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Matched: The anatomy of a modern-day arranged marriage

This is a story about a modern-day arranged marriage. Ancy Maruthanal and Michael Abraham figured they’d meet their future spouse on their own. But when their parents set them up together via an online marriage arrangement site, they realized they were a perfect match.

Michael’s parents, Tessy and Yohannan Abraham, came together through a traditional arranged marriage in India before they moved to America.

Ancy’s parents, Cherian and Aley Maruthanal, were traditionally matched and met just two weeks before the wedding.

“The average American says, ‘Oh, God, that’s so barbaric.’” Mala Machado, Ancy’s best friend

Ink

Once upon a time, a boy named Michael met a girl named Ancy, and it was pretty clear from the start where the whole thing was headed.

There were butterflies and smiley-face texts, first dates and late-night phone conversations. As time went on, there were first kisses and deep discussions, cross-country trips and “I love yous.” And finally, last November, in the dimly lit dining room of a Washington, D.C., restaurant, there was Michael, down on one knee, holding a ring and asking Ancy that old familiar question.

In just about every sense, theirs was the typical modern-day American romance, the starry-eyed stuff of Top 40 songs and John Cusack movies.

In one very big way, however, it wasn’t.

The following is a love story.

Just probably not the kind you’re expecting.


Syro Malabar Catholic Parents settled in the USA seeking marriage proposals for their daughter, 27 years, 5’ 6’’. MD currently doing second year residency in a reputed University in the USA. She is born and raised in the USA. God fearing and family oriented. Inviting proposals from well qualified professionals settled in the USA. If interested, please respond with your bio-data and a recent photograph.


In many ways, Ancy Maruthanal was the perfect Indian-American child.

A straight-A student and class president who would go on to double major in biochemistry and religious studies at the University of Miami, she grew up embracing her family’s Indian heritage. Around the family’s Orlando, Fla., home, she spoke her parents’ native language — Malayalam — and at the dinner table, she gobbled up the traditional Indian fare that was served.

About the only family tradition she didn’t embrace was the idea that her parents would find her future husband for her.

Although her parents’ marriage had been traditionally arranged — they met for the first time just two weeks before their wedding ceremony — it hadn’t taken Ancy long to distance herself from the idea.

She knew that young Indian girls were expected to grow up and marry a man of their parents’ choosing. She knew that arranged marriage was cherished within the culture and that to an Indian parent, few things were more important than facilitating such a union.

But she was also Americanized enough to know that she wanted to meet a man on her own terms. She had grown up watching Disney movies, after all. She knew the drill. You find Prince Charming, you fall in love, you live happily ever after.

“Usually,” she says, “your parents don’t find Prince Charming for you.”

And for a long time, she set out to do it on her own.

As she got older, during her undergraduate studies and medical school at Miami and residency at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., she dated traditionally, with varying levels of success.

When she reached her mid-20s, though, something began to change. Maybe it was the lack of long-term success she’d had in the traditional dating scene. Maybe it was the feeling she always seemed to get, in her non-Indian relationships, that something was missing. But she softened her stance a bit. In her late 20s and getting ready to start her final year at Georgetown, she gave her family permission to cast some lines, even if she maintained a healthy skepticism about the whole thing.

Her uncle posted her “bio-data” — a brief profile and background not all that different from a classified ad — on the website of the Kerala Express, a publication for Kerala, India, natives living in America, and it wasn’t long before the prospective spouses started rolling in.

Over five months, she received the bio-data of 20 to 30 men and agreed to talk to maybe six. None seemed all that great a match.

“I met up with three guys my parents wanted me to meet,” she says, “ And I was like, ‘Ugh.’”

Then, in May, her uncle sent her the information for a young man he’d recently come across.

His name was Michael, and even Ancy had to admit that on paper he looked good.

A doctor whose family hailed from Kerala, he had just accepted a job at the University of Kansas Hospital. He played the guitar, wrote poetry. He even worked out regularly — although experience in the realm of bio-data told her that just because a boy says he works out regularly does not necessarily make it so.

Her uncle seemed to sense promise.

In his email, along with Michael’s information, he posed a single, hopeful question.

Mr. Right?


Michael Abraham was finished.

For the past few months, as he had wrapped up the final year of a double fellowship in Milwaukee and his parents had inundated him with the bio-data of potential spouses, he’d grown increasingly frustrated with the entire process.

It wasn’t that he was against the idea of arranged marriage, not exactly. Though his childhood had been undoubtedly American — growing up in Springfield, Mo., he’d enjoyed a youth of bike rides, Boy Scouts and soccer — he also came from an Indian background.

