June 13, 2012 | 2 Comments | Betsy Woodman
Ninety-five percent of Indians marry within their own ethnic, religious, and cultural communities, said Dr. Shashi Tharoor, member of the Indian Parliament, in a recent speech to the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata. It’s fair to guess, also, that a big percentage—probably most—marriages in India are arranged by parents or family elders.
Wandering Americans don’t fit into this picture very often, but strange things do happen. A Woodstock School alumna told of an encounter she had in Mussoorie, in the mountains of Northern India. A breathless middle-aged woman came running up to her on the street, and asked if my acquaintance would be interested in marrying one of her four sons.
My dad, Everett Woodman, had at least two experiences related to the marriage mart. Once, in Chennai in the 1950s, he was invited to be a go-between in arranging a marriage between two people he knew. The mother of the would-be bride asked if he would put out feelers to the family of the young man. There was a problem—the boy and girl were of different castes—but, nonetheless, my dad cautiously went ahead. No dice! The boy’s parents put the kibosh on the idea. Eventually, both the boy and the girl married people carefully selected by their families.
The second experience, I learned about only on reading the correspondence of my dad with his retired schoolteacher friend, P.A. Thiruvenkatachari, his dear “Mr. Patch.”
Patch, a Tamil-speaking Brahmin, had been married in 1900, and certainly in the traditional arranged way. He was seventeen years old and his wife was twelve. They were married for seventy-two years, until his death in 1972.
In contemporary Indian slang, “Tam-Bram” connotes orthodoxy and adherence to Hindu tradition. But Patch was a free thinker, who had an openness and curiosity and sympathy for all people of the world. There was a deep intuitive bond between him and my dad, who was thirty-four years younger. Patch wrote to my grandfather calling my dad “a model for the present generation of youngsters.” To my dad, Patch wrote, “You are a good BOY.”
At age eighty-nine, Patch paid my dad the supreme compliment. “I have a curious idea in my mind,” he wrote. Since Everett and he felt almost as close as family, “why not realize it in fact. You know I have a grandson, eldest boy of my first daughter.”
The grandson was studying for a Ph.D. at New York University. “The boy is fair and nice to look at, a very calm speaker…. Why not think of an alliance with a good Brahmin family? If you think it worth the while, you may meet him and study him. What do you think, my old boy. If this is too much to think of, you may drop it leaving ourselves in status quo. The old tie of Everett and Patch would be unassunderable.”
My dad wrote back, “You know I would have no objection to a good Brahmin-Unitarian match, for to me the similarities are far greater than the differences, so if you want to continue to scheme from Cupid’s corner in Chromepet, give me your next suggestion and maybe I can maneuver.”
But no introductions were ever made, no interviews conducted with Patch’s grandson. After that, no more letters came from Patch. A few weeks later, my dad received a letter from Patch’s son.
“My father,” the son wrote, “and your friend, philosopher and guide is no more…. The end was calm and peaceful…. He was not sick or ailing and maintained his health, poise and cheer to the end…. As per the Hindu almanac, he died at the most auspicious hour of the most auspicious day of the year…. He was conversing with me till 3:45 AM…it is given only to a fortunate few to be by the deathbed of divine beings like him.”
Forty years later, that letter brings tears to my eyes. My dad wrote back immediately. Referring to his correspondence with Patch of almost twenty years, he said, “The full file of his letters to me will remain a major treasure…his every message (was) helpful and inspirational…. Patch lives on because of his great spirit…he was truly a master guru of the highest order. He was also uncomplicated and of delightful good humor, and the essence of the humane qualities that he conveyed so naturally to us all. I am happy that he is safe, and enriched by my memories, and he is in our hearts for always.”
My dad and his dear friend Patch are now both safe, and their correspondence still is, for me, a major treasure.
Guests at a South Indian wedding, 1970s