Ruchika Solanki had the sort of love story that everyone wants to tell—she and her boyfriend met at a cafe in Delhi. She was sitting with her friend, he with his. She and her friend were having an argument over a board game, and she called out to him, because the four of them were the only customers in the cafe. He took her side, his friend took her friend’s, and they all got talking. She and he got together, their friends didn’t.

But let’s focus on the romance. That day at the cafe, they exchanged email IDs—students didn’t usually have mobile phones, because they were too expensive at the time. And anyway, he was going abroad for higher education. They chatted for a year and a half, as friends, and then he told her he had always liked her. He would be back in Delhi in a few months.

For the next three years, they were in a relationship. He was the sober, serious Delhi-bred south Indian, and she was the cheerful, impulsive boarding school-bred Delhiite.

A year into the relationship, Ruchika knew this was the man she wanted to marry. They met each other’s parents. Her parents didn’t like him.

“Something about him isn’t quite right,” her mother would often say. “They’re not like us.”

After a particularly bad spate of fighting, she broke up with her boyfriend. She took on late shifts at the call centre where she worked, so she could cry in peace. She couldn’t cry at home, because she didn’t like hearing her mother saying, “I told you so.”

“And then I realized I should have broken it off much earlier,” she says. “Maybe my mother knew he wasn’t right for me all along. Maybe that’s what she meant by ‘They’re not like us.’ I mean, in our families, men take care of the women.

“You know, once my new car got stolen. And in Delhi, you can change the number plates, cross over into UP, or Haryana, and that’s it. So, I started blubbering on the phone to him, and asked him to come over. He went, ‘Can’t you just get an auto? I’m getting a haircut’.” She pauses. “And you know the worst part? He was bloody bald!”

When it was clear they weren’t getting back together, her parents began to look for a groom. At this point, she didn’t care whom she married. She knew she would have to marry. And she knew she wouldn’t meet the ‘boy’ alone until they were engaged. They could meet with the families around once, and they could speak on the phone however often they wanted. Once they were engaged, they could date. She rejected the first few outright, because they put her off immediately. And then, she met Rohan.

“I remember sitting in a cabin and waiting for his call,” she says. “He said he’d call at 9. I didn’t want him to call, but I was offended when he was a few minutes late. It was a really messed up state of mind to be in. I just rushed into the whole thing.”

She couldn’t think of any reason to marry him, but she couldn’t think of any reason not to either. They were duly engaged.

“And then, I thought I would get to know him better. But we went out for coffee once, and then he came home once, and that was it,” she says. “It had been two months since the engagement, a month and a half left for the wedding, and we’d met twice. They felt like business meetings. We just described what we each did, and spoke about our hometowns. I didn’t know him at all, and there was zero chemistry. He hadn’t even tried to hold my hand. I couldn’t imagine that I would ever sleep with him.”

She was particular about two things—that a man she married should be able to speak his own language properly, and Rohan qualified, because he spoke Hindi and two local dialects; and second, that he should speak the English she spoke. But Rohan spoke ‘corporate English’.

Everyone told her it was abnormal that he hadn’t even held her hand. Even her mother agreed. Ruchika didn’t think she could relate to him at all. She was particular about two things—that a man she married should be able to speak his own language properly, and Rohan qualified, because he spoke Hindi and two local dialects; and second, that he should speak the English she spoke. But Rohan spoke “corporate English”.

“Look, I’d get these messages saying things like, ‘I’ll call you before EoD.’ I mean, what’s that doing in a message to a fiancée?! I know it’s an arranged marriage, I’m not asking for bouquets and shayari and all of that, but please don’t put in FYIs and EoDs! And then, he made some grammatical error, and I was like, ‘Oh God, what have I got myself into?’!”

She wanted to head off to America to holiday by herself, maybe speak to an unmarried and exiled cousin and ask her what she should do. Was life without men really that bad? She decided she would take the bull by the horns and speak to Rohan.

Ruchika sat down with a friend and they made a mental note of the things she would have to discuss. It was a very long list.

