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SEPTEMBER 15, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 36 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Nameas Bhojani for Asiaweek.
For Ravindran and Chinnaswamy, center, a traditional wedding followed unconventional courtship.

Matches Made in Cyberia
India's IT boom shakes marital foundations
By MARIA CHENG

Neela Karmarkar is a search engine of the old school. For 15 years, the Bombay suburbanite has run a marriage bureau and matchmaking service that pairs Indian couples according to a strict, centuries-old regime of parental consent, astrological consultation, and dowry negotiations. In India, arranged marriages are common and matchmakers like Karmarkar perform an important function — albeit one that is being displaced as young information technology workers turn from tradition and family to the Internet and the workplace to find marriage partners. "A lot of computer professionals come to us not for fixing alliances, but just to make arrangements for the marriage ceremony," grouses Karmarkar, who finds herself competing with computerized spouse-selection services on the Web. "They don't need our kind of marriage-proposal-related services any more."

Within India's affluent middle class, ancient courtship rituals are fading as the Internet extends its reach into the subcontinent. "Matrimonial websites," which are similar to online dating services but have a more serious purpose, allow Indians with the right connections (56 kilobits-per-second preferred) to find spouses free of the friction of well-meaning relations. Not just the pairing-off process is under seige. Wealth being generated by the country's $8.2 billion IT industry is changing the very perceptions Indians have regarding who is desirable as a life partner. While they still tend to marry within their caste and religion, doctors and lawyers are no longer unchallenged at the top of the eligibility hierarchy. Highly paid software engineers, who with the coming of stock options and IPOs may have a shot at riches previously unimaginable in this impoverished country, are now much in demand. Bombay resident Sudha Nair understands the higher status that programmers enjoy only too well. The 25-year-old business school graduate is under pressure from her mother to become computer literate in order to improve her marriage-derby chances. Something as simple as learning Microsoft Excel will do, "Anything so that she can have the word 'computer' slipped into her qualifications," confides a friend.

The trend is illustrated in matrimonial advertisements in the classified section of The Times of India, which these days often read less like the yearnings of unfulfilled hearts and more like jobs-wanted ads. A recent example: Alliance invited from professionally qualified, well-settled Iyer boy, 31 and below, for [Bombay]-based Iyer girl, fair, slim, certified Oracle professional employed in a leading MNC Infotech organization as software engineer. Out of 62 ads seeking grooms for women in the southern state of Kerala one Sunday last spring, 20 mentioned IT pedigrees — more than any other field mentioned.

The classifieds remain a popular partner-screening tool, for good reason: The Times's circulation is 1.8 million. But there are an estimated 3.1 million Indians using the Internet, and with hundreds of matrimonial websites going up, the Net is gaining reach and popularity. Efficiency is one reason why. "The traditional way of finding a husband or wife takes at least three months of consideration for each potential match," says Bharat Manglani, chairman of matrimonial website Suitablematch.com. "On the Web, it can take less than one day. It is much easier to qualify or disqualify someone online."

If Manglani makes DIY matchmaking sound too calculated and leaves you wondering what will become of romance, consider that romance plays only a bit part in arranged marriages. Far more important is whether the prospective spouses offer each other and their families certain social or economic advantages. Singles on the Net, on the other hand, can seek out their soulmates without stage-direction from matchmakers and go-betweens. Aashumi Mody, a 23-year-old Bombay travel agent, found a husband within one month of placing her profile online, partly because the process "doesn't involve parents," says Mody. "Well, at least not initially."

The Web also expands the gene pool globally. Matrimoniallink.com, for example, recently contained listings from Indians living in 61 countries and registers about 5,000 visitors each day. Sites like Suitablematch.com, Manglani says, are reshaping India's mating rituals. "The Web can follow the same protocol as tradition," he says. "It just allows an openness to information so that the process can move much faster."

Are people really in that much of a hurry to get married? Maybe not, but with a generation of Indians choosing to work in fast-paced technology fields, speed and convenience are becoming social imperatives. Smitha Ravindran, a Bangalore programmer with Wipro, says she wasn't looking to marry money when she wed fellow software professional and colleague Subramanya Chinnaswamy earlier this year. "I chose someone in software because he knows the pressures of the job," says Smitha, 23. "In the IT industry you have to work long hours. Someone from the same field understands this."

As do employers. At NIIT, India's big computer training institute, inter-office nuptials have official sanction and encouragement. The company offers a cash "dating allowance" to workers who woo among the cubicles and a one-time wedding allowance for those who marry within the organization. The policy "stems from the basic belief that we have the brightest men and women working at NIIT," says Sanjiv Kataria, the company's communications officer. "What can be better than finding a suitable life partner from among these bright, intelligent, well-looked-after NIIT-ians?"

To which we respond: Which is scarier? Having a matchmaker select your life partner by consulting your astrological chart? Or having your boss select your mate by consulting your last performance review? Better to let a computer decide.

With reporting by Jagdish Rattanani/Bombay

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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