“This is my first time,” he said. “I've watched it on TV but I've never done this before.”
I tried to force a smile, but on the inside I cursed myself while suppressing a panic attack. It was a first for me, too. I was sitting with a complete stranger to discuss the possibility of an arranged marriage.
Conservatively raised in India, everyone in my family had their spouse picked by their parents. As a teenager, I swore that I would never let that happen with me.
How was I supposed to decide if I wanted to spend the rest of my life with a man I had known for two or three days? I never understood the concept. My folks laughed off my teenage rebellion. “Don't you trust us? We'll find you a nice boy. Maybe someone who will cook and let you sleep in,” they'd say.
But I was brought up in a big city, encouraged to be independent and make my own decisions. Once they realized I was being serious, I had their blessing to choose my life partner. Coming from the land of arranged marriages, I was delighted to hear that.
I was very shy and reserved in my teens. Skinny and tanned with thick hair and eyebrows, I was insecure about my looks. Having the prettiest, most popular girl as my best friend didn't make it easier.
It was at 19 that I finally felt confident enough to date. I enjoyed all the male attention I had previously missed out on. I wasn't avoiding a serious relationship, but I wasn't chasing one either. I liked dating casually, especially when I saw friends struggling to stay faithful to their steady boyfriends. Love shouldn't have to be so complicated, I thought.
At 23, I moved to Mumbai to work at a fashion magazine. During my second month there, I met Jay*. He was four months older than me but we came from very different backgrounds. He was from the North, I belonged to the South. We were both Hindu but he belonged to the Jain community and was a strict vegetarian. I devoured meat. He wanted to marry someone of his parents' choice because it would be easier, he said. I hoped to change that.
It was four months after when I learned that I had fallen for a guy who was never going to be serious about me. Or the girl he cheated on me with. We were probably a part of his extended bachelor party as he prepared to settle down with a girl from his home town, handpicked by his parents to assume the role of a conventional housewife.
I had been dumped by a guy who wanted to live by the very tradition I was determined to fight.
My mother, Meena, was my biggest support. An intelligent, strong-willed woman, she was the only one among seven children to pursue postgraduate studies to become a doctor. She understood my hurt. Constantly being asked when I was going to settle down by relatives and family friends made it worse. In India, the ideal age for a girl to get married was before 25. Cross that age without an eligible man in tow and most people thought something must be wrong with you. I feared there was.
At social gatherings, I was bombarded with, “So when should we expect your wedding invite? Pray to God that he sends you a nice husband very soon! The older you get, the narrower your options become.” All my friends were getting hitched. Even my closest pal from school, who had been in a steady relationship, chose to be with someone her folks set her up with. She told me her parents would have never accepted her boyfriend who was from a different community. “Plus, it’s more adventurous this way,” she said.
At 25, I was the only single girl left in my group and I was losing faith in dating.
I quit my job to pursue further studies in fashion. When I was not working on my applications, I was helping friends plan bachelorette parties and pick out wedding outfits. The peer pressure crept into my cyber space too. Jay* had been long deleted from Facebook but having 7 mutual friends meant that my newsfeed would inadvertently rub his wedding photos, and later on his newborn's pictures, in my face.
At 26, I was shown a picture of the son of a family acquaintance. The process of filtering was complex. Family, education, profession, and salary play a huge role in this. Once these were deemed satisfactory, our astrological and numerological signs had to match. Our priest confirmed that we would be a great fit.
My reluctance towards doing this wasn't because I thought I wouldn't meet a nice guy. It was how I would meet him. I tried to make sense of it but discussing the pros and cons of a man I hadn't even met, to determine his eligibility as a prospective husband, felt like a business investment. I had imagined falling in love in a natural setting: being in a steady relationship, making the decision to spend the rest of our lives together. Maybe even a surprise proposal on a beautiful beach. Now I was being asked to live out that fantasy in two hours set up by our parents.
But I was tired of pretending to be a strong, career-focused woman. I wanted a husband -- complete with the big, Indian wedding. I consulted with my closest girlfriends and they were as excited as they were relieved that I was finally meeting a guy. “I have a really good feeling about this,” one said. At least I didn't find him through IndianMatrimony.com, I consoled myself (I drew the line at matrimonial sites). I decided to give it a shot.
I came down with a terrible cold two days before we were to meet and I secretly kept thinking, “This has to be a bad sign.” The day finally came and my cold had miraculously disappeared, replaced with nerves. A smiling face, partially covered with a giant bouquet of flowers, greeted me.
He was 28 years old and looked exactly like he did in the pictures I had seen. He was cute, in a childlike way. This also made him seem a lot younger. We spoke for over three hours, from our interests to future plans. He took me by surprise when he brought up kids and school districts.
“Kids? Whose kids?” I thought. I had not been warned that procreation would be discussed in the very first hour. I struggled to find common ground in our conversation. Not only did we want different things out of life, but he was a lot more prepared for this process than I was.
What I thought to be an awkward meeting, I later learned in an email, was everything he was looking for. Clearly we were a mismatch. Since we had been set up by our families, my father politely conveyed that we would not be taking it forward.
I received an acceptance letter to Parsons, my dream school, four months later and moved to New York City to study fashion. I hoped this big change would count as “putting myself out there.” I wanted to give dating another shot but I barely knew anyone in the city and going to fashion school meant that the chances of meeting a straight man were slim to none. The closest I had come to romance since the move was exchanging a few flirtatious text messages with a guy I had gone out with during my time in Mumbai.
I came across a photo of a beautiful woman on "Humans of New York" recently. The caption quoted the woman, saying, “I didn't get married until I was 50. I think it finally happened because I stopped thinking it was possible.” Would I be saying the same thing 23 years from now?
A few days ago, I was on the phone with my mother. "Your uncle suggested some matches. We thought maybe you'd like to see their pictures?" she asked hesitantly. I should give it another chance, I thought. At least the pressure of finding a life partner wouldn't rest solely on me.
"Okay," I said trying not to sound too eager. Could any of them be the one?
Illustration credits: Gautam Kolli