In June 2001, a dark kind of fairy tale played itself out in a sumptuous royal palace that sits high above the world in the tiny, impoverished, cloud-dwelling nation of Nepal. A king and queen, a princess and her princely brothers, believed to be the incarnation of an ancient god and as shrouded in mysticism as the rest of their densely populated country, were dining in their opulent palace when the eldest son, the crown prince, began to argue with his mother.
Prince Dipendra was in love with a beautiful, accomplished young woman of Indian descent whose family had once ruled Nepal. Devyani was physically flawless, intelligent, and regarded by all as a wonderful potential queen. The prince courted her for years, and told his family that he wished to marry her.
The queen of Nepal, however, did not think Devyani would make a suitable wife for her son. Some say the queen was jealous of the younger woman's beauty and would not tolerate a daughter-in-law that might outshine her. Others suggest that Devyani's Indian blood disqualified her in the queen's mind, since relations between India and Nepal have never been good. Whatever the case, the queen refused to give her consent to the marriage, and told her son that he would have an arranged marriage, like most Nepalese people have.
This enraged the young prince, who insisted he be allowed to marry the woman he loved. A heated argument ensued, and the prince left the table only to return with enough weapons and ammunition to kill everyone in the room.
Although a few survived, eight members of his immediate family died amidst the spray of bullets. Rumor even has it that his younger brother threw himself in front of the queen to protect her, but failed to save his life or hers. As palace guards stood by outside, unable to intervene because of an oath they took never to interfere with the affairs of those they guard, Dipendra put a pistol to the foreheads of his mother and father before turning the gun on himself. When help finally arrived he was taken to a nearby army hospital where, comatose and near death, he was declared king. His reign, and his life, lasted for another two days.
As in other classic tales, the prince's uncle became king and faced the devastating grief and stunned disbelief of his nation. He promised an investigation to quell the crowds of rioters that swarmed the royal palace, although initially he claimed the tragedy had been a mere accident. Amidst rumor and speculation, amid stories about how this massacre fulfilled a two-hundred-year old prophecy foretelling the end of a dynasty, the only truth that emerged from the confusion of this story is that blood was shed over the tradition of arranged marriages, the concept of duty or honor versus personal happiness, and over a person's right to marry someone they love.
This dark tale is not unlike other stories that have surfaced from secretive cultures who practice slavery and call it marriage. For years now, magazine articles and documentaries have told of unwilling girls being sold into marriage and then burned or mutilated or stoned to death if they rebel. Websites have posted stories of North American and Australian girls being kidnapped or tricked into returning to their family's homeland where they are married against their will to secure citizenship for a male relative. And just a few days before the tragedy in Nepal, a Toronto newspaper reported that a young woman had leapt off an eleventh floor balcony to escape her knife-wielding father, who had stabbed her in the neck and who was intent on murdering her for having married her boyfriend instead of agreeing to an arranged marriage with her cousin. Although some human rights groups protest this kind of behavior, many people simply shrug it off as "cultural differences" and choose to ignore the fact that women are routinely killed or ostracized to the point of starvation on the streets for refusing to be forced into marriages they don't want. There have been some notable exceptions over the years - a young Pakistani woman who was sold to her cousin for $250 wrote to a judge of the high court begging to be released from her marriage. He agreed that this was "not Islam" and sent armed guards to rescue her from the house and the consequent honor killing her relatives tried to commit - but these exceptions are exceptionally rare, and unfortunately most women who find themselves in arranged marriages are not so lucky. Women who complain to the courts or try to escape are usually hunted down and killed to preserve their family's "honor".
What sets the Nepal story apart is that this time the victims were in fact the parents, the ones who tried to force their son into a loveless political marriage. This has caught the attention of the world media, not only for the sheer carnage that took place in the once tranquil palace, but because it is likely the first time ever that a victimized "child" has become so distraught, so mindlessly enraged at the loss of his freedom that he turned his rage against those who would take his choices away. While Prince Dipendra must be held completely responsible for his actions, this case is perhaps one of the only examples of a true crime of passion I have ever seen. I most certainly do not condone the prince's actions, and I am as saddened as anyone at the loss of life, but I wonder whether this chain of events will cause the world to view the subject of arranged marriage more seriously, as much more of a concrete denial of individual rights than anyone ever considered, something that can easily lead to high emotion and misguided passion, outrage and bitterness and violence.
