THE MATING GAME: From marriage fairs to the Internet to speed dating to work place romances, the search is on for the ideal life partner.
Vikki Wadhwani of London first met her husband Andy Gandhi of New Jersey while waiting in one of those long, unending lines at Disneyworld in Orlando, Fl.
Brijesh Aswani of New Jersey was introduced to Anita Jotwani of North Carolina by common friends at a desi party in New York.
This year all three couples were married, without the entanglements of parents or matchmakers. Looks like the once-glorified and powerful matchmakers are headed the way of the manual typewriter, the telegram and the record player!
Until recently, Indian marriages had all the trappings of a business transaction involving two deal-making families, a hardboiled matchmaker and a vocal board of shareholders - concerned uncles and aunts. The couple was almost incidental to the deal. They just dressed and showed up for the wedding ceremony. And after that the onus was on them to adjust to the 1,001 relatives, get to know each other and make the marriage work.
Unusually enough, her daughter-in-law, Sunita Deewan, an attorney, had a love marriage in the 1960s, when it was still uncommon. She met her husband over a spirited game of Teen Patti in a friend's house in Delhi. In the end it became a showdown between the two. He had a trio of kings and she a trio of aces! She trounced him in the game and the two went on to marry. While they both belonged to the same community, they skipped the matchmaker routine, which was so common in their days.
Now her daughter, Sonya Deewan, also an attorney, has taken it one step further. Born in New York, her story is a very American one of independently choosing a partner, crossing boundaries of race and culture. She met Sean Carin, a Caucasian American, on the ski slopes of Killington in Vermont quite by accident. "I went with my friends from law school to ski and Sean had come there with a group of friends. They had rented a huge house for about 20 people and friends of friends were coming," she recalls. "A bunch of us went out one morning and we were all snowboarding."
> So was it like a Bollywood musical where the lovelorn couples tumble over the snowy slopes in Switzerland? It almost was, laughs Deewan. Her friends were much more skilled than she was and had taken her on a very steep slope, which she couldn't handle. She was in the process of sliding down when Carin dashingly rescued her. Back in the house, they started talking and became friends. After dating for two years, Deewan and Carin, who is a tax consultant, are getting married.
Deewan's experience is shared by growing numbers of young Indian Americans who are finding their partners at work, play and on the Internet. The once all-important relatives have been reduced to mere bystanders or spectators, trying desperately to influence the outcome with sotto voice advice, prayers, suggestions and sometimes threats; but the actual dice is being thrown by the future bride and groom.
The dice may or may not throw up their chosen numbers and they might try connecting with many potential partners in many different settings before they hit the jackpot. Often marriage is occurring at a much later age and sometimes with partners the parents would not have considered suitable a decade ago.
Not surprisingly, Indian marriages are mirroring trends in mainstream society. "The National Marriage Project: The State of Our Unions" conducted by Rutgers University found that Americans are far less likely to marry. This is hreflected in a decline of nearly 50 percent, from 1970 to 2005, in the annual number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women. Much of this decline results from the delaying of first marriages: the median age at first marriage went from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 27, respectively, in 2005.
Indian parents are none too happy with these trends and are doing their best, sometimes obtrusively, sometimes delicately, to find suitable spouses for their children, without stepping on toes or independent egos.
Old and new ways of finding a partner are mixing together, not just in America but in India too. As young people turn mobile in search of jobs, arranged marriage attitudes have relaxed in India and the new openness there has sort of given permission to immigrants to support the dreams and desires of their children, be it in single girls living on their own for education and work or marrying the partners of their own choosing.
Matrimonial ads still remain a fixture, but it's a route taken most often by parents and relatives. The Internet has propelled the dating and marriage scene, helping Indian couples connect all over the globe. Tradition-minded parents have embraced the indispensable computer mouse - it could well be Lord Ganesha's Mushika, for it is auspiciously uniting like-minded couples across the Diaspora. Now sitting in Atlanta, Ga. or Phoenix, Az., a man can connect with someone from his parents' hometown in Gujarat or with the perfect desi match in Dubai or Germany.
Matrimonial sites like shaadi.com and tech-savvy young Indians are a match made in heaven, opening up a world of possibilities. Even parents approve, because young people get to know each other - without physical contact! Parents get to check the details important to them and the couple can connect at many levels. While parents and family members post the resumes of a prospective bride or groom, it is now quite common for young people to treat matrimonial sites as just another personals column or dating service a la the west - and really connect with each other on their own terms.
Uday Zokarkar, business head of BharatMatrimony.com, one of the popular sites for the Indian community, claims it has over 800,000 registered members from the U.S., double that from three years ago. "Going by our online features, we feel that our Chat Messenger has been more widely used than the email communication. Members chat with interested prospects online and then take the communication forward in different ways. This clearly indicates the rise in using Internet as a medium to meet people over a safe platform."
According to Zokarkar, the site has been conducting "Singles Meets" since 2003 and organized 10 of them in the U.S. during the past year, with about 100 participants at each event. He did not have specific numbers on the success rate, but estimates that globally 1 out of every 10 members finds a life partner through the site.
