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Masala Mixers

While the lean-ins to swap contact info may seem casual, make no mistake: desis are hunting for a suitable mate as doggedly as they pursued master’s degrees and coveted internships a few years ago.

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It's Saturday night, and inside Stone Creek Lounge, the house music's pumping. Packed to the rafters with the young and upwardly ascendant, it could be any one of a thousand places to meet singles in Manhattan, with one crucial difference: every face is Indian.

Welcome to the latest mixer thrown by the New York chapter of the Network of Indian Professionals. Originally conceived as a place to develop business leads, the lack of parental chaperones have turned them instead into one of the hottest tickets around for a generation of desis on the hunt for a Love Match. A connection here can mean hitting the romantic jackpot: successful, parent-approved, and as able to appreciate Sharukh Khan as Steve Carell.

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Growing up in Canada, visits to my cousin's home in Long Island were always something of a culture shock. After months spent playing the assimilation game and trading furtive looks of understanding with the three other Indian kids in my grade, here I was thrust into an entirely different world, one where I could comfortably spend a week solely in the company of other desis. This underlying community opened my eyes to a new vista of possibilities. Singles seeking a mate in a major Indian hub like New York or Atlanta can benefit from an extended network linked by everything from Bengali and Hindi Sunday schools to pujas and house parties. Suddenly, the idea of pleasing Mom by bringing home a brown girl isn't just a long shot, but an option.

"Finding an Indian girl's easy," says Tej, a 30-year old media consultant as he downs his second martini of the night. "It's finding a fit one that's a challenge. I was at a cruise Net-IP held a while back, and they were auctioning off dates. One girl went for 1800 bucks. For a date. Know why?" He swirls the olive lingering in his glass, and sucks it back. "Seeing a gym-toned body in a sari, plain and simple."

Tej seems dressed to attract just that, in flared slacks and a European-cut shirt showing off fledgling pectorals. And he is getting looks from the spectacularly diverse groups of women spread throughout the bar, from rockers who look like they ought to be picketing the closing of CBGB's to power players on their way to a Skybox at Madison Square Garden. In fact, the only look not represented is the sari, which is understandable considering the profoundly Western nature of this event.

Open looks of appraisal from women are rare at your typical singles night, mainly because the participants have become adept at the subtle signals necessary in snagging interest. But most Indians are amateurs at best when it comes to flirtation. Our parents taught us well when it came to specifics like education and choosing a career. It's the intangibles of courtship, however, that come harder.

Tej scoffs when I ask if he's worried. "Ever read The Game? It's all about closing the deal in the least likely places." I'd never done anything more than skim through Neil Strauss' notorious manual on pick-up techniques before placing it (guiltily) back on the bookstore shelves, but it seems to give Tej the confidence necessary to enter the fray, cutting a swathe through the other bachelors vying for attention.

These guys take culture clash to a whole new level. There are so many courting sins being committed here that it's hard to keep them all straight. A man wearing a Hawaiian shirt chats up a power-suited woman with nary a hint of self-consciousness. Another runs a hand through a puffy Indo-fro while making a move on not one, but two Bollywood-level beauties! Some men gesticulate wildly, others lean in close for a "heart to heart" not even an hour into the proceedings.....and yet, most escape outright rejection! What gives?

According to Mohit Sakhrani, the vice president of Administration at Net IP, it's one of the chief benefits of these soirees. "The main purpose is to network, so the innate competition you see in other places doesn't come into play. People open up." Which is all well and good. But it doesn't explain why girls attractive enough to pull guys from anywhere in the city go out of their way to humor novices. Unless its not humoring, but a true and honest search?

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"I've done all the ‘normal' routes," says Aparna, an ad exec in her thirties. "It's not all it's cracked up to be. I went to a speed dating session recently where a guy asked me what flavor I'd be if I were an ice cream: vanilla, chocolate, or swirled." This is received by the girls around her with a few groans, but also a surprising amount of curiosity. The difficulties in finding a mate haven't yet turned these women cynical. "I picked chocolate,' she says. "Sweet, but a little dangerous." The girls laugh. And here, I think, are the benefits of a desi community in living color: a kind of cultural short-hand based on shared experience.

While not an insider, I'm starting to see how, if you appreciate its benefits, the ultimate catch might not be the guy with the slickest wardrobe, hairstyle or come-on line, but rather someone who shares the language. How ironic that the offspring of parents who immigrated half-way around the world opt, when given free reign, to seek out the metaphorical girl or boy next door.

