Arranged marriage
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

No one could have predicted the immense popularity of Netflix show ‘Indian Matchmaking’.

Despite it focusing on a practice that could be seen as archaic and almost out of place in 2020, it was a hit among people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities.

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For those who had never heard of biodatas, star charts and the very concept of arranged marriage, it was maybe a morbid curiosity that got them deeply involved in the exploits of matchmaker Sima Taparia (from Mumbai).

For desi people — and those from other cultures where matchmaking is common — Sima aunty’s attempts to bond two people together in holy matrimony might have hit close to home.

The quest of its participants to find everlasting love amid the constraints of culture was played out for everyone to see, judge and make memes about. But this is a reality that many young people face in India and other South Asian countries, where family comes first, second and third.

Following the show, it turned out that none of the matches Taparia made were successful.

So, does old school matchmaking still work? Can it be used to find true love? Does it have a place in our world today? Gulf News staff members weigh in whether they’re for it or against...

Don’t ‘encourage’ love but marry a stranger?

Dona Cherian, Assistant Online Editor

Arranged marriage
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

For the longest period of my life, I thought my parents had a traditionally arranged marriage. In my teen years I pieced together information casually dropped sarcastically by relatives and realised that it was not! My dad worked as a lab tech in the same college that my mom worked towards her nursing degree and they had a few conversations.

Soon after he left for a job overseas but came to know through his brother that my mom was getting arranged marriage proposals. Nurses were in high demand; the families of prospective grooms would come to the medical college to ‘see the girl’ and my mother could not say no.

My dad then, with the help of his brother, persuaded my grandfather to put forward an arranged proposal to my mother’s family. Obviously, everything worked out. Even though this love story doesn’t come close to relationships now, it was always a hidden secret because it would ‘encourage’ youngsters in the family to follow this forbidden path. This was the only fake arranged-marriage in our family, kept hush until my cousins and I were older — until mine.

I have forever been apprehensive, and even scared of the arranged marriage scene. I, like many other girls in Kerala, was constantly reminded about the all-important check boxes on the ‘biodata’ — ‘slim, trim, fair and flexible.’ People you barely knew would chide you for going outdoors and getting tanned, remind you that slim girls are pretty girls and that curly hair is a headache.

Every other ‘aunty’ I saw when I lived in Kerala would suggest chemical straightening, and no, I am not exaggerating. As a young girl, it was scary to feel that your value would be placed in boxes that don’t fit.

My parents, however, instilled in me a sense of confidence and placed all the importance in my happiness, education and career. So, by the time I met my husband at the age of 18 — not knowing then that I would be married to him — I knew I would never get entangled in the arranged marriage scene only to get evaluated and rejected.

Nine years later, my father first broke the news of my engagement to extended family as a traditional proposal to avoid the associated stigma. My boyfriend of four years still came to ‘see’ me at home in a sweet enactment of the original (what I think would have been stressful) experience. Two years since then, I am glad I found my partner the way it was meant to be — no check boxes, just a lot of love.

Out of 14 cousins, 6 of us are married and all except me went the arranged marriage route, some with matchmakers, and some with matrimonial websites. I even helped my cousin look at profiles to decline or accept until we found the one. I know arranged marriage works for many, it just wasn’t for me.

What matters most is what makes YOU happy

Irish Eden Belleza, Acting Video Editor

Arranged marriage
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

I never really fully understood how embedded arranged marriages are in some cultures until I arrived in Dubai more than a decade ago.

In the Philippines it had been part of the customs and traditions of native inhabitants during the pre-colonial period, but nowadays arranged marriage is no longer common practice — although there are ethnic groups that still follow it. I have also heard of stories of prearranged marriages within the Filipino-Chinese community. The practicality and the reasons why some groups continue this tradition are the subject of many debates, but it is understood that the practice is linked to business decisions and preservation of wealth.

But while it is not generally a common practice, it is not an unfamiliar subject in get-togethers. I remember in parties with family friends when I was still young, parents would pair off their kids with other kids, although many times in jest, but also presumably as a sign that they have earned each other’s trust and respect.

