In Pursuit of a Mate

Singles meet at a crime scene • The supper club, Delhi • Another supper club, Mumbai
RELATIONSHIPS
(Photo: RUHANI KAUR)
AND THEN THERE WERE TWO A couple walk out of the India Art Fair after a curated walk organised by Floh (Photo: RAUL IRANI)
HOW TO COOK SOMETHING Men and women are matched in a perfect one-to-one ratio for these events. The organisers also determine the seating arrangement (Photo: RUHANI KAUR)
FAMILIARITY HELPS Some people at the supper club are clearly old friends (Photo: RUHAI KAUR)

Singles meet at a crime scene

It is not often that you are invited to a murder. The address comes as a message on the phone. It is in a small market in Vasant Vihar, a residential area known to be popular with New Delhi’s expats. Near a unisex beauty salon is a door with a black wooden frame. It is wide open, so is a second grill door, also pitch black, leading to a tiny dark room where the only visible object is a black payphone of the kind that went out of fashion with the advent of cellphones.

The SMS that had beeped a few hours ago had something about a passcode. A note stuck on the payphone has further instructions. It warns you that on punching in the four-digit passcode, followed by a ‘#’, a white door on the right that you almost missed would unlock for all of five seconds. I quickly go through the white door, and follow the only route possible, two flights down, adjusting my eyes to the semi-darkness of the basement below.

The guests have arrived and secured their cocktails, but the party has only just begun. A woman with loud hair—bright red, with strands of blue and green—a foul mouth and old beads that she passes off as antique jewellery is Aishwarya Rao, the host. Standing beside her is probably her daughter Dolly (with blue hair) and bloodsucking son-in-law Sunil Gambani. For starry glitz, there is also Fah Roukh Khan and Karimi Kapoor, with Rabri Patel and Charles Morea and his wife Janet for eclectic effect.

Aishwarya’s lawyer Periaswamy, wearing a Manmohan Singh patented turban, has just read out her will to the crowd, the main beneficiary of which is a charitable trust run by Father Joseph. Squealing, Father Joseph scampers forward in a rather fetching calf-length A-line skirt and four-inch heels.

There is going to be a murder tonight. Of Aishwarya, in a roomful of people who hate her.

This hour-long charade is enthusiastically, and with much hilarity, enacted by a group of 20 odd young people. The murder mystery that the group must solve is an ice-breaker. It is an event organised by Floh, a single people’s network spread across Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

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Started in Bangalore in May 2011 by Simran and Siddharth Mangharam, Floh now has about 500 registered members. “My wife and I met at a party over a platter of stinky blue cheese, which we both love,” laughs Siddharth, “and spent over an hour talking to each other.” This is likely a story told often, among friends, family and those who want to know the story of Floh. “We realised that the best interactions are those that happen over shared experiences—in an informal, fun and safe environment.”

Simran, who used to work for a recruiting firm in Bangalore, often had people asking her to set them up with other singles she knew. The idea struck, Siddharth quit his job at McKinsey & Co, Simran soon followed, and the couple focused all their energy on this venture.

Members can choose to join the network for three months, six months or a year by paying Rs 7,500, Rs 12,000 or Rs 15,000. And once they find themselves in a relationship, they are expected to leave immediately. Siddharth couldn’t be clearer about this: “It’s for single people only.”

Members are invited to regular events ranging from a visit to a single-malt distillery in Bangalore and grape-crushing and sangria-making affairs to cookouts at Olive restaurant, treks, bowling and sailing (in Mumbai). There is plenty of dancing, of course, especially at after-parties. Of the relatively rarefied events, Floh had a book reading by Meenal Baghel, author of Death in Mumbai, and a curated walk at the India Art Fair held in Delhi recently.

Floh caters to singles of a select sensibility. Members need to be ‘like-minded’, so applicants are screened to see if they would fit in with the group and to check if their personal information is accurate. “The rejection rate is high,” says Simran. Only referrals have a high acceptance rate (about 96-97 per cent). It is important that people feel comfortable in the network, she says.

This, plus the fact that a large number of people here are looking for companionship rather than a fling perhaps also explains why Simran and Siddharth are uncomfortable associating the word ‘dating’ with Floh. “It has taken on a negative connotation, connected with nefarious characters,” says Siddharth. The reference obviously is to online dating sites, where most people are thought to go largely for one reason, sex.

