Shapely Gal is a weekly-ish newsletter that discusses love, relationships, marriage and the various markets these are traded on. This newsletter is a concoction of observations, theories, ideas, real stories, figments of imagination and sometimes just rants on romantic relationships.
Holy smokes, what a week it’s been. Until last week, I thought I was the only one obsessed about this but looks like the whole world has a thing or two to say about matchmaking, thanks to the Netflix show, Indian Matchmaking. So, obviously, this edition of the newsletter is going to be about the show.
First things first, I thought the show was well made, and I quite enjoyed watching it. No, I don’t mean it in a way that I got some sick pleasure out of watching people struggle to find partners or some others being pressured into marriage by their parents. I just mean that I could empathise with almost every single person on the show as I’ve known ‘em all through M.B.A.
I thought the format was interesting - interviews with elderly couples, the criteria slides, the diversity of issues or even just how the stories were told. The pressure, agony, excitement, frustration, anxiety and every other emotion on the show was all too real. If foreigners are stupid enough to think that this one show defines India, so be it. Personally, I am glad it has opened up conversation within our own country, which was much needed.
The only thing that I am truly amazed by is how these people agreed to be filmed because most people choose to keep this very private. This also means that getting the word around in this business can be quite challenging, unless of course the matchmaking aunty is an algorithm sitting inside a dating application.
So, why are people ashamed to talk about it?
Disclaimer: Anyone with a Netflix account, and having watched/ outraged/ seen outrage about this show on media is urban. So for the sake of this post, let’s assume that the rural population of India remains unaffected by the show, and hence, this post too shall blissfully let them do their thing. Just as in the show, in this post, when I say people, I am referring to a section of the society that is urban and educated (irrespective of class, creed, colour).
Firstly, people believe love is a private matter, and must not be discussed or displayed publicly. Secondly, people of our generation are independent thinking, and believe that marriage is a choice, and one to make on their own. When they find themselves wanting to enlist help from others (parents, apps, matchmakers, etc.) to get married, they perceive it as a mark of personal failure. So, they refrain from discussing it widely.
People feel the same way about finding jobs too. Interestingly, the pandemic has shown us that it is okay to lose a job, and double okay to publicly reach out for help in finding a new job. It wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. So, people will reserve their judgement, provide empathy and actually help you.
If single people felt safe about opening up about being single, and seeking help from their network to meet interesting people, would the world be different? May be.
Every time I post something about M.B.A or Dinner Club on Linkedin, a lot of my connections come view my profile, but don’t necessarily react to my post. Dating or matrimonial apps and services make people uncomfortable.
So, how are we ever going to normalise the struggle of being “single and looking” with an attitude like this?
The show normalises struggle.
Whether you are a single person looking for a partner, parent trying to get your adult son/ daughter married or a matchmaker trying to provide liquidity in a rather illiquid market, the struggles are all too real. It is very easy to feel alone in this journey, no matter who you are, because people don’t talk about it enough.
Successful women don’t talk about their struggles, because they’ve dealt with challenges all their lives without even realising it, and they derive their strength from it. So if they’re actually looking for a partner, and struggling with it, unlike Aparna on the show, you’ll never hear them whine about it. So I’ll give Aparna credit for really putting herself out there as I know how incredibly lonely the journey can be.
I’ve had several amazing women break down during our sessions because there is constant self-imposed pressure, self doubt and after having tried for several years, you just become more jaded. When you watch the show, some of you might feel annoyed with Aparna, but I deeply empathise with her struggles. And I am sure, a lot of women feel relieved to know they’re not alone.
The market that Aparna is in, is illiquid and it’s hard to see that if you aren’t a middleman and understand both sides of it. While Aparna appreciates the role of a middle(wo)man, it takes her a while and an astrologer(!!!) to interpret market feedback.
Friendly, beautiful, independent and vulnerable women like Nadia struggle too. It’s true, I know many such women. There can be several reasons - they belong to small communities, they live in remote places, they’re more qualified than median women in their communities, they’re public figures, they’re too nice to get their way, etc.
However, the arranged marriage market is never an answer for their struggles, because if anything this market is highly illiquid for people like Nadia, offering little respite. She is better off finding a partner on her own given that she still has a reservoir of optimism. Based on my own experience as a matrimonial coach, I can see coaching as being beneficial to someone like Nadia, but definitely not matchmaking.
I loved the outcome of the show for Ankita. This doesn’t happen very often. To get people to see the light of this option is pretty challenging, especially because after having tried for several years to find a partner, people perceive this as an admission of failure. It was clear from the show that Ankita’s priorities were elsewhere, and investing time to find a partner at this point didn’t show promise of a high pay-off.
