Single and Surfing

It looks the same, clicks the same and links the same. You even encounter the same sort of weirdos. But there are huge differences between online dating in India and the West
E-ENGAGEMENT
Online dating isn’t perfect,  but what’s the alternative?  Even in New York—forget  Sex and the City—it’s hard  to strike up a relationship  past a certain age

Wherever you are in the world, the late twenties and thirties are getting to be an age where you’ve lost the art, knack or simple gift of spontaneously meeting people and striking up a relationship. We have been set up to think of people who hit their thirties single as suspect—why are they still roaming free, unattached, unhitched? This, unsurprisingly, is the main pool for online dating.

“The biggest misconception is that it is only for losers,” says a lawyer in New York who was in a relationship for most of his twenties, and is online now to expand his circle. A multicultural New Yorker in her early thirties says online dating has been the standard way of meeting new people in the Big Apple over the past five years. “It seems everybody does it in New York,” a young professor concurs. A woman in her late thirties in Gurgaon has also been on websites—Indian ones—on and off for some eight years now. She logged on, open to the idea of a relationship and maybe even marriage, as she “wasn’t really coming across anyone interesting elsewhere”.

Like social networking, this phenomenon is pan-global. But while it counts as mainstream activity, much of it is still underground. Few of those driving up traffic for online matrimony services in India are willing to talk about using them openly. Indian city slickers are still conditioned to judge themselves by old yardsticks, and many touch 29 and panic as they realise they’re not “settled yet”.

In speaking to online daters for this article, barring the New York lawyer and a friend who went online in Australia as a college student with the ID handle ‘Smooth Mc’Lovin’, it’s the women who were more forthcoming about their experiences. Their battle scars have a tale to tell, but there are also success stories. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, a publishing consultant in Delhi, is the only one willing to have her name appear in print. She is not embarrassed about how she met her husband, with whom she is celebrating their fifth anniversary now.

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The main difference between the West and India is that online dating here is hugely tilted towards marriage. “The interactions, in terms of action on the website, and the business models are similar between Indian and Western sites, but the similarity ends there,” says Rohit Manghnani, senior vice-president at Jeevansathi.com. “Indian websites like Jeevansathi are oriented towards finding a marriage partner, while international sites are oriented to helping you find the right date...,” he says, “At Jeevansathi.com, we identify people interested in casual dating and delete their profiles.”

That may sound harsh, but the Indian marriage market is a serious one. And so in terms of commerce too. The online matrimonial business in India, according to Manghnani, is worth Rs 250-300 crore a year. Murugavel Janakiraman, founder CEO of Bharatmatrimony.com, which claims over 2.2 million active users, places the market at Rs 350-400 crore. By his estimate, it typically takes three to six months to get hitched. He also tells me a success story of a man who registered, saw a profile the next day, made contact, and promptly got married.

What are Indians looking for online? As with newspaper matrimonial ads, users tend to search for prospects by linguistic community, religion, caste and financial status. “A different set of factors are important in the Indian landscape—caste, religion, mother tongue, income—whereas for Western sites like Match.com, the emphasis is on the photo, city, hang-out places you like, etcetera,” says Manghnani, “Most people are very clear that they want a match within their caste, religion and community. After that, men look at photographs, followed by where she has done her schooling and college.”

Janakiraman says there are usually 19 or 20 search parameters that are tracked on Bharatmatrimony, starting with “hard facts” like community, education and so on. He claims his is the only website that offers to filter a search by ‘softer elements’ like personality types and personal choices as well. The ‘favourite hobby’ question comes in handy here. “You can search for people who love photography or music,” Janakiraman says, “If you like a particular boy or girl based on search criteria, you can look for similar profiles—even similar looking ones based on a photo match.”

Jeevansathi claims to use a wide range of algorithms to match profiles. “The algorithms look at your requirements and behaviour, and match it with [that] of prospective partners,” says Manghnani, “These are complex pieces of logic and we have an analytics team at Jeevansathi which has people with PhDs in mathematics figuring out the right formulae and equations.”

