I had a “love marriage.” In Indian culture, this is a notable designation to make — at least among my parents’ generation. It implies that I found my husband on my own accord. Necessary follow-up questions may then include: Is he Indian? He is. From which part of India does his family originate? Maharashtra; I’m from Gujarat. And other information about him (occupation and age) and his family (how many in the nuclear unit, where do they live, their occupations, etc.) are inquired about. The people in our tight-knit community will all the while secretly scrutinize my parents’ level of happiness on the matter.
How do they really feel about their child having picked their own spouse?
My parents don’t have to feign their genuine pleasure because we had an understanding early on I’d be aiming for a “love marriage.” Of course, they, like 99 percent of families in the Indian diaspora, made their expectations clear: Bring home an Indian boy and get married at a “reasonable age” (this was a sliding scale, but we came to an agreement that by 28 was something we could all get on board with). In terms of “pressure,” that was about it. But my parents had also raised two strong-minded, independent daughters in the States, and we often made our opinions known.
While I wasn’t against marrying a Gujarati boy of the Patel caste if it happened naturally (yeah, the requests get pretty specific!), I reminded them constantly that it just wasn’t my priority. We went back and forth like this for most of my young adulthood. So they learned to temper their expectations accordingly. And when the aunties and uncles came calling with biodatas, or a document with information about a potential suitor, they politely said, “No, thank you. Not right now.” What they meant is, “She’s got it covered (hopefully). But we’ll let you know if we need the biodatas. Thanks so much for thinking of us.”
“My parents, like 99% of families in the Indian diaspora, made their expectations clear: Bring home an Indian boy and get married at a 'reasonable age.'”
Until about two weeks ago, people outside the diaspora may have considered this scenario with incredulity. But Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking” docuseries has thrust the age-old practice of Indian arranged marriages front and center. The show is a crash course on India’s “biodata culture,” for those unfamiliar with it. It’s answered questions for some, while others are bursting with curiosity and dying to unpack more.
For me — well, you know the feeling when someone lets out the skeletons from your closet, and it’s a mixed bag of emotions? Like relief mingled with shame mixed with an odd sense of pride because the world is finally seeing the real you, and you love being seen? That’s what it’s been like to watch. The show has pulled back the curtain on the good, the bad and the sheer hideousness of the biodata culture. And like many others in the diaspora, I binged the show, loving the new facet of representation it has offered Indians — albeit not without a reckoning of the outdated practices and prejudices that are intricately woven through Indian matchmaking.
My parents and every aunt and uncle I can think of (save for a few “rebels” who had love marriages) were arranged. Their parents and their parents before and their parents before, and so on, were arranged, as well. It’s just how it’s worked for hundreds of years, with each generation having a little more agency than the one prior. Two generations ago, for example, couples met and were married within days. My parents’ generation had weeks or maybe months, if they were lucky. Mine? As first-generation Westerners, we’ve made leaps and bounds. We date for years, have a real say in our choices of partners, and have yearlong engagements or longer.
“I binged the show, loving the new facet of representation it has offered Indians — albeit not without a reckoning of the outdated practices and prejudices that are intricately woven through Indian matchmaking.”
As one of the youngest cousins in my extended family, I grew up watching biodatas get passed around my family like trading cards. As soon as kids were finished with school, they were considered to be “on the market,” and fully single and ready to mingle. In a culture which believes the individual is only as strong as the community, elders take an interest in the younger generation’s marital unions.
In lieu of Sima Taparia, aunties and uncles play matchmakers. My dad, in this case, was known as “the guy” to call. He always seemed to have a pulse on who was entertaining biodatas and who might be available. It helped that my family lived centrally in Texas, while the others were scattered around the country in California, Oregon, Arizona and North Carolina.
With his impressive Rolodex, it’s surprising he didn’t just become a full-time matchmaker. As a result, I often caught wind of matches intended for my cousins before they did and dutifully shared the intel with them via AIM. In this way, I also helped advocate for their best interests and helped vet biodatas on some occasions. I was rewarded for my work by having the opportunity to meet some of these prospective suitors before other family members did, when Texas became the neutral meeting place for first meetings. In the days before reality TV, I really lived for this stuff. Many of my cousins are married now, with children — although, I’m not sure any of them have my dad to thank for their happy endings. Oh well, Sima’s record’s not all that great, either.
“My dad became 'the guy' to call because he always had a pulse on who was entertaining biodatas. I often caught wind of matches intended for my cousins before they did and dutifully shared the intel with them via AIM.”
Call it insufferable meddling or a deliberate safekeeping of culture through marriage, it’s still common for biodatas of suitors to end up in your inbox when you become “of age” ― even in the States. It’s a way to bolster familial bonds and ensure daughters’ financial security. In a quickly assimilating culture, Indian matchmaking also plays a crucial role in preserving our heritage. As I, too, cling on to Gujarati customs, recipes and language, while balancing a dual identity, I can fully appreciate how much easier it is to do having an Indian husband. He’s doing the exact same, and it’s the first time in our lives we empathize with our parents’ preferences that we marry someone Indian, if not someone from our own regions. I guess they were right: We would understand one day.
As an Indian American adolescent and teen, I was steeped in the romanticism of Western love stories — idolizing Mr. Darcys and Noah Calhouns. The best Bollywood movies, too, were based on the pursuit of love despite the very best attempts of your family to match you up with their suitor of choice. I don’t know one Indian girl who didn’t fantasize about finding her Raj on a friends’ trip after watching Shahrukh Khan woo Kajol in “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.” That love story is what little Indian girls’ dreams were made of.