The one thing that amazed me about Ankita’s story though was the bit where she gets pissed off with Gita, instead of with Kshitij. During the date, Ankita explicitly asks Kshitij about his last relationship, and he chooses not to mention his divorce. If not for going into the details, Kshitij surely had the onus to clarify his relationship status when asked about it. But he chose not to, yet Ankita was angry with the messenger.
As you can see from Ankita’s story, previous relationship status is an important datapoint in making a partner decision irrespective of how independent or liberal you are. Given that people prefer to have this information upfront, it creates bias.
It is hardly trivial to adapt to living with another adult, let alone someoneone with legally acknowledged emotional baggage. Whether that baggage comes from them or is in your head, it doesn’t matter. Add children from a previous marriage to the mix, it becomes even more complicated. Unless you’ve similar experiences or deep empathy, you are unlikely to accept this challenge.
So, I think Rupam’s decision to leave the market was a good one. She deserves love, just as anyone else, and is more likely to get it from someone who doesn’t start with the bias of her being a divorced single mum.
Men like Vyasar, especially Indians, struggle on a regular basis.
While women may hate patriarchy, a lot of them find it challenging to accept a man who makes less money than an average man of similar demography, let alone lesser than themselves. Men might choose to become stay-at-home dads after they’re married, but almost no woman in the marriage market will marry a man who says that before marriage.
Strangely, this is similar to the fate of women who aren’t good looking by conventional standards. Good heart has no place in the marriage market, at least not if you aren’t bringing good looks or money to the table.
A lot of the outrage is about him being gay/ asexual, and that not being acknowledged on the show. But personally, I thought he was on the wrong show. Shouldn’t he have been on Masterchef or Next in Fashion?
He comes from a wealthy family, which means the only proposals he probably gets are from similar families. But the problem is, sometimes, people confuse wealth for class. This means, he’s likely had wildly irrelevant proposals from rich families who are very traditional unlike his own.
However, as an outsider, it is easy to assume that he’s rejected 100s of women because he is a spoilt rich kid. He is rich, has a family business and is Marwari, and that maybe a fairly liquid market, but not if you’re someone with eclectic interests and specific requirements from a partner.
In some sense, his profile is similar to Aparna’s where it is easy to be misunderstood by traditional matchmakers.
This story was the one closest to my heart. If there is one thing that I would dedicate my life to, it would be to help people adult, especially from the context of dating and relationships. Despite having lived away from home during undergrad in America, Akshay still lives like a 10 year old taking instructions from his parents. For most of us, it is frustrating to watch.
But I know that it is a lot more frustrating to be him. When you’re part of a family business, you’ve very little freedom to make independent decisions, even after your parents have ceased to be active in the business. There’s too much at stake.
I know people who’ve left their family businesses to lead independent lives, and have a healthy relationship with their families. But I also know people who haven’t been able to, and continue to marginally improve their constrained lives everyday. It is not easy.
PREETI (AKSHAY’S MUM)
Preeti is your typical loving homemaker, whose entire married life has been about running her household and rearing her children, including having them married off at an age dictated by her community. She thrives on her world appreciating her for having this under control. Watching her 25 year old son still unmarried feels like a personal failure, and you can see that at her lunch parties.
Like most mothers, Preeti has the best intentions for her children, however, given her exposure in life, she fails to see the disservice she is doing her adult children from this generation. She is rubbing off her nervous energy onto her son, who obviously is caught between wanting to adult, and not.
Despite being from different worlds, Aparna’s mum isn’t very different from Akshay’s mum. Both have been projecting their own baggage and needs onto their children.
What both mothers need is feedback.
Well, you and I may be nobody to give these women feedback. However, the interference of such parents in the lives of adult children is not going to fly very well with the prospective partners. Especially, if the partners happen to be independent.
So, how does one give such parents feedback?
This is a tough one. Just before COVID happened, I was preparing to launch a new workshop for parents. The aim was to help them understand what (their)children expect these days, and how they can support their relationship aspirations as parents.
I can’t speak for everyone, but the way I usually deal with nervous calls from parents is by first listening to their anxieties, assuring them that their anxieties are common and informing them that I only work with people who are looking to get married, and not the parents. Sometimes, this does the job. I’ve met wonderful parents who have learnt to let go and in turn enabled their children to adult through this process. But when I fail to enable this, I give up and make parody videos.
Because, at the end of the day, I am just a messenger.