I ask Arpita Anand, who has practised as a psychologist in New York, New Delhi and now Goa, about differences in attitudes and expectations, as reflected online. “This difference is not specific to online dating,” she says, “It is the same approach even in real life. Even now I feel the idea of dating is more acceptable in India when it is [seen as] leading to marriage. Dating in itself is still viewed as a Western concept.”

Another difference on desi dating sites is that you’re also often looking at a profile lovingly prepared by an immediate relative. “In case of female profiles, close to half are managed by parents or elder siblings,” says Manghnani, “while for men, it is around 20 per cent.” On Bharatmatrimony too, 15-20 per cent of profiles are set up by others, Janakiraman says. This can be a put-off for some, like this Indian in her early thirties settled in Washington. She says most guys on such sites had the same predictable interests. “Seriously,” she exclaims, “everyone apparently loves hiking.” For Jaya’s now-husband, the fact she wrote her own profile was a clincher. “He tells me that he liked the way I had written it,” she says, “Within two minutes of seeing me, Jacob knew he was going to marry me.”

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It may be marriage that draws Indians into the online dating maelstrom, but as an independent Indian abroad, why did our Washington NRI even bother to go on a desi site? It was the No 1 Indian pressure point—family. “I was in my late twenties and my parents were worried I’d end up alone, maybe become the crazy cat lady,” she says, “There was a lot of pressure to get married. And I was assured that this was how it was done these days. A bunch of my cousins apparently found their spouses similarly.”

She has been on both Indian and foreign sites, and finds the latter less offensive. “I don’t remember them asking my salary range and skin colour,” she says, “Online dating in the US is driven more by common interests and mutual attraction. Of course, no families are involved. A lot of people on these sites are looking for a casual relationship and not necessarily for someone for the long haul. Which is great if both people are on the same page. But for my purpose of husband-hunting, it was not quite fruitful.”

It was more eventful, though. “I went on one first date where the guy was clearly stoned out of his mind. Having a conversation with him was like pulling teeth,” she says, “Another guy asked me my political leanings in the very first phone call, and then faked an accident to get out of meeting me.” She will continue to look for her happily-ever-after, she adds, just offline.

Online dating is a great idea, given the extent of our lives spent online, but people need to be comfortable with it, says Anand. “Some are not, since they feel they don’t know the person and there might be greater risks involved,” she says, “Then it is important not to pursue this path. Be comfortable first and then take the first step.”

Step two seems to involve lowering the bar. Our multi-cultural New Yorker has decided to plunge back into the online pool, and though she happens to know a few couples who met online and are still together after two years, she’s going in with very low expectations this time.

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Those dreaming of love at first site are often in for a shock. The trouble is, people also look at the virtual world as one where you can be as rude as you like—no worries here about being slapped across the face. “I know a friend in India who was asked by someone she’d met through a matrimonial site, ‘Do you consider yourself a passionate person sexually or are you more of a cold person?’ She’d never even met the guy,” says the Washington NRI.

Meanwhile, the multicultural New Yorker has logged plenty of hours online, and even had an ex loom up—in a manner best described as grim. But there’s little to beat the horror stories the Washington NRI has heard. “One friend told me that a potential Shaadi.com guy, whom she’d declined after a few conversations over email, hacked her ID and sent some chat conversations from an ex-boyfriend to some other bloke she was in conversation with,” she says, “I don’t know how often things like this happen, but why risk it?”

For our Gurgaon-dweller, a guy who she’d interacted with for a very long time turned out to be abusive and alcoholic. Another man accused her of flirting with his best friend, after introducing her to him. “I can only think of some of the losers I met,” she says.

A young NRI teacher over in New Zealand found it fun at first. She spent a lot of time online the year she maintained a proper profile “because it was entertaining to see all the weirdos emailing me,” she says. “Lots wanted sex.”