Sangeeta Arora from New York and Umesh Thakore from Houston, Texas, can attest to the value of Internet dating sites. They have been getting to know each other on the wings of email and have never actually met! Born in Buffalo, N.Y., Arora works property management in Oswego, a small town with a handful of Indians.
"When I was younger I remember people advertising in India Abroad or these other ethnic newspapers," she says. "Now with the Internet, with the push of a button you have so many sites at your disposal. It's really the equivalent of a blind date. Earlier it was who is at the other end of the phone or who you'll end up meeting for coffee. Now it's the click of the mouse. My parents were always telling me to go online, but I had to do it at my own time, when I was ready for it."
The workplace is a favorite ground for match making. Arora recalls that her own parents, a doctor and a nurse, encountered each other in the hospital corridors. More recently, her brother, a physician, also met his doctor-wife in the workplace.
She adds, "A lot of people prefer to network in the same profession, because then you have more in common. Most of your day is spent at work, and the more in-depth I'm getting with my work, I find it's really important to be with someone who realizes what I'm doing from 9 to 5."
She connected via one of the wedding websites with Umesh Thakore of Houston, a project manager of commercial properties and hotels. Thakore says: "I've never been in that whole system of setting up this person with that person. I just don't believe in that. I have a lot of Indian values, but regarding marriage I feel you should fall in love with the person more than marrying them and then falling in love."
Thakore met Arora through the website Simply Marry. Both had sworn they'd never go on a wedding site, but finally did. "This is something very different. It's really not my style," admits Thakore. "I just like to meet people the old fashioned way, the normal way."
Since they happen to be 2,000 miles apart they have no choice and are planning to connect face to face soon. He says that his friends are getting married at a later age and finding spouses on their own initiative: "A lot has to do with establishing yourself and making sure your profession is going the right direction. All my siblings were married the old fashioned way, meeting and dating and then taking it to the next step, engagement, marriage and all that other good stuff!"
In some Indian communities, organizations are also stepping in to facilitate marriages. The Charotar Patidar Samaj (CPS) is a private organization of Gujarati immigrants, all from the Patel community. Since its inception in 1989, the CPS meets every Thanksgiving weekend with members from all over the country. The group has grown from 300 to 3,000 and at least 500-600 families turn up for the gatherings. This Charlotte, N.C., organization concentrates on matrimonial alliances for the young within the community and works to keep the heritage alive.
But in its 19th year, this old organization is adapting to change. According to Manubhai Patel, secretary of CPS, bowing to the preferences of the second generation, parents are being discouraged from attending the event, which is now restricted to about 300 participants from the ages of 23 to 30. CPS, which is now strictly matrimonial, maintains a list of 1,500 young Patels who can interact with each other even if they can't make it to the annual gathering.
Patel feels things have changed over the years and couples don't make decisions after one arranged meeting, but meet several times to get to know each other. The need for such an organization, he believes, still persists: "A lot of families live in isolated places and they feel their children should get married to a Patel or someone from an Indian background."
While the CPS is aimed at only Patels, Matri is a New Jersey based organization that seeks to unite all Gujaratis through matrimonial conventions, which include interviews and speed dating and even bio data booklets with information about participants. The organization holds an annual convention where 200-300 prospective brides and grooms come from all over the U.S.
Matri also has regional chapters and Meena Patel, who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years, is co-coordinator for the Los Angeles chapter, which organized the convention two years ago. Are many matrimonial alliances established at Matri? She says, "It's very hard to say, because after the convention, they don't inform us if they connect. Definitely, I still think it's a good way of getting married. Even if they don't get married, they at least make a friend. It's good for our culture."
How did she herself get married? Laughs Patel, "That was a long time ago in Anand in Gujarat." Her father found her husband for her; once the couple approved she was allowed to go out with him once during their engagement period and then they were married.
Patel still believes arranged marriages are a good idea: "Any marriage needs work, whether it's an arranged marriage or love. Here a lot of kids stay together and after they get married they find out they are not right for each other. So you take a risk both ways. So why not take a risk with everybody's approval and have it checked out by so many people rather than just by one, yourself. You can be wrong sometimes too. Parents do half the work and all you have to do is just make it work!"
Bina Desai, an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, N.J., is both a participant and a volunteer at Matri.
Having grown up in America, did she find it strange to be asked to choose her spouse in this way? "Personally I didn't. My parents and I have a very open understanding. I'm not dating anybody so if they introduce me to somebody or want me to meet people, I'm open minded enough to go. But if I was dating somebody then I'm sure my parents would have given my choice the same kind of consideration."
"At my age, 27, many of my friends are married, so I don't go to bars anymore. I associate with the same group of friends all the time and this gives me an opportunity to meet new people," she says. "So even if I don't hit off with somebody, I find a new friend or someone who's suitable for a cousin of mine or a friend of mine. I think it's a great way to meet new people in a busy world where we are so involved with work and work and work."
