Notes From The Road: Love and Dating, Indian Style

Have I told you guys where I’m staying while I’m in Bangalore volunteering? Why, I’m staying at a dorm for unmarried Indian woman. Obviously.I’m quietly thrilled to have escaped the clutches of backpacker hostels and to be spending this month hanging out with Real! Live! Indians! After all, I didn’t come all this way to trade Lonely Planets with 19-year-old German boys.

The dorm is lovely – three vegetarian meals a day, one roommate, a nice bathroom and even cable tv! But the best part? Making heaps of new friends and getting insight into the culture of this huge, fascinating country. (And also dispelling the myth that all western women are fast and loose. And prone to eating McDonald’s every day).

I’m particularly fascinated by the role that love/marriage/dating plays in Indian society. Of course, in a country of 28 states, multiple religions and 1.2 billion people there are just as many approaches to relationships.

Here are some of the women I’ve met and the stories I’ve heard over the past three weeks:

* The Hindu woman who can’t tell her parents that she’s dating a Muslim

* The many, many women who are earning their M.B.A/Ph.D/M.D and putting off marriage until their careers are on track

* The engaged woman who is doing a ritual fast for her future husband’s health

* The woman in an arranged marriage who is totally, totally in love with her husband

* The woman who turned down 17 (!) arranged marriage set-ups to marry her boyfriend.

* The woman who trusts her parents’ judgment in men more than she trusts her own

* The woman whose fiance broke up with her when he discovered she wasn’t a virgin

* The woman who is living abroad, dating men outside of her race and religion and not hiding it from her parents.

* The woman who is ready to marry her boyfriend but is waiting for her older sister to find someone first

* The woman who isn’t interested in getting married, but is afraid of being an unmarried woman in India at the age of 30 … so she’s doing a second Master’s degree in America.

It’s also been really interesting to hear about the reality of arranged marriages. I think most of us envision parents tearing daughters away from the boyfriends they love and forcing them to marry very boring, ‘suitable’ men. Not so, friends.

From what my girls have told me, love and dating usually progresses something like this:

1) Ages 18-23
Girls have boyfriends that they don’t introduce to their families. Relationships aren’t necessarily serious. Relationships might be physical in nature but since almost everyone lives with their families, things usually stay pretty PG-13.

2. Ages 24 – 32
If you’ve been dating a guy for a while and he seems like ‘husband material’ (comes from a good family, has a good job, etc) you introduce him to your parents. Families meet and if all goes well, blessings are given and a giant, giant wedding ensues.


If you’re single and haven’t had any luck on your own, you can tell your parents to start looking for you. You can tell them what you want in a mate, and (hopefully) they’ll take that into consideration. They’ll put out feelers to families and social contacts they know to see if there are any nice boys available. They’ll arrange a meeting with said boy, you have coffee or dinner, chat and see if you like each other. After several more dates (totally non-sexual!) you may or may not decide to get married. Again with the giant wedding.

So it really doesn’t seem that different from when your mom tries to set you up with the neighbor’s grandson!

Does your family have any expectations for the people you date? Would you ever marry someone that your family didn’t approve of? Indian readers, did I get this right?

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  1. Ellie Di

    I think my White is showing, but this post was really enlightening for me. I've always been very curious about the "real" story about Indian relationships because we hear so many strange things over here. And I'm just self-conscious enough about my race to never want to ask anyone not-White questions like this. Thanks for finding out for us!

  2. Penny Dreadful

    Thansk so much for this, really interesting. India is such an enormous country and either don't know at all how things work, or have a fixed idea in our heads without understanding that people are as individual there as they are in any country. Really loved hearing abut all the girls you are living with right now, thanks 🙂

  3. Princess and the Pea

    I very nearly married someone my Mum disapproved of… turned out, she was compltely right – he turned violent. I'm now married to someone my mum loves to bits… proof that Mums always know best! x

    Sounds like they've got a good system going in India.

  4. ashe mischief

    This is probably one of my favorite posts on yes and yes ever. Such a fascinating and personal look at the ladies you're meeting!

    I don't really care how my mother feels about my beau, mostly because she holds petty grudges. He comes from a good, amazing family, and I know he's in this relationship for good. So who can I complain?

  5. Mary

    I'm really loving your travel posts! I'm American, and I don't think I could marry someone my parents disapproved of. I am too close to my family, and the wedge that kind of marriage would drive between me and my family would be unbearable. Also, I think their reaction to some of the people I dated in the past has helped guide me toward a good partner.

  6. JoAnna

    I wouldn't give a damn whether my parents approved or not – in fact they had met my now-husband about three times before we got married.

    My mother has always voiced her disapproval of my boyfriends… after I break up with them. So I have no idea what she really thinks of my husband, since she won't tell me unless we ever divorce.

    I'm curious, though, what "fast and loose" means in this context? As probably every woman in America has a different definition of "slutty" I'm wondering what exactly it takes to earn the title where you are.

    • Anonymous

      Good question. But being American,you might find the answer a little hard to believe.
      Where I live (yes,its an Indian city) a girl just needs to be seen in public with a guy who is old enough to be her boyfriend,and everyone around them radiates disapproval. If the same girl is seen with another guy,noone pauses to consider the fact that he could be her friend or her cousin. Nope,no doubt about it. She's immediately conferred the title-she's a slut.
      Yes,it is unfair,it is stupid and narrow-minded,not to mention hypocritical,but hey,that's our society.

  7. nova

    HA! Exchanging lonely planets with nineteen year old Germans! You're hilarious.

    I am *dying* for an adventure as of late, so your posts from the road are greatly appreciated up in here.


  8. Carrie Rosalind

    What a truly interesting post! I wish I could be involved in an arranged marriage – seems so much simpler! 🙂

  9. besswess

    Sounds so much more healthy than the relationship between my dating life and my family. Ugh! Perhaps I should move to India.
    Please do a post on how they interact once they are married.

