12 December 2016
A rogue exploration of caste, class and gender on Shaadi.com
(This is an essay from our print quarterly ‘Online-istan’. See more from the issue here.)
Eds: All Shaadi.com users’ names have been changed to protect their identities.
On 17 May 2013, a few days after I joined Shaadi.com, the matrimonial website came up with a ‘Love, arranged by Shaadi.com’ campaign, with writer Chetan Bhagat at its helm. Both of the campaign’s ads showed a newly married, English-speaking couple, at ease with each other, learning to understand love between themselves. Towards the end of the ads came Bhagat, the paperback messiah of Indian English who, speaking in Hindi, invited everyone to join Shaadi.com to arrange life partners for themselves: “Un bees laakh logon ki tarah! Like those two million other people!”
It’s remarkable how two men with no personal history of arranged marriage – Bhagat’s 2009 novel was a semi-autographical bestseller, based on his love marriage, while Anupam Mittal, the flamboyant 39-year-old owner of Shaadi.com, has never been married at all – came together to ‘fix’ marriages for young Indians through this electronic portal. If that sounded like an unintended, trifling irony, it was only the first of many I was to witness during an odd stint at this, the “World’s Largest Matrimonial Website”.
Sonali Bose’s profile was among those I remembered from my first few days on the site. It wasn’t the most uncommon – or the most outrageous – of them all, yet there was something about the carefully studied ‘About Me’ description that evoked a quintessentially upper-caste attitude when it came to marriage: “Important: Although, our family does not believe in [the] traditional caste system (having an inter-caste setup ourselves),” it said, “[w]e are looking for an alliance from non-quota families / boys (No SC/ST/OBC).” This last caveat, for the uninitiated, was designed to deter those from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, as well as the so-called Other Backward Classes.
Sonali, 28, in search of a groom, was no simpleton, and appeared unaware of what this extraordinary discrimination entailed; she had a cosmopolitan upbringing in an elite Delhi family of managers and advisors to the government. Her profile mentioned that she was presently working with the Planning Commission of India, where she prepared “strategies for the five year plan”. Of her parents, her “father is Bengali Kayastha and mom a UP-Brahmin,” themselves entering into an inter-caste marriage three decades ago.
Sonali seemed clear about her electronic bridal mission: “Where are you working?” was the first thing she asked me, in the website’s chatroom, in reply to my initial pleasantries. I had a similarly upper-caste profile, similar age, working in a related sector, whose proposal she must have deemed fit for her shortlist. The next question: “Parents settled in Delhi?”
For someone new to this portal, and someone who can sometimes be hopelessly 1.0, such transactional conversation irked me. When I voiced my concerns, she responded that these “tough questions” were necessary, and needed to be addressed at the beginning of the conversation itself. She suggested I should have been better prepared.
Preparation was clearly important at Shaadi.com. Reeti Khanna, a 22-year-old actuarial consultant working with Ernst & Young in Gurgaon, was an “open minded, down to earth”, liberal Punjabi girl, who didn’t have too many guarded preferences. She was doing extraordinarily well with a seven-digit package, and often went partying with her all-girl crew to places like Goa, where they wrote “We Rock” on sands and clicked jovial photographs of themselves hugging one another. Contrasting somewhat with the Punjabi bridal ideal of a mannequin-thin, tall figure, Reeti was short, and had, until very recently, been fairly overweight.
She seemed clear about her electronic bridal mission: “Where are you working?” was the first thing she asked me, in reply to my initial pleasantries
Reeti’s pictures on Shaadi did not betray any excess weight, of course, though with prior information, one could see how the pictures had been choreographed to hide it. But Reeti had hit the gym some time back, and toned herself up. She was “[n]ot in a hurry but eventually I will [be],” she said, when I asked her about marriage. She spent time here so she could develop a pool of potential partners from which she could, eventually, choose the best bet. “Not yet,” she replied, extrapolating with sad emoticons, when I asked if she had found anyone interesting through the site.
But, as I learnt to wade through the architecture of the portal – its search engine, through which I could send ‘Interest’ requests to a diverse set of transnational profiles; the ‘premier benefits’ (a euphemism for paid-member facilities), through which I could email, chat, or make phone calls to members I most liked – I realised that my journalistic curiosity was becoming a personal limitation.
