Goodbye, Arranged Marriages. Hello, Modern Love.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because whether you’re brown or not, you might learn something from this changing world of love and sex.
By Sanjena Sathian
Should he be a vegetarian? This is the first question that makes me pause. Before it, Jasbina Ahluwalia has asked me for a boatload of information that feels comically foreign. Does the religion of my future husband matter? Must he be Indian? From a particular region? No, no, no, I laugh, feeling modern and flippant. But vegetarianism? I dunno. It’s a sign of liberal, possibly crunchy values, healthfulness. Sure, I say. That’d be nice. At last, I’ve narrowed the pool.
Ahluwalia takes note. We’re camped out in the lobby of a posh Dallas hotel, planning the practicalities of my HYPOTHETICAL future. I will eventually, I’m told, want certain things from my partner. I may have opinions on his cultural identity, earning potential, spiritual beliefs and professional history. For a twentysomething coming of age at a time when love connections bloom based on who’s swipeable in a five to 25-mile radius, this is alien.
It’s also the stuff on which Ahluwalia’s clients will drop anywhere from $4,500 to $50,000. She offers a variety of matchmaking services. Want a better OkCupid profile? She’s got you. Are you a consultant stopping over in Chicago, New York or Philadelphia multiple times a month? She can set up meetings in each city. She even has a squadron of “scouts,” whom she dispatches to chic galas and events nationwide; they sniff out eligible men and women, grabbing a healthy commission if they help you out in the heart department.
Indians have been flowing into the U.S. for half a century now, making great money — better than Caucasians, on average, according to the Pew Research Center, and racking up more education than almost any other immigrant group in the country. They’re CEOs of megacorporations — Microsoft, Google, Pepsi — and they’ve even made the jump into television, writing and performing story lines with premarital sex and bare skin (see: Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Priyanka Chopra). And yet, there’s one expected pattern this generation hasn’t followed: As most immigrant groups succeed, they tend to assimilate into the mainstream, culturally and romantically, marrying the majority race, says C.N. Le, sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who has studied Asian-American dating habits.
In fact, out of all Asian-Americans, Indian-Americans are the most likely to marry someone of their ethnicity — only 10 percent marry outside of their race, according to Le’s research. Between 2006 and 2010, the latest year Le tracked census data, rates of intermarriage between Indians and whites declined. Which is why a whole cottage industry of so-called affinity dating experts is evolving here in the diaspora. Aunties placing newspaper matrimonial ads are being replaced by the Ahluwalias of the world or meet-up groups. The famous website Shaadi.com — literally Marriage.com — is officially passé (the company didn’t reply to requests for comment), as young people turn to a slew of apps jockeying for the No. 1 spot in the hearts of brown people.
Trisha Gill, a 27-year-old nurse practitioner in Los Angeles, started looking around at the man market last year. She knew what she wanted: a Sikh, like her; someone from a good family, with a good education. Someone funny. And someone, preferably, in L.A. She found her fiancé, Sanju Sembhi, who ticked all the boxes except the whole local thing — he lives near Philadelphia. Gill and 30-year-old Sembhi used the app Dil Mil, whose San Francisco–based founders have raised money from 500 Startups, the founder of Match.com and top angel investor Naval Ravikant and which has already facilitated one million matches. They’re modern millennials. Gill says she felt a sort of “stigma” about Shaadi.com, and, although she told her parents she was open to introductions, this was not a girl hunting around for an arranged marriage. No sending around her picture and marital profile to potential suitors, she told her mom. That, despite often being the norm for so many in the past, was “getting desperate.”
And yet, their story has a hint of the old in it. Their courtship was a 21st-century version of an epistolary romance: They communicated across the country for a few months and spent a total of just six days together in person before Sembhi asked for Gill’s hand. Dil Mil, which roughly means “to meet one’s heart,” itself has some traditional bits to it: In addition to Facebook photos or LinkedIn connections, one selects religious preferences and even indicates from which state within India one’s family hails. (Split-origin kids like me, whose parents were crazy enough to marry someone from another state, must choose one; I went with mom’s heritage, from Karnataka — bye-bye, Malayalee side.) Sembhi, an M.D., had previously dated around, including one four-year relationship; Gill was educated, with the right “values” and a “wonderful family.” Sembhi also wanted a Punjabi speaker; Gill’s language skills aren’t quite up to par, he says, but “I was like, ‘OK, she can learn it.’ ” Families met. Everyone was on board. The wedding is in September.
