Mate Markets

Business,Community February 7, 2013 4:44 pm

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Every monsoon season in India, phone lines get crossed due to high winds and torrential rain. Callers find themselves listening in on strangers’ conversations or patched through to unexpected recipients. While most suffer through this inconvenience, one woman met her match and fell in love. Indrani Sharma was dialing a friend when a man’s voice cut in on the line. Rather than hanging up, they continued talking. This incident repeated itself, and each accidental conversation becoming progressively longer until they agreed to meet. A year later, they were married.

In India, where arranged marriages are still the norm, a story like Indrani’s is highly improbable. Nearly 90 percent of marriages are arranged. As a result, the market for arranged marriages is a lucrative one; professional matchmakers, newspaper classified ads, and online matchmaking sites all play a role in the USD 20 billion marriage industry.

Mala Jatania, a professional matchmaker known to her friends and clients as Malaben, works out of a home office filled with file cabinets stuffed with profiles of Bombay’s most eligible singles. Malaben creates “bio-data” for each of her clients: a marriage resume with the single’s photo, skills, accomplishments, income, profession, age, education, horoscope, religion, and caste.

Bio-data is critical in Indian matchmaking. Instead of spending years dating, getting engaged, and living together, a couple may only meet once or twice before deciding to marry. The matchmaker relies on these profiles increase the likelihood of a stable match. Once Malaben has paired two people, they arrange to meet—often accompanied by their families, who have equal input into the decision. “Ensuring that the two families get along,” she says, “is important to the long-term stability of the marriage.”

The sales pitch isn’t always easy. Jairaj, a Bombay bachelor, was mortified to discover that neighbors had recently dropped off their daughter’s bio-data at his house. He picked up the piece of paper, scrutinizing it, while his family did their best to encourage him to take the prospect seriously. “She’s not so bad,” his cousin teased.

Ashok, a 24-year-old Calcutta resident, feels the opposite. Having never had a girlfriend, he admitted he would welcome a matchmaking intervention by his parents because he thinks the Western approach to marriage is cruel. “What if you’re forty years old and lonely? And you don’t have a girlfriend? What are you supposed to do then?”

The marriages that work on paper tend to work in reality. Divorce is virtually non-existent in India—only one percent of arranged matches end in divorce. With this high success rate, matchmakers are perceived as an instrumental service in the marriage market.

Until recently, the matchmaking process was the domain of a local matriarch working at a small scale and earning some off-the-books income. But entrepreneurs have spotted a lucrative opportunity, and the industry is evolving.

Websites like Shaadi.com resemble dating sites more than matchmakers, allowing users to post their bio-data and search profiles of potential matches. But given that only five percent of India’s population is online, some in-between services have emerged linking Internet databases with traditional matchmakers. Chowla, for example, is a storefront matchmaking business that enables “walk-ins” to browse profiles online and receive assistance from in-store matchmakers. It combines a digital database with the hand-holding of matchmakers like Malaben.

Outside India, the trend is reversing: traditional methods of matchmaking are re-gaining traction over online catalog dating. In New York, a driver who bills himself as the “Matchmaker Cabbie” takes down the details of his single passengers and sets them up on dates. “You can’t be in a rush,” he says. “Sometimes it takes years.” But there’s no arguing with success—he’s been to four weddings of people he’s paired up.

Daniel Marienthal, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, also trusts the classic approach. “With a lot of dating sites, you’re thrown into this analytic mindset where you compare people and create deal breakers. Like, if I see somebody that likes Nickelback, you might be like, ‘I could never date someone that likes Nickelback.’” His startup, MeetCute, aims to create movie moments of love at first sight. Singles sign up, then matchmakers work behind the scenes to pair people. Both participants are sent to a public place and told that their match is there—without revealing an identity. It’s up to the individuals to chat with people in the venue and find each other.

Whether paired by a dating site’s algorithms, the serendipity of crossed phone lines, or a filing cabinet full of bio-data, every relationship’s beginning depends more on outside forces than we think. The rest is up to the participants, to be built after the match has been made.

Photo credit: Nishanth Jois