According to ancient Romans, there are five basic stages in an individual’s life between birth and death: childhood, adolescence, adulthood, middle age and senescence. However, the older generations of Sri Lanka would take great pains to point out that the Romans forgot to mention the other most important stage of life – marriage.
Now, marriage is undoubtedly one of life’s major milestones. It is a time-honoured institution that embodies the upstanding values of our ancestors through the ages and prevents either one of the partners from doing an easy runner without first having to go through a major scuffle in the courts. It is a consecrated ritual that an individual enters into when he or she is ready and has found The One – or at the very least, the one who qualifies as Close Enough.
But to the older generations of Sri Lankans, marriage is not just a sacred union of two well-attuned souls. To them, it is the raison-d’être or the very purpose of existence; the goal that surpasses all other goals in life. Nothing warms their heart like seeing two young people getting married, and nothing seems more anomalous to them than an unattached young person who chooses to focus on their career or higher education. In fact, it is a truth universally acknowledged (or at least, acknowledged among the elders of our community) that a single adult human in possession of any sign of life must be in want of a spouse. Thus, with the best of intentions, they take it upon themselves to do their utmost to bestow marital bliss upon any young and unattached individual who crosses their path, whether the individual in question wants it or not. Not surprisingly, this does not sit well with the younger folk, especially when they come home with a degree or a work promotion and are received with,“Good. Now, when are you planning to get married, duwa?”
To be young and unattached is not a walk in the park in Sri Lanka. In fact, it is a walk in a minefield of matchmakers, proposals, constant badgering and occasional insults. For your edification, here are ten things that most middle class, young Sri Lankans have to face when they reach the age deemed “marriageable” by the smirking aunties.
1. An Epidemic Of Kapuwas
Marriages everywhere else in the world are made in heaven, but many of the marriages in Sri Lanka are made within the pages of a kapuwa’s directory. Also known as marriage brokers or professional matchmakers, these are the people who “arrange” a marriage between two compatible young people, in return for a fee. However, once you hit a particular age, everyone from your paternal aunt to the next door neighbour’s mother-in-law becomes your own personal broker. The phenomenon is startling in its similarity to the movie, World War Z, in which a zombie pandemic takes over the world. In this case, however, a matchmaking contagion breaks out, turning you into a paranoid wreck. You become distrustful of any middle-aged female so much as glancing your way. “When a strange lady at a function is smiling pleasantly at you, you know she’s going to approach you with a proposal,” says Keerthika, 23, whose fear is founded on having been approached once on the road by an elderly matchmaker. As a result, you spend an inordinate amount of time running in the opposite direction when you see any adult with matchmaking tendencies coming your way.
2. Emotional Extortion
This is your parents’ and grandparents’ brilliant idea of getting on the marriage bandwagon. Faced with your refusal to cooperate with their efforts to make a match for you, some Sri Lankan parents and/or grandparents appeal to your softer side, in order to get the job done. “We are growing old. We could die soon,” they will tell you woefully, appearing in the very pink of health otherwise, “We only want to see you happy and settled in life before we go. After we’re gone, who’s going to find you a partner for life?” Confronted with this very reasonable but unwarranted question, you must refrain from replying, “Just about every other middle-aged person I know.” Insulting the matchmaking apocalypse would only result in inviting a long discourse on how everyone just wants the best for you, even though you are too ungracious to realise it.
3. Constant Questions And Comments About Your Unattached State
No family gathering, function, or wedding you attend is complete without you being asked at least a dozen times by various relatives, “So when are you planning to get married?” You also have to put up with a peppering of suggestive winks and “you’re nexts” thrown in. At their most allegorical, your relatives will let you know that “your file is on top” and nudge you quite violently. When they finish badgering you, they will move on to pestering your parents about your single status. Your parents, in turn, will give you the stink eye for not yielding to the emotional blackmail.
4. Outright Insults
When all else fails and you still remain resolutely unmarried, your relatives will lug the big guns out and take verbal potshots at you. You will be reminded of your advancing years, your deteriorating looks, your expanding girth, and your fading eligibility. You will be warned of the horrors of dying alone, with no loving, caring children by your side. The older you get in your unattached state, the more hysterical your affectionate kinsfolk tend to become in their efforts to establish you in the state of matrimony. Their standards decrease in inverse proportion to your age, ranging from “If you don’t hurry up, all the good ones will be snapped up” to “You can’t afford to be picky. At your age, you will be lucky if anyone agrees to marry you.”