As the evening progresses the initial cliques start to break up, and a more or less free exchange of strangers and new friends rotate amongst the groups, jumping into conversations, and sometimes, breaking up more intimate ones. The man with the crazy Indo-fro turns out to be an engineer named Raja, who cracks up Aparna's crowd with a spot-on impression of Indian parents on vacation: "Where's the photo camera? Don't go swimming out there, you'll freeze to death!" It's the kind of moment that, whether by design or chance, just wouldn't occur anywhere else. "That's the price of growing up in a conservative culture," Raja says. "We're all still learning."

The effects of our background play out in ways we can never anticipate. In college, it was all about the one-night stand, exercising freedom through the disposable hook-up. But it was never a scene I could get into. Despite attending the same school, playing the same sports and partaking of the same culture, the pull of my roots exerted itself, compelling me toward something different. What it was exactly I didn't know, maybe just a connection. It didn't matter whether the person was Indian or not, simply that one existed. And I had to find it.

Ilam, a striking 25 year-old PR rep, exemplifies this. Poised and successful, she nevertheless trades experiences on sites like Indiandating.com and match-making attempts by her parents (which she refers to as getting "ambushed") with the urgency of someone whose time is running out. Why the rush? "I don't want to be 40 and still chasing, still doing the bar scene. But at the same time, I'm not trusting the most important decision of my life to a website or who my parents think is a match. I need to feel something real before I can commit." It's a sentiment I hear echoed from both sexes throughout the night: a quest for something genuine. Something you'll only know once you've found it.

"I did the bar scene for the first two years after moving to the city. It was exciting at first, a different spot every night, meeting all kinds of different people. Only after a while, you start figuring out the tricks. And the people you're meeting all start responding to the same ones."

One tip: be mean to a guy and you've got him. "Seriously," she says, in response to my disbelieving look. "I've had guys who wouldn't look twice at me. Then I start ragging on their careers, comment on the amount of product in their hair, and suddenly I can't keep them away."

So what's the problem? She tuts: "Is that how I'm going to find someone special? Playing baby-games to snag him? Give me the awkward guy, the one who doesn't have it all together. At least there's a chance of finding something original, some sort of common ground beyond getting in my pants."

And that, in a nutshell, is the main differentiating factor between these "masala mixers" and their Western counterparts: it's not, at least not primarily, about sex. For just as the girls are willing to forgive the surface slights of their suitors, the men also know going in that their chances of hooking up come night's end are practically nil. Success here is measured by the trading of business cards, and maybe, after a prolonged correspondence, a chaste dinner date. It's the re-birth of traditional courtship, discovered through emulating a ritual snubbing it.

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"I debated a long time over coming to my first mixer," Ilam says. The girls have settled into a front booth overlooking the evening traffic along 27th Street. "I think a part of me felt that coming here would be admitting defeat, like I hadn't blended in as well as I'd thought. But it's not that." She sets down the remains of her Madras cocktail, and leans in. "These are the only people who get wanting to make your parents happy, but not giving in to their plans for how your life should turn out. Or living at home until you get married, but still being your own person. All the hundred rules of growing up Indian, they get it because they're living it too. And it frees you up, because you don't have to worry about how you're being perceived. You can just be yourself."

She gestures out across the room, at a sea of faces stripped of the masks worn to fit and fade in with the outside world. "What brought them all here, if not that?"

A chance to find out presents itself when I go to the bar to get a fresh round of drinks for the group. The bartender and his assistant are the only two non-Indians in the place, and they seem amazed at the levels of drinking going on. Stacks of emptied pint glasses slide across the counter as quickly as they can pour replacements, and a long-held stereotype about our culture, that we're not the biggest fans of booze, goes out the window. The interactions taking place also throw our famously easy-going natures (read: passivity) into question. For while the lean-ins to swap contact info may seem casual, make no mistake: desis are hunting for a suitable mate as doggedly as they pursued master's degrees and coveted internships a few years ago. And it's never too early to get a lay of the land.

Reena's a shy 19 year-old out with her best friend, who takes breaks from texting on her Sidekick to guy-watch with google eyes. They're both too young to get served the hard stuff, so they sip ginger ales instead. Reena makes it a point to tell me that this is merely their first stop on the way to Arlene's Grocery. When I tell her I used to be a regular at the concert venue, she seems skeptical. "Really?" she asks, in the manner of patronizing parents who consider themselves "hip." It's depressing that a 27 year-old can be considered an old-timer anywhere, but that doesn't stop me from asking her what prompted them to pop in.

She shrugs. "I don't really hang out with Indians much anymore." She speaks lowly, and it's only after a few sentences that I pick up on her accent. I ask what area of India she's from. She frowns, as though I'd broached a distasteful subject, and says, "Hyderabad. My family came over when I was five."

