscious about the gap in her front teeth. Her beauty shows through anyway. My father looks very handsome in his dark suit. He is smiling, so I want to believe that he entered into the marriage happily.   

An Indian mother expects her son and daughter-in-law to live with her after they get married, but when my father took his new bride to visit his mother in Nagercoil, she refused to open the door and screamed abuses from the other side. They had to leave and go stay with his married sister. After that reception from her mother-in-law, my mother never forgave her and would not consider allowing my father to invite his mother to live with them. This would have been unacceptable in an arranged marriage, but this was love — and my mother did not have her parents to guide her in this matter. For most Indian couples, their parents and extended families play a large supportive role in their lives, both emotionally, and at times financially, to help the couple through difficult times. This was completely absent in my parents’ lives. 

Guilt about letting his mother down led to resentment. He would taunt my mother that his mother would never have picked her. Almost every day, I heard him say that he missed living in Nagercoil, missed hearing his language, Tamil spoken, and how living in the large city of Calcutta surrounded by people who did not accept him, was not what he would have chosen. He could not speak in Tamil to her as she spoke Telugu, her mother tongue — another casualty of a love marriage between two people from different States in India. So, they spoke to each other in English.  

My father would talk about his mother with pride and throw her up as an example of the perfect Indian woman. How she had done the right thing and married a man her parents had presented to her, how she spurned her many suitors after she became a widow, how she devoted her life to raising her daughter and son. Did my father, deep down, not respect my mother for breaking all tradition and marrying him? Now I knew that he had always wanted a traditional woman as his wife, like his mother, someone from a similar socioeconomic background, not my highly educated mother who came from a more affluent family. Had he fallen for my mother’s charm and beauty and intelligence against all his better judgment?  

During their marriage, I remember they had major arguments. It would always start with my father bringing up his mother not living with them. They would devolve into how my father grew up with a careful penny-pinching mother — no wastage of anything allowed in the house. If he berated her for “wasting” something in the house, it was hard for my mother to take as she was raised as a “princess” in a mansion! Would her parents have arranged her marriage with a struggling teacher? Definitely not. There were times when their fights would make my mother cry and hide in the bedroom. This was when I would wish that she would leave him. But nobody gets divorced in India, and deep down I did not really want them to split up.  

As soon as I finished medical school at 21, my parents started bringing me “matches.” But I had conjured up such ideals in my head, long-fantasizing about a love marriage. I wanted that meet-cute, that rom-com, those flowers. How exciting would that be! As a teenager, I used to hide away in our apartment and devour books including a ton of romantic novels published by Mills and Boons, and the Regency Romances series by Georgette Heyer. I wanted a “love marriage” like my mother — wanted passion, the knight in shining armor, a man who would fall in love with me and stay in love. I wanted a love marriage even though I knew my parent’s love marriage was not ideal. Not someone picked by your parents, from your own community and background that you know so well.  

As is the customary manner of the arranged marriage, my parents presented me with descriptions of young men from suitable families, sometimes with an accompanying photograph. I was allowed to meet them for a coffee — nothing more — and I was expected to pick one of them to marry. My classmates were getting married one by one, all arranged, and this was beginning to put a lot of pressure on me to do the same. When I was 25 years old, after rejecting all my parents’ attempts at coordinating a marriage for me, I left for America to further my career and to find true love. Before I left, my mother said to me, “Be very careful about who you choose to marry, for out of that comes everything in life.” I didn’t give her words much thought then.  

I started my fellowship training in neonatology in New Orleans and immediately began dating. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting different young men and being treated to dinners and outings. But I was focused on my career and wasn’t thinking about getting into a serious relationship. Two years later, when I went to San Francisco to train as a scientist, I fell instantly in love with Jeff — cue love song — while having coffee with him in the hospital cafeteria. I married him a year later. He was exactly the kind of man I had imagined being with. Handsome, very intelligent, fun to be with, curious about the world, and best of all, he was in love with me. He was a Caucasian Jew; I was an Indian Christian, but that did not matter to me. My marriage was going to be different from my parents.  

Jeff and I had a courtship like most Americans. We dated and then we moved in together. We were very happy and I was thrilled when he proposed within three months of meeting me. A year later we were married in a beautiful traditional Jewish wedding. I did not convert to Judaism but agreed to the marriage since I knew that my father was not going to attend. He did not approve of me marrying outside my faith, and he was still upset that he hadn’t been able to arrange my marriage. My mother had died two years earlier, and I doubt she would have attended had she been alive. I remember my brothers being anxious about my marriage, but they came to the wedding and so did Jeff’s family (reluctantly, I found out later). Everyone I knew had had arranged marriages so naturally all my relatives and friends were concerned that I was pursuing a “love marriage”. We started our lives together with great hope and joy.  

But soon our differences in culture, religion, upbringing, and our personalities, all of which we ignored in the throes of love and passion, started to create rifts in our marriage. I tried my best to balance my career and the needs of my new husband and marriage. We were reasonably happy, I believe, until our two sons were born within 13 months of each other. The demands of my career kept increasing, and now with two young boys to care for and no extended family to help me, the person who got the least amount of attention from me was Jeff. And this is when our marriage started to sour. 

We sought counseling and we worked hard at our marriage. I expected there would be difficult times. I scrutinized my parents’ marriage, looking for guidance. Looking for what not to do. I expected that we would stay together and work it out. But very soon Jeff started talking about divorce. I was stunned. I was not expecting him to even utter the word “divorce”! I know I would have stayed in the marriage no matter what. In India over 90 percent of all marriages are arranged, and only 1 percent end in divorce, whereas in the U.S., the divorce rate is 40-50 percent. The topic of divorce would never have come up if I had had an arranged marriage. I remembered my mother’s words. Were they warning to me that one cannot choose well when one’s senses are clouded by “love”?  

During the rough years of my marriage and through my divorce, my father was surprisingly a big support to me. I did not expect it, though I was grateful. He even suggested that perhaps I would now be open to an arranged marriage! But I was done with marriage altogether. We had followed our hearts and our love marriages had not turned out well.  

Quite unexpectedly my two brothers, who were living in America and had dated American women for more than 10 years, asked my father to find brides for them when they were in their 30s. They went back to Bombay, met women chosen by my father and got married. My sister also said yes to marrying a man who came from America and visited my father and her just once. And all three of them are still married. As are all my relatives and my friends, who have had arranged marriages. I believe that their marriages started with a deep commitment to the institution of marriage and to their families. And over the years, steady and strong bonds of love and understanding have grown. They may not have had the excitement of falling in love at first sight, but they have something better I think, a connection and a commitment to each other that has lasted a long time. And what do I wish for my son, who is now single and dating? I pray that he will have the wisdom to choose wisely and not let immediate attraction cloud his judgment and his choice of a lifetime partner.•


J. Usha Raj, MD,MHA, is the Anjuli Nayak Endowed Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is a nationally and internationally recognized physician-scientist who has many original scientific publications to her credit. Recently she has started writing essays about her life and she hopes to one day, get all of them published in a book form.