Much Ado About Indian Matchmaking
August 16, 2020
Couple holding the words forever Much ado about Indian Matchmaking Ranjani Rao arranged marriage

One night last week, I received a half-teasing, half-serious message from a colleague: “Save me. I can’t stop watching Indian Matchmaking.”

By the time I saw her message, she had binge-watched the entire show overnight.

The next day, a flurry of affirmative responses to a tweet from an author with more than 30,000 followers asking if she should watch the show made me pause.

The practice of matchmaking in Indian society is not foreign to me. What intrigued me was the interest of my Filipino colleague and the American writer on Twitter. Why would a loosely scripted reality-TV type of show that followed prospective brides and grooms being chaperoned through the arranged marriage process by a matchmaker garner such interest worldwide?

As a child growing up in Mumbai, I remember watching my father study matrimonial listings in the Sunday edition of the Times of India newspaper.

With his four college-educated and gainfully employed younger sisters waiting to get married and a patriarch who didn’t relish the task, the responsibility fell on my dad. Having exhausted the limited pool of suitable boys in our social circle, the newspaper allowed him to expand his search for eligible bachelors.

My outgoing, vivacious aunts adored Bollywood movies that featured demurely dressed heroines pursued by handsome men who sang love songs. I didn’t ask them if they imagined themselves in place of those characters who fell in love and married without the consent or blessings of their family.

They dutifully followed the unwritten rule that their weddings would be arranged through a complicated process of matching their personal tastes and family backgrounds to that of a stranger.

Once the youngest aunt was married, we stopped subscribing to the Sunday paper.

From print listings in newspapers to bound registers in marriage bureaus, the business of arranged marriage in India morphed into online matrimonial portals at the turn of the millennium.

Unlike dating apps that filter by proximity, these popular portals created for the explicit purpose of matching people whose desired end goal was marriage included filters for caste, language and location, along with personal preferences such as height and skin colour, to help narrow the pool. Regressive? Yes. Practical? Also yes.

“Did you have a love marriage or an arranged marriage?” This question is commonly asked at gatherings of Indian people.

Unless there’s an unusual back story, most couples respond in monosyllables and quickly move on to more interesting topics.

Since interest in this topic was limited to Indians (or South Asians), I doubted there would be interest in a behind-the-scenes view of this cultural practice among the world at large. I was wrong.

The Netflix show’s huge success has spawned discussions across countries and generations.

What drives this curiosity? Is it a superficial glance at another facet of exotic India to reinforce stereotypes? Or is it genuine interest in an archaic custom and its role in the 21st century? Or is it the topic itself, marriage without the presumed prelude of love?

My elder daughter, a recent college graduate who watched the show, was shocked at the unapologetic preferences for tall, fair, slim, educated but homely girls of a certain caste, community or so on, but felt the process of matchmaking, warts and all, had been depicted truthfully.

“At least people won’t assume that arranged marriage equals child marriage or being forced to marry someone without meeting him or her,” she said.

My grandmothers had been married off as minors, sight unseen, to boys deemed suitable by their parents. My aunts had met prospective suitors in the presence of elders. I had once done the same.

But many of my classmates had selected their spouses without much resistance from their families. The arc of Indian matrimony had moved towards giving more agency to the two people involved. I equated that with progress. Until I watched Indian Matchmaking.

Why were accomplished and worldly-wise millennials, who could check out a prospective soulmate with a click of a mouse, voluntarily sign up for a personal matchmaker?

Young, attractive urban Indians and non-resident Indians in the United States claimed they were too busy, fatigued by the dating scene or responding to family pressure. They turned to the new, improved version of old-fashioned matchmaking that now resembled a turbo-charged quick-intro-instant-marriage app.

People enter the institution of marriage through many gates. Some waltz in with partners they find easily in the course of their daily life, while others need extra help.

The main difference between a love marriage and an arranged one is the first step of being introduced. Whether it is a school, workplace, a social setting or a holiday that enables the initial meeting between two people, unless there is interest (and some chemistry), no amount of personal or parental pressure can make a relationship click.

Falling spectacularly in love offers no assurance of its permanence.

A boring arranged marriage may turn out to be a loving one.

Whether love precedes or follows the wedding, for a marriage to work, the two parties should both want a committed relationship and be willing to share their life journey.

Through fairy tales, we learn to focus on the initial phase of excitement, anticipation and sparks that may fly between the characters.

What happens once the barriers to love are overcome and the couple walks down the aisle? That’s when the work begins.

While Indian Matchmaking could not hold my interest beyond a few episodes, I wouldn’t mind watching a show that investigates enduring, successful marriages. Until then, I take solace in the words of British philosopher Alain de Botton, who comes close to demystifying the secret of a happy marriage by claiming that “compatibility is the achievement of love, it shouldn’t be its precondition”.

Both hopeful singles and long-married couples may do well to keep this in mind.

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