British Asians are looking for love on matrimonial websites, but can you really find your life partner online?
Jayasree Sen Gupta wanted to get married. In her mid-30s but living on her own in Leeds, she rarely met suitable men. She knew her ideal man would, like her, have an Indian heritage and, also like her, be a music lover. But how to find him? In the past Gupta may have left that question to her mother and father, settling for an arranged marriage and, possibly, a life empty of love and filled with unhappiness. But her parents live in India, and she was not keen to emulate her friends by trawling the bars and clubs of the city in search of her elusive Mr Right. So, in May 2007, Gupta signed up with Shaadi.com. While internet dating is commonplace, Shaadi.com is a more serious proposition; one of the most successful matrimonial websites and increasingly popular with Asians looking for a life partner.
When she wrote her profile, Gupta was very clear about the type of man she was looking for – from the qualifications she expected him to have, to the enthusiasms she wanted him to share. "I'm a musician, so the man I was looking for had to share my passion", says Gupta. "I didn't want someone who just did a nine-to-five job." Among the hundreds of responses was one from Sanjoy Dey, who read her profile at his home in Calcutta. "When we started emailing I found he was a composer and singer," Gupta recalls. "So that was how it started and it went on very quickly." The couple spoke on the phone for the first time on 10 August when Dey asked Gupta to sing a song for him down the line. Duly impressed, he left India the following month for Leeds. They were married five months later. "Without a website like Shaadi.com there is no way I would ever have met my Sanjoy," says Gupta, "and he is without doubt my soulmate."
While Gupta and Dey are in Leeds celebrating their good fortune, thousands of miles away the man who unwittingly played Cupid to their love story is in an air-conditioned office in Mumbai. Anupam Mittal is a younger member of the ludicrously wealthy Mittal clan, and although he is in his mid-30s and still unmarried, I suspect it is out of too much choice rather than too little. "I was looking for business ideas," he told me, "and I started thinking about matchmakers: in India, the choice of a life partner could literally be limited to who a matchmaker knows and how much paperwork they have. So I started thinking about how to take the spatial and geographic limitations away and the answer was simple: the internet."
Since its launch in 1997 around 15 million people have signed up to Shaadi.com ("shaadi" is Hindi for marriage) with five million using it at any given time. The site has 300m page views a month; 6,000 new profiles are added every day and Mittal claims that his site is responsible for a million marriages around the world.
The secret to its success is the almost comical specificity that members can indulge in. As well as nationality and religion you can look for someone who is childless or divorced. And while the new technology allows users to find matches from across the globe, the site is tailored to the typical criteria of traditional matchmakers, with questions about family values (traditional, moderate or liberal), profession and even complexion. So if you are looking for a doctor from a Muslim background living in Birmingham with moderate family values who eats meat and is fair, you can adjust the search accordingly. By allowing members to be so detailed in their search, matrimonial websites put power in the hands of single Asians and not their parents. Yet the men and women I spoke to who have used the website were still conforming to the hopes and expectations of their family.
"The young people on the site want to exercise choice," Mittal says, "but not without the blessing of their parents." In practice, they are still imprisoned by the idea that finding an ideal partner is about creed and career rather than chemistry. Most would only speak to me on the condition that their identity was protected. When I ask 38-year-old Zeenat in Manchester what she is looking for in a husband, she says he has to be "British Pakistani, educated, job, non-smoker, born and bred in the UK." What about their personality? "That doesn't come into it at all," she says. Manpreet, a turbaned 25-year-old from London, tells me he would prefer his bride to be a fellow Sikh. "There is so much politics that surround Asian families," he explains, "you just can't beat it." So even online you are still trying to please others? "Yeah, basically," he says.
In the past when parents chose potential partners, one of the first questions would be: does he or she come from a good family – one with a solid reputation? In the murky, unreliable world of the internet it is difficult to know the true intentions of the person tapping into your inbox. Naveed, 32, who works in IT in Manchester, recalls one girl who had one fake profile she used to attract men initially, before showing them her real profile.
Shaadi.com may claim a million marriages, but for every fairytale there are countless horror stories. Hema claims the men she was contacted by "always wanted to talk about sex and nothing else". Zeenat agrees: "The site is for marriage purposes but people abuse the system. I met people and obviously their agenda was not marriage. I had one man tell me he was married and he just wanted me for an additional wife."
Hema, a 48-year-old from Nottingham, was suspicious when a 31-year-old man from Pakistan contacted her, but married him anyway. Her husband is an asylum-seeker whose status in this country is uncertain. "He was so incredibly romantic," she tells me. "He wanted to get married on the first day we met – he just said let's go straight to the mosque." Although her children are less convinced by the match, she insists, "He is an open-hearted person and I trust him completely."
The search to find one's life partner is not easy, but it is arguably harder for second-generation British Asians, burdened by their parents' expectations but looking for more than marriage to a stranger. I was struck by how pragmatic the people I spoke to were in their ambitions. There was much talk about marriage, but little talk of romance; the notion that love was maddeningly unpredictable, that it could strike and make the most unlikely couples deliriously happy, carried little resonance. They were interested in solidity and stability, and hoped that by choosing someone similar in background and faith there was more chance of finding someone to share one's life.
With the exception of Jayasree Sen Gupta, everyone I spoke to had been disappointed in their online experiences, and it led me to wonder if perhaps the problem was not with them but in the very idea that the search for a partner should be defined by race or religion. That was also the conclusion that led Rekha, a 34-year-old project manager from south London, to abandon Shaadi.com after only three months. "By the time I was in my early 30s all my female Asian friends – the ones who had spent their 20s dating white guys – were returning back to their roots and marrying Asian guys," she tells me. "I thought maybe the reason I have failed in my relationships is that I was trying to be something I am not. Maybe I need to meet an Asian guy who is a bit like me."
After a series of disappointing dates from Shaadi.com, Rekha left the online search and is now relying on the old-fashioned method of making new friends. "The blunt truth is that I am not all that Muslim," she says, "so there isn't really any reason why my husband should be. If I meet someone I fall in love with I won't care what his background is – and now, finally, I am ready to tell my family that they shouldn't care either."
Some names have been changed. Love at First Site, presented by Sarfraz Manzoor, is on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on Monday 24 August