For us kids, it was odd hearing these conversations, but would later realise where our parents are coming from: they just wanted to feel secure knowing who their children are marrying — their family, their background, etc. It is part of a parent’s instinct to ensure their children only gets what’s best for them.

In my teenage years, my friends and I have also played cupid to one of our NBSB (No Boyfriend Since Birth) friends. During my birthday celebration at my house, we played matchmakers for our common friend and my batchmate in college — and to our surprise, the duo became close friends, then lovers and ultimately got married and had children.

So yeah, sometimes matchmaking helps in finding “the one”.

With the proliferation of dating sites and reality matchmaking shows like ‘Indian Matchmaking’ on Netflix, and the way people now learn about other cultures and practices from the internet, I believe there can be more insightful discussions about the practicality of matchmaking and prearranged marriages, not just their drawbacks.

But if you ask me if I’m for love or arranged marriage, personally I go for a love marriage. But I don’t think it’s for me to judge which set-up really works. At the end of the day, whether you are in a love or arranged marriage, or even if you choose to stay single, what matters most is YOU — that you are happy and contented in life.

How traditional matchmaking compares to modern dating

Tabitha Barda, Baby & Child Editor

Arranged marriage
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

Since I come from a western culture that has no modern history of arranged marriage, I don’t feel in any way qualified to cast a judgement either for or against an institution that is so culturally ingrained still. It’s really not my place to say.

However, I did watch ‘Indian Matchmaking’ and found it equally addictive, entertaining uncomfortable, and even at times insightful. For it sheds light on a tradition that, as a westerner, I didn’t think I’d be able to relate to at all. But, far from the forced matches between strangers that many in the west perceive arranged marriages to be, the prospective partners seemed to have full say in who they were paired with, were given time to form an emotional connection (or not), and I was surprised to see that personality type and shared hobbies were also considerations, as well as the more material aspects.

Which brings us to the more problematic area of this show — what many have called the regressive emphasis put on the prospective partners’ (especially the women’s) colour, height, and, implicitly, caste.

Now as an outsider looking in, the insistence on finding someone “from a good family” didn’t immediately translate into caste — it’s only on reading subsequent analysis that this has been spelt out for me. However, perhaps aside from this aspect, the preoccupation with superficial elements such as appearance, size and even status are all very much present in the western dating game too — they’re just not usually explicitly talked about.

Dating is inherently problematic this way — it is by definition discriminatory to some extent. It’s messy, loaded with potential rejection, misunderstanding and heartbreak. That’s not to say that this is OK or that we shouldn’t constantly question our priorities and internalised prejudices — we all should.

But, as an outsider looking in to an unfamiliar custom that I previously had no knowledge about, these were my takeaways: the matchmaking process itself seems to force the prospective partners to ask themselves questions about personal values that are often absent or ignored in western-style unions, brushed aside in favour of ‘true love’ above all — which is a notoriously transient state. And the idea of a professional matchmaker whom you can employ to help navigate these treacherous waters, maximising your chances of a happy union? I can definitely see the point in that.

Pakistani millennial who just doesn’t understand arranged marriages

Falah Gulzar, Social Media Reporter

Arranged marriage
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

Women being called ‘forward’ for asking for what they want in a man. Meddling parents putting forward their demands with a dash of judgemental matchmakers asking youngsters to ‘compromise’ (as every marriage must be built on a delicate bargain of one’s own wishes). Keeping your family happy and choosing the right life partner. What’s not to like?

While Netflix’s ‘Indian Matchmaking’ provides a glimpse into the reality of the marriage process in many South Asian households to the outside world, completely foreign to some, it also resonates with youngsters like me, coming from a Pakistani background.

I’ve been blessed with parents who have never pressured me to commit to anything I am not comfortable with starting from my college major, career path and now, marriage. But Pakistani society is a less laissez-faire one.

“Here’s a friend’s son you need to consider for Falah,” are words familiar to my father and then, to me.

