3 years

New Year Double Issue

The Last Marriage Broker

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The traditional matchmaker faces up to online challengers

WHEN TEJAS PAREKH came of marriageable age, he laid down two conditions for his parents who were no longer willing to put off their search for a daughter-in-law. The bride must be educated, at least a college graduate, he insisted, and she must be a working professional or inclined to pursue a career. What the young Gujarati computer engineer in Mumbai was ensuring was that the girl who would emerge from the wringer of his parents’ exacting scrutiny would be a traditional woman no doubt, but also, crucially, someone with a modern outlook. With this brief in place, relatives were pressed into action, friends sounded out, and soon the vast network of the Parekh clan was in hot pursuit of an eligible girl.

Almost a year into this fruitless search, the Parekhs enlisted the services of a relative, Umesh Patel, for the exercise. Patel, a professional marriage broker whose reputation within the extended family was increasing with every successful marriage he fixed, widened the ambit of the search. He began to look for a Gujarati bride, not just within Mumbai, but in the cities of nearby states. He met with the family several times to understand what they were looking for. But, importantly, he also sought out Tejas alone, where, unencumbered and away from the prying eyes of the family, he could open up about what he wanted. And in these sit-down meetings, Tejas remembers, Patel shared valuable tips, often unvarnished. “He used to be very straightforward. He used to say, ‘Everyone wants an Aishwarya Rai, but you are not Salman Khan or Abhishek Bachchan’,” Tejas recalls.

Once Patel got involved, the search was streamlined. Patel meticulously screened each candidate, and in a span of just three months, he showed the Parekhs more girls than they had previously managed in an entire year.

During this period, several girls were put to the Parekhs’ exacting appraisal. Profiles and photographs were exchanged and scrutinised, background checks conducted, phone conversations arranged, and family meetings and couple dates were set up. After every such date, the matchmaker-uncle sat down or telephoned Tejas so that he could eke out of his embarrassed nephew every minuscule detail of their conversation. By dissecting and parsing every exchanged word and sigh, he would arrive at the likelihood of a successful match. ‘What did you say?’ ‘Yeah then, what did she say?’ ‘Did she look like this or that?’ ‘Then, then, then, what happened?’ Patel would ask. “The couple might not know it themselves,” Patel explains his method. “But I can tell from all these details whether a match will happen or not.”

Despite the detailed scrutiny, the search yielded no result. Either the Parekh parents disapproved of the candidates or Tejas rejected them. On the rare occasion that both found common ground, the selected girl or her family declined. “There was no reason to feel dejected,” Patel reasoned with Tejas. “Everyone was looking for the best match.”

As they raced through portfolios, Tejas’ mind kept returning to the photos his matchmaker-uncle had once shown, almost about a year ago, of a young pretty girl from Mahuva in Gujarat. Hiral satisfied Tejas’ twin criteria—she was educated with a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Application, and was pursuing an Animation course—and she belonged to the same Gujarati Kapol caste. But once Patel formally approached Hiral’s family, he was told she wasn’t interested in a marriage. Now a year had passed and Tejas wondered if they could try the girl again. Patel wasn’t so sure.

A few months later, Tejas got a call from him. “It was a Saturday, I still remember it clearly,” Tejas says. On the other side, the line was heavy with disturbance. Patel was at a crowded trade fair for the Kapol community, organised by Kapol International Trade Entrepreneurs (KITE), in Mumbai’s Goregaon area. Tejas tried to sift through the noise to comprehend what his uncle was saying.

“How quickly can you get to Goregaon?”

“Why?” Tejas shouted into the phone.

“I have found that girl and her family.”

“Where?”

“Here, at the trade fair.”

In this busy trade fair of Kapol entrepreneurs, where hundreds of businessmen, both from Maharashtra and Gujarat, were promoting businesses at various stalls, Patel had convinced them to meet Tejas.

The beams that hold up the typical Indian marriage are under strain. Puritanical attitudes towards sex are dissolving. Marriages and childbirths are being delayed. Love before marriage is increasingly accepted in metros as much as smaller towns. There are dating and hookup apps, websites for arranged matches. Marriages are now not decided only by parents. Individuals often ‘arrange’ their own marital alliances. And if parents do it, it’s rarely without the consent of their sons and daughters.

