Until Netflix dropped Indian Matchmaking, its new reality TV series, the term “arranged marriage” invoked images of underage newlyweds, being dragged across a village in a bullock cart. Friends would look alarmed when I suggested my parents had had an arranged marriage where they grew up in Sri Lanka, wondering if they should check in on my mother’s welfare. Arranged marriage, in their eyes, meant forced marriage – after all, who would possibly opt to marry someone their parents picked out for them?
Indian Matchmaking is fascinating, because it shows a lot of people would do exactly that. And this includes Indian and Indian-American millennials – who like fancy cocktails, fusion dining and who’ve swiped their way through Tinder and Bumble. Sima Auntie, “Mumbai’s top matchmaker” meets her clients and their parents, shares with them “biodata” (a CV of sorts) for those she thinks might be a good match, and arranges meetings between prospective partners.
The show has some resonance for me, not just because of my parents’ arranged marriage. Even now, I have relatives everywhere from America to Australia, who’ve had arranged marriages through a web of online sites, “aunties” and astrologers. My parents and their families already knew each other before getting engaged – but a week after getting engaged, they ended up tying the knot.
It all sounds all a bit nuts – but then my mum considered it pretty romantic, she was excited at the thought of marrying my dad, and “love comes after marriage” in their culture. If it was surprising that my parents were considered a good fit for one other, it is perhaps more surprising that they are together thirty five years down the line; my dad is an introvert who dislikes loud noises, while my mum and I are collectively described as “noise”. She is a Hindu and he is an atheist.
These days, it’s very in vogue to suggest arranged marriages might actually be the way forward, the salve to the West’s climbing divorce rate. The fact that so many Indian-Americans visit Sima Auntie on Indian Matchmaking shows there’s probably something in that – a lot of us aren’t having any luck finding partners through casual dating. The divorce rate in India, where 90% of marriages are arranged, is 1% (over here it’s 40%) – though this likely comes down to different expectations. Loss of passion, arguments or worse will be worked on or shrugged off – partly because culturally, divorce is a taboo.
But I don’t think I’d ever do an arranged marriage – for the same reasons, presumably, that few on the show end up together, and that the record-setter of Indian Matchmaking, Pradhyuman, turns down 150 proposals. It might be different if I’d grown up in a culture where arranged marriages were the norm, but I’ve done dating, I’ve felt chemistry – and I could never give up on searching for that for the sake of stability. And, much like Ankita, who eventually ditches the matchmaking process for her career, I have the luxury of not feeling too pressured about marriage – I have a ream of single girl friends who plan to live in a big house together, and most of the women I know are financially independent.
Having said that, I’d never sneer at Sima Auntie’s clients, many of whom want to be married just because “everyone else” is, because I know so many single Western women heading into their thirties, desperate to bear children like their peers. All in all, I just reckon Indian matchmakers have been doing for years what Hinge and Bumble are only learning to do now – sneakily learning what we like, judging the education level that might match ours, the level of (conventional) attractiveness we go for and so on.
Of course, I think it’s beyond horrendous that Indian Matchmaking often sifts through caste (and skin colour), as though they were as fundamental as gender or personality. It strikes at the real and awful issue of colourism in the Indian community. But then again, it’s also an uncomfortable reality that quite a lot of people seem to date within their own social landscape, which is almost a vestige of Britain’s own outdated class system. Because, let’s face it, all of us are making mini judgements every time we swipe left or right, we just never sit and think about the reasons why.
Perhaps Indian Matchmaking makes us feel uncomfortable because it hits too close to home. In many ways, it’s a dating app come to life.