Patricia Uberoi, in her essay Family, Kinship, and Marriage in India (1933), comments on the Indian family structure, across the country. She traces kinship systems, mostly patriarchal in South Asian communities, wherein the child’s descent is through the male line. She explains how exogamy is predominantly practised in Hindu communities, as members of a gotra consider themselves descendants of a common, mythical ancestor. The males usually inherit property, while women are given a considerable dowry at the time of marriage (although the groom’s family usually takes ownership of this). The Hindu joint family is explained as consisting of fraternally and lineally related males, their wives and unmarried sisters and daughters. Daughters are regarded as temporary members (the concept of ‘paraaya dhan’), expected to marry out and become wives, and thus members of a new family. Uberoi quotes instances from the Dharmashastras (a Hindu law book) to support her stand and talks about the Hindu Sucession Act (1956) as an attempt at reform to bring about gender equity.
Marriages are ideally between status equals in India according to Uberoi but they also present the opportunity for a “renegotiation of social standing.” This usually takes place in the form of hypergamy, the marriage of a lower caste woman to a family of a higher rank by giving them an ample dowry or ‘kanyadaan.’ The reverse arrangement (hypogamy) is disapproved of in society. Since marriage has been associated with political control and feudal power structures, it has given rise to several social evils as well, such as female infanticide and ‘kulinism,’ where young men of the highest Brahmin status families married and abandoned several brides in succession, thus obtaining lavish dowries multiple times. There are also attempts to ensure women and property remain within the family, for instance the practise of a widow’s remarriage to her deceased husband’s younger brother among the Jats of Northwest India. B. R. Ambedkar also discusses this in his essay The Annihilation of Caste (1936), where he comments on inter-caste marriages being forbidden and widows being either remarried within the family or the practise of enforced widowhood, to ensure that the property and dowry remains in the family as well as to not make the woman seem desirable to people from other castes.
The caste structure also demands prestige; this refers, in a local context, to the practices of “politically or economically dominant castes,” such as Jats or Rajputs in the Northwest regions of the country. On a pan-Indian scale, these are the ‘Sanskritic’ practises of the Brahmins and others groups ascribed a high-status in Hindu law books, like kanyadaan and ban on widow remarriage. Upwardly mobile classes attempt to ape these and refuse alliances with groups that do not, in order to claim a higher status. Sociologist M.N. Srinivas terms this ‘Sanskritisation.’ This sentiment can be seen echoed in Eunice De Souza’s 1996 poem Marriages are Made, where caste-conscious people, when evaluating the qualities of a bride, are overly concerned with the caste and De Souza mockingly claims her cousin’s in-laws even
“examined/ […] her stools for the possible/ non-Brahmin worm.”
This sense of caste anxiety pervaded all of society.
While regional patterns are believed to prevail over religious, however, there has also been a renewed affirmation of religious identities. Anthropologist T.N. Madan addresses this issue in his 1998 publication Modern Myths, Locked Minds, where he discusses Muslim resistance to the Constitution, with some leaders claiming their social life cannot be governed by any law other than the sharia. The Constituent Assembly, in 1948, claimed Muslim personal law was separable from Islam and therefore not protected against legislative interference. There is thus a difficulty that arises in implementing a common uniform civil code for all. Islamic personal law, for instance, allows for polygamy while monogamy is prescribed for Hindus (as per the Hindu Marriage Act of 1995). However, there are practises considered ‘Islamic,’ but not actually part of Islam, such as a preference for marriage to relatives, considered taboo by Hindus. This is in order to enhance family solidarity and maintain exclusivity of the blood line, as well as to consolidate family property. A similar intra-family union was practised among the aristocracy in Europe as well, particularly among the royalty, and for similar reasons. Uberoi goes on to explain that “Islamic law also recognises women’s right of inheritance, though not on equal terms with males” but individuals may of course choose to be governed by secular law instead, if they feel inadequately represented. Uberoi expresses this with examples of two legal cases from the 1980s where women (Mary Roy and Shah Bano) did so.
She moves on to then talk about class and claims that the Hindu joint family has evolved over time in such a way that it can now only be sustained by an economically strong family. Having kept up a joint family over generations may even be regarded as a source of prestige and power in society. Uberoi claims that colonial rule led to an economic development that created a larger middle class who disregard considerations of caste, regions and religion in favour of professional and class-based ones. It is this section of society however, that expresses anxiety over the prospect of women’s emancipation from the joint family. According to Uberoi, the mass media of films and television shows (such as the Alok Nath-style cultural propagation of ‘sanskaar’ and images of large, happy families- as in Hum Aapke Hai Kaun (1994), a film Uberoi draws from in her research) contribute to a conservative “ethnicisation,” as she calls it, of Indian family values against culture of the West, hindering the “exhibition and encouragement of globalised lifestyles.” The tone taken in this section seems to imply that Uberoi would like India to ape Western culture, as she considers it Indian family culture too “conservative.” This is ironic since several factors that hold India back come as remnants from colonial times such as internalised victorian values and desire for good social reputation. The suggestion that Indian culture is holding back growth seems preposterous to several critics that have studied her work, such as Ashley Tellis, and find that her alienated perspective as an outsider to Indian society has hindered her understanding of it and puts her in a position where she cannot comment aptly from. In fact, dowry is a European concept, propagated in India via the British rule. Additionally, a girl’s actions after her puberty being closely monitored (and the social repercussions of her behaviour) that she mentions as part of Indian tradition comes largely from the Victorian values left behind after colonialism. The sense of anxiety over honour and reputation of the family characterised the Victorian era of England, but “this is something Uberoi does not deign to mention,” in the words of Carol Upadhya.