“We needed to write it down, and we didn’t have pen or paper,” she laughs. “So, my friend went and borrowed a pen from an uncle who ran a canteen. He acted like she was asking him for his entire inheritance, but we got the pen. He refused to tear a sheet off his account book though, so we raided the tissue dispenser by the washbasin. And we made a list of the things I’d speak about.”

It read something like this:
• Holidaying abroad—also, honeymoon, because he’s not mentioned it . . . why?
• No chemistry—not even holding hands
• Expectations? Why does he want to marry? Then, why marry you?
• Can’t relate to him
• Is he being forced into this? Why only two meetings since engagement?
• Call off?

She sent him a text: “Need to talk to you. Please call when free.”

Rohan sensed the urgency, and called immediately. “The poor man got a shock when I told him I wanted to go off on holiday. He said let’s wait till the wedding, and we can both go,” she laughs. “And then he told me he’d been worried that I would think he was too forward, and that’s why he hadn’t even held my hand.”

She didn’t go abroad by herself. They went to America on their honeymoon.

“And he kissed me the next time we went out,” she giggles. “I went to office and told my friends the next day, and those crazy girls gave me a standing ovation. This middle-aged colleague of ours asked what was going on, and they told him it was my birthday. Poor thing, he went and bought me a pastry. It was super-embarrassing.”

As long as you stay practical, Ruchika feels a marriage can work. You need to get the basics right, whether it’s about holding hands and honeymooning, or about sorting out finances, or about what matters to you, or about when you want to have children, or about whether you want to continue
to work.

‘‘And I keep thinking—the foundation of my marriage was a piece of tissue paper,” she says.

So, we don’t do the chai-tray, bride-examination-ceremony anymore. So, we meet grooms, and get to know them, and establish that they’re not serial killers. But, we can’t escape the fact that in a relationship it is often physical attraction that brings a couple together, whereas this is not so in an arranged marriage.

So, we don’t do the chai-tray, bride-examination-ceremony anymore. So, we meet grooms, and get to know them, and establish that they’re not serial killers. But, we can’t escape the fact that in a relationship it is often physical attraction that brings a couple together, whereas this is not so in an arranged marriage.

While most couples brought together by horoscopes and family sneak a kiss or two, maybe even a cuddle, premarital sex is out of the question. Sometimes, the question of having to share a bed with a man who has been gauged by all other practical concerns is neatly brushed under the carpet.

But one fine day, you’re married, and you know you’re supposed to be having sex. Everyone wants you to make babies, but no one has spoken about chemistry. How does one undress in front of a man one barely knows?
Mukherjee found herself dealing with this problem. More than two weeks into her marriage, she wasn’t able to bring herself to sleep with her husband. He was uncomfortable too, and they would give up at some point within the first few days.

After that, they simply went to bed without broaching the subject, or making any moves towards each other. Neither was comfortable discussing it with friends or family, and Swatilekha began to look up Internet forums, to see whether anyone had spoken about this.

“It’s amazing how many people have this problem. They’re all worried about whether they will ever find chemistry, or ever be comfortable enough to have sex. Isn’t it supposed to happen naturally? Clearly, it’s something the previous generation hasn’t thought much about.

“Most of us assume our parents had a celibate relationship—I mean, most of them don’t even hold hands in public— but we’re all here, so clearly they didn’t. But many women in this generation, even women who have slept with boyfriends earlier, find it difficult to get this aspect of their lives going.”

She found the advice from users on the forum ranged from discussing the subject and to taking it slow, to watching porn, heading to a cold vacation spot, hypnosis, role-play, and to getting drunk.

“There was even a mini-Kamasutra in there, with advice on how best to titillate your partner and yourself.”

Eventually, someone said “Blue film is against Indian culture”, and of course, the rest of the thread was an argument.

However, Swatilekha did find some handy advice—physical comfort evolves from emotional comfort. “If you aren’t able to sleep together, don’t worry. First, get to know each other properly. In the first few days of marriage, you aren’t even able to confide in each other about things like problems with family, or trouble at the workplace. How are you going to sleep together at that stage? Of course, if you’ve had a long courtship and have spent time getting to know each other, it may be different. But if you haven’t, you should relax and take it slow.”

