It was a sunny winter afternoon in January 2019. I scrunched my curls and clicked selfies that highlighted a new crimson lipstick, liking what I saw in the veranda mirror. Inside, the coffee machine was set to brew the elixir. My guests were to arrive shortly. Not a potential suitor with family in tow, but close. The team of the now widely talked about Netflix show on Indian matchmaking.
Geeta Khanna, the Delhi counterpart of the protagonist, had suggested my name. (I’d known her since 2014 while researching new-age matchmakers for my magazine.) Thanks to overwhelming curiosity (a story could come from anywhere), and perennial hope of finding love, I agreed. Also, I was fond of Geeta who’d invited me to several of her forums where singles discussed marriage over high tea. These would end with her reminding us to lead with the heart, not check-lists. I had a moment of dark humor alone after one such forum where the ratio was unequal, reminded of an economics lesson: “by law of demand and supply, the value of an average boy goes up simply because there’s few of them, and all the nice, smart girls get ‘devalued’ because there are several of us. The silly boys are spoilt for choice but remain passive because the final decision will be the parents’, and the girls, no matter how accomplished and independent, keep getting disappointed.” The only redeeming part of these evenings for me became Geeta’s cakes and her warmth. But I always showed up.
I'm a shy person, but my work as a reporter in recent years made me go little public: some prestigious awards that led to a bunch of talks, panel discussions, even emboldening me to opt for theater classes at Harvard when I was selected as a journalism fellow in 2017.
On the day of the Netflix audition, I felt like a performer, centering in solitude before going on stage.
On the day of the Netflix audition, I felt like a performer, centering in solitude before going on stage. I had to ‘act’ as myself from the ‘script’ called ‘my personal life’, and if it worked, go on TV with it! It was like writing, I told myself, just without pen and paper. “There, there, all to find love,” I reminded myself. My thoughts floated to the person I’d briefly been with, before returning to India in 2018—a serious relationship ended over a decade ago. However, unlike artist PK Mahanandia who, in 1977, cycled for four months from India to Sweden to be with the love of his life, I hadn’t even been followed on a direct 14-hour flight to Delhi. So much for globalization shortening distances, I mused as the doorbell rang.
After quick introductions, five of us including my mother, settled down to a cozy chat fueled by caffeine and cookies, as the camera rolled. The conversation veered to mother being asked the kind of son-in-law she wanted. Someone honest, professionally stable, kind, she began, as I nodded in agreement. She went on to add a wife’s role as the nurturing one “because she’s a woman”, to which I interrupted with, “What’s gender got to do with it?” Our old quibble (her: “generations now don’t tolerate, divorcing like no other”, me: “why should anyone put up with crap unless it’s their choice”) in our otherwise warm, gooey equation reached a stalemate, so we moved on. As I fixed them a second round of coffee, the team toured the home and looked at family photos. They tittered, “maybe we’ll find you a nice husband on the show!”, as the afternoon ended amicably with numbers exchanged.
A few days later, Netflix emailed me a questionnaire ranging from: partner qualities important to you: “someone understanding who appreciates my child-like enthusiasm and grandmotherly wisdom”, family values: “Mix of ideas, definitely not conservative”, to why I felt ready for marriage: “Mature enough to be with the right partner – more fun than building a community of single buddies!” and so on. I keyed in a heartfelt 2,500 words in response to 11 questions and hit ‘send’.
Two months later I got in touch with a crew member and was told the “HQ executives were looking for more drama” but the list wasn’t final yet. I knew then I wouldn’t make it. I probably came across as ‘too well-adjusted’ (aka boring?)—like an editor once joked with me for being “too democratic”—not the stuff of reality TV dreams. Later I was also told that since they went with the Mumbai matchmaker, it wouldn’t have been fair to take on the Delhi one’s contacts. Oh, well. Yoga practice has helped me be detached from an outcome no matter the effort put in, but I felt disappointed. I shared it with the friendly crew member who heard me out. Mission Love Shelved. I sought succor in work again. Documenting how climate change was devastating my city sounded better than wallowing in projections of my future as a ‘dog lady’. A year later, the pandemic anyway turned our world around.
When the series released, I felt excited, something to stir out of lockdown lethargy. Binge-watching ‘first day, all shows’, I came away entertained and amused. Then thoughtful, sad and triggered as discussions erupted among friends. There was a relief too. Most men featured in the show didn’t tickle my fancy, so I hadn’t ‘missed out’. I even knew one from before so I congratulated him for being on it, though he wasn’t happy with his part. To me, the show portrayed matchmaking in India fairly accurately, and ‘Sima Aunty’, as the hard-working, obedient entity borne of and pushing the regressive norms. I had observed in dismay back in the day, girl friends losing weight to fit into the ‘slim, trim’ requirement as if it was a given. They’d discuss rejections based on looks, weight, height, status, qualifications, while on the other hand, boys had it way easier, similar to the show.
My partner had to feel like home.
