Disclaimer: The author grew up in a very loving family, if slightly traditional. She understands that her family members did not know better back then, and were simply perpetuating ages-old cultural practices and beliefs. Still, that knowledge doesn’t make her experiences less frustrating. Through the lens of hindsight, she explores what it means to be a woman growing up in a dichotomous liberal / traditional world. 

What did you want to be when you were growing up? It’s a familiar question and one that I could never answer seriously. I mean, becoming a choreographer for Bollywood movies was simply never going to happen. It wasn’t that I lacked ambition. It was because the answer had already been predetermined for me by my family and society: I would find a husband and get married. 

I’d find somebody who lived far, far away from where I’d grown up, and my option to have a career or not would be dependent on him. The presumption was that my life would only truly start after I got married, and I would have full independence only after I had that ring on my finger. Yep, ironic. 

So how does an Indian girl start living? It’s easy. Start lining up the boys as soon as she turns 21. 

If you’ve seen Indian Matchmaking, you know how the process works.

And yes, I did have a couple of matchmakers at various stages of this process. Fun fact: One of the matchmakers (not Sima aunty) told me: “Only wear red and/or yellow to the first meeting” (because Ronald McDonald is the epitome of sex appeal?); “Don’t drink till the sixth date” (aunty, there will only be a sixth date if there is enough liquid lubricant on the first date). She also sent me a diatribe about how I will never get married when I rejected two of her options. Fun times. 

Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking gives a snapshot of the arranged marriage process. Here, Sima aunty (left) counsels Akshay, who’s the alleged “perfect” catch with one caveat – he lives in a small town in India

The merits of arranged marriage 

For Indians, marriage is often the end-all and be-all – it stems from the belief that marriage “fosters, not self-interest, but self-restraint and love for the entire family, which keeps the family united and prevents its breakdown”. It’s all quite noble, but the intention has been watered down over the years. Instead, it’s simply become a “must-have” because there is a fear of breaking tradition – without really understanding the consequences of forcing it down the throats of young Indian men and women. It’s almost a status symbol – your child’s marriage (and subsequent grandchildren) is the equivalent of flexing your Himalayan Birkin.

Arranged marriage might sound archaic but there is some merit to this madness. It’s like going on a blind date set up by a friend, with the only difference that your intentions are clear from the start, and your parents – and extended family members, if your family is anything like mine – are involved at every step of the way.

The ultimate decision lay in my hands, but asserting my right was a constant uphill battle. 

To be fair, the arranged marriage route might not have worked for me, but I have seen many, many happy couples who met this way. I’ve also met couples who’ve fought their families to be together, only to repent later on. The method, to be honest, doesn’t matter. It’s what you do when you’re together that matters. 

The process 

For more than a decade, I was introduced to countless men from around the world. There are so many of them that I have lost count, and to be honest, forgotten most of their names. They’re to be known subsequently as “city name” guy. We have a number of London, Bombay, New York, Bangkok, Jakarta guys…. You get my drift.

I am not trying to dehumanise them or be belligerent – it became a coping mechanism to not place any hope or expectation on the meeting. And, let’s be fair, how can a girl remember so many names?

Very often, the onus falls on the girl to be more understanding and compromising. This was reflected in season 1 of Indian Matchmaking as well, when Sima aunty expected the girl to adapt, with no such expectations from the man

It’s all superficial 

I was the ripe age of 22 when I was introduced to boy number 1. In a surreal twist, he was introduced to me by my ex boyfriend’s family. When I was young, dumb and 16, I dated my cousin’s husband’s brother who lived overseas. We had a beautifully horrendous LDR that imploded and exploded simultaneously – imploded, because we were young idiots who were insecure, jealous and disloyal (him, not me), and exploded, because his brother and my cousin orchestrated our breakup for reasons unknown. 

Now, this same cousin and her husband allegedly felt guilty about this d*ck move, and decided that it was up to them to see me “settled” with a man. Any man, really, as long as he fit the nebulous criteria of coming from a “good family” and was moderately decent to look at. 

They introduced me to the first guy. I’ll be honest, I didn’t take this meeting very seriously. I mean, I was 22, naive, and definitely too immature to even be contemplating marriage.  

My parents and I flew to his city to meet him and his parents. I decked up, heels, dress, makeup, the works, and the six of us had a pleasantly decent evening. I don’t remember which way the conversation flowed, but by the end of dinner, our parents encouraged us to “get to know each other better”. We walked down the river and met again for dinner the next day – just the two of us, thankfully. 

Our third and last meeting was when it got interesting. Our conversation veered towards the big fat Indian wedding and I baulked, launching my usual diatribe against the insanity of these celebrations. “They’re expensive and ridiculous. I want a small, intimate wedding, for sure.” 

He looked at me with an intense gaze in his eyes, took a beat, and said: “Look, I know this is what I want now. I want to marry you.” 

