On Spark Theory — Arranged Marriage Edition

I have always liked the sound of the phrase “a marriage has been arranged”…I prefer the idea of arrangement to that other statement that marriages are made in Heaven. — Flora Poste, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Spark Theory [which posits that relationships without The Spark of enough Spark are doomed] completely ignores arranged marriages, which are often strong and lasting relationships, albeit less common these days.  My parents knew each other for under a week before wedding and have been married for 38 years, most of them happy.

My maternal grandfather’s cousin was married to my paternal grandmother’s cousin, which is how the match was made.  In the early 1970s, my father was getting his Masters at SUNY-Stony Brook on Long Island, but did not yet have a green card, so he could not go back to India to visit his family without fear of being unable to re-enter the United States.  My mother was also still in her first year of medical school residency in Hyderabad, so my grandfathers began writing each other letters to keep each other abreast of the children’s progress.  In the middle of 1974, my mother and her father took an overnight train from Hyderabad to Madras [Chennai] to meet my father’s family for the day [having only once done a day-trip via train from Delhi to Agra in 2001, which was a mere 250 miles round-trip, I can barely begin to imagine what that 800-mile round-trip day journey must have been like in India in the 1970s].  Around December 1974, my mother finished her first year of residency, and a few months later in March 1975 my father finally got his green card.

He booked a 2-week trip home to Madras in mid-April 1975.  After seeing his family in Madras, he traveled to Hyderabad [again, just for a day!] to meet my mother and her family for the first time…and they wed 3 or 4 days later at the start of May 1975.  My father flew back to the United States a week later; my mother joined him in September 1975.  They settled in Pennsylvania and my sister was born September 1976.  In July 1977, my mother had to move to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn [which, even today, is kind of scary] to complete her residency, so my sister was shipped off to Madras while my mother lived in Brooklyn and my father in Pennsylvania.  They lived apart for 4-5 months until my father found a job in NJ and joined my mother in Brooklyn.  My sister did not return the United States until 1979, almost 2 years later.  In the meantime, my parents had bought their first home in NJ in 1978.

My mother now jokes about seeing my father’s face in the clouds during her flight from India to the United States to meet her husband for the first time since they married, and for only the second time in her life.  She tells us that he gave her a bad set of keys to the apartment when she first arrived and she was locked out.  He left her on the subway to figure out her own way to her new home in a foreign country.  He told her a cheeseburger was vegetarian and a mimosa was just orange juice.

But these anecdotes belie the fact that it was undoubtedly extremely difficult.

My father graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Madras [see pics here for photos of the campus as well as a monkey/deer fight over watermelon!], not far from where his family lived.  He then left everyone he knew behind to come to the United States to get his Masters with little more than the few possessions he brought from India [he painted houses around Stony Brook on weekends to make  money].  Shortly after beginning his studies at SUNY-Stony Brook, my father was lucky enough to be hospitalized for appendicitis.  When he was released, his assigned faculty mentor and his wife could not bear the thought of this young man recovering with no friends or family to help him, so they took him into their home with their own young sons.  They were the “family” my father and mother had when they began their married life in the United States and for years to come.  My “Aunt” Renée and “Uncle” Jerry used to host the four of us for Thanksgiving each year.  Aunt Renée loved to tell her own story of my father’s visa coming through.  Before my father left for India, she jokingly warned him not to return with a wife.  She would tell us that while he technically listened, since my mother only arrived in the United States a few months later,  she didn’t see it that way, but was still very pleased to meet my mother when she finally arrived.

Other than my parents both being Tamil Brahmins [Tam-Brahms] and of similar socio-economic backgrounds, what they had in common, as cheesy as it sounds, was the American Dream: a young immigrant couple could raise a family in a house they own, slowly moving up a new set of socio-economic rungs to the middle class, which didn’t really exist in India at the time.  These shared goals and priorities fostered a partnership strong enough to withstand:

malaria [my mother contracted it before arriving, but it manifested here — unheard of in the United States in 1975, my mother had to instruct her physician on the necessary course of treatment, which had to be procured from Canada];
meningitis [my 4-year old sister  was hospitalized while my mother was 7-8 months pregnant with me];
buying a first home with just enough money left after closing to purchase a refrigerator;
selling the first home to move to a house they built from scratch on a lot;
bouts of unemployment;
my father working overseas in Europe or South America for years, leaving my mother raising 2 children under 15 while working full-time;
extended visits from relatives critical of our relatively lax, American upbringing

— all before my older sister even graduated high school, and with the added complication of assimilating themselves and their children.

In the past several years, job opportunities close to home for my father have dried up and he has been working and living on the west coast.  My mother finally retired at the end of last year, so she no longer has to fly there and back monthly to see him [my father’s schedule permitted much less frequent visits to the east coast].  When all four of us are together, my sister and I roll our eyes at their bickering.  When we’re just with our mother or with our father, we roll our eyes at the number of times they call each other on any given day.  But we do so in mock exasperation because we see that they love each other, that they are so clearly devoted to each other.

Over the years, friends have asked if it was unusual for arranged marriages to work out, or assumed naively but not maliciously that my parents were only together because they felt a cultural obligation to remain together.  They are not a rare success story, as far as I can tell from my extended family.  Love matches are more common in India than they were in the 1970s, but so is divorce, just like here in the United States.  One thing I have observed from my parents’ marriage that is in stark contrast with some modern relationships is their ungrudging acceptance of and commitment to working at the relationship, perhaps because without The Spark as scapegoat, they would have only themselves to blame if it failed.

Next up: On Spark Theory — Cheaters Edition!

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