I can't write a definitive guide to arranged marriages, because my parents made it very clear to me, at a very young age, that they heartily disapprove of the practice, but I'm going to try and node some common features of arranged marriages in India.
1. Arranged marriages differ very greatly in a large number of their aspects across India. Different communities have different rules, procedures, and what have you. This is important to keep in India. Any generalization about arranged marriages is just that- a generalization.
2. A standard arranged marriage is a long process. It involves a matching of family backgrounds, castes, social status, horoscopes and it is only then that the two people in question (and well, rather the two families) get to meet each other. There is a certain network through which these marriages take place- so if you have an eligible daughter, and your friend's friend has a brother whose son is of the same age, then you might have a word with your friend, who then speaks to his friend and so on.
3. This means that the prospective bride and groom get to each other maybe twice, and if they are lucky, thrice. This is a practice that has evolved over time. My aunt married a man she had never ever seen before till she saw him for the first time, during the marriage ceremony. Gradually, especially among the upper middle classes, a few chaperoned meetings between the girl and boy (in India the term 'girl' and 'boy' is used even when the two in question could be nearer 30 than 18! But I'll stick with...) may take place.
4. The girl can only reject so many guys. If she keeps rejecting suitors, then her family will put pressure on her because too many rejections is the hallmark of an overly choosy girl, and a blot of the family. But occasionally, girls are not given the choice of rejecting men. They must accept the first 'man' who is shown to them, making the entire process quite farcical. This is especially true if you are not an attractive girl.
These facts aside, here are some other observations.
The logic behind arranged marriages is somewhat like this: young men and women are too immature to make the right choice. So falling in love is out of question (Indians extol the virtues of those who fall in love after marriage), and of course 'mommy and daddy know best'. Arranged marriages are also a useful way of ensuring that purity within caste and community lines is maintained.
By the way, contrary to the above node, arranged marriages are extremely popular among Indians living in the USA or the UK. Many of these NRI (Non Resident Indians) will return to India to seek a bride. After having had a typical American high school/college education, where they spent their time trying to get rid of their 'Indian roots', when it comes to marriage, only a good Indian virgin will make them happy. I'm sorry if I sound sarcastic but I find it almost obnoxious to interact with these people who constantly deride the country, and then choose to replicate one of its most oppressive practices.
Why I am so opposed to arranged marriages? Well, even admitting that marriage is a gamble anyway, arranged marriages are bigger and often fatal gamble, especially if you are burnt for dowry. The question of dowry is another matter altogether, maybe something about which I'll blog later. But the very thought of marrying and sharing a bed with a man, whom I have met twice is repulsive. Worse is the say women are 'shown off' to their prospective grooms. Gone are the days when women were asked to display their teeth, almost like slaves or chattel, but a good Indian girl must have the correct manner, culinary skills, and other attributes that make her desirable in the arranged marriage market.
A number of my friends have had/will have arranged marriages and it often breaks my heart to see them battling their fears as they embark on a new life with an unknown man in an often hostile environment. I will recount the story of one such friend- a girl called Neha. She was not an attractive girl, being somewhat podgy and when she was all of 16 her parents found her a suitable groom. Now bear in mind that the legal marriage age in India is 18, but their family was rich and influential and the law states that unless someone formally complains to the police about an under age marriage the police can't arrest anyone. Neha was very happy about her impending marriage. This was a few months before a big national examination that we must all take in India, but she wasn't going to sit for it. She was not exceptionally bright and she wasn't going to regret not having to go to school again. Perhaps she felt wanted for the first time in her life- she felt special that a guy had chosen her to marry him. She was also flattered by the attention she was getting- the gifts, the trousseau and so on. My teachers warned her: Neha, this is NOT what marriage is about. This is very transitory, and soon you will realise what a grind it can be. Think about it, don't stop studying. After all, she came from a highly privileged background and in a country where female illiteracy is probably our biggest problem, giving up one's education for marriage to a man one doesn't know at all, all at the age of 16, seems absurd. But she went ahead and got married. We were all invited to a posh hotel in Delhi for the ceremonies. She's from Kolkata, and that's where we went to school- so most of us didn't go to the wedding. Those who did said she was dripping with jewellery, and kept her head bowed down like a good Hindu bride.
The next time I heard of her was a year ago. She was teaching in the kindergarten section of my school. Apparently her husband's family had beaten her up and ill treated her. Her parents refused to take her back. In sheer desperation she went to the only other 'home' she knew- her school and literally threw herself at my principal's feet asking for protection. My principal agreed to let her help out in the kindergarten section so she could be paid a small salary and could maintain herself. And this is what she does now. From one of the richest girl in school, who had a fairy tale wedding, her entire life, as she knows it has been destroyed by the age of 23. Frankly, I can't think of a bigger indictment of arranged marriages.
Yes, I know what the standard argument for such marriages- that they often work better than most Western marriages. That marriage is not just about two individuals, but about their families, their value systems and so on. And this is what an arranged marriage caters to. That love is transient, and what most people think is love, is basically lust, and it's possible to fall in love with your husband after an arranged marriage and so on. Again, I think these are mere justifications for an oppressive system that commodifies women and makes millions deeply unhappy. The reason marriages like these dont break up is not because the two people in question are happy, but because there is huge social pressure for the marriage to work. And because if she did leave her husband, the girl would have nowhere to go, and no one to turn to. So you shut up and put up because you simply have no choice!
Finally, if you want a bird's eye view of arranged marriages in India, take a look at our matrimonial columns. They are the perfect window to caste, class, and other prejudices that have bedevilled this country for years. They will also tell you why the sooner we get rid of this practice of arrranged marriages, the happier we will be, as a people.