His parents had settled in America together in 1969 after their traditionally arranged marriage in India. And, like many Indian parents, they hoped to keep the tradition alive with their children.

Through much of his 20s, though, Michael had avoided the prospect of bio-data and arranged setups, immersing himself in his schooling.

After graduating from high school, he spent six years in the medical program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, earning his M.D. and B.A. degrees. He followed that up with a four-year residency at the University of Kansas Hospital and was now finishing up a three-year double fellowship at the Froedtert Hospital & the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

But during his residency in Kansas City, he had provided his parents the opening they were looking for, saying he wasn’t opposed to the idea of an arranged marriage.

“They jumped on that,” he says.

One after another, the bios of potential wives began to show up in his email inbox.

The problem was that it never seemed to work out.

Some didn’t share the same interests. Some struggled to keep a conversation going. Sometimes — and he knows this sounds bad, but, well, he’s just being honest — there wasn’t a sufficient physical attraction.

Things had gotten so bad, in fact, that in spring 2012 he called his sister the week before he was to graduate from the Medical College of Wisconsin to tell her he planned to inform their parents that he was done with the whole thing.

His sister, herself a veteran of the bio-data process, understood where he was coming from. Before marrying her husband 20 years earlier in a quasi-arranged marriage, Susan Antony had had her own less-than-enjoyable experiences with it. She was in no hurry to stand in her brother’s way if he was no longer interested in it.

She had just one request: Wait a week, she said. So it’s not awkward when the whole family gets together for your graduation.

Two days later, while he waited to tell his parents that he would not, in fact, be finding his future wife in an arranged format, they passed along one more bio-data.

This one was for a 29-year-old future doctor from Florida, and something about it grabbed his attention. She was intriguing, he thought, and he was struck by her beauty.

Maybe, he figured, he could give it one more try.


Arranged marriage has been around as long as marriage itself.

Some experts think that more than 50 percent of marriages today are arranged, and in India, as many as 9 out of every 10 fit that bill. Historically, it has been a rather abrupt process. A generation ago, it was not uncommon for bride and groom to meet just days before they married. In many instances, it has involved some sort of payment from the family of the bride to that of the groom, and it has served in stark contrast to America’s long-standing tradition of “love” marriages.

Says Mala Machado, Ancy’s best friend, “The average American says, ‘Oh, God, that’s so barbaric .’”

As times have changed, however, arranged marriage has too, evolving into a significantly more modern practice — particularly in America, where distance, time and technology have helped mold it into its current format.

In many current, modern-day arranged marriages, the family of the potential bride or groom creates a brief description of the child they’re hoping to marry off, filling it with pertinent information like religion, schooling and professional ambitions. The information is commonly referred to as bio-data.

The bio-data is then posted in one of the print or online publications for Indians living in the U.S. And when interested parties respond, the parents begin sifting through the inquiries, weeding out those they don’t believe would be a good fit and passing along the most promising suitors.

Think of it like a Match.com profile, one created for you by your parents, monitored by your parents, and in which the potential mates you end up meeting are determined solely by your parents.

Oh, and one more thing:

“When Michael and I exchanged emails, it wasn’t for the purpose of, ‘Oh, this is someone you should go on a date with,’” Ancy explains. “It was for the purpose of, ‘This is someone you should marry.’”

Despite its lack of prevalence in American society, arranged marriage is not just accepted by many young Americanized Indians, but fiercely embraced.

Ancy’s best friend, Mala, for instance, grew up dreaming of the day her family would set her up with a husband. She liked the tradition associated with an arranged union. She was so set on going the arranged route, in fact, that she continued looking at the bio-data of men her parents sent her even after she’d begun dating her future husband, who is Catholic and from Sri Lanka.

“I was trying really hard not to marry him,” she says now.

According to those who have studied it, the arranged marriage system comes with a variety of benefits.

A recent study by researchers at California State University found that when it comes to love, commitment and satisfaction in a relationship, arranged marriages are just as strong as “love” marriages. And while America’s divorce rate rests at around 50 percent, India’s is among the lowest in the world — possibly the lowest.

“The process of matching up has a certain logic to it,” says Robert Epstein, a professor of psychology at the University of the South Pacific who has studied arranged marriage extensively. “And the process (Americans) use has no logic, by definition. It’s based almost solely on feelings.”

In many Eastern cultures, the thinking goes, the best way to make an educated choice in one of life’s most important decisions is to do your homework. Practicality, then, is valued over emotional connections. More than anything, marriage becomes a game of odds, in which empirical things like profession, religion and cultural background take precedence over just about anything else.

This is not to say, of course, that it’s a fool-proof system.

