I was twenty-four or twenty-five the first time I went on my first arranged marriage setup. It was a particularly vulnerable time, I remember. I had just given up a fairly-lucrative corporate job and was toying with the idea of attending journalism school, a decision which, while supported by my immediate family, had been difficult. I was wracked by indecision, uncertain about the future and feeling very uncomfortable in my skin, having stress-gained some ten odd kilos in the six months leading up to this. Marriage felt like a good option at that point, a way to induce some stability and purpose, a reason to stop drifting so much.
On paper, he seemed like a great option: he ran a successful family business, was well-educated and seemed good-looking. However, the first red flag which popped up very soon, one that I wish I hadn’t ignored, was that one of his stipulations was a “slim girl”. Slim, I have never been, anyway, and I was at my heaviest back then. But armed with youthful optimism and the delusion that a black outfit would magically turn me from Rubenesque to sylphlike in a jiffy, I donned something jet-black and merrily set off for that meeting. It was a not-surprisingly a disaster, the first of many, which also included a man who spent the next six months complaining about my weight and sense of fashion and another so abrasive that he left me in tears after every conversation. I was even briefly engaged to a man with an unshakeable Oedipal complex and an acquisitive desire for the finer things in life without possessing the tenacity to work towards it, who spent our engagement ceremony tearfully clasping the hand of his mother, their resentment towards me as palpable as the thick, Malayalee accent of the priest who mispronounced my name right through that eminently forgettable event.
By thirty, I was done with men who had this pressing need to fit me, often forcefully, into the mould of what they perceived their ideal partner would be. Besides, I had lost faith in the institution of marriage, had a home filled with cats who emotionally nurtured me more than most men had anyway (they still do) and was finally doing something I loved. I told my mum to stop wasting her time and mine and have refused to go on an arranged-marriage setup ever since. It was the best decision I ever made, and I do not regret it.
Watching Indian Matchmaking, not surprisingly, brought back those memories. It also got me thinking about marriage and love and why we struggle to find it so much today, especially when it begins with such clearly-defined criteria that Sima from Mumbai so thoughtfully listened to before telling her clients that only 60-70% is possible. I fully agree with the prevailing criticism around the show: Sima aunty’s casual bigotry, sexism, ageism and colourism; the privileged, upper-class, upper-caste clients she services; the poverty porn that creeps into the parts shot in India and the unnecessary usage of elephants to usher in intensely-pampered Pradhyuman Maloo at his wedding, which was incidentally not arranged by her. (Her hit rate, so far, is 0 incidentally, despite all her inexhaustible ruminations about marriage.)
However, I couldn’t help but also notice a fundamental flaw in the basic premise of matchmaking, uncannily similar to the weakness of online dating or matrimonial sites, which isn’t actually Sima aunty’s fault, notwithstanding her antiquated and problematic opinions. As with the other two, you embark on it, showcasing a very curated version of yourself, usually ending up with both parties facing disappointment. Unlike in a more organic meeting, a run-in at the coffee shop or a chat with an exciting stranger at a party, where curiosity about the other person drives the interaction, often excusing flaws and incompatibilities, expectations are set right from the get-go, making it incredibly transactional.
Now while certainly, for the longest of times, marriages have, and continue to be seen in transactional terms (the binding of families, preservation of culture and religious systems, a practical decision, and yes, often an economically-driven one), I don’t think those people on Indian Matchmaking or those of us who use dating or matrimonial sites, hoping to get a happily-ever-after off them, see marriage in those terms, or at least not only in those terms. They were also looking for that frisson of sexual chemistry, excitement and madness of initial love. Unfortunately, the problem is that reducing people to profile and filtering them based on certain fixed criteria or ideals means you are likely to miss out on someone you’d have found exciting under normal circumstances because they may not meet the criteria. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I’ve always believed that love and its various iterations, like travel or a fabulous book, have the power to be transformative and teach you a little more about yourself.
Dating only curated profiles of people you think you should be falling in love with just sets you up for disappointment. Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, any relationship has the potential to go horribly wrong at any point in time, whatever their origins. And no, I am not dismissing the very real need for shared values and belief systems that drive a successful relationship. But, here's the thing—take this from someone who has dated a number of very different people and found something nice in nearly all of them--nothing really does work out unless you consciously work at keeping it going, day after day. As philosopher Alain de Botton says in a 2019 interview with BBC radio, de Botton, love isn’t really about finding who’s compatible, in inverted commas, with you in a hundred ways. “It’s the person who’s able to negotiate incompatibilities with tenderness, humour, laughter, kindness etc.,” he says, adding that true love isn’t the search for an ideal but the mutual tolerance of weakness and our humanity.
When you approach it with these prefabricated ideals, the tendency to walk away from a relationship, even before it has time to blossom or swipe left without thinking twice because a person doesn't meet your criteria, is very high, as nearly every episode of Indian Matchmaking proved. So, while there is much that is horrible about the tired tropes that Indian Matchmaking draws on over and over again, maybe, just maybe, the problem also lies within us.