If anyone told me I would fall in love with someone I met online, I would have laughed until it hurt. But that’s exactly what happened thanks to Shaadi.com, a popular Indian dating site bringing together matches already made in heaven. It’s arranged marriage done the modern way.
After a string of bad relationships, my parents urged me to find a good desi boy to marry before I turned 30. So I signed up for the dating site upon hearing successful stories of my friends finding their spouses online. But unlike my American friends, the hardships of Indian online dating went far beyond being stood up or ghosted. The day I met my match was the beginning of a long road of obstacles, both heavenly and earthly, and it was just the wakeup call I needed.
Within a few weeks of having my profile up, he found me. Let’s call him Mr. Shaadi. He wasn’t tall, dark, and handsome like I envisioned, but cute and charming. He was an immigrant like me who had come to the States for higher education. He worked as an engineer by day and pursued an MBA by night: an Indian parent’s dream.
“Life is full of surprises,” and “I like to look at the glass as half full,” he philosophized on his profile. I was surprised to have found an optimist who embraced the twists of life. And even more surprised the website had gotten it right; our backgrounds couldn’t have been more compatible. We both grew up in Andhra Pradesh, a land with immense natural beauty located on the southeastern coast of India. Our mother tongues and castes were identical. We both assimilated to the American culture, which made it easier to connect. We would go from talking about the tribal disputes in our home state to the effects of the recession in America. He lived in Chicago and I in the suburbs of New York, but the distance didn’t matter when everything else seemed right.
Unlike my American friends, the hardships of Indian online dating went far beyond being stood up or ghosted.
For the first few months, we were glued to our cell phones. We shared childhood stories about running barefoot through rice fields, eating delicious mangoes in the summertime and taking long train rides through picturesque villages. We reminisced about the movies we loved and spent hours watching our favorite filmy songs on YouTube.
When he flew to meet me after two months of talking, he gave me a mix CD of all “our” songs. I couldn’t wait for him to meet my family, who were eager to meet the young man who managed to win my heart.
That same weekend, I had arranged for him to come to our house for dinner. The short car ride from his hotel was fraught with anxiety, as I ran through scenarios in which my parents would find some fault in him or vice versa. When I first mentioned Mr. Shaadi to my mother, the first question she had was, “What does his family think of you?” Honestly, I had no idea.
All my adult life, I had thought all two people needed was love to make it work. People say that a relationship isn’t between just two people, but the entire families. It’s even more true for Indian families. My parents, despite having lived in America for more than 15 years, still followed religious and cultural traditions of the motherland. They’d go to the temple and host gatherings for special holidays. His kin lived in India, but he kept in touch with his mother daily. It was expected of us to get the final approval from both families before our relationship went further.
When Mr. Shaadi arrived at our Long Island home, my parents did their best to impress him (as parents of a daughter would customarily do). They bought him expensive gifts and introduced him to our relatives. My mom cooked him his favorite biryani, and my father tried to inquire about his background in between bites. I could tell he was a bit nervous, which I thought it was normal for any boyfriend. At the end of the visit, I was grateful they didn’t bring up anything negative, and had given their approval on the condition that he made me happy.
It was expected of us to get the final approval from both families before our relationship went further.
We waited until his winter break four months later for me to meet his relatives in India. After three plane rides and lugging two suitcases stuffed with my fanciest clothes and gifts for his folks, I made the 8,000-mile journey. Friends eagerly waited for us to come back engaged with a wedding date set. Things would normally move fast once both families approved, and despite being stuck in the middle seat for hours, my heart was full of hope for what’s to come.
Dressed in my finest sari, royal pink with a floral gold design, I arrived at the nearby hotel’s restaurant where my relatives arranged for all of us to meet. My aunt, who filled in for my mother, helped me with my makeup, and my uncle drove us. Upon arriving, I was greeted with smiles and both his parents immediately began discussing me with my relatives as if I wasn’t even there. The day also happened to be Mr. Shaadi’s birthday, and I had asked the waiter to bring a cake, unbeknownst to me that his mom had also done so. We ended the night with two celebrations, but not the one I had traveled such a long distance for.
A day after I returned home, our relationship came to a screeching halt. It seemed the stars didn’t align after all. Literally. Mr. Shaadi relayed the message that his mother’s astrologer deemed us an incompatible match. I was heartbroken.
“But your profile didn’t have an astro sketch,” I said angrily. Popular Indian matrimonial sites like Shaadi.com and Bharatmatrimony.com have users include an astro sketch, a character analysis based on the individual’s sign for matching purposes. Despite India’s rapid economic and technological boom, Hindus, who comprise a vast majority of its population, still rely on Vedic astrology to guide their lives. This Eastern horoscopic system, a branch of the Vedas (Hindu scriptures), has a different zodiac than its western counterpart. The priest predicts the probability of events happening based on the prevailing planetary positions at the time and place of a person’s birth. For marriage, he studies the Raasi (the moon signs) of the individuals, and implements a 36-point system. The higher the number, the better the alliance. Our number wasn’t high enough. How could we possibly argue with celestial bodies?
A day after I returned home, our relationship came to a screeching halt. It seemed the stars didn’t align after all. Literally.
“This isn’t easy for me either,” said Mr. Shaadi. He suggested we still continue dating. I was drained from the arduous journey, and my rational side wanted to quit and run, but the optimist in me hoped his side would eventually forget the horoscopes. Within weeks, the answer became clear to me.
Mr. Shaadi wanted me to cosign a loan for his continuing education. As a U.S. citizen, my signature meant he could be eligible for a subsidized loan as opposed to a higher-interest private loan available for those on student visas. It wasn’t a blatant demand for dowry, but it might as well have been. From the beginning, I had said that we were against the dowry system, a long-held tradition of giving the groom money as a condition of the marriage. Although outlawed decades ago, the beast continues to torment brides’ families in many forms ― requests to pay for higher studies, down payments on a house or apartment, or a fancy car. Even Indians outside of the country aren’t exempt from the clutches of this obsolete custom.
“If you loved me, you’d do this for me,” he said. I knew then what I had to do. I didn’t want to be responsible for someone’s debt, nor did I want to be pressured into giving a dowry indirectly. I realized it wasn’t true love if we let customs and traditions get in our way. I decided I loved myself more than I loved him and ended it.
Three years later, I found the love of my life on a different dating website. This time, there was no need for horoscopes, long journeys or jumping through hoops to impress his family. There was definitely no talk about a dowry. Scott, an attractive mensch born and raised in New York, managed to impress my mother with his sweet nature and love of South Indian food. My father, impressed with his smarts and humor, gave his approval the moment they met. Scott’s mother liked me from our email communications long before meeting in person. His dog-loving father cherished the fact that I came with a beautiful blue-eyed furbaby. Two years after meeting, we had a lovely civil ceremony on the date and time we saw fit. We will soon be celebrating five years together.
I recently came across pictures from my India trip nearly 10 years ago now. In one, I was sitting in the backseat of a car on my way to see my relatives when he captured the shot. Behind me, through the window, a billboard advertising a clothing brand can be seen, with the word Scott written across it in bold letters. Perhaps the stars were trying to tell me something after all.
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