Two Lives, a Marriage and a Plate of Samosas by Vibha Shetiya


VibahRecently, a commercial made by the clothing line, BIBA, hit the Indian market. Its significance lay in its “Change the Convention, Change is Beautiful” tag. The message was straightforward – we need to change Indian attitudes regarding gender roles. At the outset, let me say there are many things wrong with the ad, especially when one stops to think how it could possibly bring about a change when the young woman in question is voiceless. In fact, when I first watched it, my own reaction was: “And just what change are we talking about here?” Upon deeper reflection, however, I realized why the commercial may indeed be a step forward, albeit a tiny one.

The whole arranged marriage setting might be baffling to a Western audience, but fact of the matter is, it is a regular feature of Indian life. Generally speaking, the two sets of families meet up at the prospective bride’s home. They exchange pleasantries over tea and snacks; presumably a preliminary “background check” has been done on both sides – how educated is “the boy,” where does he work, how much does he earn, does he have his own flat, etc, etc. For “the girl,” the question usually hinges upon her educational background, physical attributes and culinary skills.

The actual commercial begins with the young woman’s father telling her to hurry up as the guests are waiting. To this she replies, “Papa, am I supposed to decide who I am going to be spending the rest of my life with over a plate of samosas?” The next scene is spot on in that the groom’s mother is the star of the show. As a young lady she probably started out much the way our heroine does here – timid and shy. Over the years through raising children and meticulously running an extended household she has worked her way up, thereby earning the right to be the center of attention. This dichotomy – of women fearing/ being feared – is not unusual and has a lot to do with marriage and sexuality. A married woman earns high status as a “pativrata” or one who is dedicated to her husband, so long as she knows her limits. As she gets older and rears children, her sexuality presumably waning, she no longer poses a threat to the social order she fought hard to win over. In any case, the conversation in the commercial is pretty much between the young lady’s father and the young man’s mother. Our heroine is silent throughout. Yes, the ad is full of red flags – the young lady in question is just expected to look pretty, and be a mute spectator to events that will have a momentous impact on her life (I will focus on the female angle even though it may appear strange that a grown man has Mummy speaking up on his behalf). In typical fashion, the ad reinforces attitudes that “elders” are always in charge – in this case, the groom’s mother and the bride’s father. The bride along with her mother is virtually non-existent. Well, she is present, but basically as an exhibit. And when the groom-to-be does speak up, it’s to her father.

That said, let me turn to why there may be hope even in this seemingly dismal scenario. Patriarchy is entrenched in Indian culture and society, and whether we like it or not, arranged marriages are going to be around for a while, that too in the manner depicted by the ad. But (having been privy to such conditions myself, one in which the boy’s family usually has the upper hand), I did find it refreshing that the bride’s father “dared” to check if the groom could cook, thereby implying that this domain wasn’t just restricted to women. In a movie or real life, chances are he and his family would have walked out at this insult. Here, surprisingly, the boy replies that he can’t right now, but the fact that he’s willing to give it a try symbolizes hope on many levels.

The whole setting may be disturbing given that the bride-to-be has no say. But through her person – “am I supposed to decide who I marry over a plate of samosas” – the audience can question the very concept of arranged marriages wherein two people (rather two families) decide the future course of their lives over a meeting or two. The commercial – one that is made by a corporation – is after all meant for the general public for whom such scenarios are familiar. Had the director insisted the woman speak up for herself, chances are viewers would have been put off by her “overbearing” nature, and the commercial dismissed as “filmy” with zero recall value. There is no doubt that women should be allowed to speak up for themselves and to just say no to situations they are uncomfortable with. But would it be fair of me – an upper class, upper caste, Western-educated woman – to assume they have the same resources that were available to me when I decided to get out of an unhappy marriage (one of the most trying times of my life)? In South Asia especially immediate family, extended family, friends, neighbours, the dog, all have a say in your personal life. And while I look forward to the day when someone – man or woman – will have the courage to stand up to their own convictions within this intricate social matrix of ours, I am convinced there are many ways to bring about change; and one of them is to include men in the dialogue concerning gender and sexuality. There are, no doubt, different approaches, but in the case of this commercial at least, I can see how targeting the system from deep within has the potential to bring about change, even if it’s by taking baby steps; I can see how it is more than simply a commercial about whether men can cook more than just noodles.

