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'Indian Matchmaking' is not a far cry from online dating

How is swiping on a person’s photo different from selecting someone from their bio-data?

Scenario 1:

I had been talking to the guy continuously for two weeks now and eager for our date! An hour before we’re to meet I text him asking if he has left or not. It is then he gives me a lame excuse about how he cannot make it. An hour before we’re to meet and only AFTER I text him.

Scenario 2:

Free and witty banter and intimate conversations for two months. I was in India at that time and he was in Melbourne. When I finally come back to Melbourne and we meet, not only does he give me a birthday gift on our first date, a day later he texts me and tells me he is uncomfortable with me! 

Scenario 3:

The guy impresses me by being all feminist and saying all the ‘right’ things. 2-3 months down the line all he does is text me links to news articles and always too busy to call. 

Scenario 4: 

The guy and I had decided to meet for dinner and when I went to meet him, somehow he ‘misconstrued’ the dinner for coffee date?!and he knew I would be coming from my pole dancing class. So, I was famished to say the least. The guy disappears after that one date into thin air. 

If you read the above, very real and personal dating experiences of mine, you might think it's a story from the Bad Dates of Melbourne page. But no, they are my experiences from ever since I agreed to go down the arranged marriage route. This is not to say I did not try dating apps, Tinder, Bumble, Hinge you name it! In addition to the unsolicited nude images, I also faced a lot of sexism, abuse, misogyny and racism. A point came when I felt absolutely dehumanised and devalued and had to take a break from men generally. 

Which brings me to the new talk of the OTT world, the now eponymous show ‘Indian Matchmaking’ that is about the (in)famous arranged marriages in India. 

The series follows an Indian matchmaker from Mumbai trying to pair up South Asian singles in the hopes of a happily ever after. Since the lockdown, courtesy COVID, Netflix’s several dating shows have been a huge hit. I myself am guilty of watching ‘Love is Blind’ or ‘Too Hot to Handle’. While the conversation around people of colour in mainstream media and representation has been doing the rounds, one could argue a dating show based around India was not too far along! 

And Netflix could not have selected a more evergreen subject but that of an arranged marriage, which often comes under much criticism and scrutiny. Not to mention Sima Triparia, the ringleader and matchmaker who is the perfect anti-heroine. She is the main masala in the show!

The aspect that probably pinched me the most is that the people showcased in the show are almost exclusively upper caste, upper and upper middle class. A reason for this could be that it feeds into the Western gaze of the ‘Big Fat Indian Wedding’. There’s a certain exoticisation of the days of festivities and events. Thank you, no thank you for this Priyanka Chopra Jonas and the likes! For non-South Asians who are reading this, I hate to break your bubble, but a majority of the Indians cannot afford multiple festivities and a grand wedding. But one could surmise that given the global audience of Netflix, strategically, a show like Indian Matchmaking is palatable to a more wider audience.

If you want to watch a more cross-sectional and nuanced take, ‘A Suitable Girl’ is very much available to stream on Netflix. And a bonus, it has Sima Triparia herself who is trying to get her daughter married off!

Here’s the thing, I am not here to review the show or talk about the blatant sexism or classism that is evident from the first episode. The show was far too relatable and reminded me of the fatigue laden process that it is. I have lost count of the men I have talked to on the phone, no really, it’s not an exaggeration. At least thank the lord I can still count the number of men I have met!! 

But what I do want to point out is that arranged marriage in its contemporary form in Indian metropolitan cities and Non-Resident Indian circles has evolved and is not much different from the trappings of modern dating. In particular, men and women both are more independent and have a stronger say in such matters. 

The show is reflective of several prejudices and practices still prevalent in the society. However, we need to separate the practice of arranged marriage from the systematic flaws of the society. As someone going through a similar rigmarole, and might I add as an educated and independent woman, I see arranged marriage as just another method to find a partner. Like Rupam who finds someone promising via Bumble, I too have simultaneously used matrimonial websites and dating apps. You will find equally cringeworthy profiles and people on dating apps as well. The biases present in the society find themselves playing out in the dating arena too. 

Just like Nadia, who seems amazing in all aspects is ghosted, how many times in the dating world has that not happened to you? You’re wonderful, kind and caring, yet appear to find no luck in finding a partner. 

 By no means am I advocating that arranged marriages are not without its shortcomings. The entire process is exhausting to say the least. I have had a guy tell me that I will become smarter if I talk to him everyday, to a guy hating on ‘white people’ for being alcoholic and ‘black people’ for being scary looking, to someone insisting I MUST become a biological mother because every woman should experience motherhood. Not to mention a boy's parents asking my mother openly if I am fat or slim? Fair or dark? It was au revoir that very moment. 

 I have also come across some really nice and decent men who were respectful, but well, ‘things didn't work out’. I have also put a pause to this because I could sense fatigue and disillusionment set in. 

Arranged marriage comes with its share of baggage, but so does dating via other means. Once you decide to sign up for a particular route or system, you need to mentally prepare yourself for the negative externalities. A major problem I have with modern dating is the lack of patience people have in trying to learn about the other person. People are easily disposable or a swipe away. Relationships have been commoditised, too many choices you see! As millennials we're quite an indecisive lot.

 And how is swiping based on a person’s photo any different than selecting someone on the basis of their bio-datas? And if you think a man-child like Akshay in the show who wants to marry someone like his mother is just an arranged marriage phenomenon, did I tell you about a 32 year old guy I met via Tinder had food dripping all over his clothes and did not even know how to make noodles or tea for himself!

If anything, I have tried to smartly use my parents as a filter to gauge if a guy is serious about commitment or not. Because frankly, like Aparna the lawyer, I am at a stage in life where I cannot waste time on men who are not serious. The arranged marriage system allows you to place all your cards on the table at the outset and make a quick exit if something is non-negotiable. And that’s been a saving grace for me.

This is not to say that one shouldn’t have deal breakers and set boundaries. But as shown in the show, once the girl and boy meet, they are expected to court and date. The system has modified over the years. It’s a far cry from my parent’s generation where they possibly got only one chance to talk to each other before marriage. You would be hard-pressed to find a scenario wherein the parents have arranged a marriage without their children’s consent. External pressures not-withstanding, there’s more agency now to say yes or no. And this important change needs to be acknowledged. 

 If you watch the show carefully you can see the strong personalities materialising and the desire to ‘connect’ with someone. Perhaps Ankita is one girl that many of us can relate to. She is a businesswoman who ends up going through the matchmaking process only to discover she wants to focus on her career and her values more. There’s also been a lot of negativity around the number of times adjustment and compromise has been used. There’s nothing wrong in it. The problem is when specifically women are  expected to do all the compromise! 

You will find matrimonial profiles with descriptions that have caste, age, fairness restrictions. The prejudices and problems that arise in both ‘modern dating’ and ‘arranged marriages’ are a symptom of our society’s structural flaws. Instead, we should be looking inwards and questioning if we’re perpetuating the same biases under the garb of ‘similar background’, ‘cultured’, ‘well settled’ and ‘good looking’. And at the end all the individuals in the show or any of us, are just trying to find a way to their companion and partner. 

So now would you swipe right or left for arranged marriage?

About the author

When not overdoing her caffeine dose, Anubha Sarkar can be found teaching Global Cultural and Creative Industries. After a stint in the Netherlands, she moved to the unpredictable pastures of Melbourne to pursue her PhD in Bollywood and Soft Power. She binges on Kdrama and is currently learning Korean and Mandarin. She is South Asian Today's in-house Film and TV Expert and writes a monthly column, Anubhanama. Instagram: @anubhanama




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