When things turn sour, though, it’s not as if handling rejection is any easier to bear online than off. “Every conversation with a guy is like a two-way interview. So often I would feel terrible and shallow about declining perfectly nice guys based on their grammar or dressing style,” says the Washington NRI, “And then I’d also get upset over being rejected on some similarly superficial basis.” Unlike life in the world of flesh and blood, where we’re also judging and evaluating one another (just on a lower key), she found herself emotionally drained by it.

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All respondents have been particularly careful about the information they loaded their profiles with. That’s what has to suffice in place of the social filters we all use offlines. One also learns to read into the profile. The multicultural New Yorker describes a few, decoding how to spot a newbie by the language. “Often, there is a lot of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here’ or ‘My friend made me join this’. Or, in some cases, drastic words like ‘I’ve just gotten out of a horrible 5 year relationship and I think women are manipulative bitches—prove to me you’re not’.”

The lawyer in New York says he shares enough information to offer an idea of who he is, but not enough to let people identify him. The NRI in New Zealand was fairly comfortable but also careful. “I revealed pretty much everything except my last name and where I worked,” she says, “I am a respectable teacher. I don’t want nut jobs turning up at school.”

Going online, the multicultural New Yorker’s biggest fear was that there would be a lot of sleazy or crazy men out there, but now feels she was mistaken. “As someone pointed out to me early on,” she says, “that ratio is quite possibly the same online as in real life.”

The young professor in New York met her last boyfriend online, and de-activated her profile while she was with him. “I found out at some point that he was active for a long time after we started dating—which seems to be rather common, too,” she says, “I don’t date several people at once.”

To avoid complications, the NRI in New Zealand had specified online the sort of man she was looking for. She found herself on a date with someone who was nice and easy to talk to, but eventually revealed he had two children by two different mothers. “I didn’t want the drama of kids—and even worse, baby mamas—and had mentioned that on my profile, so that was off-putting,” she says. “Plus, he lived over an hour away. Not practical.” This was in a small town that had few eligible men around. After lots of “weirdos” and people sending “penis photos”, she just took her profile down. One of her flatmates, though, ended up meeting her husband online.

And then there are other forms of odd—or maybe just pragmatic—behaviour one encounters. “I find it interesting how some people are online and then delete their profiles and reappear as someone else, sometimes with the same pics,” observes the multicultural New Yorker, “That seems to indicate wanting to start over or possibly avoid someone. I know of one case where the person did that to avoid someone who didn’t get the hint that she wasn’t interested.”

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Online dating is not perfect, but what’s the alternative? Even in New York—and you can forget Sex and the City—past a certain age, it’s not easy to strike up relationships in real life. There seem to be less avenues as you grow older. “Harder when you leave college where there are tonnes of people and go working at a place with little social interaction on a day to day basis,” says the young professor. She is good humoured about her prospects, though: “I did meet my last boyfriend there (success!), but our relationship was pretty much not working at all (failure!). The ratio of people I see online that I would go on to meet is very low. And the number of guys I met and liked as more than a friend is also low. But then again, low as compared to what else? Trying to run into guys in the supermarket?”

“New York is often described as one of the most densely populated yet intensely solitary cities,” says the multicultural New Yorker, “People are really not open to meeting each other in the everyday routine of their lives—like on the subway, where one might think it could happen but it really doesn’t, and when it does, it’s often awkward or even creepy.”

If you’re a worker bee, you know all about this isolation—you have lived it. You might not need to hear it from a psychologist, but Anand sees the same thing half a world away in India as well. “Life in big cities has become extremely busy, with longer working hours, increased travel times and other responsibilities,” she says of the crux of the problem, “This adds to daily stress and leaves people with lower energy and motivation to pursue other goals like meeting new people and exploring relationships.”

Something’s gotta give.