People lie in online profiles. And the family has to do all the legwork. We personally go through the profiles, authenticate each one of them, before finding what we think is the best match

In this age of unparalleled access to the opposite sex, where the swipe of a mobile app can find you a romantic partner, or a website algorithm can sift through thousands of profiles to find you a selection of the best prospective brides or grooms, one would assume that the matchmakers of yore would fade away. The classical Indian marriage broker, however, is made of more resilient stuff. Many of them, in fact, thrive. Tweaking their old business models and approach to matchmaking, they attempt to cater to the unique problems of the 21st century’s arranged marriage market. They work out of small neighbourhood offices or from homes. Some have even professionalised and expanded their businesses to be like corporate entities and offer matchmaking services from a variety of offices.

For much of his early life, Sanjay Kirtania would remember his father, a professional matchmaker in a small town in Rajasthan called Ramgarh, disappearing for days on end with colourful files filled with pictures of young men and women. As a marriage broker in the large and demanding Marwari community, his search would lead him into faraway towns in Rajasthan and even to Mumbai. But Kirtania remembers him as also very laid back and haphazard. “He would fix two or three matches and then rest for the remainder of the year. And then there were all these profiles and photos mixed up in all sorts of files which always needed sorting,” he says. By the late 1980s, Kirtania had moved to Mumbai, and later began to work as an accountant in a firm. His father would often visit him and seek his help. “I never wanted to get into the business of marriages. Looking at my father’s life, I thought there was too much uncertainty,” Kirtania says. But he began helping his father sort out the files packed with details of his clients that he carried with him on his journeys. By the early 1990s, the telephone had arrived in the Kirtania household, and with it came inquiries of matches. In a few years, Kirtania quit his job and began operating a tiny marriage bureau from a room in his house. Just like his father before him, he began to move both within and outside the city limits. Today, exaggerating a stoop and a hobble, he claims it is the result of many years of carrying a bag filled with files of prospective grooms and brides. “But I could tell there was a lot of potential to professionalise this business. Even though matrimonial websites were coming up and people were talking about it, I knew I could really change things.”

Kirtania is the founder of SubhLagan, a large marriage brokerage firm that is headquartered in a plush office in a business park in Mumbai’s Andheri area. The firm has two offices in the city—one in Andheri aimed at rich clients in the city’s western suburbs, and another in Wadala to target a south Mumbai clientele— with branches in Kolkata and Jaipur as well. The company tries to set up matches for people of all economic strata, from the middle-class to what Kirtania calls ‘high net worth individuals’. Higher the profile of a client, the more specialised a touch each one receives, with Kirtania himself handling what he calls the “cream of the cream”. There is already talk of a SubhLagan 2.0, where the offices will at first be expanded to cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Indore, and later to even smaller cities and towns. “My idea is: why can’t we be everywhere in India? Every time someone wants to get someone married, they should want to visit a SubhLagan to find a match,” Kirtania says.

SubhLagan currently has a staff of around 70 employees. At the top of the hierarchy are Kirtania and his relatives. Below them, a number of relationship managers, each one with two or three employees who comprise a follow-up team. The relationship manager meets and understands the clients’ requirements and later finds appropriate matches. His follow-up team then pursues these, trying to set up meetings and dates until a match is found. There are also marketing agents within the company whose job is to meet families with prospective brides and grooms and get them registered to the firm’s database. Just like the old days, where elderly uncles and aunts would use large weddings as hunting grounds to identify suitable grooms or brides, SubhLagan’s marketing agents get themselves invited to marriage celebrations. In large weddings involving influential or wealthy families, this job is done by Kirtania himself or a member of the top management. “Our job doesn’t end with a marriage. The trick is to go to these weddings; because a Marwari wedding is the best place really to scope out suitable young boys and girls,” says Raman Sharma, a director at SubhLagan’s Mumbai office.

It is a Monday morning at SubhLagan’s Andheri office. Kirtania has just returned from a wedding in another city. And Sharma himself has spent much of the previous week attending weddings in Mumbai. “This [wedding] season is the busiest time for us,” Kirtania says. And then slapping and rubbing his palms in apparent glee, he adds, “So many weddings to attend.”

