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Before you fly away with an NRI spouse...

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NRI grooms are still a `prized' lot. But several such weddings have ended on a bitter note. Pre-marital counselling offers to change all that.

Gouri Dange

Some Indian cities have, over the last decade, become not just IT centres, but also `bridegroom catchment areas'. Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai... these cities produce software engineers by the thousands every year.

Many young men (and some women) have jobs with US-based companies in their own cities, or are headed to the US on an H1-B visa. These constitute the `cream' of the marriage market. With salaries ranging between $2,500 and $5,000, good career prospects and the chance of settling down in the US, these young men are systematically `wooed' by parents of young women. They usually have dozens of prospective brides to choose from, and often marriages are fixed soon after the first meeting.

Men who come from the US on a short, 20-day holiday, are forced by parents as well as their own circumstances to take a quick decision, marry, put the paperwork in place, and return with the bride to the US and resume work. The wives travel on H4 visas as dependents, without any individual status or rights in the US immigration machinery.

In the past four to five years, this phenomenon has begun to show serious cracks. Several such marriages have ended in separation, divorce, allegations of cruelty and deliberate isolation of the young women, and much mental and emotional anguish all around. Given that the wife is in an alien country and often completely dependent financially as well as legally on her husband, her situation is precarious if things go wrong in such a marriage.

Till recently, families in which the daughter/daughter-in-law had walked out on such a marriage (sometimes within a few months) were reluctant to discuss or disclose what had gone wrong.

However, things are changing. Many young people are seeking premarital counselling either individually or together with the person they intend marrying. Parents too encourage them to visit counsellors to clarify their objectives, hopes, anxiety over marriage, and the prospect of living and working in another country.

For a small, but growing number of people, it is not enough anymore to simply match photographs, horoscopes, check bank balances and plot career graphs while selecting a life partner. They are acquainting themselves with the real issues involved in marital partnerships, especially those moving out of the country. Over the last few years, an increasing number of young men, unable or unwilling to make a `clinical choice' during their 20-day vacation, to the dismay of their parents returned to the US without finalising their marriage. Many seek premarital counselling on a subsequent trip home or even via the Internet, with a counsellor in India. Some who are employed in India, but headed for the US in the next year or so, are anxious "to get it right", as one 28-year-old put it, and hence seek counselling.

Premarital counselling workshops organised in Mumbai and Pune draw many newly engaged couples, and even parents looking for a match for their children. Participants frankly discuss core issues world view, money, sex, intimacy, children, elders, careers, etc that are of vital importance and usually forgotten or ignored during match-making. It also entails some amount of debunking unrealistic ideas about romance, duty, sacrifice and the like. The need for healthy emotional interdependence as opposed to complete dependence or independence is also discussed.

Says Samira Sarkar (name changed), who was engaged recently, "Attending such workshops, or just a couple of counselling sessions, helps you air your anxieties as well as validate some of the factors you consider important in a marriage. Elders in the house tend to ignore or scoff at these things when they force you to make a quick choice based mainly on the man's salary or his family background."

As one family counsellor puts it, "I think the problems have to be understood from within. It is no longer appropriate or adequate to see it as merely a gender/exploitation issue. No boy coming to India to marry starts out with the idea of marrying someone to abuse and neglect her. It's really a matter of wrong and misguided assumptions about marriage, the work tensions, a sense of isolation in a foreign country, and various other factors that contribute to a disaster."

What emerges is that many men and women have some extremely unrealistic notions about marriage and living and working in a western country. Some men have idealised notions of a wife and `wifely duties'. Second, many of these men live in social and emotional `bubbles' in the US, barely interacting with local people, mistrusting most other communities, limiting most of their relationships to work, and sticking with other Indians or, if these are not available, living fairly isolated lives. This, too, seems to create problems when they marry; the wife (usually a qualified woman of 25-28) is isolated at home without a job, and instructed not to make friends on her own across cultures.

The women, themselves fed on idealised notions of marriage and of life in the US, are often unable to conform or adjust to this new reality, have little or no outlet for their skills or need for social contact, and are often deeply frustrated. There is an increasing need for parents, eligible women and men, as well as counsellors to create an atmosphere of better understanding and awareness. "With a more rounded perspective on marriage, work and the immigrant experience, we can hope to make more informed choices to build lasting marital relationships," says Dr Minnu Bhonsale, a psychotherapist and counsellor in Mumbai.

Women's Feature Service

Picture by A. Roy Chowdhury

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 25, 2005)
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