Gods and Lovers

During their massive, five-day Indian wedding, a local couple was worshipped

This is where the "aunties" came in. The term is one of respect; aunties are your mother's friends, your relatives -- just older women of the community.

During the two years after Sarika returned from London, various aunties introduced her to eligible Indian boys. Back in her mother's community, a young woman would have a social résumé listing her accomplishments, her hobbies, her height and weight and a description of her extended family with details about her uncles, aunts and grandparents, including where they lived and their educational backgrounds. Families used the résumés to arrange their children's marriages. Today, the custom survives but is toned down, just describing hobbies and education.

"I just think it's funny," Sarika says. "My parents had made one for me. It was very sweet, but it was definitely exaggerated."

Guests party it up, dancing with dandia sticks at the Friday night sangeet.
Daniel Kramer
Guests party it up, dancing with dandia sticks at the Friday night sangeet.
At long last, Sarika's wedding day has arrived; here, she applies her bridal bindis.
Daniel Kramer
At long last, Sarika's wedding day has arrived; here, she applies her bridal bindis.

Sarika had seen many happy couples get together through Web sites like shaadi.com or blind dates arranged by aunties, so she decided to be open-minded.

She met a few guys. It always went the same way. First, they talked on the phone and the conversation was…great. Then, they got together for coffee and immediately, she sensed it: There was no chemistry.

One time, she traveled all the way to California to meet a man.

"My parents' family friend -- their son married this guy's sister," she says. "My parents had seen pictures of him from their wedding and were like, 'Oh, he's a doctor and he's really smart. And he's older, he's 29, so he can take care of you.'"

Her mother thought, "This is it," but that match didn't end up working out either. By the time she was 25, Sarika's parents were constantly badgering her, even though she was still young relative to women of her generation, who tend to get married at 28 or 29.

Many South Asian-American women live a paradoxical existence: Parents teach their daughters to be independent and career-driven -- then, it's time to find a husband. Brides feel pressure to simultaneously be American working women and traditional South Asian wives, says Zooni, an editor for Bibi Magazine, a publication for South Asian-American women. (She uses an alias to keep her engineering and magazine lives separate.) With sons, the situation is similar but more relaxed. Men aren't expected to settle down until their thirties.

"It might be generalizing, but I think South Asian men, they might be very modern and very Westernized in all their thinking, but when it comes to a wife or having a partner in life, they immediately turn to mother, whatever Mom was," says Zooni.

Divorce is eschewed in the South Asian community, so in most cases, marriage really does last "until death do us part." Sarika's father wanted to make sure that his future son-in-law's family understands this principle, so, "If they have ten divorces, we don't want to get our daughter in that mess," he says.

He had other stipulations as well: "I told her the only person I approve of is either a doctor or a lawyer. That's it. Nobody else. Only two people," he says.

After dating around for some time to no avail, in June 2005 Sarika attended a few events in connection with a convention for AAPI, the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin. Among other things, the convention is sort of a "dating thing" for young Indian-Americans. This is where she got together with Atul, a student at Baylor College of Medicine.

Atul himself had also envisioned his ideal spouse -- although his criteria were less narrow than Sarika's father's. "I knew what I wanted," he says. "I wanted someone like Sarika who is very well-rounded, smart, intelligent, funny, witty, culturally well-grounded -- and someone who loves me very much."

For years, he had waited for the right girl, although he felt no pressure from his parents. He just loved the idea of settling down. Dating and "testing the waters" didn't appeal to him; he was searching for The One. Until he met Sarika, no one else deeply intrigued him. No one. Then, after a long conversation with his future bride, he finally thought: Hey, I'd like to take this girl out on a date.

Within a week, they were officially "in a relationship," according to their Friendster accounts. Soon after, they began talking about what they wanted out of life -- family and marriage. Throughout this period, though, they downplayed the seriousness of the relationship to their parents.

"I knew that if I introduced them to any guy and was like 'I kind of like him,' they would be calling the parents and wanting to get me engaged right away," Sarika says.

By September, they knew for sure. With Hurricane Rita bearing down on the Texas coastline, Atul's parents came to Houston from Beaumont to meet Sarika's parents. The couple were, for all practical purposes, engaged.

But Atul had yet to give Sarika a ring -- and since she is American, after all, she expected one. Four months later, he took her to a "light show" in Hermann Park. Beforehand, Atul, his sister Bani and a friend had decorated a garden with rose petals and votive candles. Atul proposed.

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