"Does anyone comment about it?"

"Sometimes. I get the 'exotic' thing a lot." This echoes a sentiment Aparna expressed earlier. "Indian girls are the hot minority right now," she said, rolling her eyes. "Apparently the Asian chasers took one look at Aishwarya Rai in Maxim and switched their fetishes South."

"Does that bother you?" I ask Reena.

"I like The Strokes and Ugly Betty. I'm not sure what's so exotic about that."

She and her friend leave soon afterwards. Mohit tells me she's been coming to these events sporadically over the past few months. "She never stays long, always comes with a friend. Hey, sometimes that's enough."

Sometimes it is. And sometimes "enough" means catching Tej making out with a girl in one of the back booths. It's tentative, and over almost as soon as I can tear my eyes away. But the shock lingers, and as I walk back to Ilam's table I try to figure it out. What is it about seeing Indians doing something I've seen Americans do countless times that seems so.....xposed? Is it a kind of bedrock Puritanism that we share?

Try as I might to play the devil's advocate, to tell myself that it's just crazy to carry a double standard, the fact remains that the preamble to introducing a girlfriend to my parents consists of a primer detailing the restrictions involved: no hand-holding. Definitely no kissing. Come to think of it, no physical contact of any kind until there's a ring on our fingers. And even then.....aybe.

Apparently I'm not the only one who caught Tej's PDA, because when I get back talk's rife with speculation about how it's going to play out. A shared penchant for gossiping, it seems, is one stereotype still fully in effect.

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Aparna thinks it'll fizzle out. "They'll wake up tomorrow morning, remember, get embarrassed and that'll be the end of it."

Ilam, however, for all of her surface jadedness, disagrees. "If that was the case they'd be out whooping it up with the goras. Watch, this'll lead to more."

"Either way, it's getting back to the parents!" Raja says, and in this, there's total agreement. Chances are excellent that inside of a week both parties will have some pretty heavy explaining to do. The desi phone chain in New York is a notoriously far-reaching.

The night grows late, and slowly, the real world begins to intrude. A group of rowdy college kids enter the bar, and, upon seeing the patrons, hesitate about whether or not to come all the way in. Ultimately, a few of them decide to brave it, and an almost palpable change occurs in the air. The fragile threads of communal experience can no longer be as easily shared, and self-consciousness creeps in, lowering voices and gestures, withholding confessions. The newcomers are a reminder of the masks we're forced to wear in our adopted homeland, and its only jarring now, because being solely around Indians means temporarily casting it off. Groups break off and start heading for the exits, some to continue the festivities elsewhere, others merely to catch a train back home. Perhaps, with a little luck, the seeds of a lasting connection have been sown.

"Last week I went out to dinner with a surgeon my Auntie had set me up with," says Aparna as she picks up her purse and gathers her girlfriends together for an after-drink run for chaat and bhajis. "No contact whatsoever besides a handshake and an accidental brush across the table reaching for the check. And it was the most romantic thing I'd ever experienced."

Perhaps, for a generation given all the freedoms of the West, this is the truest kind of rebellion: a refusal to accept the denigration of relationships, and carry on the crucial, if unfashionably conservative, belief that a soul mate is out there, and worth finding. "Auntie and Uncle can barely stand to be in the same room together," Aparna says, chuckling. "But they've made it almost 40 years, mainly because neither of them can imagine a life apart. That's something, maybe, worth keeping on." She asks Ilam if she'd like to come with her. She says she'll catch up with them later. Then she looks at me and asks the question I've been posing to others the entire night: why did you come?

"I thought it'd be interesting," I tell her, but it's much more than that. A part of me wanted to see the progression of the life I'd glimpsed with my cousin writ large. Perhaps, had I been raised within an expansive Indian network I too might have been one of the singles seeking a match at Stone Creek, instead of in a serious relationship with an Irish-German-Lithuanian woman who, cultural shorthand aside, just may be mine.

"And was it?" she asks. There's a vulnerability to her question that reminds me, yet again, of alternate paths, and sometimes, the one not taken.

"Definitely," I tell her.

I find Tej outside the bar, slipping a cabbie a tenner as the object of his affection gets into the back seat. He watches the car pull away, then turns to me, waving a cocktail napkin with scrawled digits.

"We're meeting up after work Wednesday!" he exclaims, then, leaning in, confides, "A lawyer. Mom's gonna be over the moon." I give him a little grief about not closing the deal. What would disciples of The Game say? He winks, the mask of a ladies man firmly back in place. "Yeah, it's a tease. But what are you gonna do? There could be a future here."

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NRI | Magazine | January 2008

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