This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.
So, what are you looking for in a life partner?”
The question landed with a clang on the snow-white tablecloth. I imagined everyone in the room heard it—the married couple with a kid at the next table, the group of businessmen having a work lunch, the server who looked 100 years old and was hovering around us with a knowing grin. He was probably used to waiting on tables like ours: a man and a woman on a first date with only one intended outcome—marriage.
To be fair, it wouldn’t be decided on today. If all went well, there’d be more dates over the next few months before the wedding was arranged. But the only reason I was meeting this 28-year-old Merchant Navy officer—Abhay, we’ll call him—for a weekday lunch in an upscale restaurant in central Mumbai was to see if I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.
Being a woman in her early 20s who had only just begun to (secretly) explore the world of casual dating on Tinder, the modern arranged marriage process felt bizarrely streamlined. The pressures of tradition were so strong, though; I couldn’t refuse to participate.
Abhay’s parents had contacted mine via a typical Indian matrimonial website, and then the two parties exchanged (their kids’) numbers. At first, I asked if we could just meet for coffee, so it’d be relatively quick and painless. Abhay, however, requested we meet for lunch. As we sat there, a few minutes into politely discussing work and where we had studied, it was time to address the elephant in the room.
I giggled awkwardly. “Um, life partner. I don’t know… Never really thought about it.”
He actually waited.
“Just someone I can have a good conversation with!” I mustered. The weight of the cliché made the table sag.
But it seemed to work. “Me too,” he said, nodding enthusiastically.
When we were finally heading out the door, I caught my server’s eye. The nosy bastard gave me a wide-grinned thumbs-up. No wonder they say marriage in India is a collective effort.
During my Tinder date that weekend (the app had just launched in India), I brought up the question that Abhay had asked me. We mulled it over while drinking pints of cheap beer in my favorite dive bar, before bursting out laughing at the thought of Abhay’s supreme earnestness. What did he know about life, this 20-something who would happily get married to a relative stranger; who would probably never read, watch, or experience all the cool things we were sure to with our modern lifestyles?
Did we know anything more, though? The thought drunkenly flitted around my brain as I kissed my date outside the bar. We went back to his place for a typical mildly disappointing hookup.
Months later, in a moment of loneliness, I idly wondered what would have happened if I’d agreed to meet with Abhay again. Would I be picking out pre-bridal packages at my local beauty salon?
My phone pinged. I had a new match. Oh, he liked Curb Your Enthusiasm! Marriage could wait.
It didn’t, though—at least not the constant, all-consuming pressure of it. Marriage, or an arranged marriage, to be more specific, was the unceasing background hum to growing up in India—one that grew louder and louder the further I progressed into my 20s. My parents, like most, planned their finances around it—meticulously ensuring they’d have enough to pay for an extravagant ceremony. The concept of casually dating around for a bit barely existed at all. The idea was: In my mid 20s, I’d get married, and in my late 20s, I’d start having kids.
The second I turned 24, the massive family network cranked into gear to find me an “eligible” groom with whom to fulfill my obligatory life plan. “We need to start looking now because it might take as long as a couple of years to find the perfect match,” explained Grandma. By then I’d be 26, quickly careening toward spinsterhood.
My casual dating and sex life unfolded in secret. My first job—at a self-consciously hipster culture magazine—had me commuting to the more “cosmopolitan” south Mumbai, building a new social circle of women who drank, had premarital sex, and discussed “fuccbois” and “wokebois” and intersectional feminism. Like me, they too were negotiating what they wanted out of life and pushing against what they were expected to want.
Even though she didn’t know about my Tinder use, my mum and I still had frequent raging fights about my new Mumbai “lifestyle.” Add to this an army of enthusiastic relatives keen on finding me a husband. Soon enough, I was living a double life: making my first forays into casual sex with guys off Tinder while simultaneously meeting prospective grooms as part of a system where a woman’s “purity” was prized.
My parents, unaware that I already had a dating profile of my own, signed me up for an online matchmaking service—similar, in a sense, to Tinder, but with far different expectations. The site let me filter matches by income, height, religion, caste, and subcaste—a clear reminder that the ancient Indian caste system is still alive and kicking. Like other matrimonial websites, this one sensed exactly what its users desired—more people like us—and went all out to provide it.
As I swiped away on dating apps, though, I found myself swiping left on every single guy from my own community. I didn’t want to be with someone who felt familiar, and I wasn’t ready to find the One. I wanted the freedom to explore—to be with someone who may not be the perfect match for me, but who, through our differences, could teach me something new about the world, and myself.
But then again, what do I know, I thought, as I racked up a personal heap of dating disasters. Every one of my relatives seemed to have stories about women who had waited too long and were “too picky,” and then crossed 30 and had to settle for guys with weaves or eight kids or three eyes or something. And every high school friend I had was either on one of the premium matrimonial websites or married to their high school or college sweetheart.
I was racked with self-doubt, trapped by the feeling that no matter what I chose I’d be fucking up my life. The idea of presuming I knew better than my parents while making such a huge life decision seemed laughable at times. They knew me better than anyone. Plus, I knew deep down that all their effort was a kind of care stemming from a place of deep love. And I was afraid that rejecting that would mean willfully hurting them, and irrevocably damaging our already-fraught relationship.
Now, I’m four years older and living in Beijing, and my matrimonial website profile is finally defunct. And while there continues to be the occasional reminder from a relative about “settling down already,” I have learned to politely shut them down without damage.
I’m dating a guy I met on Tinder two years ago. In that time, we’ve been fuck buddies, close friends, and now partners. After my annual trip home to India is over in a few days, I won’t see him for ten months. We’ll casually date other people in the meantime, but he’ll remain one of the most important people in my life.
I don’t know what the shape of this relationship would look like if it hadn’t been allowed to grow freely, in directions that weren’t forced. What am I looking for in a life partner? I’m still not quite sure. But if Merchant Navy Abhay asked me that again today, I’d tell him I am a good deal closer to finding out.