Sima is just a messenger too…
Sima has taken the brunt of most outrage out there, and obviously running M.B.A., I empathise with her the most. She is a middle(wo)man, and her job is to provide liquidity in the marriage market. If you’re illiquid, her job also involves providing timely feedback so you can either “compromise” or switch to “the love market”.
She doesn’t invent the criteria, they are handed to her by clients, who are mostly parents. Through years of doing what she does, she’s noticed patterns in what works and what doesn’t, and applies that to her job. At the end of the day, she is merely a messenger, she is not the problem.
There is no need to be extra angry with her, just because she is a human and not a dumb algorithm on a dating app. When was the last time you were abusing the algorithm on Tinder for not showing you dates you deserve?
As a human, she brings her biases to matchmaking, like any other matchmaker. That’s why you have thousands of matchmakers, if not millions, because you will go to the ones whose biases align with yours the most.
Apps are not very different either. They bring their own biases, and you choose Tinder or Shaadi, depending on who you are or what you’re looking for. Just because they don’t suit your individual needs, doesn’t make the apps or its creators vile.
Has Tinder changed the dating culture in India? Sure. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? I don’t know, it depends on who you are.
and I empathise with her.
At M.B.A, I don two different roles - matrimonial search assistant and matrimonial advisor.
When my clients sign up on the assistance program, they are well aware of the limitations of supply, and hire my services only to help save time and effort in cutting through the noise. I am not incentivised to suggest that they compromise, or even provide unwanted advice.
When they sign up for the advisory program, they expect an outsider’s perspective on their struggles, proxy feedback from the market and some help facilitating introspection with respect to partner preferences. This means, they willingly come to me because they are looking to get married, and not because their parents hired me.
Although I call myself Marriage Broker Auntie, I’ve never prescribed marriage to anyone. I’ve even had to suggest the contrary sometimes.
I may not adopt the same methodologies as Sima, or have the same world view as her, but it’s not difficult for me to empathise with her. I know what it’s like to not have access to all the single people in the world. I know what it’s like when someone’s parent is more interested in getting their kids married than the kids. I know what it’s like to work with people who expect miracles from you, just because they pay you.
The service is priceless, but we must put a price on it.
There’s obviously a lot of outrage about Sima travelling the world to meet her clients and robbing them of their money and what not. In fact, from my own personal experience, I can tell you that people think it is sinister to charge money for matchmaking. I do plenty of free calls with friends, and relatives. But this is from a stranger:
Mom says "Why should I pay someone else for matrimonial search?” She's a tad bit conservative but is very sweet. Can you do me a favor if you will? Can you call her once and convince over a 5-10 minute call that why should she pay to consult with you?
Manufacturing liquidity when there appears to be none takes talent. Whether a matchmaker works hard to continuously increase their database, provides valuable market feedback or manufactures serendipity in a way that you can’t on your own, it is still a service that is priceless. How well he/she does the job says a lot about how much the service is worth.
If you don’t incentivise matchmakers to do their jobs well, you will only have people who’ve nothing better to do with their time, doing it. There are plenty of you who’ve worked with relationship managers who can barely spell your name let alone understand where you come from or what you’re looking for.
So, if you’re in the market, it’s up to you to figure out what you need help with and who you want to incentivise to get your job done.
If this doesn’t convince you on why matchmakers are important, then may be you should read what my other half has to say. If he’s the better half or not, you figure.
More from Shapely Gal
Here’s a little sneak peak into the various projects I am working on:
Dinner Club - This weekend, it’ll be a month since Dinner Club was launched, and we’ve had our 50 first (month) dates. If you/ someone you know is single, and is looking for a new dating experience, here’s a link to sign up.
Ask Auntie: Interestingly, this video is about how to deal with frustration due to parents asking you to “compromise”.
Arrange Your Own Marriage: Last week’s episode was all about arranged marriage dates - how to organise them, where to meet, what to wear and how to assess them.
Ask Priyanka: Last week, I spoke about the influence of conflict resolution styles on relationships.
what I’m reading/ watching:
A suitable girl - a documentary about the Indian arranged marriage market by the same creators as that of Indian matchmaking.
The secret garden - Much respite after Grit. But I am still carrying some baggage from Grit to be able to get through this one quickly. Sigh.
P.S. - The participants of Indian Matchmaking are real people for fucks sake, so stop taking out your own frustrations via social media just because you can. If they ever made a show about how you or I did our jobs, how we tried to find jobs, what our employers ever thought of us or how the job market treats us, I bet it’ll be damn grand.