Arranged marriage starts from a fundamentally evil premise - that any parent or relative has the moral and legal right to force someone to marry against their will, or to prevent them from marrying for love. It is usually strengthened by the notion that any intermingling of the sexes is inherently evil and must be strictly controlled and sanctified by harsh religious observances. Proponents of arranged marriage usually regard romantic love as sinful, certainly not something to base a marriage on, and a shameful Western influence that is polluting their children's minds. It is especially encouraged among those who would cling to tradition and old world ways even while profiting from a lucrative new life in the "evil" western world, presenting a dilemma for many parents who love the money but hate the morality of America and who want to discourage what they consider immorality in their daughters at all costs by marrying them off so that more members of their family can find their way into this evil continent. What they willfully ignore is the fact that the greatest immorality lies in exerting force over another person and denying them their individual rights, and indeed by living such a contradiction, of hating the very thing that sustains their life.
This is not to say that only certain cultures are guilty of foisting arranged marriages on their children; every country in Europe built their monarchies on such a practice, and up until the middle of the last century matchmakers were often used to arrange advantageous marriages between commoners as well. Family names and bloodlines had to be "protected", land had to be secured, marrying for love was just as outlandish to European society as it was to any other. The United States and Canada and most of Polynesia were perhaps the only countries that never officially relied on a system of arranged marriages but rather advocated freedom of choice. Whether this was always true in the private drawing rooms of North America cannot be verified or disproved, but at the very least we know that these governments never advocated or condoned arranged marriages, and drafted laws to protect those who were forced into them against their will.
There are those that advocate arranged marriage for what they believe to be rational reasons. They see it as a highly successful, rational and sensible approach to lifelong partnership, something that avoids all the heartache and ruin that building a life on love supposedly brings. Newspaper articles, from the same newspaper that seems to condemn the kidnapping of child brides, often feature smiling couples who were paired up fifty years ago and who claim that, although it took twenty or thirty years, they really do love each other now and wouldn't recommend any other way of life considering how close it brings them to their God and how much it pleases their entire family. They also claim that many millions of happy arranged marriages take place every year and that this tradition has survived for centuries without any problems.
Frankly, as much as I appreciate a rational approach to love and marriage, I find these statements hard to believe. I don't believe that anyone can be happy in such a situation, but more to the point, how likely is it that we'll ever know how arranged couples really feel? How willing would a person be to openly rebel against or leave an arranged marriage if she knew her own family would likely ostracize or even kill her for doing so? How likely is she to openly criticize the institution and reveal her unhappiness in that kind of environment? Claiming that millions of people are happy in arranged marriages because so few leave or cause trouble is like saying that the American slaves must have been happy with their situation because so few of them ever tried to escape.
An arranged marriage can never be honestly happy. Tenderness, affection, trust, sexual compatibility, shared values, genuine concern for each other, most of the things that make up a true marriage - these things are not magically bestowed on you with the pronouncement of wedding vows. Two strangers may say vows to each other and call themselves married, but anyone who has married the love of their life will tell you that the difference would be as night and day - when you marry a stranger, the vows are just odd words you mumble, at the end of which someone says you're married. But when you marry someone you love, you feel the meaning of each word you say, and know exactly why you're saying it. Proponents of arranged marriage claim that love is immaterial to a successful marriage. Without it, there is no real marriage at all.
I am sure that fondness and maybe even genuine love can develop in long term arranged marriages, but if so it does not happen naturally, as a response to shared values. If it happens at all it is because of forced togetherness and the knowledge that you have no other choice in life but to live with this chosen stranger, you might as well get used to it. The happiness of such couples must always be tempered with the idea of "what if..." What if I had been able to follow my heart, what if I had been able to choose my spouse from among those who best represent my values to me and whom I admire for their talents and skills and ability to think? Would I have felt differently about the birth of my children if I had been able to conceive them in love? Would I have been able to get through tough times more easily if I had been able to face them with a strong and faithful ally whose love I could count on?
Prince Dipendra knew what it would mean to give up the love of his life and marry a stranger instead. He knew that it would be no real marriage, that in doing it he would be giving up his life on behalf of an ancient tradition and family obligations, and that these questions would have plagued him for the rest of his life. As tragic as this story is, as devastating the loss of this nation's fairy tale royal family is, the biggest tragedy will be that it was all for nothing, that unwilling young people will continue to be forced together and that the world will continue to shrug its shoulders at this quaint old custom we all have been told to respect. I wonder how many stories like this it will take before someone decides it must stop.