To research this story, I signed onto the online dating site OkCupid a week ago. Unlike many other such services, this site expects users to answer a seemingly neverending set of questions on their beliefs and habits (I tired at the 50th). Using algorithms, it then finds the best possible match for you in your city, a ‘like-minded’ person. Within 15 minutes of signing up, there were about six messages waiting for me from prospective dates.

The first was a muscular man in a tight black T-shirt, sleeves rolled up to show his biceps, and a red tie hanging loosely at his neck: ‘Hello MAM, how you doing?’ He was a 51 per cent match. And at least a shade better than one who had skipped several steps of familiarity to address me with a ‘hello dear’. A couple of days later, OkCupid sent a message urging me to pursue an ‘exceptionally good match’ who was ‘checking you out right now’. My exceptionally good match, at 82 per cent, and a silhouette for a photo, wrote to me: ‘I am.....an infinite zero.....an intense silence.....and unending vacuum .....:)’ If this was a personality match, frankly it had me worried about myself.

It is natural to assume that besides people ‘looking only for one thing’, there are also those longing to meet new people, and for a bit of romance. But clearly, navigating the messages and working out the conversational clues to make that distinction was neither going to be quick nor easy. A 23-year-old member of OkCupid told me that she had joined the dating site during her years in New York, where she says it was a more acceptable way to meet people than here in India. In fact, since her return, she has run into several people she knew from school here, and they all seemed embarrassed of her online presence. “I guess it has got to do with dating in India,” she says, “My sister is ten years older than me, and her relationship was all hush-hush till they decided to get married. It’s better for me, I guess, I can openly bring someone I’m dating home.”

In liberal Indian society, there are no questions raised about choosing, or dismissing, conventional ways to find a spouse. Perhaps that is why Shaadi.com, a popular matrimonial site, is now also being used much like a dating site by singles to find interesting new people to hang out with. However, with most Floh members I speak to—all between the ages of 27 and 36—requesting anonymity, it is safe to assume that they worry about being judged for opting to join a singles’ network.

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Many of Floh’s members had to find the courage, battle insecurities and break inhibitions to sign up. A young man who facilitates joint ventures (JVs) between Indian and foreign companies remembers his nervousness on attending his first event four or five months ago. “I already felt it was sad enough I was going to a singles’ network,” he says. While he recommends the network now to many of his single friends—and taunts his married friends for missing out on all the excitement—he finds that men are especially apprehensive of the idea; they tend to see it as a lowpoint in their lives, resorting to a fee-based service to find a girlfriend.

Among both men and women, there is also a fear of being seen as a ‘loser’. For many, the annual wedding season serves as a reminder of singlehood. “I realised that I have to make some kind of an effort. It’s easy to get caught up in the comfort of being single, but ten years later, I don’t want to feel that I should have tried harder,” says Narayan Gopalan, a 30-year-old software designer who has never been in a relationship. “The only guy not married” among his friends, he believes that the problem worsens as one grows older and one’s circle of friends gets tighter. It is the same old gang one hangs out with, and that too at someone’s house. This means fewer chances of “meeting someone new”. Besides, he has never been comfortable with the idea of a romantic relationship with someone within his larger circle of friends, in case a break-up messes with his friendships in any way.

What one needs is the assurance of new acquaintances. At Floh, it is easier to ask someone out, even if only for coffee, than at a gathering of friends, says an art professional in Bangalore. “It is, after all, a forum for it,” she says, “There’s no hesitation or embarrassment in making the first move. It’s all away from what your friends might think, or thoughts of first getting the dope on the person from your friends.”

Of course, forging that connection is not all that simple even in a roomful of men and women who are aware that everyone there is in search of companionship. “We keep joking that this is more of an excellent place to make friends,” says the art professional. She has been part of Floh for nearly a year now, but is content at the moment just meeting new people to “see where it goes”.

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Members often meet casually in groups on their own for dinner or drinks, sometimes recreating the novelty of Floh events with, for example, a food walk at Chandni Chowk or a return to the bowling alley. “It’s not a blind date, so there’s no pressure to talk to people or to keep in touch,” says Narayan. At the first couple of events he attended, he says, all he did was some business networking since there were so many entrepreneurs around. “It’s different, and easier, chatting with people about business. But I realised you need to be a bit brave and proactive in going and chatting with people [on a personal level],” he says.

