Each Sunday the Times of India prints a section of matrimonial ads for people searching for spouses. These five-line ads often feature a few details about the young man or woman seeking a potential partner, carrying descriptors like “fair,” “religious,” “witty” or “h’some” (handsome). Rahul Kapoor’s ad said he was “highly educated in the US.” But it was his last name that drew Richa Kapoor to his ad.
Because they shared the same surname, Richa knew he would come from a similar background and share similar values. As for his attractiveness, she said, that was a pleasant bonus.
“I sent my mom, dad, uncle and youngest sister to go check him out,” Richa said. “They visited him and his family in Delhi and came back with raving reviews: nice family, very down to earth.”
A week later, Rahul and his family traveled to the Uttar Pradesh region of northern India to visit Richa and her family. Richa had rejected 10 men before meeting Rahul, but this time something “clicked.”
They were engaged that very day and, two weeks later, on June 22, 1997, the couple married.
“Before the wedding, we only met twice,” Richa said. “But he would call me every evening and we would talk.”
Richa and Rahul’s timeline may seem unreasonably — and unnecessarily — fast by some societal standards, but the Netflix show “Indian Matchmaking” put a spotlight on these whirlwind romances and made arranged marriages, as well as matchmakers, one of Twitter’s hottest topics earlier this summer.
And as people struggle with the loneliness of sheltering in place during the pandemic, there’s a different consideration of arranged pairings and finding someone to share your life with. For some Bay Area couples who came together through these coordinated circumstances, the results hold promise to an often unorthodox love story.
Five days after their wedding, which was just two weeks into knowing one another, Richa and Rahul moved to San Jose, where they still live with their two children. Kashish, their 11-year-old daughter, jokingly calls her parents and their traditional marriage “old-fashioned.” But their 19-year-old son, Eish, finds it amazing how they “grew into love” over the years and said his parents don’t seem like they were arranged.
“It’s been a fun ride with ups and downs,” Rahul said during an interview on Zoom. “But on the whole, it’s been more about doing things together.”
One of Richa’s favorite memories is a five-day road trip the couple took in 1999 when Rahul began his master’s degree program at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois. As the memory of the trip builds in their minds, they look at each other, but there’s some surprise in Rahul’s face — he didn’t know Richa cherished it so much.
Stories like theirs show that these arranged unions can work. But since “Indian Matchmaking” premiered in July, the Indian community and its diaspora have been abuzz.
The show highlights the unique process and delicate nature of the work of Sima Taparia, a 57-year-old woman who describes herself as “Mumbai’s top matchmaker.” She is dedicated to finding suitable rishtas (proposal or relationship in Hindi) for each of her clients using her mine of “biodatas” — one-page papers that include height, age, caste, religion, some basic personality traits, career and a photo — to connect prospective spouses.
The show’s premise might be bingeable TV for people astounded by the idea of arranged marriage, but these rapid methods are nothing new to Indians looking for love.
Seema and Atulya Sarin lived five houses away from each other for years in Karnal, India, but had only heard of each other in passing conversations with mutual friends. They didn’t meet until Seema was 19, after Atulya had returned from the U.S. to find a spouse. Their mothers decided to introduce them as potential partners.
“In our times, there was no opportunity to go out and meet a person on numerous occasions because the entire meeting was in the presence of the parents,” Atulya said. “At some point (the parents) would say, ‘Go in the backyard or the terrace and talk to each other.’ It was a really awkward conversation.”
Arranged marriages in Indian culture often begin when parents realize that their child is “of age.” For women, this is usually their early 20s; for men, this can be a bit later butis often tied to when they have completed their education and have a stable job. Parents and other older relatives will screen their social circles or put an ad in the newspaper for potential matches. In some cases, they will hire a matchmaker.
The families get in contact and plan a gathering to explore compatible factors and values. The couple get an opportunity for chaperoned interactions and sometimes, toward the end, some alone time to talk about what they want. Usually within a few days after the first meeting, if neither family or prospective spouse has vetoed the other, the couple will become engaged.
Seema and Atulya were engaged the day they met after spending just 30 minutes alone. Three weeks after meeting and marrying, they moved to the U.S. Months after that, she was pregnant with their first child, Natasha; their younger child is Sagar. Three decades later they’re still happily married and live in Los Altos. Seema, 52, worked in supply-chain management for tech companies in the Bay Area, and Atulya, 57, is a professor of finance at Santa Clara University.