She discussed it with her husband, and they decided there was no hurry. They finally did sleep together, but it happened nearly five months into their marriage.

Dowry has always been a delicate subject. There are those who justify its entry into the Indian marriage system—it was a means of ensuring the financial security of a bride, at a time when women did not go out to work, had no source of income, and didn’t stand to inherit their parents’ property.

Of course, it became a money-making venture, and still is. However, the issue of dowry harassment is seen as something that people who belong to a less privileged socio-economic class must deal with.

Even so, there are subtler ways of making money from a bride. And this may be one of the reasons for the new mandate that women should work after marriage. The “homely” in matrimonial advertisements has given way to “educated” and “working woman”.

As the grandfather of a friend put it, “Earlier, they wanted a one-time dowry; now they want it every month.”

“The funny thing is, the previous generation’s main concern was whether they would be allowed to work after marriage. In ours, I think the main concern is whether we will be able to quit after marriage,” says Vidya Gaekwad.

“It’s not like I intend to be a housewife, but I think my career is my own business. We were once approached by a family that said they’re particular about a working woman for a daughter-in-law. Not only that, they wanted a specific salary bracket. I was so tempted to ask whether their son intended to be a homemaker after marriage.

“I think I raised my eyebrows or something, and his mother quickly told me, ‘You know, an educated woman shouldn’t be wasting her education. And nowadays, in Bombay, if you want a good flat, it’s all so expensive. How will one person alone work?’ And then, she gave me some more gyan. It boiled down to roti will be taken care of, but if you want a nice kapda and nice makaan, you have to earn it.”

There is a general belief that it is unbecoming of a bride’s family to send their daughter to a new home “empty-handed”. But feminists may take heart from the fact that this sentiment is no longer restricted to the girl’s side alone.

Ruchika Solanki says her wedding became a contest between the two families. “One sponsored our honeymoon, the other bought us furniture, one redid the flat, the other stocked our kitchen, one bought us a car, the other bought us a bigger car. So, I think nowadays dowry is a show-off thing, and honestly, that makes the couple’s lives very easy.”

One of the most delicate aspects of handling an alliance is learning how to reject it. One just may end up succumbing to pressure to avoid hurting one’s relationships with the family friends or relatives who vouch for the boy.

Shreya Gopal feels it’s important to make the family understand that this is your choice, since you’re the one who’s going to be living the life they’ve conjured up for you.

“This is not like a job that you can quit after three or, maximum, five years. This is a 25, 30, 35, 40-year investment that you’re making. That’s not something you can take lightly. You need to like the person you’re marrying, you need to be able to talk to him, that’s the minimum requirement—the other things you may compromise on, like his skin colour, or the job he’s doing, but you have to at least like the guy.

“If you can’t talk to him for even an hour, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? And it will take you some time to find this partner, especially if you’ve grown up in a city, and been given a good education, and have had the sort of independence I have. Your husband needs to be someone you can relate to, intellectually, mentally, emotionally.”

While rejecting a man gracefully is hard enough, it’s even tougher to have to deal with being rejected. But one does need to be prepared to take it in one’s stride, and learn not to let it affect one’s self-confidence. There could be several extraneous factors that lead a man to reject a woman—he may already have a girlfriend, whom the family is unwilling to accept; it’s possible that the horoscopes really don’t match, and it isn’t simply an excuse; it may be as ridiculous as someone tripping over a threshold while leaving the girl’s house.

But the instinctive reaction to rejection is for one to feel miserable, and wonder what is wrong with oneself—isn’t it?

“No,” says Devyani Khanna, “When things don’t work out, they usually mutually don’t work out. You can figure out in the meeting itself. And there’s also the question of pressure. If I’m more eager to get married—because of family, or age, or whatever—I may say yes even if my heart is not in it. Whereas if the boy is not in as much a hurry, he may not say yes unless he really likes me. So, you may react differently to it, but you do know whether you have chemistry.”