It made me realize that my rather fringe participation in the matrimonial space for over a decade, despite trying every avenue—matchmakers, set-ups, professional bureaus, apps—came from being unable to ‘settle’ for the sake of it. My partner had to feel like home. One by one as peers dropped off the singles map, I wondered if they’d been able to look at their matches in a way I couldn’t. I’d met a few I liked and some liked me but the twain wouldn’t meet. What are you looking for, friends implored, settling into domesticity. A connection, I’d mumble, and plunge back into work.
The older couples on the show sounded interesting. Many had taken a leap of faith with the intention of making it work. It felt they employed ‘less mind, more heart’ to their decision. Several had humor in common. Most were also goaded by families. The idea isn’t to romanticize but to understand. There weren’t formulas then, there aren’t now. As my teacher once quoted comedian Henny Youngman, ‘the secret to a happy marriage remains a secret.’
To move forward, I looked back. My mother is of a generation where familial roles were fixed and women weren’t as economically independent. There were (and are) huge caste, class, gender inequalities, yet feminism had a history starting the 19th century, and it was here activist Gloria Steinem told me she found her roots in the 1950s, following India’s freedom struggle.
My parents had an arranged marriage in 1979. Their families met over stereotypical tea and samosas carried by my mother looking demure (I still rib her about it!). No ‘big fat Indian wedding’ ensued after a six-month courtship, just a simple ceremony at home, thanks to my paternal grandfather, who, back then weighed in on begetting children in an overcrowded planet. My parents gladly stuck to producing one. Growing up, I’d seen my granddad—a science popularizer—hold two jobs, shop for groceries, and write books with equal ease and humility. A man born in 1912 in small-town India—when the country’s literacy rate was less than ten percent—evolved gender dynamics in his family. Because of my ungendered upbringing, unknowingly I became free to not fit in.
Cut to four decades later. Despite her woman-as-nurturer notion, it’s my mother who empowered me when I asked while considering freezing my eggs if there’s a way people arrive at wanting to be a parent. “Childbirth is once, parenthood is forever. You can adopt. Love is love,” she said. She had earlier stood up for me when after college I was in a relationship with a boy (of a different religion, yay to national integration), and his mother complained, “your daughter doesn’t know how to hold a broom”. “Housework is important, but my child grew up to hold a pen,” she responded.
‘Compromise’, ‘adjustment’, ‘flexibility’, the three terms heard ad nauseam in the show took me back 15 years. Being in love saw me ‘surrender’ to its ways. I gladly learned to cook what my boyfriend’s family ate (seeing it as new culinary knowledge, not about replacing my identity with my partner’s, also because I enjoyed the food myself), ‘fostered’ relationships with his family, ‘tolerated’ them when they were less than kind. Eventually, his mother’s possessiveness prevailed and our already fragile relationship crumbled. We were young and lacked awareness.
The experience of this audition made me realize how far I’d come, how much I’d grown as a person.
It took a while to heal and learn from the heartbreak. The experience of this audition made me realize how far I’d come, how much I’d grown as a person. I was becoming the flag-bearer of love whose staff had pierced me deeply. By showing up for every date, wiping every tear when it didn’t turn out well, and showing up for the next. By showing up, I knew I’m not jaded, and that’s the important part. Recently, one of my mother’s friends suggested a boy who was five years younger. When reminded I was 39, the ‘non-Sima’ aunty quipped, “So what, even PC married Nick Jonas!” The look my mother and I exchanged, if contrasted with the Netflix show, was truly sitcom worthy.
It dawned on me that these traits—compromising, adjusting—be seen as sweet fruits of love, the most powerful force in the world, for everyone, not dictates imposed upon women to keep patriarchy churning. Patriarchy is a form of control. Control comes from insecurity, fear. Fear kills love. In all relationships—romantic, familial, professional—folks ‘adjust’ to each other because no one is perfect or fits into each other’s lives exactly. So we keep an open mind and ‘accommodate’—not to the point it hurts our self-esteem. India’s diversity of religion, culture, faiths, languages, customs remains a backdrop to this ideal. Flexibility when seen through the prism of yoga, helps balance the body and quieten the mind. ‘The reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the oak which breaks in a storm,’ said Confucius.
Teach children to love, fearlessly. It’s the parental dynamic that plays out in relationships. Help balance their energies: encourage boys to be kind, sensitive without the sissy tag, and girls to grow strong, independent minus the bossy label, where both feel empowered to care—and choose relationships across the spectrum—from a space of mutual love and respect. Matchmaking—whether through aunties or apps—should be mediums for people to meet prospective partners. A medium by its nature doesn’t bring its own identity into the mix. It’s just there to do its job: introduce two people who have free will. This means individuals need to dive within to understand themselves and what they want from and bring to, relationships. Our happiness depends on us. People become free to adapt the idea of marriage—if they choose this man-made institution—to their life than forcing themselves into its norms.
So like her or not, ‘Sima Aunty’ is the face mirrored to us of a regressive aspect of Indian society. It’s up to us to change the reflection.