The Netflix series Indian Matchmaking addresses a traditional Indian (rather South Asian) problem which has taken a modern turn.
Unsurprisingly, most participants are working women around my age, struggling to find a match within their own communities. However, the show resonated with me because of matchmaking experiences that I have witnessed in my family.
Although I am not married, I have accumulated a lot of matchmaking experiences vicariously.
My Uncle's 'Matchmaking' Experience
One of my uncles moved to the US in the 1980s to become a doctor. By the 1990s, he was convinced he will die alone and created panic in the household through those insanely expensive long-distance calls. My grandparents, who were also my informal guardians, got right down to work. My father's is a love marriage, so I guess now they wanted to live their dream of finding a bahu.
But my uncle had very strict criteria - fair, tall, slim, gorgeous beyond belief and a doctor. Neither Cleopatra nor Helen of Troy would do. I now wonder if this obsession with fairness, height and status could have stemmed out from his time in Texas. He was also handsome himself, so maybe he wanted someone to match him.
Seema Taparia, the matchmaker of the show, is right - he was also “ordering a partner from a menu.”
My grandfather published an advertisement in an Urdu newspaper sometime in 1994, and a barrage of letters came through. Some uncle would sing praises of his niece (lakhon mein ek, chand sa mukhra), a mother tried to bribe with some lucrative dowry (a brand-new Honda motorcycle that didn't tempt my uncle), while others said they have multiple daughters we could 'choose' from.
Some letters arrived with return stamps and multiple photos of girls that lasted in my grandfather’s secret files for decades, because he didn’t know what to do with them. He didn’t want to tear or burn them. He planned to send them back but that never materialized. When he died in 2014, I was left with those files and I didn't know what to do with them. I wish the girls' parents had understood privacy a little better. But by then these young girls must have been middle-aged and hopefully fulfilled in whatever life gave them.
At that time, yours truly was seven, roughly three feet tall, and a keen observer already. I carried the same hairstyle as Mithun Chakraborty in Disco Dancer and my eyes were always lined with kohl. I sat on many sofas and lived through the traditional matchmaking disaster. My sole task was to follow my grandparents like a meek little puppy, despite secretly judging everyone in my imaginative little mind.
What The Show Depicted
The second season of Indian Matchmaking was recently released in eight parts on Netflix. Most of the people have either been too busy with their careers or else were commitment-shy. Nevertheless, the majority of the participants are Indians living in the US and wanted to marry within their communities. Just like my uncle did in the 1990s. The process is almost as old as the 80s and 90s. Except that now people wonder if their dogs will get along with their partner or if they have to slog through a hiking date with someone who is outdoorsy. Seema Taparia has been the butt of many jokes, but she honestly deserves an award for coming up with so many unique potential matches. I have no idea why she wears yellow - perhaps she has to be always prepared for a surprise dholki, lest a difficult client might suddenly decide to get hitched?
As a viewer, we probably notice what precisely is brewing. As fickle as people are, much of the matchmaking is about looks. People focus on appearances and usually seek someone better-looking than themselves.
These folks meet at glamorous restaurants and consume exotic food. In the hunt for my uncle's bride, we had to settle with samosas, nimko and pakoras. No margaritas, only chai. My grandmother mostly cooked desi food, but some of the potential mothers-in-law served macaroni or Russian salads. I guess they thought we too are coming from Texas. Despite strict instructions from my grandfather to neither stare at the food nor eat too much, I did succumb to the temptations. I could feel his gaze from the corner of his eyes. Occasionally, the hosts would insist I take another helping of custard or extra chutney to dip my vegetable roll in and I graciously agreed. Running around was not allowed unless there was a garden behind the house or some host's children wanted me to join them.
The houses were a spectacle. Sometimes we had to climb several dozen stairs to reach a romantic old Lahore's quarter or soak up the afternoon sun in a large manicured garden of a dreamy mansion. I vividly remember one lively home full of many sisters and swings in Gujranwala. There was another on Lahore's posh Zafar Ali Road, which had an umbrella collection that enchanted me for years to come.
Some potential brides strutted their stuff with faces covered in layers of powdery makeup, while others were too shy to even look up.
We went all over Lahore and Punjab to find my uncle's mate, only to have him gun it down on the phone. Many girls refused him too. They didn't want to relocate to the US or said he was too old for them. Sometimes, different members of the family approved or disapproved of some girl. Arguments occasionally broke out until my uncle vetoed them all.
We see the participants in the show go through a similarly perplexing time. You see, if you treat people like restaurant menus the task can become daunting. In December 1994, my uncle flew down to Karachi and married the first girl he met within two days of meeting her. On Christmas day, he put a ring on her and put an end to this two-year-long family ordeal. Although I enjoyed this intimate peak into people's lives, the experience was harrowing enough for me to forever avoid the matchmaking process. There is no escape from a family-orchestrated arranged marriage catastrophe that one walks into unknowingly at the pinnacle of one's youth.
The writer is a journalist from Lahore who tweets as @ammarawrites.