5. Excruciating First Meetings
Pre-arranged first meetings with a prospective bride or groom within the confines of one’s home are awkward enough, but things escalate to a whole new level of awkwardness when your relatives engineer “accidental” meetings between you and similarly unattached members of the opposite sex at social events. There is no embarrassment quite like the embarrassment of a well-meaning, but extremely tiresome relative introducing you to a complete stranger when you are in the process of stuffing a whole kebab into your mouth. Your overwhelming desire to smack the relative in question over the head with the table centerpiece only increases when you realise that this was why you were asked to make an extra effort with your appearance.
6. Being Judged On Appearances
In Sri Lankan society, maintaining an outward show of respectability is important, owing to the curtain-twitching, spyglass-wielding propensities of neighbouring gossips and malicious relatives. Any youthful indiscretion ill-fated enough to reach the ears of the neighbourhood watch is carefully recorded and tucked away, only to mysteriously re-emerge in exaggerated glory when you are trying to find a partner and settle down to a new start. In some cases, reports of past transgressions alone have proven enough to “tarnish the family name” and reduce one’s matrimonial odds.
Even if your slate is completely clean and you don’t look too bad, you still have one vital physical assessment to pass: are you light-skinned enough to answer the siren call of the hordes of parents seeking “fair” mates for their offspring? Having a light complexion is considered a major selling point, particularly in young women on the marriage market, as evidenced by the matrimonials section in any local newspaper. “Use Fair & Lovely! Stay in the shade,” your concerned female relatives will advise you, if you are a girl and your skin colour is a tinge darker than desired. We are no strangers to colourism here, no sir!
“One of the first questions my sister was asked by a prospective groom was ‘Can you cook?’” says Sara, 25. Needless to say, this didn’t go down very well with the young lady in question, who is a licensed medical practitioner. As outrageous as it sounds, this is not an unusual occurrence in most South-Eastern countries. When it comes to seeking a suitable spouse, females are valued more for their looks, pliability, and domesticity, while males are sought after for their educational qualifications and six-figure salaries. In some cultures, young women are even required to pay an exorbitant sum as a dowry in order to get married.
8. Pre-proposal Photoshoots
No young Sri Lankan’s life is complete without a string of cringe-inducing photoshoots. For some, this slightly mortifying custom begins even before the quest for The One, when they are coerced into slathering on a layer of talcum powder (refer No. 6 for the reason) and posing for a couple of professionally shot “proposal photos.” In Sri Lanka, proposal photos do not mean the same thing as they do elsewhere in the world. They are not the surreptitiously-taken shots of the magical moment someone pops the question to the love of their life. Instead, they are the photos that will be distributed to any and all eligible suitors, so everyone can examine at leisure your best rictus grin. However, if you are lucky, you can get away with peddling your graduation photos instead – provided you don’t look like a big, flappy bird in them.
When you have finally managed to find a suitable match (cue, much relief from all your relatives), your family will immediately pay a visit to the nearest astrologer to calculate your birth chart and find out if your rashi (astrological birth sign) matches with that of your potential mate. If the horoscopes don’t tally, you can wave goodbye to your dreams of a rustic-themed May wedding and say hello again to the arduous process of hunting down yet another potential mate. Or you can choose to defy convention and marry your intended, matching horoscopes or not, accompanied by the soundtrack of your relatives’ ominous warnings of impending doom.
10. Huge Weddings
When you have managed to overcome all of the above and secure yourself someone who is willing to take the leap with you, you face the biggest hurdle of all: a wedding of epic proportions, complete with a ten-tier cake, a dozen bridesmaids, and an upward of five hundred guests. Sri Lankans are famous for their love of lavish, grand-scale weddings, to which the whole world and their neighbours are generously invited. More often than not, the planning process is gleefully hijacked by the couple’s parents and relatives, and subsequently turns into a high-speed trainwreck, which ends with a frazzled bride and a reception full of people the newlyweds have never seen before in their lives.
There is nothing quite like being young and “of marriageable age” for some in Sri Lanka, except maybe being caught in a cattle stampede; you can try to outrun it, but you will always be overtaken at some point. The only way to rise above it all is by taking a leaf out of Master Shifu’s book and practicing inner peace. Like he said, anything is possible when you have inner peace.