In India, some of the most entertaining reading on a Sunday afternoon is found in the classified ads. Page after page, the matrimonial section trumpets the finer qualities of India's sons and daughters.
Parents looking to marry off their children often place ads such as this one: "Wanted: Well-settled, educated groom for fair, beautiful Bengali girl, 22, 5'3"."
The matrimonial ads are a hallowed tradition in the quest to find a life partner — part of the institution of matchmaking that is as old as the country itself.
But in India, rising economic wherewithal and aspirations of a new generation of women are giving that ancient institution a modern twist.
Making Matches En Masse
In this new India, picture water gentling lapping at a launch in Mumbai, where some 45 young men and women clamor aboard yachts for a sunset sail. Organizers Simran and Siddharth Mangharam say they were deluged by takers eager for a spot on one of the four sailboats captained by former members of India's Olympic sailing team.
The Mangharams are the founders of Floh, a network for India's singles. Siddharth says the idea sprang from the first time he met his wife at a friend's party over a plate of — of all things — blue cheese.
"Stinky blue cheese, which not too many people like, but I loved it, and I still love it," Siddharth says. "And so did Simran."
He says they talked for "an hour before we even introduced ourselves."
Their casual encounter ripened into marriage, and Siddharth seized on the idea of serendipitous meetings to connect the sexes. In a country that frowns on dating, Floh unites the unmarried en masse in activities ranging from cookouts to vintage car rallies, which Simran says fill a void.
"People do feel very lost once they've exhausted the various ways of meeting people," Simran says. "They really don't know how to plug into another circle. It's very difficult in our country, very difficult."
With 500 members paying $300 in dues, plus the cost of activities, the company is finding it difficult to keep up with the bankers, tech wizards and teachers clamoring to join.
"They want to become members. They want to meet other single people," Siddharth says. "So people are flying across the country to meet like-minded folks. And a lot of them are actually hearing about Floh from their parents ... their parents who are looking to get them hitched," he laughs.
A New Independence
With pressure to pair off intense, young, professional, urban women are flocking to Floh; they outnumber the men, 60-40.
Geetu Singh, a financial consultant, flew in to Mumbai from Delhi. At the post-sailing party, the 34-year-old single woman says education and the new financial independence it brings are eroding the age-old compulsion to be married by the time a woman hits her twenties. Singh applauds young women who are putting off their wedding day.
"It's just brilliant to see," Singh says. "To see how independently they decide, 'No, I'd like to wait. I want the right man. Don't force me into a relationship.' "
Mumbai-based businesswoman Shyra Mogul returned to India last year with U.S. citizenship and a desire to find her soul mate in her native land. She says young girls like her grew up on Bollywood romance fairy tales, which typically feature a rich girl who fights with her family to marry the love of her life.
"And he's pretty much, in economic terms, a loser. He's not rich; he's not making that much money; typically he's not that educated," Mogul says. "But she wants to marry him, so this whole war is about fighting the family for love."
Most Indian marriages are still arranged affairs, though the debate about whether love matches are more satisfying than arranged matches rages on. But Mogul, who escaped an abusive marriage in her 20s, says one is not necessarily better than the other.
"At the end of the day, it's still living with the person and adjusting and compromising," Mogul says. "But again, you can reduce the compromise and be happy and still enjoy your life if you're more compatible."
And in India, that usually means "compatible" with the family. Even as modernity and tradition collide in the way young women are finding life partners, one belief abides: that marriage in India is not a union of two people, but of two families.
Pleasing The Parents
According to Gourav Rakshit, the CFO of the online matchmaking service Shaadi.com (shaadi means "wedding"), the vast majority of his company's 20 million users say familial compatibility is the most important consideration in finding a mate.
"Their potential partner will have to be accepted by their families. Their families will need to meet, they will need to like each other, and only then will that match move forward," he says. "But parental acceptance is very much part of matchmaking and marriage in India, and that has not gone away with the Internet."
Indian society places such a premium on marriage that there is not much room to stay single. Jyotsna Kini, 36 and divorced, says the expectation is that she will find another groom. And even a second time around, Kini couldn't conceive of her family not being at the core of that decision.
"They've sort of been the ones to stick with me through everything," Kini says. "Moving from continent to continent, moving from husband to being single ... all this stuff, they've been my rock. So I'll trust them because why shouldn't I?"
With the family as a pillar, Shaadi.com says 10,000 new users a day are taking the leap into online matchmaking. Sonali Manjrekar, 38, says her parents had been looking for a partner for her since she was 22.A foot taller and eight years younger than she, Manjrekar finally got her fiancée.
"You have to kiss a lot of frogs," she says, "before you find Prince Charming." She found her husband-to-be online after he allayed one of her biggest fears.
"I was always scared that if I marry a man who says, 'I don't want you to pursue a career further,' it would not be something that I would digest just like my mom or my grandmom did in the past," she says. "So, he is not like that. There's a sense of freedom with him. He lets me breathe."
'It's Their Choice'
Newlywed Jennifer Pandya picked her husband online from a field of some six candidates in one year. She admits it was rapid work, but says it is also a measure of "how progressive the Indian women are getting."
"There was a time when you would not even see the face of the person whom you were getting married to until you were already married," Pandya says. "And you had no say whatsoever in your life. And today I'm not saying it's the perfect scenario, but we've definitely moved leaps and bounds."
Nita Jha, a successful matchmaker at the high-end matrimonial firm Sycorian, says what today's young women want — chemistry and companionship — versus what parents want for them — status and security — is now in constant conflict.
"Girls are furiously independent. It's their choice," Jha says. "They are rejecting guys left, right and center."
And, Jha says, "it's high time" they have options.
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