When an Indian woman wants to date or find like-minded people, where does she go? She might be introduced to a potential date by a friend, or her parents, but lately, like women in many countries around the world, she probably just reaches for Tinder.
There are an estimated 371 million mobile internet users in India. Little wonder, then, that dating apps have been such a hit with urban Indians. Tinder launched in the country in 2013, and with its rapidly growing mobile-friendly demographic, India has taken to swiping in a big way; after the app saw a 400-percent increase in downloads in the country last year, India is currently the dating app's biggest market in Asia. A recent ad even positions Tinder as something parents—who have long been involved in more traditional matches in India—might approve of. (Though social media users doubted the accuracy of that portrayal.)
Read more: How Dating Came to Suck So Much
To acknowledge the role the dating app has played in shifting understandings of relationships in the country, writer and illustrator Indu Harikumar is documenting the experiences of Indians on Tinder through her crowdsourced project #100IndianTinderTales. In a country that has very strong opinions about pre-marital sex—and sex in general—Harikumar's openness in talking about intimacy is refreshing.
"I was doing a crowdsourced #100dreamsproject, which I thought would bring me new ideas to work with, but after a point I was left with dreams of world travel, finding love, and getting over fears," Harikumar told me. "It got terribly repetitive and provided me with zero inspiration. A friend who was having fun on Tinder suggested I do #100IndianTinderTales."
Harikumar herself had tried out Tinder while on an artist's residency in Europe and met some interesting people. "I first tried it in Europe, and I look at it as a shopping app to find someone who may suit your needs, whatever they may be. When I came back and tried it here, I was a little disappointed. Indians, foreigners, everyone, were all looking for sex with minimal conversation. I was put off and uninstalled the app the first two times."
Harikumar found it particularly frustrating when Indian men would match with her; they would assume women on Tinder were looking for sex and nothing more—why else would you put yourself out there, looking for men? "When a Western man asks me for sex on Tinder, I usually say, 'I don't hook up'," Harikumar says, adding that afterward these men are still happy to chat or meet for a drink. "With Indian men, they don't even ask me that question. They have already made an assumption about me [that I am there for sex]. I then get defensive and 'unmatch'."
Shirin Mehrotra, 34, was on Tinder for a couple of months before she uninstalled it because it took up too much of her time. "I was recently separated and was initially was curious about the app, which lead me to downloading it. After the initial inhibition I was looking for interesting men who could be friends or dates. I wasn't looking for serious relationships or marriage."
Safety is also a huge concern, given the escalation of crimes against women in India. "I pick the place to meet, which makes me feel safer as does dating in my own city. I also choose men who are new to the city—it gives me an upper hand," says Harikumar.
Mehrotra and Harikumar are merely a drop in the ocean of 14 million swipes that Tinder India reports each day. Few people are willing to discuss their experiences—or dating, sex, and lust in general—on social media in India.
"I am interested in people's stories and wanted to illustrate urban desire without any sort of judgment," Harikumar says. "I didn't think anyone would share stories, given how we are about these things, but the world never ceases to surprise me. In the past when I have written about using Tinder, I got a mixed response from people I know. I was told that people use dating platforms, but no one talks about it. I was also told that if I talk about it, I am telling men that I am not capable of real relationships. I was curious about other people's experiences and what they were looking for. Tinder is the only dating app I have used, so it seemed natural to start with that."
Harikumar put out a call on Facebook for stories about Tinder, and the response continues to surprise her. She has received stories from around the country, from big cities and small towns, from married women and shy men. The stories range from funny to poignant. There's talk of bad breath, the lack of public spaces for couples, love, and obsession.
"I really didn't expect to hear from anyone because I thought there was shame associated with being on Tinder," she says, but she started getting submissions when a piece she wrote about longing—Tale #9—was shared multiple times. "I never expected so many people to open up and talk about such personal details. Some people have also written saying how therapeutic it is to share. I heard from a girl from Edinburgh who wrote to me, saying, 'It is just great to have a positive space like this to share what happened. It feels odd carrying a story you're burning to share inside.'"
At Tale #56 of the project, Harikumar still hears from more women than men, but in some ways, she thinks this is a good thing.
"We have all heard men dismiss women based on looks and their body," Harikumar says. "Tinder is in many ways an equalizer, because women reject men based on their looks [too]."
Harikumar's illustrations are cheerful, but they convey the depth of the emotions her contributors have shared. Aesthetically, Harikumar is inspired by the work of Gustav Klimt (she dreams of living in his home in Vienna), Toulouse-Lautrec, and Mario Miranda. Her story on period sex is inspired by Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. "The other thing I take care of is that I try and keep my drawings non-offensive," she says. "We are still shy about sex; I would like a larger audience to engage with the stories."
Illustrating other people's stories is not always a piece of cake, though. There's heartache by osmosis, too. "I found it challenging to illustrate the story of a girl who lost her Tinder date to an accident. They had a deep connection (from what I got out of it), but they had not met and he passed away. When I read it, I was speechless and very sad and didn't know how to convert her story into an image. Though she said she had moved on but still thought about him every day, I just felt that I should do something that gives her some closure. It was the most difficult story that I have dealt with."
Like many people, Harikumar finds hearing about other people's Tinder stories more interesting than actually using the app. She no longer has it on her phone. "The #100IndianTinderTales project is far more engrossing," she says. "No two stories follow the same template. It keeps me happy as an artist."