The Right Spouse: Preferential Marriages in Tamil Nadu

The Right Spouse: Preferential Marriages in Tamil Nadu

The Right Spouse: Preferential Marriages in Tamil Nadu

The Right Spouse: Preferential Marriages in Tamil Nadu


The Right Spouse is an engaging investigation into Tamil (South Indian) preferential close kin marriages, so-called Dravidian Kinship. This book offers a description and an interpretation of preferential marriages with close kin in South India, as they used to be arranged and experienced in the recent past and as they are increasingly discontinued in the present.

Clark-Decès presents readers with a focused anthropology of this waning marriage system: its past, present, and dwindling future. The book takes on the main pillars of Tamil social organization, considers the ways in which Tamil intermarriage establishes kinship and social rank, and argues that past scholars have improperly defined "Dravidian" kinship. Within her critique of past scholarship, Clark-Decès recasts a powerful and vivid image of preferential marriage in Tamil Nadu and how those preferences and marital rules play out in lived reality. What Clark-Decès discovers in her fieldwork are endogamous patterns and familial connections that sometimes result in flawed relationships, contradictory statuses, and confused roles.

The book includes a fascinating narration of the complex terrain that Tamil youth currently navigate as they experience the complexities and changing nature of marriage practices and seek to reconcile their established kinship networks to more individually driven marriages and careers.


Tamil people are always happy to know that
the groom and bride are related.
—Srinidi, September 2008

Nowadays people marry money to money, BA to BA.
—Kartik, January 2009

For the better part of my fieldwork I lived in a suburb of Madurai, a temple town in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in a cement house with a gated yard and a veranda on the second floor The veranda looked over a flat terrain of brush and trash where a neighbor had patched together a cow pen with tin, plastic, and canvas. The back door of the house opened onto a railway track and a rocky mountain, abruptly, like a movie set: end of town. The sound of water running over last night’s pans entered my sleep every morning. Lying on the mattress on the floor of my blue-painted room, I waited for the milk boy to open the gate and put his sompu on the front stairs. Then I was up, standing at the window to peer out at the neighbor’s cow stationed under its lurching shelter How many times did I see this cow lift a banana peel out of the gutter and devour it, with its eyes half closed? By the time the flower man called out “pūhe! pūhe!” as he toured the neighborhood with his new supply of fresh jasmine, I was ready for my breakfast of sweet coffee and “milky” biscuits.

The first mornings in that house I could not tell that I was on the outskirts of a busy temple town. The sounds I heard took me back to the village in the northern part of Tamil Nadu where I had lived in 1990-1991: peddlers making their daily rounds, frenzied dogs howling and barking, brass and stainless steel pots being scrubbed on the concrete floor of a neighbor’s courtyard. Nor was there much sign that I lived very close to villages, so close indeed that I could walk to the nearest one. From a topographic perspective, you could say that I lived in a strip of land that fell between the rural and the urban.

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