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XXForum: Online Matrimonials

I’m writing a story about something I’ve been interested in for over a decade now – urban relationships. I’m especially intrigued by the online matrimonial process, seeing as how it seems to be bridging the traditional (arranged marriage) with the modern (online dating format).

I’ve been through it myself a few years ago. But I imagine things have evolved since then. Is it easier to articulate what you want? Is it harder to ward off unsuitors (unsuitable suitors!)? Has the comedy of errors gotten better or worse?

I’d love to hear some stories, your real-life incidents. Given that this is research for my story, I’m interested in the funny anecdotes, the bizarre misadventures, the things that made you go, “Oh my God, really??!!?”

Do tell me your whacky stories from online matrimonial searches. Go on, I’m listening.

Can we please stop calling it ‘dating’ because Indians don’t do that word

holding hands - age 10, and age 8

holding hands – age 10, and age 8 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No, we don’t.

We claim kinship to members of the opposite sex, exchange gifts on a designated day of the year and occasionally append a ‘bhaiyya’ or ‘didi’ to their names. We hang around in bunches when we’re in college and pretend we’re not specifically there for one person. When Facebook decides that India is a big market, they’ll probably add ‘is rakhi brother/sister of’ to their relationship options.

I’m confused. I straddle two worlds, one that recognizes and lives in the above references. The other whose daily relationship landscape includes hooking up, one-night stands, living in, asking out and multiple relationships. Where does someone who lives in both worlds at once stand and what is our language for it?

This new, urban India I represent, it has an oft-used passport, it’s on Season 6 of HIMYM (even knows what that stands for) and has a favorite browser and smartphone app. But it also has a life that’s kept separate (even secret) from family, consumes Bollywood-bedecked archaic rituals and is petrified of talking about sex (only talking about it, not doing it).

Attraction – should it be acknowledged or not? We can’t say. We’re simultaneously cool and appropriate.

We don’t live under strict rules of interaction with the opposite sex (though many of us were brought up with those in childhood and well into our adolescence). We’re allowed to hang out, even solo and be friends with the opposite sex. But we don’t know how to differentiate between the friendly interactions and the ones with a definite romantic/sexual motive.

I seem to often err on this. I’m friendly and approachable so conversations, interactions and associations abound. Sometimes lines get crossed, motives are misunderstood and feelings are hurt. Relationships and conversations are complex, this is true. But we don’t even have a language for broadly distinguishing what might be what.

We need an India-friendly way of saying “I’m interested in you but if you’re not interested or single, don’t worry, I’m not weird.” Subsequently we’ll also need an India-friendly way of saying, “No, thanks. That’s not possible. But it’s okay. We’re just two human beings and we’re alright.” And until then, ‘friends’ doesn’t cut it and ‘dating’? That’s just plain foreign.

India's Paradox: Thriving Press, Stifling Inte...

India’s Paradox: Thriving Press, Stifling Internet? (Photo credit: World Economic Forum)

Sometimes Does Yes Means No?

Our population figures tell us that Indians are having at least as much sex as the rest of the world. Not all extramarital pregnancies are the result of rape. And from a purely scientific point of view, if there are so many conceptions, the number of sexual intercourse occasions has to be at least the same, if not higher. Let’s just face the fact that India has sex and needs to deal with all the issues and questions that come up with it.

I’ve generally steered away from getting too close into the bedroom in my writing and so sue me, I’m Indian, it’s ingrained in me to never publicly acknowledge sex. But we are in the utterly ridiculous state of gangrapes, burgeoning population rates, teenage pregnancies and child abuse so I think it’s time I stopped being coy. I’m talking about this.

I recently read a post on TheFrisky by a guy who was left confused by an almost-hookup with a girl who didn’t say no but didn’t exactly seem amenable either.

Flashing as flirty a smile as I could muster, I asked,

“Is everything okay? Are you cool with this?”

Her response wasn’t quite what I expected:

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just do what you need to do.”

This particular statement wasn’t spoken with annoyance or frustration or impatience. It also wasn’t spoken with any enthusiasm whatsoever. It was the most matter-of-fact, emotionless comment I had ever heard from someone I was in the midst of undress with.

Awhile ago, I also heard about an incident between two people I know. There was alcohol consumed and some hooking-up done. Later though, the accounts varied. The girl says that she was taken advantage of. The guy says that she was perfectly conscious and never once stopped him or said no. The girl says a combination of inebriation and shock worked against her.