While they think “Indian Matchmaking” is overly dramatized, they do agree that it highlights some of the virtues of the arranged marriage process.
“Parents oftentimes have a better perspective of what’s right for their children,” Seema said. “It’s easier to be swayed by what’s illusionary when you are younger.”
“Through a matchmaker, you effectively lay out certain things which are important to you,” Atulya said. “Then they try to find people with similar family backgrounds and that makes things a lot easier. The show is a live portrayal of that.”
Seema appreciates that she “grew up” with her husband. They moved around the world together, attended Virginia Tech together, bought their first car together and learned more about each other, as well as themselves, together.
“The person you meet when you are in your 20s is not the same person in their 30s, and the same goes for you,” Atulya said. “In an arranged marriage you could have it all perfectly set up and a couple could grow apart because they become different people. And that’s just as true for people who met in college.”
Still, the divorce rate in India — where 90% of marriages are arranged — is 1%. In the United States, almost 40% of marriages end in divorce.
When Seema and Atulya were still in the early years of their marriage. They were living off of WIC food stamps. It was an overwhelming time, but being married and in each other’s presence was comforting.
“Whenever we would argue … ” Atulya said.
“… I would go to the duck pond,” Seema said, finishing his sentence. “And wait for him to come apologize.”
It’s a lesson in compromise and understanding that the characters on “Indian Matchmaking” could learn from.
In an age where data algorithms influence almost every choice in our lives, it makes some sense that arranged marriages are built more on data than romance.
“Nowadays people have a very busy lifestyle and a mindset that prevents them from being able to go out and truly ask the question of, ‘What am I really looking for?” and ‘What do I want in a partner?’ ” Atulya Sarin said. “On top of that you have to go out and be able to identify people who have exactly those same attributes. That is matchmaking. It’s an algorithmic thing.”
In the Bay Area, Jasbina Ahluwalia analyzes the data. The Palo Alto matchmaker said she started her company, Intersections Match, in 2007 to help singles make “the most important decision of their lives.” While the majority of her clientele is South Asian, she works with people all over the world, even overlapping sometimes with clients of Taparia, the arranger from “Indian Matchmaking.”
Ahluwalia grew up under the typical “don’t date, don’t date, don’t date, now get married” Indian mentality, and it was frustrating for her. It also inspired her to get into the matchmaking business, hoping to merge some of the positives of traditional arranged marriages with Western ideas.
“What I consider wisdom from the east is that our families are relevant, and what I consider to be wisdom from the west is that time and interaction is necessary before commitment,” she said.
Ahluwalia doesn’t consider any of the couples she brings together to be “arranged,” but she does call herself a matchmaker (and dating coach). She takes on only clients who are ready to be in a relationship and who want help finding a partner.
Before taking on a client, she conducts a 90-minute assessment about dating history, turn-ons and turn-offs and figures out why they think the way they do and want the things they want. Then she develops a Find Love Plan that can include a potential match, online dating support or relationship coaching. She encourages her clients to be the person they are seeking.
“There’s not one soulmate for everyone, in my opinion,” Ahluwalia said. “There are a lot of great people. It’s not about hiring a person to go find that one person for you. There are certain connects that are important. We explore that. We go beyond the biodata.”
Rahul and Richa Kapoor encourage newly married couples to be patient and communicate everything.
“I think the paradigm difference between us and the people in (‘Indian Matchmaking’) is that we set expectations together because we were building a life together,” Rahul said. “The characters in the show already had very set beliefs and didn’t know how to adapt and morph what they wanted. You just have to figure it out.”
Many Americans are still trying to understand the arranged marriage process, to see beyond the novelty of it.
“My supervisor at my first job was a Caucasian woman. She would say, ‘Oh, can you tell everybody how you got married?’ It was kind of a fairy-tale wedding for them,” Richa said. “And then people would ask me ‘Are you still married?’ ‘Are you still together?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and people are surprised.
“Of course it was a gamble,” Richa said. “But it was suspense, it was romance the way we knew it. As long as we are happy, that’s all that matters.”
Ananya Panchal is a Bay Area writer. Email: email@example.com
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