Some of India's cities have become, over the last decade, not just IT centers, but also 'bridegroom catchments areas' for their states. Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai...these cities produce software engineers by the thousands every year.
Almost all these young men (and some women) have jobs with US-based companies in their own cities, or are headed to the US on an H1B visa. These constitute the 'cream' of the marriage market for most parents looking for eligible matches for their daughters. With salaries ranging between US $2500-5000, good career prospects and the chance of settling down in the US, these young men are systematically 'wooed' by parents of young women. They usually have dozens of prospective brides to choose from, and often the marriages are fixed soon after the first meeting.
Men who come from the US on a short 20-day holiday, are pressured by their parents - as well as their own circumstances - to make a quick decision, marry, put the paperwork in place, and return with the bride to the US and resume work. The wives travel on H4 visas as dependents, without any individual status or rights in the US immigration machinery.
In the past four to five years, this system has begun to show serious cracks. Several such marriages have ended up in separations, divorce, allegations of cruelty and deliberate isolation of the young women, and much mental and emotional anguish all around. Given that the wife is in an alien country and often completely dependent - financially as well as legally - on her husband, her situation is precarious if things go wrong in such a marriage.
Till recently, families in which the daughter/daughter-in-law had walked out after such a marriage (sometimes in a few months), were reluctant to discuss or disclose to anyone what had gone wrong. However, this is changing. One positive development is that many young people are seeking premarital counseling - either individually or along with the person who they intend marrying. More enlightened parents too are encouraging them to seek the guidance of counselors in clarifying their objectives, hopes and areas of doubt and anxiety over marriage, and living and working in another country.
At least for a small but growing number of people, it is not enough anymore to simply match photographs, horoscopes, check bank balances, and plot career graphs while selecting a life partner. They are now acquainting themselves with the real issues involved in marital partnerships, especially those who are going to live away from India.
The trend towards seeking counseling and taking a more rounded approach to choosing a spouse is evident amongst young women as well as young men. Over the last year or two, an increasing number of young men, unable or unwilling to make a 'clinical choice' during their 20-day vacation, would return to the US without having finalized their marriage, to the dismay of their parents. Many of them seek premarital counseling on a subsequent trip home or even via the Internet, with a counselor that they know in India. Some, who are still in the country, but headed for the US in the next year or so, are anxious "to get it right", as one 28-year-old put it, and hence seek counseling.
Premarital counseling workshops, organized in Mumbai and Pune, draw many newly-engaged couples, and even parents looking for a match for their children. A premarital counseling workshop or one-on-one session usually consists of specific and frank explorations of core issues - world view, money, sex, intimacy, children, elders, careers, etc - that are of vital importance to both people and are usually lost or ignored while a match is being arranged. It also entails some amount of debunking of unrealistic ideas about romance, duty, sacrifice and the like. Counseling also involves clarifying of issues like the need for healthy emotional interdependence as opposed to complete dependence or independence.
Says Samira Sarkar (name changed), who was engaged recently: "Attending such workshops, or just a couple of counseling sessions, helps you air your anxieties as well as validate some of the things that you consider important in a marriage. Elders in the house tend to ignore or scoff at these things when they force you to make a quick choice based mainly on the man's salary or his family background."
As one family counselor puts it, "I think the problems that newly-wed girls have run into in such situations have to be understood from within. It is no more appropriate or adequate to see it as merely a gender/exploitation issue. No boy coming to India to marry starts out with the idea of marrying someone to abuse and neglect her. It's really a matter of wrong and misguided assumptions and presumptions about marriage, the work tensions and sense of isolation in a foreign country, and various other factors that contribute."
What emerges is that many men and women have some extremely unrealistic notions about what marriage, living and working in a western country entails. Some of the men have idealized notions of a wife and 'wifely duties'. Secondly, many of these men live in social and emotional 'bubbles' in the US, barely interacting with local people, mistrusting most other communities, limiting most of their relationships to work, and sticking with other Indians or, if these are not available, living fairly isolated lives. This, too, seems to create problems when they marry: The wife (usually a qualified woman of 25-28) is isolated at home without a job, and instructed not to make friends on her own across cultures.
The women, themselves fed on idealized notions of marriage and of life in the US, are often unable to conform or adjust to this new reality, have little or no outlet for their skills or their need for social contact, and are often deeply frustrated.
In the light of this, there is an increasing need - as well as a trend - for parents, eligible women and men, as well as counselors and other lay advisers to create an atmosphere of better understanding and awareness. "With a more rounded perspective on marriage, work, and the immigrant experience, we can hope to make more informed choices to build lasting marital relationships," says Dr Minnu Bhonsale, a psychotherapist and counselor in Mumbai.