And a few years ago, I was in a steady relationship with someone who wanted to go much farther and faster than I was comfortable. It caused a lot of problems for us. From the outside, it’s easy to say, “He was a jerk. You should have left him then.” But what makes it so difficult is that these moments don’t occur all the time. In a relationship, there are good moments of shared intimacy, laughter, fun and even love. And bedroom conflicts tend to get categorized with all other things that couples argue about. In this case, I gave in a lot of the times just to keep the peace. Those were the times when my Okays were really Nos.

In a more recent relationship, I was shocked to hear my partner tell me, that he felt he couldn’t always say No to me. It was a conversation that changed our relationship. I never felt comfortable around him again, always worrying that I might be unknowingly transgressing into predatory behavior that men are usually accused of. It opened a whole new dimension to an already complex issue. What about those times when a guy wants to say No? Is this solely a female prerogative?

Interestingly, the same morning that I read TheFrisky article that got me thinking, also brought me this other study by PsychCentral that talks about how people routinely keep up small deceptions in relationships. Ordinarily, much of these gets written off as compromises that one makes in a relationship. When there’s tension and bad blood, you can bet it infects everything in the relationship. Routine adjustments that we make everyday suddenly seem like severe compromises. And since sex isn’t something you can separate from the rest of the relationship, the murky depths suddenly fall into focus. The already grey area of relationship interactions is further complicated by the extreme intimacy and thus awkwardness, shyness and silence that couples and individuals maintain over sex.

And finally, as Indians I think we’re already experiencing the consequences of being caught between the devil and the deep sea. On one side, a repressive social structure that doesn’t allow us to even think about these things. On the other, an increasingly bigger-better-faster-more global village where we’ve access to ideas, actions, social systems and behaviors that require us to be prepared with these notions.

I carried a fair bit of guilt for a long time simply over being physically intimate, a fact that I think the guy used against me when he told me that this was  road of no return. Even today, a lot of Indians believe in virginity, rape victim blame and condemning the sexually active as ‘promiscuous’.

All the above mentioned relationships ended and on sour notes, ranging from acrimonious break-ups to a loss of job in one case. It’s serious enough for us to need to talk about this. I don’t really have an answer. Realistically, how do we protect ourselves, first from unwelcome encounters and second from falling victim to misunderstood intentions?

XXFactored Aug2011: Relationship Anarchy, Divorced Friends, Crushes & Glorious Singledom

August saw XX Factor introducing its very first guest-writer, TheSingleMarriedMan. I’ve been asking him to write a guest post for ages but he only recently consented. He’s newly single (after a longterm relationship) and is bringing his own brand of humour, cynicism & wisdom to XX Factor. I’ve also been on the lookout for alternate voices, male or female for this space. The battle of the sexes, relationships, dating & love are too big for just one person to talk about, don’t you think? If you or someone you know is interested in being one of the voices of XX Factor, do write in to me at ideasmithy at gmail dot com. And until then, here’s what we were looking at in August:

  • Indian Relationships: A State Of Anarchy‘: In this age of limitless social interaction, are we also setting ourselves up to relationship predators? (via Yahoo!RealBeauty)
  • Tips for women on dealing with a male friend in the throes of divorce (via TheSingleMarriedMan)
  • You’re never too old for a crush! (via Yahoo!RealBeauty)
  • Socially Obliged‘: A passionate viewpoint on being single & the way society may be heading (via Facebook)
  • Would you want women-only subway cars to stop sexual harassment?‘: An angle on street harassment – should women have to be segregated on public transport for protection? The question is raised by a US citizen for the US but the discussion holds valid everywhere, even ‘safe’ Mumbai with its ladies’ compartment. (via TheFrisky)

Indian Relationships: A State Of Anarchy

I saw a Hollywood movie about relationships and love. In one scene, a man and a woman meet in a department store and strike up a conversation over the cash register which continues till they walk out. Standing on the sidewalk, they talk, like any two strangers who’ve just met, of things that interest the other and ooh and aah over what they have in common. Then, just on the verge of that crucial ‘ask for her number’ moment, the guy shrugs and says,

“I can’t do this. I’m married.”

It struck me right just then. They were following a socially accepted ritual. Then they reached a point where an expression of interest had to be made or not. And it could not be made since he was clearly unavailable. The social mores of their world dictated that he not go any furthur unless he was intending to take it forward seriously.