We clung to the possibility of finding both love and liberation from the societal expectations that perpetuated oppressive norms for Indian women to become housewives and ultimately property of their husband and in-laws. Akshay’s mom, Preeti, from the show is a classic example of the end game for so many women who participate in this style of matchmaking, in which families control the reins and call the shots. While she doesn’t represent the modern Indian mother-in-law, she certainly isn’t on the fringe of society, either.
So where was the romance and promise of freedom in a biodata that detailed a person’s height, age, occupation and interests? There wasn’t, I decided. No, sign me up for a love marriage, please.
When meeting the Indian guy didn’t work out in college, I found myself single in New York City. It was 2013, and OKCupid and Tinder were the popular options. As a mid-20-something, I was keenly aware that online dating was taking off, but it didn’t enjoy the societal acceptance it does today. Knowing this, I questioned whether I would meet any like-minded Indian men on these platforms. I could’ve signed up on Shaadi.com, a matrimonial site for South Asians, and had my selection of Indian men. But besides the fact that I was still interested in dating at 24, sites like this were notorious for propagating casteist and colorist ideals. It was a hard pass.
But like my parents, it was personally important to me that I marry within my culture. I could see Indian culture quickly assimilating and disappearing, and the choice to have an Indian-Hindu partner was as much about feeling at home as it was about having a powerful tool in my toolbox when trying to preserve and pass down cultural traditions to our kids. It’s not what makes sense for everyone, but it made sense for me. At the behest of my New York friends, I signed up on OKCupid, where you can customize your search for the perfect partner by applying filters for age, height, location, etc. And voila! Profiles upon profiles of suitors are available for you to discover more about each one, such as their occupation, religion and interests …
“The irony is not lost on me today — and it wasn’t in 2013, either — that after years of rejecting biodatas and what they represent, I had willingly chosen to match myself up in a very similar, if not identical, way via online dating.”
The irony is not lost on me today — and it wasn’t in 2013, either — that after years of rejecting biodatas and what they represent, I had willingly chosen to match myself up in a very similar, if not identical, way. I was dating with a purpose, I would tell people. And much like the people on the show, I embarked on the process with the idea of a “perfection.”
It’s too easy to judge someone on TV when they vocalize their ideals for a perfect partner, but if we’re being real, the participants were just being honest about what almost half of American adults do behind a screen — Indian or not. I, like the show’s participants, also eventually realized through this process, what actually mattered and what was a “nice-to-have,” and I tweaked and tweaked my filters until eventually my husband showed up in my feed.
He was shorter than my “ideal” guy and younger, too. But we were the perfect match, both on paper and in real life. “Compromise,” I’ve learned, is something many treat like a dirty word. But when I tweaked the filters on my OKCupid search, accepting that compromising on a few inches of height didn’t mean I was “settling” for a less. This is what Sima tries to remind women like Aparna, as well.
Glimpses of the values by which we live, some of our most important shared interests, and the importance we assign to things like spirituality are easy to spot in those OKCupid biodatas — er, profiles. So, I messaged him, and we hit it off.
My husband and I were together for four years before we married (at 28, to my parents’ relief and pleasure), so I can’t totally relate to the condensed timelines of biodata-arranged marriages. I also vehemently disagree with forced arranged marriages for the sake of marrying, so I deeply appreciate the show highlighting women who remain single of their own volition. Because getting to know each other is important, having agency is crucial, and being on the same page about your futures is an absolute must.
“Despite the monumental progress we’ve achieved, witnessing matchmaking play out with my cousins revealed how deeply flawed our culture is in its emphasis on beauty and class and how it continues to fuel archaic gender roles and certain stigmas.”
In past generations, it’s obvious that these principles were of little, if any, consideration. Indian culture has historically regarded girls as burdens, and marrying them is the way to relieve parents of this burden. I saw this firsthand with older couples: Some lucked out, while others stuck it out in toxic relationships, too afraid of the stigma attached to divorce. Separating as a woman was a lifelong sentence as a pariah at best and the loss of financial security at worst. Arranged marriages don’t always work.
Despite the monumental progress we’ve achieved over the generations, witnessing matchmaking play out with my cousins and other older millennials always revealed how deeply flawed our culture is in its emphasis on beauty and class and how it continues to fuel archaic gender roles and certain stigmas. Colorism, sizeism and casteism abound.
And for divorceés like Rupam? It’s true, the selection is far less. For full-figured women like Ankita? It’s true, the world is unkind. And Sima is the megaphone for it all. Like many, I was repulsed listening to her unadulterated frankness on these topics. But I’d heard it all my life, and Sima represents the views of the majority. So disgusted as I was, I’m glad she aired out our dirty laundry. I know people — even in my generation — who’ll be quick to say, “That’s how it is.” And they’re right — but not just about Indian culture. These are universal ideals that are prevalent in almost every culture. Americans don’t exactly idolize darker, full-figured, divorced women, either.
So, I’m glad everyone knows now that “that’s the way it is.” Hopefully by surfacing these well-known, unspoken ugly truths about our standards for perfection, we’ll work to stop normalizing them.
As for me, I’ve learned that after years of rejecting biodatas for their lack of romance, it turns out they can lead to love marriages, after all.
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