Why Indian Matchmaking Didn’t Work
Indian Matchmaking (Netflix) is a great show but terrible matchmaking. None of the couples got married. What we saw was essentially Tinder with your parents, with about the same success rate.
Traditional Arranged Marriage
Traditional arranged marriage is not about meeting people. The selection process is more akin to buying a toilet — “does it look OK, is it within my budget, does it have the prestige I want from a toilet”. Very few people sit on the toilet, and no one actually tries it out in the store.
Arranged marriage is really about the ruthless winnowing of choice. In what follows I’ll note some of my (Sri Lankan) experiences, and some of my wife’s Indian family as well. Please note that these are my shitty recollections of people’s complicated lives.
My wife’s Indian cousins all married within a very small community that claims descent from just 72 original families. The number of prospects in the same age group is so small that there really isn’t much to decide. Once you make the decision to marry within the group (which my father-in-law didn’t) then you just look for someone presentable and nice.
These marriages mostly turn out fine. Some of them turn bad, but that’s true of any marriage. I think it’s a crap shoot whatever you do.
There is, however, a significant dark side. Across the strait, my relative’s first marriage wasn’t completely arranged, but the families were definitely involved. They guy turned out to be gay, which was fine, but he shouldn’t have married a woman. There was just so much pressure that he did, and this wasted years of everyone’s lives.
When people think of arranged marriage they think of kids being forced to marry, and it’s rarely so blunt. It’s just that your parents will be mad, you might get disinherited, the community will be annoyed, and it will just be much more difficult. And that still happens all the time.
A Hindu friend of mine told me wistfully about his first love who he couldn’t marry because his parents didn’t approve. There’s a lot of stories like that. It’s not like they physically can’t marry. I know people that have defied their families and just done it. But most of us don’t like to go against our parents. So we don’t.
Hence the real ‘choice’ of an arranged marriage is not to do with the person at all. It is do you want to marry within your community or not. Once you make that choice an arranged marriage falls into place. If you don’t then it falls apart into just dating with consultants.
Modern Arranged Marriage
I’ve gone on one arranged date. My mother’s school friend had a daughter about the same age, so it was arranged that I take her (and a chaperone) saree shopping. It was fine, we both liked some Lykee Li song, but we weren’t, like, going to get married. So that never happened.
The difference between me and my grandparents was that I just had so much choice. I didn’t have to marry the same caste, race, religion, or even nationality. This dramatically expanded my potential pool of mates. The girl I met was fine, but I was just evaluating her as an individual, not part of a community. And there are any number of individuals in the world.
I had not made the choice to marry within any community, therefore the choice of mate was much harder.
This brings us back to Indian Matchmaking. What that show depicts is actually arranged dating, which is why it produces zero marriages. For example, the Guyanese girl meets one guy from the same background, but when that doesn’t work she just moves on. Traditionally, that just wouldn’t happen. A Guyanese Indian girl (and there’s a huge caste implication here) would marry a Guyanese Indian guy. So she’d just go through that limited set until she found someone tolerable.
It’s not even that out-group matches would be banned (though they could be), it would be more that those choices were never even offered. And if you tried there’d be a hell of a fight.
By offering those choices Indian Matchmaking becomes just another dating app with human filters. This can be great and is, I think, more humane, but it doesn’t actually produce marriages. It just produces what we saw. Arranged dates.
The Problem Of Choice
The reason those marriages didn’t work was choice. Basically, the individuals just had too much.
As an example, when I was in New York I walked into a Whole Foods, looked around, and had to flee in terror. There were more kinds of hummus than I considered possible and my brain just melted. By contrast, when I go to a supermarket here I just get whatever they have. If they have hummus I’m like ‘great, hummus’ and I go home.
This is akin to the differences in mating. If you decide to stick within your community (class, race, caste, religion) you are dramatically narrowing your choices. It’s unspoken, but you’re saying that these are the most important things (and they can be). Then there are a few ‘modern’ filters on top, which mostly just reflect wealth (education, job, foreign passports).
By the time you’re choosing the person, there isn’t much left to choose. Do they exist? Do they seem tolerable. OK. Most of the big choices are already made. That’s how traditional matchmaking ‘works’.
In contrast, with an individualistic marriage, you’re choosing everything, and neither side even knows what’s most important. It’s not an infinite set (we still segregate by wealth, education, and class naturally), but it’s still huge. More to the point, there isn’t the significant family/community pressure to force you to just pick one and get married.
At the same time, you don’t even have to get married at all. You can date, you can have sex, you can live together. You can get married when you want to, to whomever you want to, which paradoxically makes it more difficult.
It’s not that people don’t get married, but it’s not like my grandparents where their elders checked horoscopes, they met like once, and that was it. People are not choosing to get married. They’re choosing to choose.
What Indian Matchmaking Leaves Out
People have criticized Indian Matchmaking for colorism and casteism, but honestly it under-represents those things. They’re rampant. The matrimonial ads in the papers here all mention caste/wealth/skin-tone, they’re brutal about it.
In contrast, the couples on Indian Matchmaking display these preferences, but if anything they’re less overpowering than in reality. In contrast, they mention western values (ambition, height) that never show up in a local matrimonial. The system is by no means egalitarian, but this is reality. The old prejudices are still there, and some new ones also.
I think this is realistic. In my family, an aunt broke the caste barrier and was disowned for years, but the result was that my parents could get married without a stir. Caste is invisible, but breaking it is still rare. I’m still the only person to marry a different race, but that cause zero problems. At some point the parents had all the power, but now it’s shifted and people are generally just happy if the kids get married at all.
Which is what you see in the show. Frankly, the young people are talking a lot. In the past this would have been considered completely unnecessary.
That’s why this sort of Indian matchmaking doesn’t work. To be blunt about it, the individuals are too much involved and so they’re always running off at the end. Which is what happened in the show. In my experience, that’s what happens in reality as well. What you get is not something different from love marriage, but a hybrid.
What Indian Matchmaking shows, paradoxically, is a hybrid of western and eastern mating styles, and somewhere in there is love. Just not marriage.