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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Categories: Family, General, Marriage, Patriarchy

Tags: , , , ,

13 replies

  1. I like that ad! Love the looks on people’s faces at the future groom’s response. It definitely takes male and female persons to dismantle patriarchy and open the doors to new possibilities.

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  2. Very interesting! You’ve opened new windows into a world with which I am almost totally unfamiliar, though I’ve read about it and I saw Bride and Prejudice. Thanks for writing this post!

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  3. The lady in question may not “speak”, but her eyes and smiles say wondrous things. Thank you for this post. Sadly, I did not realize that arranged marriages were so entrenched in India. It seems that most societies have at one time incorporated arranged marriages, but most have managed to work their way out of that system. I hope India finds its way too.

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    • You are welcome, Herbiznow. I would argue that arranged marriages in and of themselves are not the real problem. The issue is that the decision to marry or not is to be made in a meeting or two. Of course, things are changing especially in Indian cities, but generally speaking, dating is frowned upon. If one is dating, then it is almost a given that a marriage is in the near future.

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  4. As someone very far from this scenario, both in culture and in age, it looks very hopeful to me. Although the girl doesn’t speak during the meeting, without apparently having listened to her, her father has given her what she asked for – a chance to get to know the boy a little better and see what he can do. And he and his family accept that marriage is a partnership and both sides have the right to set conditions. I love “my daughter can’t live on noodles” as a play of words (at least in English) on what I expect would, in a different context, be a more traditional statement, “my daughter can’t live on $1,000 a month”.

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    • Exactly, Judith. I know a lot of women in India were upset with the commercial, some of them wondering how having men cook more than just noodles could change gender roles. Like you, I too felt there was a lot more going on.

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  5. I love that ad! It is more than a tiny step forward, I think, because it shows the willingness of the young man to learn new things, including “women’s work” so he can be worthy of the young woman. It reminds me of a couple from Sri Lanka that my ex-husband and I became friends with when we lived in Sweden. He was Hindu and a college professor and she was Muslim and a secretary at the college in Sri Lanka when they fell in love. Her father liked him, but when he found out the couple were in love the father went to the boyfriend and threatened to kill himself. To which the boyfriend replied, “You can kill yourself if you want, but I’m still going to marry your daughter!” It took a couple of years and I believe 3 different marriage ceremonies to make everyone happy, but they suceeded.

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    • Absolutely Linda! There are so many things in that ad that make it “pioneering.” Thank you for sharing the story about your friends. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised at the boyfriend’s reaction. Threats like that are not uncommon, and especially when it comes to taking one’s own life, easy to give in to. Good for him – wonderful to read that everyone is happy now!

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  6. Great insights. Always something I’ve been curious to learn more about.

    Would love to have your thoughts on this : https://rinsebeforeuse.wordpress.com/2016/06/01/review-the-wedding-countdown-ruth-saberton-idealising-arranged-marriage/

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    • Thanks for your comment, EnglishRosiee. I haven’t read the book, so it wouldn’t really be fair of me to comment on it. But here’s the thing – arranged marriages are an integral part of life on the sub-continent and so very woven into the fabric of that society. Honestly speaking, without actually experiencing the culture from within, it might be difficult to understand that such marriages are not as frightening as they may seem. In fact, I find the online dating scenario far more scary in that you never know who/ what kind of person you’ll end up meeting; traditionally speaking, in India, family and personal backgrounds are well researched into before both parties decide to “see” each other. Of course, the biggest problem with such arrangements is 1. do you, the individual in question, have a choice in the matter? A choice to say no, that is. 2. When it comes to arranged marriages, there is no concept of dating and getting to know each other. Decisions need to be made in a meeting or two. 3. Can you change your mind after the engagement without your reputation being “tarnished” (a problem that women mainly face even if the guy calls it off). THESE, I feel, are the biggest issues on hand. Hope that helps! Please feel free to ask more questions, and I’ll do my best to help.

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