Matri was started 13 years ago to help Gujarati youth find life partners with the belief that shared language, culture and food are the building blocks of a relationship. Every July, parents, sons and daughters come to the matrimonial convention, which has introductions, ice breakers, mixers and interviews, including 1 minute speed dating and one on one meetings.
The age of participants in Matri ranges from 25 -30 and its conventions increasingly draw professionals, such as lawyers, doctors and engineers. Says Desai: "Sometimes it's a little bit easier to start a conversation this way than approaching someone in a bar and not knowing anything of his background." A great idea for winnowing out the commitment-phobic men from any community: imagine a room full of a hundred singles all looking to get married!
Adds Desai: "It's not the 21- 22 year olds who are being forced to marry. These are 25-27 year olds whose careers are professionally developed and if you're going for a convention like this or signing up on Shaadi.com, I think you yourself are finally at a place where you are ready to take that next step."
"In the Sindhi community, a lot of the people who are in the 'marriage market' go from wedding to wedding hoping to meet the right person. At a wedding everyone's eyes are on you and there's a lot of pressure from parents," says Vaswani. "But at the retreat, if you meet someone, great. If you don't, then it's on you to make the effort to mix and mingle. There are no adults and no kids and it's limited to young Sindhi people in their 20s and 30s."
YSA also has a discussion group on Yahoo with about 1,250 members scattered around the world who exchange emails: "Real substantial communication goes on. How many of the offline exchanges are going on, we don't know. How many of them are leading to real life meet ups, engagements and marriages, we really don't know."
Perhaps the unlikeliest encounter to lead to marriage is that of Vikki Wadhwani, who is from London, who met Andy Gandhi, of Los Angeles, while waiting in a long line at Disneyworld during an extended family reunion. "We started talking randomly once we were introduced, but we never really liked each other in the first place." she says.
"He thought I was a snob and I thought he was a computer nerd!" recalls Wadhwani. "The first time we saw each other we didn't like each other a lot. The second time we met at Disneyland at the family reunion. We couldn't escape it and ended up talking a lot and we found we had a lot in common. At that time it wasn't about meeting for months or anything. It was instant at that point."
Wadhwani and Gandhi decided to celebrate their wedding in one of their favorite places - Las Vegas - reportedly the first ever Indian wedding held at Wynn, the fabulous new resort, complete with the sacred fire in the chapel and Indian food.
Sonya Deewan and Sean Carin are also writing their own script for their intercultural wedding. Would Deewan have been open to her parents finding somebody for her? She says, "Maybe at this point, if I was single, but I was really opposed to it when I was younger. I just didn't see myself meeting someone that way. So I was opposed to that or any sort of organized, structured way of meeting someone. I just thought it would happen - and I least expected it when it did!"
Baharani, who operates several high end jewelry stores in St Maarten and is the co-founder of a cruising loyalty program, called Sea Miles, met up with Lund and they really connected. Says Lund, "Adesh thought I was stunning and loved my curly hair! He pursued and he won my heart after several phone calls, trips to New York, and several lunches, dinners and parties!" The couple just got married in a very romantic wedding at Oheka Castle in New York and now lives in St. Maarten and Miami.
Sometimes these encounters can be quite dramatic - like a Bollywood film where the hero just falls head over heels in love with a photograph! That happened to Raj Sakhrani who fell for a photograph of a girl he had never seen, Sonya Hathiramani, a marketing manager in Singapore. Sakhrani, who is a financial consultant, met her sister by chance in India, who showed him her photo, which "instantly mesmerized" him. A long courtship by email followed and the couple finally met in India. A few days separation made them sure that this was it. The families met and they were married in India.
Says Sakhrani: "In our culture, marriage is encouraged at an early age. I had made it clear to my parents that I wanted to establish myself prior to getting married. Initially they were disappointed, but when they realized that is what I wanted they were very supportive. I managed to pay for my own college education, buy my first home and start my business prior to my 25th birthday."
Vikki Wadhwani's mother Vikki believes that the matrimonial shift has come about because of the emphasis on higher education and profession opportunities for women. "Education is the glue in expanding relationships and choosing partners, and a girl's educated voice has to make a difference."
"Because parents have moved with the times, they are bending to the inclination of their children. Not bending out of compulsion, but because they have tremendous faith in the choice of the girl they have educated."
"I think when it comes from us kids rather than the parents, it makes a big difference. In most of the professions which are American-dominated, Indians don't get a chance to interact with their own community. So when you have an opportunity to do that, why not take it?"
Parents too have adjusted to the new environment, she says. "And I don't think it's a bad thing. Our parents came to this country primarily to give us a better life, and part of giving us a better life is giving us the opportunity to get the education we want, the career we want to pursue. I think this is where the change comes from - education, independence and parents who have become more open minded."
Adds Arora: "We second generation Indians don't want to give up our traditions, but we are more encompassing and inclusive. You don't want to lose your culture, but it's like the more the merrier. In this large multicultural America, the criteria for a suitable partner keeps expanding. All cultures have some beauty."