“Are you single?”
If you’re a resident of India and above 25 years of age (or even less), chances are that you will be accosted with this question. It could be by a family member, a neighbour, or even a complete stranger. Hazard a “yes” to that query and these individuals can move mountains to ensure that status changes.
In Indian culture, parents tend to feel obliged to find suitors for their children. Some seek suitable matches within extended families, while others spread the word in their professional networks. Many reach out to professional matchmakers—individuals or agencies who facilitate marital union between INR 1,000 to anything above INR 100,000 (USD 13 to over USD 1,300)
The job doesn’t require professional qualifications, but it necessitates them to set off a complex process of meet-cutes (with families first, of course), background checks, negotiations, counselling, and, sometimes, private investigations.
“It’s like social service,” Neelam Pathak, a New Delhi-based septuagenarian who has been a matchmaker since the age of 20 years, told VICE News. “We’re not just professionals. We do it for the happiness of both the families involved. It’s very personal, and we are not in it for just money.”
Earlier this year, a Netflix show titled “Indian Matchmaking” triggered a controversy and garnered international attention by giving a glimpse into the truly Indian tradition of arranged marriages. At the core of the film is Sima Taparia, a matchmaker from the western Indian city of Mumbai, who has since been memefied as “Sima aunty”—a relic of an age-old tradition who is somehow still very relevant in the Indian society.
“Matchmakers are unusual for many, especially non-Indians, because India has taken huge strides and the youth has been given autonomy to make their own decisions vis-a-vis education and career choices,” Amita Nigam Sahaya, author of “The Shaadi Story: Behind the Scenes of the Big Fat Indian Wedding”, told VICE News. “Young people broke away from years of traditional thinking, especially after the economic liberalisation of 1990. And yet, when it comes to what we see as the most important decision of our lives, of choosing a partner, they hand over the decision to their parents.”
“It’s a hugely puzzling scenario,” she said.
A recent survey found that 60 percent of young Indians accept arranged marriages, and 81 percent are happy to stay in a joint family after marriage.
Matchmakers do not find this recent interest unusual. Pathak, who married out of love herself when she was a teenager, runs one of the oldest matchmaking companies in India’s capital city. Today, despite the popularity of online dating and matrimonial services, Pathak said matchmaking is far from being outdated.
India is the fourth largest global market for dating apps with 20.85 million paid users and 18.72 million free users, as of February 2019.
In this evolving scenario, matchmakers say they have a leg up on dating apps and online matrimonial services because the latter are distrustful and unreliable. “I’m against them,” said Pathak. “There are fake ads, no background checks or personalised services. I’ve seen cases where a man on a matrimonial ad rented a house and car to mislead a family. We may be old, but with us, there are less chances of divorces.”
Almost all matchmakers swear by a myth that divorces are less in arranged marriages. Data shows that only one in a thousand marriages end in divorce in India, a country of 1.3 billion people. “The reason why there are fewer divorces is because of social pressure, not because they’re happier,” Dr Dayal Mirchandani, a psychiatrist based in the western Indian city of Pune, who specialises in marriage counselling, told VICE News. “Most of the time, the girls’ families have spent a huge amount on weddings, and often tell their daughters they will not take them back.”
Today, a major challenge to matchmaker’s work is the growing agency of Indian women. “Girls are way more educated now,” Poonam Sachdev, who has been running Connex’on H Matrimonial services out of Delhi for the last 20 years, told VICE News. “Earlier, when they were not very educated and didn’t have demands, things were simpler. They have demands now, as much as men.”
Most seasoned matchmakers echo the words of the infamous Sima aunty from the Netflix show. Taparia’s one-liners—from “The girl should be flexible”, to “She has to compromise”—were seen as moments when the traditional Indian mentality clashed with the modern, independent Indian woman. In fact, a United Nations report titled “Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020” called this trend of growing female autonomy as “semi-arranged marriages”, where women have a choice to agree or disagree to an arranged setup.
However, this increasing independence and reluctance to settle for anything less (like in the famous “Indian Matchmaking” case of Aparna Shewakramani) is a double-edged sword. “I’ve seen girls becoming materialistic,” Nandini Dange, 76, the founder of Harmony Marriage Bureau in Pune, told VICE News. “There are also more ego clashes between the two. I’ve seen girls and boys fight over an inch of the other person’s height. Our jobs have become tougher.”
At the same time, she said, since young folks are so busy chasing careers and working on themselves, they barely get time to find their own partners. “That reliance on parents is still there in our society. And this is why we’re still relevant,” said Dange.
Matchmaking and arranged marriages are often caught in the complexities of Indian society, especially when it comes to patriarchal mindset, conservatism, casteism and sexism. The Netflix show “Indian Matchmaking” became viral because it exposed Indian families’ tendency to validate and perpetuate these social problems.
“In India, we have these silos of caste, class, community, urban versus rural, class and so on,” said Sahaya. “These areas are difficult to negotiate. This is where your Sima aunties walk in.”
In many parts of India, the traditional system of dowry—where the bride’s family transfers property, gifts or money to the groom’s—is still rampant despite being illegal. Latest data shows that India records a dowry death every one hour-13 minutes.
Experts say that matchmakers happen to be a part of the system that they can’t control. “They’re just catering to a need,” said Sahaya.
Many matchmakers hire private detectives to flag some of these problems. Dange said that some families want to find out the “character” of the potential groom or bride. “They want to know if the man was a womaniser, or what their behavioural pattern is, whether he is gay, et cetera,” said Dange. “There are also queries of health conditions, mental disorders or even impotency.”
Mirchandani said there are equal amounts of risks in arranged marriages. In some cases, LGBTQ people were pressured into getting married to straight individuals. “One also sees cases where people working abroad get married in India, and then the partner discovers that their spouse is in love with someone else,” he said.
Matchmakers often follow a list of unspoken rules, which includes sticking to the family’s caste, class, religion, economic section and so on. Data also reflects this preference in many marriages. “In a way, it’s good because marriages of people from different backgrounds do not last,” said Dange.
Sahaya added that most Indian arranged marriages are mostly about wealth and status, rather than compatibility. “Matchmaking is an on-the-table transaction where these boxes or social parameters have to be matched. This is the reality of the big fat Indian wedding,” she said.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.