NEWARK, N.J. — The perfect man for Aparna Kachalia, who was born to Hindu parents from Bombay, will be one who loves the 20-year-old sophomore at Dartmouth College and treats her well.
If he happens to be Hindu, great. If not, no problem.
“A lot of people in my generation are more open to marrying outside the religion,” said Kachalia, a native of Edison, N.J. “It depends on how open your family is. … My mom says that as long as he loves you and takes care of you, that’s all that matters.”
Not long ago, that sentiment was rare in the immigrant Indian-American community. But American-born daughters and sons of Indian immigrants are increasingly likely to marry outside the faith, according to interviews with Hindus in New Jersey, which has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Hindus and Indian immigrants.
Earlier this year, a Pew Forum survey indicated that 90 percent of American Hindus marry within their religion. That figure raised eyebrows in local Hindu communities, where the rate is generally thought to be 65 percent to 70 percent — still high, but a noticeable drop from the perceived rate a decade or two ago.
In New Jersey, where the population of Asian Indians has risen nearly eightfold since 1980 according to census data, signs of this trend are easily visible in cities and towns with large Indian-American populations.
Dilip Amin, a Hindu resident of suburban Bridgewater, N.J., said he was perplexed by the Pew survey data when it was published last March.
Looking more closely at the 207-page report, he found that 86 percent of the 256 Hindus polled were first-generation immigrants. That made more sense, he said, indicating the survey mainly included marriages of immigrants rather than those of their children.
He decided to conduct an unscientific experiment, using Macy’s online wedding registry. Amin plugged in common Hindu names like Patel and Reddy and found that 38 percent of the 910 engaged or married couples that came up included one name that did not seem Hindu.
“I got better data out of Macy’s than I would have gotten myself,” he said. “I go to so many weddings, and I know it’s not (a) 10 percent (intermarriage rate). It’s much, much higher.”
Asked why they think interfaith marriages are more common these days, Hindus cited the influences of assimilation, American popular culture, the diversity of college campuses and parents’ busy work schedules.
“These kids are not raised as typical traditional Indians,” said Jyoti Soni, a Hindu wedding planner who says about half the weddings she manages are interfaith. “Who has the time? Monday to Friday you’re running a 60-hour work schedule. Sunday and Saturday you’re taking your kids to soccer…Who has the time to sit and instill religious values in all of this?”
The subject is widely discussed in Hindu families, much as it has been in Jewish, Greek, Muslim and Italian families for many decades in this country.
At the Patel Cash and Carry, an Indian grocery store in Iselin, N.J., Ganesh Radhakrishnan, 33, eyed his 3-year-old girl, Ananya, as he talked about how he would feel if she married a non-Hindu.
“It’s her decision,” he said. “If you ask the previous generation, they would prefer us to marry not only a Hindu, but also of the same caste. But my generation’s more open.”
His only wish, he said, is that his daughter’s spouse respect her Hindu traditions.
“We should respect, and they should respect,” he said. “It should be mutual.”
When families do have problems with interfaith marriages, they often come out during the wedding planning, Soni said.
Traditional Hindu weddings can be gargantuan affairs that last three or four days and have more than 600 guests. Problems arise, Soni said, when a non-Hindu couple, expecting their children’s wedding to cost $30,000 to $40,000, are told that the Hindu family is planning a four-day event that can run $50,000 a day.
“Indians save money all their lives just for the wedding day,” Soni said. “There’s often a horse and carriage and drummer, at a bare minimum.”
One of Soni’s clients, Urmi Desai, 25, of Buffalo, N.Y., will marry a Catholic man in June. She said neither family has caused problems. Her fiance’s family is not very religious and the wedding will be a Hindu ceremony.
The affair will be small by typical Hindu standards — about 200 people.
“It was what each side wanted in terms of the feel of the wedding,” she said. “I liked the idea of being able to personally know everyone at the wedding. I like the idea of not feeling that it’s all these people who maybe you’ve met once.”
Of course, there are still first-generation Indian immigrants who have yet to marry. One of them, Kapil Vyas, 28, sitting at an Indian restaurant in Iselin, has noticed many interfaith couples around town but plans, himself, to marry another Hindu someday, as his parents in India would want.
“I don’t believe in marrying with other religions,” he said. “We have to stick to our culture, stick to our traditions.”
He was asked how he would react if one of his children married a non-Hindu.
“Upset, of course. But we have to accept. We might at first react negatively, but if it happens, it happens,” he said. “We don’t know how our children will grow here and what they will think.”
By Jeff Diamant
c. 2008 Religion News Service
(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.