“You must learn not to be scared of telling people you’re single,” he says, “Unless you tell them, they will never know.”

-- by Elizabeth Kuruvilla

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The Supper Club, Delhi

On a garden terrace, under a canopy of faux-cobwebs, there are about 20 people attending a ‘supper club’ do. Entry is at Rs 3,500 per person, but that is not what makes it an ‘exclusive’ event. To attend, one has to be ‘interesting’. At least to the organisers.

So here they are, ‘interesting’ men and women, at The Grey Garden in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village. They will soon be seated at a rectangular table facing people they have been paired with. If they do not like their match, they can always get up, move around, and make overtures to others. One of the guests is a French artist who had followed his girlfriend to India, broken up with her and started working with Tihar jail’s inmates. That evening, he says, he had come to a restaurant downstairs and heard of the supper club by chance. So he paid up and climbed the winding staircase to the garden. There is a three-course organic dinner on the menu, and, to top it all, a dessert performance by the English chef Morgan Daniel.

Men and women are matched in a perfect one-to-one ratio. Surprise is half the charm. Supper clubs originated in the West to offer single men and women the novelty of finding someone over the intimacy of a meal, with the cuisine usually as experimental as the romance. Sometimes, for someone unattached, it works as a way to eat out without having to respond to the usual ‘Table for two?’ question.

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So, here we are, with name tags, and armed with a little vial of seeds, grains and mashed potato that they call ‘soil’, a catalyst for animated conversations about the environment with other ‘interesting’ people. We are also given khaadi robes to wear over our clothes. It reminds me of Greek togas, but these are inspired by Jain monks in Gujarat, according to their designer.

In our robes under the artificial sky in this garden, it feels like an arcane cult meeting, a commune for those who share a thing for organic food and the hope of seeming interesting to others.

When I had asked the organisers what sort of people would be joining us at our dinner table, I was told they have been chosen for being ‘interesting’ conversationalists. There are photographers, some curators, a chef—who I would rather call a food designer, for she has unbound passion for dishes as ‘creations’—an artist, a lawyer, plus an architect, a designer, and a few others who I keep bumping into at art openings or brunches at Hauz Khas Village.

The wooden table is beautifully arranged with our nameplates. Before the arrival of guests, the two organisers had brainstormed over who would sit across whom. Personalities and traits were discussed and matched with those of others, lists were drawn up and switches made. Creating bonhomie takes effort. Guests have to ease up if they are to get more than calories out of the dinner experience. Not that there is any official matchmaking here. It is all kept subtle. And nobody would admit to looking for a date, let alone being desperate for ‘whatever I can get’ (as Facebook has as a response option to a question on why you are on the site).

A few do not like where they are seated, so they request seat changes. I find myself facing a techie, perhaps because I had said I wanted to be in a quiet place to play observer more than participant. But the techie and the Harvard graduate next to me feel like talking, and so I play along.

The dinner itself is well orchestrated, with all its conductors primed well for their roles—the chef, the server, and the one who sits in the middle, also a co-owner of the restaurant. The delicacies have fancy names. Presented on stone slabs, designer intervention ensures it is more pleasing to the eye than the palate. The main course is what I have always referred to as aaloo bonda, though with a medley of chutneys.

Not everyone here is single. There is a married couple, and a fellow with dreadlocks and a cap who keeps getting up from his seat and staggering about, and his girlfriend who keeps drinking and smoking to keep warm. They leave right after a second serving of what appears to be organic sushi.

The artist, seated opposite a woman with big eyes, gets up, asks for a cigarette, and lights up.

“What do you do?”

“I am documenting this supper club.”

“Oh, so you are a journalist?”

And then he explains his work, saying how he has tried in vain to convince the new director general of prisons at Tihar to let him continue his work with juvenile delinquents.

If he wants to check out the scene at state prisons, I offer, perhaps I could try setting up a meeting for him. He seems interested, but only for the sake of conversation. He tells me how this supper reminds him of “grabbing experiences”. Then he shrugs and returns to his seat.