“Aren’t you worried about her [future]?” the same friend of my father have asked him plenty of times.

While my father brushes off these ‘helpful’ suggestions, not many daughters have that luxury.

“She should start looking for someone otherwise she’ll get an oldie,” Pakistani aunties tell mothers with daughters. Oftentimes, the women in question are a little over 18 and they are already forced to think about whether they are good enough for potential proposals.

As in the rigged world of matchmaking, ‘slim trim’, ‘tall’ and ‘fair skinned’ gets you high on the never-ending stack of biodatas these ‘mediators’ deal with.

The system is a marketplace for potential life partners, heavily driven by the parents’ preferences, often disguised as a real-life version of desi Tinder premium. But one soon realises that’s certainly not the case.

Not to mention you would have to squeeze your whole life, 25 years in my case, in a flimsy piece of A4 sized paper, and if you find someone remotely compatible to your liking and reject them, you’ll be asked to lower your expectations. After all, marriage is between two families and the parents of the individuals — chemistry, love, attraction and any of those abstract and ‘impractical’ aspects are considered unnecessary.

Picky, stubborn and rigid is what a woman who has chosen everything for herself from her college, career path and more is suddenly called if she dares reject any proposal that comes her way.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), it seems as though a woman’s best traits are being ‘flexible’, able to ‘adjust’ and of course, bearing the emotional labour in the relationship.

And for those who have explored the world and are well educated, and still throw their hands into the air and look to their parents when it comes to picking their spouse, I only have one question — why?

As for me, I’d rather choose the organic route before being listed on the trading floor of biodatas, as I lack the single most important commodity when it comes to these matchmaker-led marriages — compromising on what I want.

So long as love blooms

Sanjib Kumar Das, Assistant Editor

Arranged marriage
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

Talking about love and arranged marriages, what I feel rather uneasy about a point-counterpoint on this is that there is often a tendency to pit a love marriage as an antithesis to an arranged marriage and vice versa. And what about those marriages that are by all means ‘arranged’, but happen to blossom into the category of ‘love’ and those love marriages that sometimes would unfortunately veer into a state of loveless resignation!

A friend had once said that the basic difference between a love and arranged marriage is that an arranged marriage is like being part of a joint stock company. In case the ‘company’ hits a rough patch, the shock is absorbed not by any one owner but all the ‘stakeholders’. Usually, speaking from an Indian context, these ‘stakeholders’ would be the army of friends and relations on either side who would have given their in-principle ‘stamp of approval’ after a thorough pre-nuptial ‘recce’ of the would-be couple’s households and in some cases even run some background checks on either side.

So if the marriage is long-lasting and there’s little turbulence, all ‘stakeholders’ have reason to be happy for their matchmaking skills; and if anything goes wrong, then too there are far too many on either side to help absorb the shock and the onus does not always lie solely with the couple to say a thing or two in self-defence. In other words, there is an element of joint accountability and risk-sharing.

In comparison, the friend said, love marriage is more like playing Russian roulette. “You may have a fair idea about the gun you have in your hand and even the trigger could be at your command, but that ‘chance’ factor of a ‘hit’ or ‘miss’ can never be entirely ruled out.” He indeed had a point. There are innumerable instances of that sugary feel of courtship days ultimately leaving a bad taste in the mouth no sooner than wedding vows are exchanged.

So the moot point is not pitting ‘love’ and ‘arranged’ marriages against each other as two antithetical concepts. Both has its share of ‘air-pockets’ and ‘cruising altitudes’. What matters is a sense of fulfilment and to what extent can a couple have each other’s back when the chips are down. The key to a happy conjugal life is mostly the extent to which compromises can be accommodated and ‘peace-deals’ worked out.

Personally speaking, I would always bat for an arranged marriage with a brief pre-nuptial courtship thrown in so that once the union is solemnised, there should at least be no World War over whether the bedroom AC should run at below or above 24 degrees Celsius at night or whether weekends should sometimes be about Thai or Chinese takeouts or home-cooked biryani. Otherwise, as they always say, marriages are made in heaven. Either way its fallout is a celestial matter beyond our manipulation, so no point fretting too much over in what shape and form ‘love’ will bloom — so long as it blooms.