Not only was my profile unremarkable: 26, 5’6”, wheatish, New Delhi, Brahmin-Bhumihar, Madhubani, Maithili (an obscure Bihari, really!), my partner preferences didn’t really conform to the norms I witnessed on the pages of other members. I hadn’t mentioned the importance of family in my profile, nor a preference for the ideal Indian traits, often summed up by the bovine expression, ‘traditional with a modern outlook’. Nor had I suggested a partiality towards a particular caste or region. I simply stated that the girl should be liberal and well-read – whatever that meant – along with a few other inane preferences. A restricted, six-week timeframe also meant that I displayed what was perceived – in the protocol of the marriage market – as desperation: it was often I who approached, mostly by email, prospective brides or their families, rather than being chased by the other side.
All of which amounted to deviating from what was the norm on this portal: My profile was suspect, an enigma – very often “chosen to be responded to later”, which usually meant rejection, on account of being incompatible or unimpressive.
Matrimonial websites are a predominantly Southasian enterprise, and combine two extreme concepts. On one hand is the internet, which was envisaged by its creators as a method of ruthlessly questioning, disrupting and updating old institutions with new ideas and information. On the other, the arranged marriage system, which had always been a communal institution: A patriarchal artefact built around a network of families and relatives who have for centuries sought to reproduce caste purity, class privileges and the hierarchies of gender. Marriage in this context was designed not so much as a union between two individuals as a relationship between two families. Any private, individual notions of romantic love – if intended at all – were meant to be a happy by-product of marriage.
The large-scale social and geographic mobility of the last few decades, however, has rendered the communal nature of marriage and caste weaker, especially in urban areas. With traditional kin networks either distant or unavailable, it has become harder for families to find suitable partners for their children. Initially this led to the advent of brokers and classified advertisements, which catered to the city-dwelling, upwardly-mobile, English educated middle-class. Matrimonial websites first appeared in India in 1997.
Both Anupam Mittal’s Shaadi.com and its competitor, Murugavel Janakiraman’s BharatMatrimony.com, emerged from personal encounters: Mittal had dealt with a sly matchmaker who was attempting to ‘match him off’; Janakiraman established his website after he was unable to find a girl for himself through traditional avenues.
These websites were no path-breaking innovations. Inspired by dating websites in the West, they simply tailored their designs to cater to Indian needs: community; sub-castes; horoscopes; even that other Indian obsession, skin tones. A 2008 research paper by Archana Sharma found that the early version of Shaadi.com had the various sects of Islam and Christianity listed as castes. It also said that, while this version had many Brahmin sub-caste categories from which users – who were mostly upper-caste – could choose, the only lower castes the website recognised were called OBCs.
With Indian sensibilities in place, it was then just a matter of time before these sites started growing exponentially. The genius of Mittal and Janakiraman lay in handing the platform to an upwardly-mobile middle class, by using technology to serve an important social function.
The most common pattern I observed on the site was as follows: After joining the website, the individuals, or their families (who managed the account on behalf of their children), filtered for their most binding preferences – religions and communities, income, physical features, etc. From this narrow pool of profiles, they further shortlisted profiles on an individual basis, depending on whether they liked the other information (location or social status, for example). Finally, they were left with those who were to be contacted, via the website’s inbuilt email, chat, or – as the parents often preferred – phone calls. Such filtering, of course, suggests that new technology is being employed to reinforce the oldest Indian hierarchies, myths and stereotypes.
“[The websites] pose themselves as neutral,” sociologist Anuja Agarwal told me, “but they are commercial enterprises” and “would do anything that maximises their revenue.” Even though “people had always been predisposed to marrying within their own castes,” she said, these websites end up facilitating the rigidities because of the ease with which a large pool of data could be accessed on the web. “[The m]arket co-opts everything that serves its interest.”
“We are looking only for Rajputs if u read the prfile . thanx fr ur intrst,” the lady at the other end replied. It turned out the profile was managed by a Chicago-based computer engineer on her younger sister-in-law’s behalf, herself an engineer working in Pune. They were “strongly looking for [a] Rajput/Khatriya” groom who also had to have a “good sense of humour”. I was surely disqualified on the first account, but still pushed to see if things went any further: Wouldn’t they consider someone who could provide regular bouts of original humour, but was from another caste?
“Sorry but No.”
“But why?” I asked. “Answer only if you want to.”