A few years ago, I was in Europe. After much teasing from my group, about Turkish delights and Greek gods, I returned to report that no man had flirted with me. But my mother, told me of one of our co-passengers had struck up a conversation and told her she was very attractive, adding with a snide look at my dad that he couldn’t say the same about her husband. She was highly surprised till we were told that in some western communities, it was considered polite, practically a social requirement to mock-flirt with a lady and compliment her on her fine form. This especially for a married woman, since it was quite clear that it was in light vein and was not intended to be taken seriously. Quite unlike India where it would be considered highly inappropriate to flirt or compliment a married woman. On the other hand, it was pointed out, that it would be equally inappropriate for the same men to have flirted with me since I was clearly available. Flirting would have been an indication of serious intent, a formal expression of interest.

We are still in a nascent society as far as dating goes. Our parents’ generation invented love marriages in this society; we are the generation that brings in friendship between the sexes as well as socially sanctioned romantic/sexual relationships before marriage. We haven’t quite learnt where to draw the line between friendship-comfort and attraction-commitment. We are still experimenting with how far we go with being funny/cool/charming and where it trespasses into flirtation.

Think about some of the relationship scenarios that are very real to us today. The ‘best friend’ of the opposite sex that makes the girlfriend/boyfriend so uncomfortable. The good friends (sister-brother…this is really the most convoluted one of all) who vehemently decree that other people have dirty minds. The older colleague/father of a friend/friend of father/husband of a friend who are really friendly, but perhaps a little too much sometimes?

Don’t we all know a guy who promises the world to every second girl, believing correctly, that she’ll keep it to herself because, it still isn’t done for a girl to admit that she’s been with a guy? There is nothing to check him from repeating the same over and over again, no one to brand him for the cad he is. Even after the crime is complete and guy is far away, possibly chasing a whole new set of girls or actually married, how many of the women he has wronged are actually going to speak up? How about the committed ones who pass off their behaviour as harmless friendliness? There’s a general ‘kehne mein kya harz hai?’ syndrome working here. The problem is that people do fall in love, hearts get broken, trust is rended and lives are shattered. You can deny those are very real crimes, nasty things that people do to people.

As modern women, we are expected to be ‘okay’ with a certain degree of liberal expression. The question how far does that stretch? It’s okay to know a lot of guys, it’s fine to go out with them, even flirt with them, get into relationships with them. But all of that provided it ends in the institution of marriage or at least a ‘stable, steady relationship’. But from meeting a guy to ending up in that last socially sanctioned comfortable relationship, it’s a long way. We stuff our best-looking side into our public persona and bury our insecurities. We put up with a guy who is ‘comittment-phobic’ for months and months because we don’t want to be nags. We’re okay with the ‘just good friends’ tag. We even tolerate cheating and tell ourselves patience is a virtue. You can be sure a crime of sorts has been committed but who’s going to haul in the offender?

And if you’re thinking this is equally true for women, I agree. With one small exception. Men who have been wronged in this manner can speak up about it and they do. Where else do we get such nasty phrases like slag and tease from? On the other hand, a woman who has been wronged cannot speak up. Liberatedness be damned, when such a social crime is perpetrated, the woman (more often than not) doesn’t dare speak up since even friends would call her stupid for having believed such a guy in the first place. Well, you live, you learn.

We are a society in a state of transition, this is true. Many of us feel like we’re stuck in the stiff rules of conservative India while being seduced by the liberatedness of the West. We navigate our lives through some complicated mixture of the two. But while trying to have the best of both worlds, we have the safety of neither – not the security of a protected society, nor the societal support system of an individualist one. The touts that flourish in any anarchy are well and alive in this one too. Let me end this by just saying that glorious as this rule-free state may be, the very lawlessness of it leaves each of us vulnerable to social crimes.

—————————————————————————————————–

* An earlier version of this post is here. A version is also posted to Yahoo! Real Beauty.

Relationship Lawlessness & Social Criminals

I recently saw a movie about relationships and love. In one scene, a man and a woman meet in a department store and strike up a conversation over the cash register which continues till they walk out. Standing on the sidewalk, they talk, like any two strangers who’ve just met, of things that interest the other and ooh and aah over what they have in common. Then, just on the verge of that crucial ‘ask for her number’ moment, the guy shrugs and says,

I can’t do this. I’m married.

It struck me right between my eyes just then. They were following a socially accepted ritual. Then they reached a point where an expression of interest had to be made or not. And it could not be made since he was clearly unavailable. The social mores dictated that he not go any furthur unless he was intending to take it forward seriously.

