Within the first few hours of landing in the sizzling weather of Ahmedabad city I was asked twice if I was married. As I have been queried now time and time again in the ten days since my arrival, I realize the question is not so much whether I am married but when am I going to marry?!
Marriage is one of the major social institutions in India as it a traditional requirement for Hindus which make up 80% of the population. Beyond religion, marriage is the culmination of a girl’s preparation to the gendered roles she has been pre-assigned to, on the basis of her sex. Commonly a bride moves out of her natal household and into her marital family, simultaneously adopting the position of wife, daughter-in-law and expectedly of mother too. Marriage then provides women with a three-times-over confirmed identity which is condoned and celebrated by the majority of Indian society.
Then of course, their concern is legitimate and kind-hearted: when will I be confirmed in my womanhood? But from the height of my Western-bred twenty-one years of age, wanting to travel the world and live everything I can before being stranded by marriage responsibilities, the question is daunting. A harmless profiling of my inquisitors gives an insight into the embededness of the marriage ritual here in Western India.
Suspect number one was a woman in her 70s, mother of three children including one unmarried hardcore feminist woman, she misunderstood my definition of family. When I said my family lived in the South of France, I meant my Mum, Dad and brothers. Not quite the husband and son she asked after. I narrated my dreams of travel and adventure to her before any wedding plans with my now long-term boyfriend.
It was those stories she translated to Suspect number two, the female cleaner. Intensely looking at me, she put her hands together as a sign of union and raised her eyebrows inquisitively. I shook my head for the negative. A Hindi conversation between themselves and a male cleaner followed, of which I had no part in, partly because I cannot put two words of Hindi together. Yet, I strongly felt that the matter wasn’t simply about my personal love life, but about what it meant about me and how I perhaps didn’t conform to their social expectations.
Suspects number three were the Gujarati women in Mount Abu. The fascination I had for them was undoubtedly mutual. I had the paradoxical feeling of being an utter outsider, ignorant of most things and teased when I couldn’t interpret their words but unconditionally included in their gatherings. Multiple times I was quizzed on my romantic status and I sensed the gossip when I admitted having a boyfriend. My phone, displaying pictures of him and I, was passed around to every woman who (to my amused delight) seemingly approved of his looks. I discerned their relief that I was not just a single white woman roaming India alone.
Strolling in Parimal Park after work one day I met Suspect number four and five. My white skin and unescapable foreigner look attracted the attention of some young people who came to say hi. Eventually the whole urban family greeted me warmly. After asking my name, the aunt’s question followed: ‘Single?’. The one-word-question was key to define me. As I would ask someone’s age, she asked of my relationship status. Suspect number 5, the woman sitting on the bench beside me was shocked and perhaps concerned to know that the boyfriend is not in Ahmedabad, or even in the country with me. She herself had, out of obligation, moved from Mumbai to her husband’s household in Ahmedabad when she married: ‘I have to live here, my husband is here’.
The final Suspect, a SWATI colleague, asked of my marriage plans while I was having diner with her, her husband and their brilliant ten-year-old son. Explaining I was in no rush she found puzzling that I would need to wait although I’d found the right person. She married just before her 30s, late in her point of view because having a child after thirty is ‘medically not as simple’ and less accepted here, in Gujarat. Girls marry and give birth early but are surrounded with their marital and natal families, facilitating the process and making it okay. ‘Everyone gets married’ she said, perhaps worried that I would find myself lonely in the future if I didn’t officialize the bond soon enough.
In hindsight, the matter was always brought up by women and never by men. Perhaps it is socially unacceptable for men to ask about a woman’s marital status. But maybe the wholly identity it gives to women makes it a primary concern for them.