“goodluck for ur search!” she said.
What was a lot more revealing to me, though, was that a surprisingly low number of profiles from my own feudal, Brahmin sub-caste had shown any interest in knowing me. After all, I thought, I am well-educated, had mentioned decent (if somewhat inflated) annual earnings, and also had writerly pretensions. Many rejected my advances straightaway, while the total number of requests I received stood at precisely one.
My requests, when they were accepted, were often from castes ranked below my own – from the OBCs and SCs – or from like-minded, mostly upper-caste girls, who had posted their own profiles, and, having hovered around 25 years of age, hunted for men in the post-work hours and on weekends.
In my journalistic pursuit, however, I sometimes ended up offending those with ‘lower-ranked’ profiles. “Our family has no such [caste] issues,” Sunita Yadav, a 27-year-old Hindi journalist from Noida told me, alleging, “looks like you are more worried.” I slowly learnt that the acceptance of the profile itself was meant to be a tacit approval on other matters, too.
Kirti Mandal, 27, who categorised her community as “Others”, worked as a store manager with a retail-mart in Indore. She briskly undertook her managerial duties even as she chatted to her prospective life-partners. “yaar i jus hate this cast n creed thing in india,” she told me. “i also remember ppl asking about my caste n gothra n ol dat stuff,” she said, “i tol thm i actually dnt knw abt it…n honestly i do not hv ne idea…n [I told them] if u do blv in such things i am not the one for u.”
After joining, the individuals or their families filtered for their most binding preferences: religions and communities, income, physical features, etc
My personal experiences reflected findings in a research paper by political scientists Amit Ahuja and Susan Ostermann. Their statistical results showed that all other factors – income, wealth, height, skin tone – remaining the same, one’s position in the caste hierarchy was negatively correlated with ‘boundary-crossing’ behaviour – which, to simplify, means that a larger percentage of prospective internet brides from the scheduled-caste category were interested in marrying into higher-caste categories than was the case vice-versa. This behaviour, they argue, is based on the principles of exchange: marrying into a higher caste helped lower castes escape the stigma of their status; for upper-castes, on the other hand, unless the groom had very good career prospects, caste lines were almost never breached.
“It’s unlikely that upper-castes wouldn’t find someone from their community who would also meet other [filter] criteria such as income,” said the sociologist Agarwal. “Emphasis on caste,” she said, is therefore “mostly a high-caste thing.” Sociologist Patricia Uberoi has similar views: “Same-caste marriages may also be prevalent because of [their promise of] bigger dowries, and status.”
Such preferences are prevalent in most parts of the country. Studying the preferences of urban Indian graduates from different regions, from a sample taken from Jeevansathi.com (the third most popular matrimonial site, after Shaadi and Bharat) in 2011, development researcher Ashok Gopal observed that – with the exception of eastern India – a higher percentage of women in other parts of the country were more particular about their partners belonging to “specific caste categories” than their partners earning more than two lakhs rupees (USD 3356) per annum. “Specific castes” meant a preference for their own castes, or the related castes or sub-castes. Eastern India was an exception, presumably because caste has often been deemed less important in West Bengal and the Northeast.
“That doesn’t mean income and other factors are not important,” said Agarwal. It simply meant that after the community filter was applied, the families would look for other criteria from the selected pool on a one-to-one basis, by traditional methods, she said.
Given that so far only a miniscule fraction of Indians use the electronic mode of partner-hunting, I asked Gopal if we could generalise caste preferences for the whole country, based on these online trends. Gopal said yes: It’s these people, the middle class, who are credited for the ‘Indian growth story’. The rest of the country – people who are yet to catch up – actually “aspire to be like them”.
The individual narratives of partner preference, however, were more varied and complex, and brought to the fore the anxieties and insecurities of living in a transnational world. “Moving to the US itself was a big thing for me!” Aanchal Iyer told me. “Love marriage is different, but if it’s an arranged marriage, you would rather have someone from a very similar background.” Aanchal, a 27-year-old Tamil Brahmin from the Iyer sub-caste, was assisted by one of these websites, and had what is known as varan marriage – a highly desirable partnering in the Tamil Brahmin community.