A successful inter-faith love story

Nilanjana G. Javed, Senior Web Editor

Arranged marriage
Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

I grew up in a liberal Bengali household that listened to modern Bengali music, was proud of the ‘Pather Panchali’ moviemaker Satyajit Ray, and read — almost — obsessively.

My parents’ marriage was arranged; it was based on mutual consent after the initial meetings of their parents and extended family members.

They grew together in their new roles as a couple, as parents; I remember them being committed, loyal and happy. They also shared a contemporary viewpoint. As young people, my brother and I did not shy away from the opposite sex — we went to a co-ed school, we worked in teams of mixed gender and sometimes, we went for school parties in these groups too.

However, there was an understanding. I always knew my parents wouldn’t be happy if I married someone from outside our community, let alone faith; I was a Hindu and supposed to marry one too. We were brought up independent, yet we were also brought up in a culture that ingrained in you respect and the need to align with parents’ wants.

When I graduated from college, back in 1996, I was already tired of hearing my relatives and my mother’s friends badger me to get married.

At this point, my mother had also started looking around for prospective grooms as people do — by inquiring about suitable matches within her circle of friends. Some recommended to her overenthusiastic matchmakers within the community who volunteered to hunt down a groom using my professional biodata and pictures.

Before this search could bear fruition however, she suffered a sudden fatal stroke. Devastated, the family closed rank, we tried to get on the best we could. I was 21 years old.

Putting the thought of marriage aside, I began to focus on my post grad. I also started working — and this is where I met him a year later.

We spoke, chatted, dated — for three years. My father was in the dark.

He had in this time taken on the Herculean task of trawling through matrimonial columns in newspapers and websites to find a suitable match for me.

The process of matchmaking started back in the day with an exchange of letters and phone calls. Some of the first questions asked of me were about my culinary skills, my career, my hobbies and how I felt about living in a joint family.

With the buzzing of these incessant queries, I decided to come clean; it was time for me to tell my father about my husband who did not belong to the same religion let alone community.

Despite inter-faith love being the new normal in most parts of the world, the thought of the connect so close to home made my father very uncomfortable as he had to deal with relatives, society, culture et all.

Over the years, people have assumed that because we are of different faiths, we must have major problems in our relationship. In fact, it has strengthened our bond. We have now been married for 19 years. Oh, and he is the favourite son-in-law.

Maybe matchmaking deserves a chance when dating fails

Jennifer Barretto, Assistant Editor - Features

Arranged marriage
Arranged marriage Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

For a lot of people who watched ‘Indian Matchmaking’, it was the loud, obnoxious and regressive characteristics of some participants that got them all riled up and ranting on Instagram stories.

But for me, what caught my attention was how even young and progressive men and women chose to go the arranged marriage route.

Some had given up on finding love through dating, or among friends and acquaintances – either due to the lack of success through these methods or because of bad dating experiences. Others wanted a partner who was as close to their own culture and specifications as possible, something that a dating app could not guarantee.

As someone who comes from a tiny Indian family that is pretty westernised, it was mind boggling. Why would they subject themselves to this soul-crushing process, I wondered.

On the other hand, as a single person, I could see myself in the participants. I could understand their yearning for a partner and why they would open up their lives to a random person (the matchmaker and prospective spouse) in their mission to make a meaningful match.

Finding a partner is hard in general. But it’s nearly impossible in a fast-paced city where everyone is looking for the next best option. Good is just not good enough.

Throw in a pandemic, economic constraints and fears for the future, and it’s looking pretty bleak if you’re a 30-something-year-old spinster (I hate that word) like me.

‘Indian Matchmaking’ didn’t manage to get anyone hitched in reality. But popular western dating reality shows don’t exactly boast a high success rate either. Ultimately, there is no RIGHT way to find a match. And despite my liberal leanings, I wished I knew a Sima aunty from Mumbai – just in case.