Patricia Uberoi goes on to elaborate on arranged marriage, evaluating tribal communities that, with the exception of rare instances of elopement, courtship, capture, exchange, et cetera, mostly arrange marriages as a negotiation between two families. Today, however, most families follow a different arrangement where even if an arranged marriage takes places, it is not through traditional networks, but through newspapers, matrimonial agencies and the internet. Further, the opinions of the couple concerned are considered and given importance; they are allowed to spend time together before as well as after the match has been made, and this is not necessarily supervised. Additionally, there also exists the process through which young people choose their own partners and arrange for them to meet the parents to seek approval, a culture that is not absent in the West, in fact. If a family does not agree to the match however, the couple may either submit to their wishes or elope, the latter option leading to one of two consequences- a successful married life or being murdered in an ‘honour killing.’ While this analysis of Uberoi’s is sound, there are also some flaws with her evaluation of the arranged marriage system, leading to her being questioned by critics of her work. Her claim that it was “widely expected” for arranged marriages to decrease as India “modernised” is found questionable by who quotes multiple studies that show otherwise, from before as well as after what Uberoi terms India’s ‘modernisation.’
Her view of modernity, moreover, is found to be biased by biased by Chaudhuri, who claims she is measuring India and the progress of the nation along the same yardstick as the West, which is contentious, something that even Rabindranath Tagore talks about in his lecture, ‘The Spirit of Japan,’ 1916. He believed the East must hold onto its spirituality, a type progress the West is unable to measure, and not lose sight of its traditions and historic culture in attempts to modernise. Further, Uberoi states that since it is believed that ‘love marriages,’ as they are called, do not require a giving of dowry, parents of girls accept and even welcome this arrangement as a solution to the dilemma of finding suitors in a “highly competitive market.” However, she is here accused of making a speculative statement with no basis, as most critics (Chaudhuri, Tellis) believe there to be a split in society in this regard, with different sections of society holding different opinions.Thus, Oberoi has been criticised for being harsh and judgemental in her approach to understanding Indian cultural practices. She does not maintain the uncritical impassivity of a sociologist, as she goes beyond mere observation. There is a tone of disdain in her works that some experts of the field believe discredits her. Further, forming opinions about an entire country with diverse culture in every region on the basis of a film (She was heavily inspired by ‘Hum Aapke Hai Kaun?,’ 1994, and studied Indian families through it.) is believed to be an utterly unethical practice. Her reducing an entire, ancient culture to findings from a popular film is not expected from a professional, impartial sociologist. The contemptuous tone moreover gives the impression of generalisation in her works, finding different regions in India to be the same while the traditions are vastly diverse across the nation. Simultaneously, she disregards other South Asian countries that are part of a similar culture (having been part of one nation previously, or consisting of a common kingdom even longer ago).
Uberoi also holds an alienated perspective, from the purview of an evidently non-Indian person, in terms of the outrage she expresses and distanced reporting. She gives the impression of reducing an entire culture to their regional marital norms, from the perspective of an appalled foreigner. In her judgement of Indian kinship customs, she seems to forget the significance and restrictions of cultural perspective, not realising that several Western customs may seem barbaric to people outside of that culture, such as couples living together, the early independence of young adults, and family elders being placed in nursing homes. These are practices not found in most cultures in the East. She thus is seen to represent India by de-contextualising the practices she describes and offending people’s sentiments by evidently trying to establish herself as a racial superior. She describes India as the cultural other and does not realise that within the Indian context, she is so and is thus not in a position to make judgements (and simultaneously remain uninvolved, as she attempts to do). Uberoi is in this way disadvantaged as a foreigner, since she simply cannot understand the cultural milieu and perspective these practices exist in. She uses callous terms in loose translation, such as “bride-giving and bride-receiving villages” and “women’s property” for stree-dhan (more accurately referred to by critics now as ‘wealth of a woman.’)
Therefore, as elaborated here, Patricia Oberoi’s essay Family, Kinship and Marriage in India not only reflects the different familial structures that exist in the society but have also been criticised for having a biased perspective. It is important to understand and evaluate both these contrasting points of view in order to develop a comprehensive reconnaissance of class, religion, caste and region-based marriages and families in India. With the government attempting to implement new reforms and encourage family planning, the Indian familial norms are ever-changing, apparently for the better.