He is seated across a large table on one side of his office. Adjacent to this is a wide open space with comfortable couches, where he explains, his clients are seated and offered presentations. On a flatscreen TV, a Bengaluru-based computer engineer’s biodata is being scrutinised. With his preferences keyed in—age, education, caste, height, location, astrological compatibility—a vast number of options pop up, each one of them with a status update: have the two candidates met; if so, how many times; if they have been rejected or a decision is pending. “As our database kept growing every passing year, even though marriages take place and several subtractions are made, we needed a software like this to manage the database. It’s impossible to carry files anymore,” Kirtania explains.

DESPITE THE MODERN appearance of his business, Kirtania has a somewhat earthy bearing. He speaks little English, is fond of Hindi idioms and phrases, and chats with an avuncular affection, the kind of familiarity that would please traditional parents and put modern youths at ease. On his own, he claims, he has fixed marriages within some of the largest Marwari business families in India, from the Agarwal family of the Vedanta Group to the Ruia family of the Essar Group. Outside his cabin, relationship managers in smart business suits walk in and out of small cubicles and rooms, covering their mouths as they speak on phones as though to ensure no one lip-reads them. Away from them, beyond the conference rooms that serve as meeting venues for families or the now empty small rooms that serve as an intimate space for young couples keen to familiarise themselves, amid the clatter of fingers on keyboards, young men are working the telephone lines to follow up on suitable dates and meetings. Business, it appears, has never been better.

Aren’t matrimonial portals a threat to their business?

“When Anupam Mittal’s (the founder of Shaadi.com) cousin wanted to get married, do you know they came to me?” Kirtania responds.

What about love marriages? “It will grow more common, I am sure. But arranged marriages, especially among the Marwari community, will always remain,” he replies, and then laughing at the wit in his own phrase, he says, “‘Pyaar kiya nahin jaata, ho jaata hai. Nahin hua toh Sanjay Kirtania’.”

The traditional matchmakers who have failed to reinvent themselves have seen matrimonial websites hit their business hard. Earlier this year, complaining of their dwindling business, the Kerala State Marriage Bureau and Agents Association, an association of marriage brokers in the state, set up a website (Unionmatrimonial.com) to better coordinate resources among themselves. Here, a family member, after signing up on the website, puts up a profile, and the moment someone shows interest, the family is notified. And a broker is roped in to inquire and try to match the two parties.

MOST MARRIAGE BROKERS claim their business survives simply because nothing better in the arranged marriage market exists. People, having delayed matrimony to focus on their careers, now often need help to find a match. Matrimonial websites, they allege, lack privacy and are untrustworthy. They bring up the rising instances of divorce to point out how the services of a professional matchmaker are required more than ever before. “There is absolutely no privacy and a lot of misinformation on online platforms. People won’t look anything like their photos and they won’t be anything like what they write in their biodatas,” says Guvantbhai Shah, an 82-year-old matchmaker who runs Ideal Marriage Bureau from his bedroom-cum-office. “To find a good match, you need a specialised touch.”

The problem with online matchmakers, believes Rekha Vaid, a senior marriage consultant with Sycorian Matrimonial Services, a marriage bureau with offices in Mumbai and Delhi, is that they cast too wide a net. “People exaggerate or lie in these profiles. And the family has to do all the legwork. With us, we personally go through all the profiles, authenticate each one of them, before finding what we think is the best match,” she says. “When matrimonial websites first came, everyone thought we would just vanish. But people are now coming to realise that they need us more than ever before.”

The world of arranged marriages, according to these matchmakers, is undergoing a shift. There is a new sort of hybrid between love and arranged marriages, where matches are fixed but a final decision is taken only after the proposed couple meet several times and begin to develop affection. In the past, they claim, parents drove the matchmaking process, but today, their offspring are more in charge, with parents being granted the power of a veto. “Like the past, marriage continues to remain a family decision here. But the people controlling the decision-making has now changed,” Kirtania says. “When I started out, we used to wait for the grandparents for their decision. Now the power lies with the kids.”

Most of these matchmakers charge a nominal sum from clients upon registration. Some of them offer monthly or yearly services for a certain fee. But quite a few are known to take a large fee once a wedding is concluded. They decline to reveal their charges. Umesh Patel claims that he charges a minimum fee of anywhere between Rs 35,000 and Rs 50,000 for a successful match. The rates go higher, depending on the profile of the clientele and the services required.

The couple might not know it themselves. But I can tell from all these details, what the girl and boy said to each other during their meeting, whether a match will happen or not

The argument that matchmakers advance for the high fees they charge is that in arranged marriages only they can make the most level-headed selections, even more than the prospective grooms and brides or their parents. Not blinded by dazzling-but- selfish beauties or taken in by incredibly wealthy-but-flawed families, they can weigh all the pros and cons, and, drawing from their experience, delicately nudge parents and their sons or daughters in the direction of their best interest.