Even if the attraction—or repulsion—is one-sided, it’s important not be deflated by it. Devyani recalls an instance where she met a man whom there was nothing wrong with, but whom she didn’t like because she found him too staid and serious.

‘‘Sometimes, it’s fun to see what excuses people come up with,” Smriti Rao says. “Mostly, it’s that the horoscopes don’t match. Or, you suddenly decide you’re not ready for marriage. I’ve only been turned down once, and they said they wanted an engineer bride.”

Excerpted with permission from Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage by Nandini Krishnan (Random House India, 256 pages, Rs. 299).

‘Chemistry is bunkum’
Nandini Krishnan interviews Nandini Krishnan:

So, can we get started with this farce?
Weird, I thought you’d be some sort of projected animus. Isn’t that how self-interviews work?

Well, I can cut my hair short and wear sweatpants if that’d work for you.
We’re going to start this by confessing to homophobia? Oh, shit. No, I love gay men. But lesbians tend to take offence so easily. I should stop talking.

You believe in gender roles.
Yeah, because they’re convenient. Imagine having to hold doors open all the time. Or drive across town to pick someone up. Or having to crush weed and roll joints. I think feminism was the best thing that happened to men.

What is the most politically incorrect thing you’ve said when you’re stoned?
You’re really fucking up our PR. Can we talk about our writing, please? Fuck, I feel like Gollum.

Why did you choose to write a book about marriage when you’re not married?
You sound like that Fox News lady who asked Reza Aslan why “a Muzzlim” was writing about Jesus. And curly-haired people can’t even pull off the attractive bimbo act. Can’t we speak about how my plays were shortlisted for The Hindu Metro Plus Playwright Award and...

Ugh, stop plugging yourself. Crass. Let’s talk about the first thing you ever wrote.
I drew it on the back of my Class 1 math notebook. It was an illustrated story about a boy who got late for school because his mother made him brush his teeth. His teacher made him kneel all day long in the courtyard. When his mother came to pick him up, she found he’d died of sunstroke because she made him brush his teeth. I think it was those Tamil village-movies that influenced my early writing. I made up a dramatic life. Before I became all classist and casteist, I’d tell people I was born in a slum and Ma adopted me after finding me in a dustbin.

So, around the time of your first book’s release, your open letter to Shah Rukh Khan went viral...ish. Has that impacted the book in any way?
I suppose people are convinced a humour writer’s book on marriage will make for good reading. At least, I hope so. It got me lots of Facebook frandship requests. And, of course, that standard, self-deprecating email from an IT person asking me out for coffee, with a tired pick-up line, grammatically incorrect sentences, and a tribute to my “sense of humour”. He asked if I live in a foreign country, and whether he was “worthy of [my] immense literary genius of a conversation”. My face was glued to my palm for a while after.

Can we focus on selling the book? What was the toughest part about writing it?
Making it seem like I had everything to do with the book. Basically, my interviewees gave me the content, and I got the credit. But I seem to have sold the idea that I’m the wise one dishing out advice on marriage. Even the interviewees think I added something invaluable to it.

Do you think the fundamental principle on which arranged marriage works—that there can be chemistry between any two people—holds?
Yeah, unless one of them is ugly. Chemistry is bunkum. Boredom and hormones will do the job.

Does being a published author mean you need to be more diplomatic in talking about writers you don’t like, in case you bump into them at these literary thingies? 
I suppose I’ll have to start saying things like, “A former banker who likely takes less time to write his books than people do to read them.”

That description fits so many people...In the aftermath of the book’s publication, what question irritates you the most?
Whether I was paid an advance, and if so, how much. I’ve started telling people it’s £1 million; that’s the going rate for books on marriage, no? Also, when people whom I’ve not heard from in years want to know when they’re getting free copies.

What would you do if Hitched became a bestseller?
Outsource my pregnancy to a surrogate— I believe you can order twins for 15 lakh rupees—and write a book about remote post-partum depression called Fifty Shades of Blue. And I may get sued by the woman who wrote the Grey book, and that’ll get me more publicity.

(Photo Credit: Vinay Aravind)