“A lot of things matter – food habits, culture, traditions – they vary even between the [Tamil Brahmin] sub-castes,” she said. Moving to another, completely different country, she wanted her new home to have the intimacy of the world she belonged to. Sub-caste, however, was just one of the things she was particular about: the groom also had to be a cartoon buff, someone who enjoyed Tom & Jerry and Tintin: “It’s a matter of wave-length!” Otherwise, she said, “you lose that amount of time that you could have spent together.” He also had to be from a different educational field, not someone who had studied finance like she had – to ensure that dinner table conversation never became a boring affair.
But once she got to know the guy (who is now her husband) online, she told me she was sure she wanted to marry him, even though their horoscopes didn’t match well – something unthinkable among an earlier generation of Tamil Brahmins. Talking to Aanchal gave me a sense that same sub-caste arranged marriages were seen as an honest and transparent transaction. It was a deal that left less room for confusion or misunderstanding, a safe way to exercise a certain degree of control over life in a fast-moving world.
Alas, for many others with ‘lesser’ endowments – especially the groom-seekers from ‘lower-ranked’ communities, many of whom were first-generation employees in the modern service sector – the dilemmas of preference were more evident. While they showed no preference for marrying into a particular community, they were also suspicious of the men they came across in their new spaces.
I met Rajni Gaderiya, a 27-year-old woman from the community of ‘Baghel/Pal/Gaderiya’ in Allahabad, who was a finance professional, and had recently started working at a software firm in Noida. “Ab toh aapki Delhi mein [proposals] accept karne se bhi dar lagta hai! But now I also feel afraid of accepting proposals in your Delhi!” Rajni told me. She said she felt unsafe as a single girl living and working in the national capital, especially in the wake of the horrendous Delhi rape case in December 2012. In the backdrop of her profile picture loomed a software tower. I asked Rajni if she found someone interesting in her office, someone she could see herself tying up with. “I go [to the] office [only] to work,” she said.
A lot more revealing, though, was that a surprisingly low number of profiles from my own feudal, Brahmin sub-caste had shown any interest in knowing me
From what I could see, for someone like Rajni, “now settled in New Delhi” meant an exposure to a metro city and a prestigious work-sector. But she said she wasn’t sure if the men in her air-conditioned, garish-looking workplace – and Delhi in general – would make good life-partners. She was on leave in her hometown when we chatted. She told me she travelled back to Allahabad whenever she could afford it.
While I was inquisitive about caste and class, it was hard to ignore the individual freedoms websites like Shaadi.com provided women.
Kirti Mandal narrated an instance in which an otherwise unknown man approached her: “Tumse shaadi karne k lie mujhe kis se baat katni padegi? Who do I need to talk to in order to marry you?” he asked. “Pehle mujh se hi kar lo. First talk to me” she told him, “n thn i wld tell u d channel of communication.”
While anonymity might seem to be one of the reasons for her blunt, even curt, reply to what was really a stupid question from a prospective groom, it demonstrated a certain individual control that she had over the partner selection process. She knew that, for her family, her marriage was non-negotiable, but – given that she managed her profile herself – she could filter out the ones she felt were “complete weird”. Which was why when Kirti broke off with a guy she had met on Shaadi.com (they had been chatting online for five months), it was less of a taboo: The two of them weren’t compatible, she told me. “[H]is thot process was entirely different…he did meet my parents too..but finally we decided to move on”.
Everyone here, it seemed, was in search of an ideal they were yet to find. And yet, most were disappointed
Anuradha Singh, a 27-year-old Delhi-based chartered accountant who belonged to the same Brahmin sub-caste as my own, confided that while she had the freedom to choose a groom for herself, and had no personal preference for marrying into a particular community, the caste requirement mentioned on her profile was only “for the parents’ sake”. This was how the young and the old generation were supposed to negotiate their differing ideas of love and marriage on a more equal basis.
But, more than anything else, it was for the women from stigmatised minorities – divorcees, widows and women from annulled marriages – that the website gave a forum, where they could shed the stigma and express themselves articulately. This was, for example, what the profile of a 26-year-old Delhi-based designer said: “… Have been divorced once.. It is difficult to bring myself to try again.. but am hoping to find the right person this time around..”
Profiles like these often mentioned having fewer idealistic expectations of romance or marital fulfilment. Very frequently, they also didn’t mention any preference for any particular community affiliation or physical features in their prospective partners. And yet, despite the fact that they had substantially less to bargain with in the prejudicial Indian marriage market, they were sometimes also angry and blunt; this was perhaps to give non-serious browsers a signal that they were not to be seen as easily available.