As diligent as parents are — as many red flags as they squelch and as hard as they try to ensure that the potential couple’s values and backgrounds align — there is always the issue of compatibility.

“It’s the same as walking into a bar,” Mala explains. “Let’s say the bar only admits (people with) your basic bio-data requirements. You walk in, and there’s just no way in hell that all of them — or any of them — is going to fit your personality. Because you can’t put that on paper.”

And so, in June 2012, as Michael and Ancy prepared for their first telephone conversation, they did so with a common understanding.

Just because it looked good on paper didn’t mean it was going to work out in real life.


Ancy was in her Washington, D.C., apartment when the phone rang.

It was a Sunday evening, and after a few days of phone tag, she had been looking forward to finally touching base with the guy she’d been thinking about so much.

At first, there were nerves on both ends. Soon, though, they began to get comfortable.

“So our parents want us to get married …” Ancy said, breaking the ice.

For the next couple of hours, they talked about school. About family and medicine and running. She asked him about his impressive bio-data — about how much of it was true.

Did he really go to the gym every day? And play the guitar?

As proof, he sent her a YouTube video of him strumming out Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” which, it just so happened, was her all-time favorite song.

Swoon.

For his part, Michael loved how easily the conversation flowed. Obviously, any relationship that might arise between the two would be, at least in the early stages, long distance. The ability to maintain a conversation, then, was one of the biggest factors.

“It was like butter,” he says. “It was so smooth. So easy to talk.”

It went on and on — so long, in fact, that at one point, Michael had to plug his phone in just so it wouldn’t die.

At around 11 p.m., Ancy realized how late it had gotten. She had to be up for work at 5 the next morning, and so she said goodbye, making plans to talk to him again soon.

The next day, in D.C., Ancy giddily dialed her best friend.

I think I want to marry him , she said.

That same day, 800 miles away in Milwaukee, Michael picked up his cellphone and tapped out a text message to a friend back in Kansas City.

I think I found the one, he said.


They spoke every day that next month.

Text. Email. Phone.

Their first real test came a month later, over Fourth of July weekend, when they met face-to-face for the first time.

Ancy had made arrangements to visit Michael in Milwaukee, where he was still living, and in nervous anticipation, he had cleaned his condo like he’d never cleaned it before.

“I was on my knees with the gloves and the Ajax and all that,” he says.

When he picked her up from the airport, he literally picked her up — hugging her by the waist and twirling her around in the terminal. He gave her flowers — gerbera daisies, her favorite — and the next few days went by in a romantic blur.

Over the next few months, they saw each other every few weeks, at least. She would fly to Kansas City, where he had moved after completing his fellowship to begin a job at the hospital, or he’d hop on a plane to D.C.

Things kept getting better.

Every visit, every conversation, seemed to reinforce the same thing both had felt after that first phone conversation: That they were supposed to be together.

Their final test came that September, when Ancy’s family traveled to Springfield to meet Michael’s family.

In the Indian culture, marriage is considered, as much as anything, the binding of two families; almost as important as whether the potential bride and groom like each other is whether their families like each other.

If things didn’t go well on the visit, both well knew, it could be a deal-breaker.

In the end, however, all went swimmingly.

The families bonded over elaborate dinners and board games, and in a private conversation, Ancy’s father gave Michael his official blessing.


Ancy knew it was coming, just not when.

They had been talking openly about it for months. The third time they’d been together face-to-face, they’d gone ring shopping.

Michael had planned to come visit her for a week in D.C. in November, and something told Ancy that this might be the week he would pop the question officially.

In the days before he arrived, she planned out seven different outfits — one for each day he was going to be in town. She wanted to make sure she was wearing something cute when it finally happened.

On a Saturday night, he took her to the restaurant 701 in D.C. He’d wrangled a private room, and though his nerves were running amok throughout the evening, Ancy didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

At one point, he excused himself from the table. When he came back, he was carrying a guitar. A videographer stood nearby. In the next few minutes, a video of which can be found on YouTube, he serenaded her with a song he’d written for her.

You came to me out of the blue.

You sang to me from high above.

Angels carried you down.

You are who I have been waiting for.

At the end of the performance, he dropped to his knee. He pulled out a ring.

He said, “Will you marry me?”

She said, “Yeah!”


On a Saturday afternoon in August, inside Kansas City’s Saint Peter’s Parish, Ancy and Michael stood side-by-side at the alter, putting the final touches on their happily-ever-after.

Surrounded by more than 400 friends and family members — including their matchmaking parents, who basked happily in the glow of a job well done — they vowed to spend the rest of their lives together.

The honeymoon was in Hawaii.

To reach Dugan Arnett, call 816.234.4039 or email darnett@kcstar.com.

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