Others get up and move around, asking for more wine, or to move away from tedious conversations. The photographer displays some of his work on his visiting cards, of which he has three options. You take your pick of a favourite, and that acts as a conversation starter.

The co-owner of the restaurant also circulates, talking to everyone. Some guests are known to him, others to the other organiser, who is now prime mover of this project. Chef Morgan plays a key role too, and she says this round has not turned out too well—not enough talk.

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After the dessert performance, there is more wine. And more exchanges. Some find someone interesting. Others do not. If they do, a Facebook friend request is the next step after such a meeting. It is around midnight. I am still hungry. And cold. I cannot make small talk about the weather, or the city, or politics, or what kind of journalistic stories interest me. We leave. And later, when our photo editor bumps into a few of them at another party after a photo gallery event, they tell her they went from The Grey Garden to Lap, a nightclub in Chanakyapuri. Perhaps they got more deeply involved in each others’ ‘interesting lives’ there, who knows?

-- by Chinki Sinha

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Another Supper Club, Mumbai

Last year, I attended a ‘networking over food’ event held by a leading lifestyle website. Whenever I said I had been married for six years, men leaning towards me would turn around and walk away. “Then what are you doing here?” asked a woman, “Do you want to meet another man?”

Most networking groups that claim to help you bond with people with similar interests like movies, wine or food just turn out to be meeting grounds for singles. Mumbai has many of them, even though being single is not a criterion for attendance. Last week I attended a secret supper project after I saw a listing on the internet. You mail them and they tell you where to land up for some ‘international cuisine’ while sharing a table with a bunch of strangers.

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A mysterious map arrived two days before the event, and I found myself with a bottle of wine at a sea-facing flat in Prabhadevi. While on the face of it this was supposed to be about food, this evening was for singles. Besides me and a couple, the rest were all single, though after finding out I was married, some men told me they had girlfriends. The guests were mostly food and wine executives, investment bankers, architects, journalists, NGO workers and advertising professionals. We talked about the hoity toity nature of those who live in Bandra, about the belief that marriage is futile, and about stalkers on Facebook. Though my dinner partners did not move away from me when I said I was married, I was distracting them from meeting someone ‘exciting’.

But, as an unmarried journalist from Bandra tells me, finding ‘someone’ is harder than it sounds. The 30-year-old has recently attended two such events after being on matrimonial sites for years. The first time she had an inkling that such groups existed was as part of a focus group of an aspiring dating site. “I had a lot of inputs to give, because I have been trying to get married for a while now.” When she attended her first singles event a few months ago, she still felt pretty awkward. “Everyone in the room knew that I was ‘single’ when I walked in. It was as if that word defined you,” she says. The event was held at the club, Blue Frog. It was the first time she decided she wasn’t going to think of finding a husband but just somebody to get to know better. “There was a cocktail mixing session and then all of us were asked to make our own signature cocktail. It was pretty fun.”

But she did notice a couple of anomalies. “The age ratio was a bit skewed, because I thought some people were too young to be there. I am 30, so I can’t possibly date guys who are only 26. Also, the whole focus on singlehood made things awkward. A female lawyer I was talking to said she felt like she was in the spotlight and that made her uneasy. When I said ‘See you again’ to another girl, she remarked bitchily ‘You won’t see me here again.’ But I did have fun, as I learnt something new. I am now more open to such events.”

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There are many such networking groups that have begun recently. Among them is Sirfcoffee.com, which sets you up on a one-on-one date. Naina Hiranandani, who started Sirf Coffee, says that she plays matchmaker after making sure all members go through a rigorous vetting session with her. After she has confirmed you as a genuine soul, she sets you up on a date. You get to meet your date in a public place for a chat. Her aim is not to get you married, just to get you to meet someone.

“People were tired of the traditional way of meeting, so this works. If you don’t like someone, you are not obliged to call back. If you do, you can tell me, and I will try and arrange a second date if the other person feels the same. I don’t want to replace the love-at-first-sight feeling, but just want to make you feel hopeful. We have even actually started targeting High Network Individuals now. We also have a large number of divorcees. The age group varies from 26 to 49. What one needs to get is that being on a dating website doesn’t mean you are down there, it means you have been there, done that and now need a different option. It means you are up here.”

-- by Aastha Atray Banan