Guys, this was the third time we were meeting. Over the course of one weekend. When we were both on our best behaviour, dressed to the nines, with not one hair out of place, and when all the right, politically correct words had been uttered, whether we believed them or not. When we had not even had conversations about the important things: did we want kids? What were our ambitions? Our fears? Our secrets? Our demons? 

My parents, thankfully, understood that I couldn’t make such a decision after three dates, but urged us to keep in touch. Whether it was fortuitous or not, he did not think that being in touch would move the needle for either of us. After a few awkward Blackberry messages (those were the days) and calls, our “relationship” tapered to a natural death. 

Yes, arranged marriage can be that superficial. I once met a guy from Jakarta who refused to meet me a second time because I wasn’t “wearing enough make-up nor a watch”. 

With some of the contestants being in their late 30s, Indian Matchmaking proves that there’s no timeline to love

The pressure

This would trigger a long line of men waiting at my door – most not voluntarily, by the way – and my extended family to start the rumour that I was too fussy and difficult. 

My dad chalked the experience down to my youth, and refused to be swept up by my mother’s panic that she had an unmarried daughter. This premature stress was flamed by her family (see above mentioned idiotic cousin) and society’s incessant questioning about my nuptials. “Aw, don’t worry, she will find someone soon.” It stemmed from pity and curiosity, and funnily, a belief that my marriage status was a direct reflection of their success or failure as parents. Was she not married to the right man because there was something wrong with her? Because you spoilt her? Because she was raised wrong? Because, god forbid, she’s rebellious? Because she parties too much? Or she’s too focused on the wrong things – ie, her career? 

The general consensus amongst everyone who did not know me was that I was too fussy and demanding, and not mature enough to make the right decision. But apparently mature enough to be getting married… Go figure. 

In my inability to understand what I wanted from my own life, I went with the flow. 

I said yes to meet everyone. Mainly because I had no choice, and also because I didn’t want to argue with my family. Saying no meant that I was being a bad, irresponsible, uncaring daughter, cousin, niece. I would take red eye flights to God knows where for a single meeting; I would ruin great holidays by dedicating ample time to meet guys from those cities; I would cancel social gatherings and celebrations for last minute meet-ups. These were just some of the side effects and the small sacrifices my family and I had to make for the “greater good”. 

But what nobody tells you is how draining the process is. The people brokering the introductions have a lame, romanticised idea that this is quite cute, and isn’t it adorable that they’re getting along? 

But the truth is that you’re being forced to put yourself out there, emotionally, over and over again, with the atomic pressure of family members and society lingering over your head. 

Take the frustration of being on dating apps, and multiply that by 1,000 as your entire family (yes, even extended members whom you’ve spoken to only once) is invested in whether you say yes or no to get married within five minutes of meeting the person. And it doesn’t matter that you’re not compatible or that he is slightly misogynistic – say yes now because if you don’t, you’ll be left on the shelf like an expired can of baked beans that nobody wants. 

It’s a rollercoaster ride of hope and desperation. The nervousness. The excitement (to be fair, that disappeared pretty early on in the process). The small talk. The being paraded like a show doll. The stress of saying the wrong thing. The family pressure: do you like him? Yes, shall we start planning the marriage? If not, why? No reason is ever good enough, by the way, unless he’s spouting a third head. Even then, “is a third head really even that difficult to live with? I am sure you both can make it work somehow.” A no means that I am being difficult, and god knows some men don’t want girls who know what they want, right? 

Not human anymore 

This was a decade-long process where well-intentioned family members and friends were all involved in my love life – they would find me guys from all corners of the planet, and hope that this would finally be it, because there’s nothing more tragic than a single woman. 

But what was worse was how dehumanising it all felt. I felt like a clothing rack in Zara, where I was free play to any “good guy” that came validated by society. (By free play I mean it didn’t matter whether I was ready to meet them or not – I just had to put myself out there over and over again and try to make it work.) 

It was dehumanising because my no’s didn’t matter. By telling me that my no didn’t matter, they essentially told me that I didn’t matter – my thoughts, my opinions, me. 

But I soldiered on like any good Indian girl who’d been told that her family’s happiness was fully contingent on her matrimonial status. I soldiered on, hoping that one day, I would be able to shut that inner voice that was bursting to be let out, but had been quieted by society’s pressure and expectations of women – that we can be who we want to be, but not too much. 

Today, I am grateful that my voice has found an outlet – and that my family has accepted the fact that perhaps the arranged marriage route isn’t for me. They understand (slightly) how traumatic it was, and have finally given me the space and time to find a partner of my choice – it has not been easy for them, and they (and I) still get pressured by family members and society about getting married.

But you know what? For the first time in my life, I feel at peace, accepted and understood by the people that matter. And that’s all that counts.