In the new reality show Indian Matchmaking, there’s a telling little parable in the fact that the matchmaker Sima Taparia (aka “Sima from Mumbai”) believes herself too conservative to handle one of her clients, a career-minded young woman. She sends her to another matchmaker who puts on all the airs of open-mindedness, but tells the client point blank that women should not consider themselves the equals of men. Nuggets like these hold up a provocative mirror, in this show that audiences either love or hate, but seem to binge on either way. This is what India is, and it’s true for enough of its diasporas too. The studies and statistics speak for themselves: notably, the soaring rate of women who leave the workplace after marriage or childbirth and the miniscule percentage of inter-caste marriages. Is the show colourist, sizeist, casteist, sexist, classist, divorce-stigmatising, ableist, heteronormative? It’s honest. It’s Indians, here and abroad, who are all those things.
Perhaps many are embarrassed by the show because it hits very close to home, paralleling conversations they’ve had with their families without cameras rolling. To be fair, perhaps some are triggered too, having experienced the toxicity of the process. Ultimately, that’s what the show neatly underlines. It doesn’t glorify marriage, arranged or otherwise. It merely presents the institution for what it is at best, which is not so attractive at all upon scratching the surface, and leaves it to us to judge it, as we should. There are enough single parents, painful backstories and villainous archetypes represented in it that complicate any superficial cutesiness.
“In India nowadays, marriages are breaking like biscuits,” says Taparia. Whether or not she thinks it’s a good thing, it is. People are freeing themselves from bad decisions.
Subtle, hilariously presented socio-political critique aside, what Indian Matchmaking captures well is the loneliness of its subjects. Arranged marriage has long been regarded as practical, sensible, devoid of whimsy, downright algorithmic. The fear, isolation, disappointment and manipulation that send many hurtling into it are swept under the rug. But here, the subjects speak of these components openly.
In one scene, a headstrong woman pins her hopes on an astrologer’s prediction, and this surfaced a specific reminiscence for me. I’ve never come close to the vicinity of having an arranged marriage, for many reasons. But someone I loved had one. In the month I was predicted to get engaged, that person secretly became betrothed. There was a wedding in the year that my stars aligned, and it was not mine. Since then, those who cast my horoscope say, “You turned down a marriage in 20XX? It’s indicated here that you were married then.”
It’s there in my chart, and I have the scars in my heart to prove it, but I’ll never know how my destiny was thwarted, or stolen. Here’s what I do know: the other person changed theirs. We do have that power. That’s what I loved most about Indian Matchmaking. The first season leaves most of the storylines deliberately incomplete, which is as it should be. We should all know by now that Happily Ever After is only one way to end a story.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.