  10. Diana

    Great post Sarah! One of my best friends in high school (in Canada) is from Pakistan (and Christian) and she was dating a guy from India (Sikh) and they were both so worried their parents would disapprove they kept their relationship secret for 7 years.

    Finally when they told their parents, everyone was cool with it and they're now married with two wee ones!

    I love giant Indian weddings! They're so fun and colourful and overflowing with the most delicious food!

  11. Polka Princess

    Oh!!! You have summed it all up sooooo precisely! That's EXACTLY how the love/marriage scenario works here……am glad that u r liking our huge, colorful, miscellaneous country! Hope u learn a lot more things here & go back full of memories & information!!! 🙂

  12. Skygirl

    A few years ago, I flew Air India from Frankfrut to Chicago & got bumped up to business class and was seated next to a very nice professor of water science or something.

    When he found out I'd never had Indian food before, he & the flight attendant made me try EVERYTHING and they laughed (good-naturedly) when things were too spicy-hot for me.

    And he & I had a looooong conversation about arranged marriages and it was really fascinated because I definitely had the same idea you did. This man & his wife had the old-school kind where they'd only seen each other twice before the wedding. He said after twenty years, they were still totally in love because they were matched for the important things, not just for the initial attraction, which is why he planned to arrange marriages for his children. Of course, being a 22 year old American girl, I was leery of the idea of my mom picking my husband, but now I feel like there is a lot to be said for the system.

    Yay for diverse cultures!

  13. Erin

    I love it. Once again, my belief that "people are people are people, they just sometimes come with different candy coatings, but when you get down to the center they are all pretty much the same" 🙂 is proven to hold true.

  14. Alina

    What happend when you turn 33 and are not married?

    I feel like the implication here is htat you disappear from the planet, at least in love terms?

  15. Zavi

    I would love for my mom to provide me with a line-up of eligible bachelors, if she promised not to get mad if I rejected them all. I never thought to ask her…maybe I will once I move out again.

  16. Gillian

    Is it weird that this made me tear up? This makes me happy. SO SO HAPPY. Can't wait for your next update from India.

  17. Rachael

    VERY interesting!
    I used to work with an Indian girl who did marry a man her parents disapproved of (he was Caucasian-American) and all of her older siblings went to India to find spouses like their parents wanted to.
    The only kind of person my mom would disapprove of is a (a) violent/abusive man or someone who has no aspirations/motivations.

  18. Vanessa

    This was a really great post! It's interesting to hear how different dating is in India than we hear about in the media and storybooks.

  19. littlemissjuicy

    I'm a Pakistani, and often feel that the whole arranged marriage system that goes on in Pakistan and India is hugely misunderstood in the West. You've put it right. =)

  20. Eternal*Voyageur

    You got it right !

    One more thing though: the case & sub-caste thing plays a major role, as does matching horoscopes.

    However, I must say that my 3 closest Indian friends had arranged marriages and neither one is happy with the guy… I think that this stems from the big generation gap. The mom might have barely finished school and married at 18 and had a baby in 9 months. The daughter grew up with MTV, is 25 and has a Masters degree and a job. In such cases mom´s ideas about marriage and the perfect guy might differ a lot from the daughter´s.

  21. Sora

    This is a great post. I've always been fascinated by Indian culture, particularly in regards to marriage, because it's somewhat similar to my own cultural views.

    I'm an Orthodox Jew and often when I tell people that I married at 19 their first question is, "Was it an arranged marriage?"

    In Orthodox Jewish culture, boys and girls are not supposed to fraternize until they begin dating, and even then they are not allowed to be completely alone or touch one another. When they begin dating, a matchmaker sets them up based on their family backgrounds and personal preferences. The two will date seriously for anywhere from a few weeks (very common among Hassidim) to a couple months (if they're more modern/liberal) and then get engaged and marry.

    There is a misconception that Orthodox Jews don't allow the couple to meet before marrying, but actually that's against Jewish law, which requires that the couple meet at least once before the wedding. At that meeting, if either one is not attracted to/interested in the other, the wedding must be called off.

  22. Sonja

    What a great and enlightening post. I had no idea about the reality of Indian dating before and I found it really great to catch a glimpse of it through this beautifully written report. So thank you very much!

  23. Anonymous

    As an Indian woman I really enjoyed reading this! You got it mostly right. It is important to realize that the Indian social structure is rapidly changing and there are so many situations from the very conservative (marrying someone you have not met) to the very liberal. I myself grew up in a big city in India in a very liberal family and it was not very different that what I see in the US. I must say that sex before marriage is still taboo but happens more than we care to admit. Case in point: amongst my group of 6 girlfriends, none are/were virgins on their wedding day.

  24. Tami (Teacher Goes Back to School)

    i'm totally intrigued by your travel and life as a teacher. are their more posts about your life when you aren't traveling?

    i'm fascinated too by the idea of staying in the unmarried lady dorm – what are great idea!

    i've been chatting about traveling to india recently and how i'm a totally scaredy cat – too hot, too crowded, i'm a baby etc – and these set of posts is making me want to go.

    thank you!

  25. Pebble

    I'm Chinese and my parents wanted me to marry a Chinese man, but having been raised in Canada and having only met a few handful of Chinese boys here and what I see back in Hong Kong, I was vehemently against the idea of ever dating a Chinese guy. That and I'm not usually physically attracted to them.

    I ended up marrying a Canadian I met online, and my parents wholeheartedly approve of him. I'm pretty sure they do at least, because they don't mock him or threaten to kill him (jokingly) like they did with my ex-boyfriend.

    I would never let my parents set me up though. I distrust their judgment of people.

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