Enlightenment Get Out There

A Coconut in Delhi


Then grandma asks, What are you doing outside anyway, my child? Come inside, it is too sunny. “I’m getting some sun on my face!” Uh oh, I realize too late.. wrong answer! A sun tan in India? Am I out of my mind? The fairer you are, the prettier you are. You can even buy ‘Fair and Lovely’ cream to make your skin look lighter. It’s not like in the West, where often a tanned skin is considered pretty. In India, dark skin traditionally implies you have had to work outdoors in the scorching heat to earn a living, and that notion endures.

I am a 29-year old, Europe-born, daughter of Indian parents—very liberal Indian parents. From an early age, I was given the freedom to make my own decisions, such as taking take a gap year after high school (unknown notion in India), what to study (human rights, perceived as badly paid social work by many Indians) and where to work (Madagascar – why live and work in a poor African country when you can go to America?!).

Being born and raised in Europe with Indian parents and an entire family living in India makes  me a coconut: brown from the outside, white from the inside. I’ve recently experienced more culture clashes when in India than before. It is probably the age; I am almost thirty….

A 29-year old single Indian girl in India is a synonym for ‘old spinster.’ Whereas in ‘my part of the world’ 29 or 30 is a perfectly decent age to be single, enjoying life with friends, traveling and building a career, in India you’re expected to be married with two kids—preferably boys—by 29.

This means that on my yearly trips to Delhi to visit family I cannot escape the increasingly popular, unavoidable and dreaded question:

“ Beti, tumhari shaadi kab hoye gi?” Child, when are you planning to get married?

The lighter version being: “Accha sa ladka mila, ki nahi?” “So, have you a met a nice guy or what?”

And so family members and aunties and uncles go on—“ You are almost 30 now. You should get more serious about men. Leave all that traveling and making the world a better place. Think about your future.

‘Zindagi akele guzar na chate ho?’ ‘You don’t want to spend the rest of your life alone, do you?”

Then the clichés start pouring in: “Mein kisi ko America me jaanta hun. Usne MBA kara hain.” Facebook pe mila sakata hun”. “I know a nice guy in America. He has an MBA. I can put you in touch through Facebook.”

In modern  India, the traditional custom of two sets of parents deciding on a partner for their children is on the decline.

Dating is slowly becoming more common; many young Indians meet their partners at university, at work or at parties. You see young couples holding hands in public, despite it still not being widely accepted. Parents still want their children to marry someone ‘good’; for parents of a boy that being a “pure” girl who has never been with someone else and for a girl that being a guy from a good family background with a good reputation. Even though parents have a significant say in the choice of their children’s life partner, these days more often the couple makes the final choice. They might have met just once or twice, but they decide!

A good midway is the Indian version of internet dating: shaadi.com, India’s largest marriage website. Parents and children go through profiles of suitable men and find the perfect match on shaadi.com together.

I’d be a real catch on shaadi.com. In spite of my age and the fact that I’m not particularly tall (an understatement, I may say), or fair (the lighter the skin, the better – three minus points!), I have something else to offer: I am an NRI (a non-resident Indian), born and raised in the magic West (which comes with a residence permit) and I have an LLM degree (bam! 10 bonus points)! It’s often all about these parameters on this marriage meat market, where looks don’t matter as much.

If I do not post my picture on my profile, I still expect to receive hundreds of responses within days. I might lose some points with my human rights work (“paise kaise kamau gaye, beti?”  How will you earn money, my child?), but I can decide to not disclose that at this stage.

Oh, I shouldn’t forget to mention caste no bar on my shaadi.com profile, implying that I don’t care what caste the boy is from. Or I maybe I should mention it (I can’t possibly end up with a guy from the lowest caste, can I?), which would also narrow down the search.

Going through the stack of responses in my virtual mailbox, I can’t suppress my laughter. One reaction is crazier than the other:

Congratulations, Rajkumar, 38, has expressed interest in your profile. When I open the message it starts as follows: “We find you a suitable candidate for our son Rajkumar and would like to get in touch”. Ah, the famous old parents are writing on behalf of their son. A clear no-go for an independent girl like myself.

The next message says the following:

Dear Tulika, Jayesh, 32 yrs, 6′ 1″, Hindu, Brahmin, Gujarati, MBA, Business owner from Mumbai, India has expressed interest in you. Don’t keep him waiting, respond to him now! Regards, the Shaadi.com team.

Out of curiosity I go to Jayesh’ profile page. I want to find out what kind of girl is he looking for. And what does he look like?

His profile discloses that he is looking for young bride (age category 22-25 years old). Education level: not relevant. And he has not posted a picture of himself.

What I really think of Jayesh? I think that he is probably still living with his parents and is in his parents’ family business. He will probably continue to live with his parents after marriage, in a so-called joint family. He is a good catch with an MBA degree. The parents are getting worried though—he’s already 32! The parents are getting old and need a daughter in-law soon to take care of the household. And of course they cannot wait to become dada and dadi (grandpa and grandma)! So a degree is not that important, the future bahu (daughter-in-law) just needs to be young, fertile and produce many strong boys.

Oh, and then the fact that there is no photo on the profile…It makes me wonder. I picture a balding Indian guy with a moustache (considered a symbol of virility in India), whose mom probably fed him too many paranthas (fried Indian bread). No thanks!

I am sitting outside my grandparents’ house in Delhi, when my grandmother asks: “Hum ko good news kab de gi?” She can’t wait to hear “the good news”.  My grandmother became a mother at the age of 20 and a grandmother at the age of 44. From her point of view it is practically unimaginable to be unmarried, let alone single, at the mature age of almost 30. And then of course she is not the youngest anymore and she just can’t wait to attend her second granddaughters’ wedding.

Then grandma asks, “kya kar rahe ho bahaar, beti? Andar ao, bahut jyada dhup aarahi hain” What are you doing outside anyway, my child? Come inside, it is too sunny”.  “I’m getting some sun on my face, grandma…”  Oops, I realize too late that that was the wrong answer….A sun tan in India? Am I out of my mind? The fairer you are, the prettier you are. You can even buy ‘Fair and Lovely’ cream to make your skin look lighter. It’s not like in the west, where often a tanned skin is considered pretty. In India, dark skin traditionally implies you have had to work outdoors in the scorching heat to earn a living and that notion endures.

I listen to my grandmother and go inside. They don’t say it out loud, but I can imagine all the neighbors thinking: “Accha ladka kaise mile ga, jab bahaar dhup me baithe gi?’ How will she ever find herself a suitable boy, when she is sitting in the sun all day?”

Even outside India, marriage is the topic of the day. I recently attended a conference in Europe where many Indians were present. Having spoken on a panel at the conference, some Indian participants came to speak with me on the topic I discussed. They asked about my work, what I do and where I live. Clearly a formality. What they really wanted to know was my marital status. Literally the second question was: “Beti, shaadi shuda ho? Are you married, my child?”

I patiently waited to hear the next line “Mera eek beta hain tumari umar ka, Landan mein raheta hain, paas me hain”.  “I have a son your age, he lives in London, just closeby. You should meet”….


Tulika (Amsterdam, 1982) is a human rights advisor, researcher and lecturer. She is passionate about human rights in general and in particular about the role of multinational companies and their negative and positive impacts on human rights. In her free time she loves traveling, learning languages and photography. Tulika currently lives in Copenhagen. She can be contacted on b_tulika@hotmail.com

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