The marriage broker interviews every selection, schedules and sits through the meetings of the two families, voices concerns or expectations which the families are embarrassed to bring up, and once a match is made, becomes part of every occasion, from the engagement ceremony to the wedding. Many of them consult priests or astrology websites to get horoscopes matched.

Some, like Taruni Shroff, a well-known matchmaker for the Gujarati community in one of India’s poshest neighbourhoods, Walkeshwar in Mumbai, is so sought after for her matches that she refuses to conduct horoscope matches. “I don’t believe in all this astrology mumbo jumbo. I make the match. They can horoscope each other how much ever they want with their maharaj or whoever,” she says. A single woman in her mid sixties, Shroff has an almost matron-like demeanour. Having arranged, as she claims, anywhere between 5,000 and 6,000 matches, over time the thrill has dulled. Although she is invited all across the city, all she does now is send a congratulatory card.

Unlike Shroff, however, several marriage brokers do micromanage pre-nuptial affairs, like telling clients what to wear and say during meetings with prospective spouses and their families. “Sometimes I get cases where the parents will want a shy daughter-in-law. But the boy will want a more outgoing bride. Imagine how challenging my job becomes then,” Patel asks. “In those cases, I tell the girl to be quiet. But not so much that the boy thinks she is a mute.”

Waving his hands for emphasis, Patel likens his approach to matchmaking to a saline drip. “I enter my clients’ veins, deep, inside,” he says, “to understand what sometimes they themselves don’t know about their choices.”

Sporting a large tilak that forms a ‘U’ shape on his forehead and several rings that glitter on his fingers, Patel sits in a two-room office in Mumbai’s Vile Parle area that he is now in the process of moving out from. Inside his cabin, on a wall next to images of gods and goddesses, are a series of strange pencil marks one on top of the other. These turn out to have been made by him to measure the height of prospects who’d made dubious claims on paper. “Can you believe it? They come in saying they are 5 ft 6 inches. And when I measure them, they turn out to be like 5 ft 2,” he says. Outside a slight but stern woman is sorting out folders of profiles on a computer.

My idea is: why can’t we be everywhere in India? Every time someone wants to get someone married, they should want to visit us

In spite of his own matchmaking methods, Patel himself married on a lark. Several years ago, when he and a close friend were looking for wives, the friend suggested that he consider a woman his friend had met recently. Remembering that gesture today, Patel raises his elbows as though he’s about to take flight and matter-of-factly recalls the logic of his friend’s suggestion. “She is your size,” the friend had told him.

Patel was then a dry fruits retail store owner in Mumbai’s Kandivali area who used to fix matches on the side. The success of the side-business made him devote more and more time to it, until his reputation as a champion matchmaker led him to establish a marriage bureau.

“My shop used to be filled with files back then, files and files of candidates. And I would have to leave my shop a few hours every day to get boys and girls to meet in sweetshops, and, sometimes, when they wanted privacy, even in my own house,” Patel says.

Over time, Patel admits, he has had to change his style. He now insists candidates go out and spend time on dates, like at a movie or a cafeteria, before arriving at a decision. He calls up after every such meeting to ensure that the girl has reached home safely. He also has strict rules. He forbids them to communicate directly, either on the phone or through email or social media and messaging sites like Facebook or WhatsApp. Every message has to be passed through him. Patel believes such restraints help, and nobody feels dejected in case it doesn’t result in a wedding.

But won’t direct messaging help them better gauge their potential partners?

The military clatter of the keyboard outside suddenly comes to a halt. The slight but stern woman looks up from her computer. “And if they run away?” she says almost like a reprimand. “Then what?” Clients, it turns out, sometimes stop communicating with Patel once they establish contact with their matches, thus resulting in a loss of revenue.

On that busy Saturday at the trade fair, Tejas, with the help of his matchmaker-uncle Patel, made his acquaintance with Hiral and the rest of her family. Both families met and responded so well to each other that the meeting had to be carried on at his house. Everything was set, Tejas remembers. Supported by Patel, Tejas suggested what perhaps his family members once wouldn’t have. He asked his future wife out on two dates before deciding to marry her.

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