When the show “Indian Matchmaking” dropped on Netflix, my initial reaction was one of revulsion. Matchmaker Sima Taparia and her clients represented everything I loathed about the culture I was born into. Of course, I was not blind to my personal triggers and biases, having grown up in a conservative and patriarchal family environment.
Despite my reservations, I clicked on the first episode. The characters depicted in the show were largely relatable and familiar. The show, however, turned out to be a lot more nuanced than I had initially thought. The matchmaker’s call for “flexibility and compromise” in relationships had upset many Indian Netflix subscribers. Are these qualities really such a bad thing, I wondered? Isn’t it necessary to make allowances for the shortcomings of others in any relationship, whether personal or professional, in order to make it work?
Can any relationship survive without the willingness to iron out kinks that will perforce appear from time to time? And are so-called “love marriages” really as egalitarian as they are made out to be? People usually partner up with those who possess qualities that they find desirable, such as their physical attributes, career prospects, ethnicity and social class.
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In my opinion, the show does not condone regressive stereotypes, as some have suggested. It simply holds up a mirror to our ingrained preferences and prejudices, reflecting the good along with the bad and the ugly. Akshay, with his pathological mother fixation, and Aparna, with her hyper-ambitious, control freak of a mother, were two of the examples that stood out for me.
Volumes have been written about the trauma inflicted on impressionable young minds by overbearing parents. Unrealistic life goals and a toxic home environment are known causes of depression among youth the world over and have been seen to cause mental health issues that could linger for a lifetime if not diagnosed and treated in time.
When I was in my late twenties, I agreed to give arranged marriage a try on the prodding of friends and family. I was not the typical candidate. I did not fit into the holy Indian trinity of doctor-lawyer-engineer, nor did I have any interest in cricket, Bollywood or the trappings of organized religion. But what I did have was a large network of well-connected relatives and family friends who were willing to vouch for my upstanding moral character and social pedigree. I was not aware that I possessed these qualities but decided to go along for the heck of it.
My first rendezvous was at the coffee shop of a hotel on Marine Drive, in what was then Bombay, now Mumbai. I was to meet a London-based lawyer, who like me had grown up in Mumbai. We started off by talking about our shared south Mumbai roots. Pretty mundane stuff. She noticed the iPod sticking out of my pocket and asked what type of music I liked. At this, I launched into an impassioned spiel about the Grateful Dead, Ozric Tentacles and Gong, “the greatest psychedelic rock bands in music history.” “Do you need drugs to get into that stuff”? she asked innocuously. “Sure, certain substances can greatly enhance the experience,” I replied.
“Have you taken any of these substances yourself?” she inquired in her clipped British accent. I could see where the conversation was going but decided to proceed anyway. “Yeah, I dropped some acid at a Grateful Dead concert in my freshman year at college. It was a life-changing experience.”
After a few moments of silence, I asked what type of law she practiced. “I am a criminal defense attorney,” she answered dryly. “Great. I’ve been looking for someone like you,” I said with a chuckle. Soon after we parted ways, promising to stay in touch. It was the last I saw of her. Clearly, I was not her type. She did not think I was “husband material,” and she was probably right.
My next meeting happened a few months later, in Los Angeles. This time it was with an interior decorator, a “creative type” that my aunt promised I would gel with. We met at a Brazilian restaurant near Venice Beach. She was attractive, free-spirited and very intelligent. We had similar tastes in music and books, and we both loved Brazilian churrasco. Soon we were guzzling caipirinhas and cracking up about arranged marriages. The irony was not lost on either of us. She had agreed to the meeting for the same reason I had, out of sheer curiosity.
She told me about a guy she was set up with a few months ago, an IT professional deeply influenced by Bollywood tropes about the ideal NRI — non-resident Indian male. He had modeled himself after one of the characters in a popular Karan Johar film. Predictably, their rendezvous ended soon after she informed him about the string of men she had dated in the past.
As we talked, I could not help noticing other men in the restaurant staring at her. She could have had any one of them she wanted. It made me feel insecure, and I redoubled my efforts to woo her. Was it the Indian in me that made me react in that manner? I could not be sure. Certain aspects of the mating game, like the relationship between social capital and desirability, are universal and not limited to any particular ethnicity. In this case, she clearly had the upper hand. For some unfathomable reason, she took a liking to me and we ended up seeing each other for a couple of months before mutually deciding we were not the “marrying kind.”
Inadequacy of Modern Relationships
When the show dropped, I reached out to Selina Sheth, a Mumbai-based writer, for her opinion. “Arranged marriage is not the problem, the way it is treated in cultures like India is,” she explained. “It is one thing to have preferences (all men and women do) but to ascribe value judgments to these preferences can be and has shown to be damaging. Traditionally, marriage was a social, family and economic construct, but in today’s times, can a list of ticked boxes mean you are compatible in the deeper sense of the word?”
Indeed, Taparia had admitted the same with her observation that “nowadays, marriages are breaking like biscuits.” The documentary series offers a counterpoint to the inadequacy of modern relationships by showing a series of charming elderly couples clearly happy and content with each other after several decades of living together. They had all been introduced to each other by well-meaning relatives. For contrast, we are also introduced to Rupam, a divorced single mother who bypasses the matchmaker route to find love on a dating site. Clearly, times are changing. Indian men and women are increasingly breaking free of the shackles of tradition and finding their own partners. Whether these alliances are any more successful than the arranged kind is debatable.
It has been shown that Indian-American couples who met through arranged marriage were as satisfied in their relationships as those that chose their own partners. Indeed, a 2012 NDTV-IPSOS survey indicated that three-quarters of Indians between the ages of 18 and 35 prefer to enter arranged marriages. The tradition, however, has not remained stagnant. Whereas in the past the bride and groom did not have much of a choice in the matter as the parents had the final say, today it has evolved into an Indian version of speed dating. You are set up with a series of meetings with prospective partners where both males and females are free to move on if their expectations are not met.
Of course, in many parts of rural India, young people are still coerced into marriage, or worse, killed for not adhering to caste laws. But can we really expect centuries of dogma to change overnight? For instance, there are still forest tribes that consume human flesh in some parts of the world. Perhaps the enlightened op-ed writers at The New York Times and The Guardian would like to take a shot at educating the cannibals?
“Progressing beyond conservative ideals is a sign of bravery, but also privilege. It usually means you have a support system and the social space to exist outside of the narrow confines of tradition,” says Smriti Mundhra, the executive producer of “Indian Matchmaking.” “Not everybody has that privilege, and not everybody has had a chance to deprogramme themselves from the ideas they’ve internalized over generations. Not everybody believes they need to be deprogrammed!”
On a personal note, I did end up getting married eventually. It was not an arranged alliance. We had met through mutual friends and in a euphoric moment decided to get hitched. It did not last very long. We separated after two years of living together, realizing we had very different life goals and aspirations. I was too much of a libertine to remain in a monogamous relationship, and she was completely immersed in her medical residency, making it impossible to spend enough time to get to know each other adequately. It was nobody’s fault that the marriage fell apart — it was just the natural progression of things. All relationships must have a beginning and end, and ours ended sooner than expected.
“A great marriage is not when the ‘perfect couple’ comes together,” writes Dave Meurer, the author of “Good Spousekeeping.” “It is when an imperfect couple learns to enjoy their differences.” I am currently in a relationship with someone as imperfect as me, and we are slowly learning to enjoy our differences, naturally with fistfuls of salt. So far, so good.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.