~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~

Last year I went to Europe on holiday. After enduring much ribbing about Turkish delights and Greek gods, I returned to report that no man had flirted with me. My mother, on the other hand, told me of one of our co-passangers who had struck up a conversation and told her she was beautiful, adding with a snide look at my dad that he couldn’t say the same about her husband.

She was highly surprised (even though I spend all my time telling her that she looks at least a decade younger than she is – and she does!) till I added that in some western communities, it was considered polite, practically a social requirement to mock-flirt with a lady and compliment her on her fine form. This especially for a married woman, since it was quite clear that it was in light vein and was not intended to be taken seriously. Quite unlike India where it would be considered highly inappropriate to flirt or compliment a married woman.

On the other hand, my father pointed out, that it would be equally inappropriate for the same men to have flirted with me since I was clearly available. Flirting would have been an indication of serious intent, a formal expression of interest.

~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~

We are still in a nascent society as far as dating goes. Our parents generation invented love marriages in this society; we are the generation that brings in friendship between the sexes as well as socially sanctionable romantic/sexual relationships before marriage. We haven’t quite learnt where to draw the line between friendship-comfort and attraction-committment. We are still experimenting with how far we go with being funny/cool/charming and where it trespasses into flirtation.

Think about some of the relationship scenarios that are very real to us today. The ‘best friend’ of the opposite sex that makes the girlfriend/boyfriend so uncomfortable. The good friends (sister-brother…this is really the most convoluted one of all) who vehemently decree that other people have dirty minds. The older colleague/father of a friend/friend of father/husband of a friend who are really friendly, but perhaps a little too much sometimes?

Don’t we all know a guy who promises the moon and earth to every second girl, believing correctly, that she’ll keep it to herself because in the larger sense, it still isn’t done for a girl to admit that she’s been with a guy? There is nothing to check him from repeating the same over and over again, no one to brand him for the cad he is. Even after the crime is complete and guy is far away, possibly chasing a whole new set of girls or actually married, how many of the women he has wronged are actually going to speak up? And if you say you don’t know such a guy, give me a call. I have a private ‘Hall of Shame’ of these social criminals.

How about the committed ones who pass off their behaviour as harmless friendliness? There’s a general ‘kehne mein kya harz hai?’ syndrome working here. The problem is that people do fall in love, hearts get broken, trust is rended and lives are shattered. You can deny those are very real crimes, nasty things that people do to people.

As modern women, we are expected to be ‘okay’ with a certain degree of liberal expression. The question how far does that stretch? It’s okay to know a lot of guys, it’s fine to go out with them, even flirt with them, get into relationships with them. But all of that provided it ends in the institution of marriage or at least a ‘stable, steady relationship’. But from meeting a guy to ending up in that last socially sanctioned comfortable relationship, it’s a long way. Most men fall short far before that. Or I suspect a lot of them aren’t even intending to go that far but try and drag out as much as they can get before they need to rat-tail it ‘before it gets too serious’.

We stuff our best-looking side into our public persona and bury our insecurities. We put up with a guy who is ‘comittment-phobic’ for months and months because we don’t want to be nags. We’re okay with the ‘just good friends’ tag. We even tolerate cheating and tell ourselves patience is a virtue. What happens when he dumps you to go chase another girl and propose marriage to her in a week? You can be sure a crime of sorts has been committed but who’s going to haul in the offender?

And if you’re thinking this is equally true of women as well, I agree. With one small exception. Men who have been wronged in this manner can speak up about it and they do. Where else do we get such nasty phrases like slag and tease from? On the other hand, a woman who has been wronged cannot speak up. Liberatedness be damned, one of those aforementioned crimes was perperated on me. I didn’t dare speak up since I knew even our common friends would just think I was stupid for having believed such a guy in the first place. Well, you live, you learn.

Last month, I was flirted with by a committed man. I was unsure on when exactly I could draw the line and just relieved to get away without too much embarassment. As I’m writing this post, I’m being propositioned by a married friend. This relationship is sometimes questioned by my friends who believe (quite correctly) that he is a social criminal. I agree and yet I continue to be friends (only in every sense of the word) with him. But few relationships are this manageable and heavenaloneknows that this one wasn’t easy either.

Let me end this by just saying that delightful as this state may be with its glorious rule-lessness, the very lawlessness of it leaves each of us vulnerable to social crimes.

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