Here's your place to come talk about sex and love whenever you feel like it.
“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