While I unsuccessfully tried to contact some of them on other forums for an interview, reading the profiles themselves revealed some blunt self-expression. Thus read an angry, melodramatic profile of a 33-year-old Punjabi divorcee living in Delhi, who had suffered a “very bad experience of marriage of two-three weeks”:
NOTE: Plz skip my profile if u r not from delhi, if ur age is more than 35, if u r not clean shaven, if ur divorce is not finished, if u hav kids from ur first marriage. If u dont hav pic in ur profile, if u smoke and drink, if u hav affairs in ur past, and if u r not healthy.
Where will matrimonial websites go from here? With the information and communication networks penetrating rural areas at an exponential rate, and an ever-increasing work migration (within and also outside the country), it seems probable for matrimonial websites to experience some kind of ‘network effect’ in the future, of the kind that social networks like Facebook underwent earlier: Someday, everyone will want to be there, because everyone else is there.
“A lot depends on where technology is headed,” Patricia Uberoi told me. But she wasn’t very sure: “It’s not only websites; there are also matrimonial agencies and community-based services.” One of the books she edited mentioned that even temples in some parts of South India had been providing computerised horoscope-matching services. “They have been around for a while now, established [their credibility],” said Anuja Agarwal, so “there is a possibility of an increase in influence, though they [won’t] replace the other alternate ways.”
A related, if much larger question is of how marriages might themselves change in the coming times. Will they go from being so strictly institutionalised, to being companionate marriages, like in the West?
Even though most Shaadi.com profiles reflected traditional Indian attributes, I had observed that an ideal spouse was often also supposed to be “a best friend and a lover”. Individualistic perspectives on the rewards of marriage were beginning to take root, expressed most often in women’s willingness to work after marriage. “Arranged-love marriages are taking off” in the urban areas, said Patricia Uberoi, “a complex middle-ground that is being created that wasn’t [there] before”. In such cases, she said, “Caste factors sometimes become flexible or fuzzy in the face of class factors like income, employment.”
But, by and large, both Uberoi and Agarwal felt that castes and communities would continue to matter in the future. “Hindu-Sikh marriage boundaries have actually heightened in the last 20 years, due to the separatist movement,” Uberoi said. “There is also a major gap in the Hindu-Muslim boundaries.” Within Hindu society itself, stigma and violence associated with inter-caste marriages – as in the case of Khap panchayat incidents – weren’t uncommon, she said.
“Market and political forces use social divisions for their own interest,” added Agarwal. Even though markets have maintained the romance of marriage, together with political forces – Mandalisation, Hindutvaisation and many others – they have never allowed social divisions to disappear completely.
I wondered where all of this left me and my fledgling profile on Shaadi.com, but perhaps I was not far from where I had begun.
Truth be told, some people did show an interest: After six weeks of my indiscriminate sending of interest requests (along with the few I received), the number of my prospective life-partners had risen to forty-two. A few wanted my contact number, or else wanted me to contact them. Someone also wanted me to “attach some of ur pics” and email her – an idea I found rather depressing. A few others I met on chat said it was good to meet “someone like minded,” but never bothered to correspond further. I hardly came across a single profile I would have actively pursued if this were a real-life partner-hunting situation. Everyone in this cyber-world, it seemed, was in search of an ideal they were yet to find. And most were disappointed.
“BIG No…its a complete waste of time if you are here with [marriage’s] intention…” Anuradha, the chartered accountant, told me. “[I]ts meant only for losers”. But this rhetoric didn’t stop her from religiously devoting her evening schedule to doing just that.
“[S]haadi.com is like a shoppin mall,” I remembered Kirti telling me the first time we communicated, “ur search jus never ends.” I recently asked her if she had made any progress: “hahah…shadi.com is such a depressin plc, i wonder hw ppl end up findin thr partner.” I wouldn’t disagree with that – except to say, for a lot of people of my generation who felt they didn’t belong to this place, they had nowhere else to go.
So it seemed we all simply did what we could. We immersed our profiles, day after day, into the sea of faces, until they became just that: another statistical entity, whose rejection brought us a momentary gloom, and acceptance; yet another, short-lived, hope.
~ Abhishek Choudhary is a journalist and researcher, presently based in Delhi.