Playing Matchmaker: Indian Kids Arrange Marriages for Mom and Dad
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A radical social shift in India could hold lessons for other conservative societies where remarriage — especially for women — is frowned upon.
Tara Jadhav was 49 when she lost her husband. Married for almost 29 years, she started feeling the pangs of loneliness soon after her partner’s death. “I cried for months,” she says. Her son, Sushant Zala, and his wife, Neha, couldn’t bear the grief she was going through. So, they decided to convince her to remarry — and to help find her a match. “It was awkward at first,” says Tara, who’s based in Ahmedabad, India. But soon she agreed because, as her daughter-in-law put it, “she was still young.”
Sushant and Neha discovered Vina Mulya Amulya Sewa, a nonprofit organization founded by 69-year-old Natubhai Patel that holds matchmaking events — called swayamvars — where senior Indians, typically older than 50, can meet and find a partner they want to live with. Tara met Dhanji Jadhav, a 57-year-old employee of the Indian multinational oil and gas giant ONGC at a swayamvar, and her son and daughter-in-law arranged their wedding. It was a dramatic twist on Indian tradition, where parents have for centuries been the ones tasked with finding partners for their kids and organizing marriages. But Sushant and Neha are part of a rising number of Indians flipping that equation on its head.
Even today, the vast majority of Indian marriages — 88 percent, according to a 2018 study by the California-based Statistics Brain Research Institute — are “arranged,” which means parents tap family networks and friends to find a match for their kids. Remarriage, especially for senior women, has historically been frowned upon. Now, though, a growing number of nonprofits and private matrimonial services are emerging to help older, widowed Indians find love and companionship again. As with Tara, they’re relying on the kids of the widowed person to both convince them to remarry, and to arrange weddings.
Take Secondwedlock.com, which has more than 320 active profiles of men and women between the ages of 40 and 70 seeking remarriage. The website allows users to short-list potential matches through multiple search criteria — from caste and age to educational qualifications and geographical location. Hyderabad-based matrimonial service Thodu Needa holds quarterly meetups where several hundred senior citizens typically show up. In Chennai, Vasantham Remarriage Services has already helped 31,000 couples find partners — about a third of them over the age of 60.
There is no shame in admitting that you feel lonely and that you need a partner.
Natubhai Patel, 69-year-old founder of Vina Mulya Amulya Sewa, a marriage bureau for seniors
Since 2014, Ahmedabad-based Anubhandana Foundation has held matchmaking events in Indian cities for people between the ages of 50 and 60, usually welcoming more than 250 attendees. In Kolkata last year, the city’s sports journalists club held an event with a local NGO for seniors to find potential partners. An old-age home outside Kolkata called Thikana Shimla in 2016 started a service for seniors to find companionship and has since held meetups. They had 50 people over the age of 50 sign up for the service within a month of its launch. And Patel, who organized Vina Mulya Amulya Sewa’s first swayamvar in Ahmedabad in 2011, now travels across the country to help seniors find partners, and has held meetups in the states of Bihar, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Indian society, says Patel, is slowly changing, which is why more and more widows, widowers and their kids are approaching his organization. “There is no shame in admitting that you feel lonely and that you need a partner,” he says. “It is as simple as this: When you feel hungry, we eat food. When you find yourself lonely, you know you need a companion.”
True, the number of older people getting married is rising elsewhere too. According to the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics, the number of British brides and grooms over the age of 65 went up by 46 percent between 2004 and 2014. But in conservative societies across Asia and Africa in particular, there’s a far deeper tradition — especially for women — of staying widowed. Many of these nations also lack strong social security networks for the elderly. Children are expected to take care of their parents in India and China. Without support from their kids, remarriage is often next to impossible in these countries. All of which makes the shift in India a potential model for other conservative societies.
In fact, some of the remarriage services cropping up in India are being led by those who’ve seen their parents or in-laws struggle with loneliness late in life. Kumar Deshpande, a 41-year-old businessman from Mumbai, watched his father-in-law unravel into an emotional mess after his wife’s death some years ago. That’s when he decided to look for a partner for him. Given the taboo attached to widowers and seniors getting married in India, he faced criticism and opposition from his family. But he stuck at it, and “could see the change in him after his remarriage,” Deshpande says. Now Deshpande takes up similar cases in other cities and towns through his foundation Kumar Deshpande Foundation.
By helping their parents find partners, younger Indians with global aspirations also help relieve some of the social and emotional guilt they feel when they have to leave parents behind and shift countries for work or education, suggests Deshpande. “Children are eager to find their parents partners,” he says. Hyderabad-based doctor Venkateswara Reddy was 54 years old when he lost his wife. It was his U.S.-based son who convinced him to sign up on Secondwedlock.com. On the site, he quickly found his second wife, marrying a month later.
Others search for partners for parents or older relatives who may have been single for several years but struggle more with loneliness as they age. Mumbai-based Praveen Kumar Srivastava’s uncle had been alone for 32 years when the nephew approached Patel for help.
For sure, the societal taboo against remarriage isn’t gone. “It is only because of society that [senior citizens] are scared to admit that they feel lonely,” says Mukesh Limbajia, a supervisor with Vina Mulya Amulya Sewa. That’s particularly so for women in India. On Secondwedlock.com, profiles of men outnumber those of women by a ratio of 5-to-1. “There are certain sections of society who still look down upon senior citizens getting married,” says Patel. “That needs to change.”
Some worry about whether it’s really love that’s driving matches. “Is it because they need someone who can cook for them?” wonders Aaditya, a former volunteer with Vina Mulya Amulya Sewa who requested that his last name be withheld. After all, in India, women have traditionally been burdened with household and kitchen work.
But Patel is convinced that loneliness and the search for companionship are the driving forces for most seniors to remarry. Because of the taboo associated with marrying late in life, the role of children will remain vital, Nandini Chakraborty, co-founder of matrimonial site marrygold.in once said. “It is less awkward for an elderly person to talk to his son or daughter than a stranger from a marriage bureau,” she says.
And slowly, convincing parents is getting easier for their kids. With Tara, “it didn’t take a lot of convincing because she was feeling lonely,” says her daughter-in-law. “Today she tells me that she is happy.”