It’s impossible to penetrate the individual psychologies of the 3 million Indians living in America today, but Le says intra-racial love connections persist, in part, due to skin color — brown folks remain further down on the sexual preference ladder in many Americans’ books. Of course, there are other reasons as well: true romantic “love matches,” cultural desires, religious needs and the deceptively simple idea of finding a partner who gets you and where you came from. Some folks, such as Dil Mil founder KJ Dhaliwal, don’t see anything wrong with interracial marriage per se. Dhaliwal, for example, just worries about what will happen to essential Indian culture if everyone goes around mingling with everyone else. For others, the issue isn’t about language or heritage so much as practicality.
Which is where Ahluwalia comes into the matchmaking picture. Decked out in a purple kurti top with purple lipstick to match, the former lawyer and daughter of a physician and a dietitian tells me she spent her twenties laser-focused on her career, where education and work were a priority. Dating? Not so much — and less because of conservative values than unadulterated ambition. Many of her clients today are the same way: driven types who, on the cusp of their thirties, begin pursuing a mate with all the vigor of a six-figure job hunt. In some cases, it’s a family affair, with parents footing the bill. Hers is, after all, a “high-end” operation, she says.
Back in the motherland, you find something a little more relaxed. In the heart of middle-class, techie-center Bangalore, Simran and Siddharth Mangharam run their own matchmaking service, which also operates in New York. But here, there’s no mention of astrological chart consultations to find a star-approved partner, no families offering chai to a male suitor while the daughter sits sari-clad and silent as her future is decided. The couple — who met over a mutual love of blue cheese at a party, when Simran had struck the ripe young age of 37, causing family to throw up their hands in anguish —would laugh at such stereotypes.
The day I catch the Mangharams, they are running a meet-up for singles in the city. It’s Sunday, and on the menu is laser tag followed by a stop at a local bar. The parlor of the arcade where the dozen or so daters are mingling feels a little like an adolescent birthday party. Guys hang to one side; ladies on the other. Siddharth moves easily between them, buttering the vibe with his easy demeanor. By the time everyone lines up for the game, black vests on and ready to go, the tension is starting to slip away. Everyone’s supposed to be in practical shoes for running around. A few women have opted for heels instead.
A few streets away from the laser tag fete, I meet a gaggle of working-class women, migrants from the nearby state of Tamil Nadu who work as street cleaners. They wear dark-green uniforms and are lazing about a little in the sun, brooms discarded on the sidewalk. They find me, my dress, my (purple) hair, my (American) accent positively hilarious. We chat about marriage. Did they all have theirs arranged? I figure it’s an obvious yes. They crack up. One raises her hand and, in a stream of vernacular, tells a dramatic tale of refusing the man her parents chose for her, declaring “I’ll kill myself!” and instead running off with the fella of her choice. They ask about my heritage. I explain my parents are from two different states, Kerala and Karnataka. “Aha!” one says. “Love marriage!”
So goes the mosaic of lonely and satisfied hearts back in India: Things are changing as cities boom and women work. (It’s worth noting, of course, that some three-quarters of all Indians still prefer arranged marriages, according to a 2013 survey by the Taj Wedding Barometer.) And in some ways, as Simran tells me, she sees a difference between American-born and Indian-born desis. “Their view of India is a little restricted,” she says of Americans who land back in the motherland on holidays, with grandparents. “They haven’t really kept pace with where India’s gotten recently.” In some cases, she says, things are getting to be even more modern in the motherland than in the U.S. Immigrants, she figures, relate to an India that’s somewhat frozen in time, and their American-born children inherit a memory of a country from the ’70s or ’80s.
I’m reminded of this as I hear from one 24-year-old Dil Mil user, who doesn’t want me broadcasting her full name. She’s just dating the guy she met — no ring yet — and her parents can’t be informed about him just yet. Or from Sembhi, as he reflects on why Gill has turned out to be the one for him. “My mom loved her,” he says. And then comes an adjective you could find in any ad soliciting a wife in a local newspaper decades ago: “She’s very homely.” Which, in Indian English, doesn’t mean unattractive — it means a nurturing woman who can make a home, one that rings at least a bit of the old ways.