“You’re right, guys. It’s an arranged marriage.”
Late last year, L. – the closest Indian friend of mine since Secondary school times – was handing out pastel envelopes as he confirmed our suspicions. The bugger had spelled my name wrongly on the wedding invitation, his f*ck-up earning a chorus of mockery from the table like we were 16-year-old scoundrels all over again. But I suppose that’s the beauty of reacquainting with old friends who have grown apart over the adulting phase, yet never really apart thanks to the powers that be – Facebook.
Speaking of which, that was exactly the reason behind the “I’m-officially-inviting-you-guys-to-my-wedding-dinner” dinner, because a few weeks before, I opened Facebook to find his sparkly new relationship status update screaming at me at the top of my feed. L. is engaged to [his then fiancée]. Not in a relationship, but engaged. The gun was jumped, and so did my frail heart.
It was shocking for three reasons: a) he’s a career driven individual who’s never dated and was single AF up until then, b) he’s almost never active on Facebook, c) could it be that there was something he’s not letting up, like condom breakage?
L., if you’re reading this, know that Point C is just a juvenile punchline from my inner 16-year-old scoundrel. We all know you’re not that kinda guy – much love, man.
Far from modern dating practices of swiping, Netflix & Chilling, and “just the tip, I promise”, L. was, in fact, part of a traditional Indian caste practice where the parents played matchmaker and handled their kids’ bequeathment from start to finish – something I never dreamt still existed in 2019 Singapore.
“Yes, it exists, but only those from the Chettiar caste follow this arrangement,” L. explained. While his fellow Indian mates (who don’t belong to the caste) take matters of the heart into their own hands, there was little to no autonomy in L.’s case. His parents had already set the wheels in motion. Potential matches were scouted via two ways: either by word of mouth or by tapping into an extensive register known as the ‘nattukotai chettiars’.
“Ah, like flipping an album of girls?” J., a friend at the table, attempted his best interpretation.
L. said that the register extends to Malaysia, India, and even as far out as the U.K and U.S. In Singapore, the community is 900 to 1,000 family strong. Like dating as we know it, it may take several tries to find an ideal match who sticks, but it seemed L.’s parents hit bull’s eye. After making sure considerations like horoscope, financial standing, social status and personality were compatible, they set him up on a date with his first ever match, who also happened to be his last. They went out (sidebar: according to L., sometimes parents would tag along to the date and leave once the two parties met up), decided that they liked each other enough, and went home to report the lowdown. From there, under ‘natural’ pressuring by the folks, both parties would have to make a decision in the next 3 to 4 weeks on whether to go ahead with marriage.
Most other people at this point would only be thinking if they should do Italian for the second date.
“Dude, there’s no way you guys would know if you can spend the rest of your lives together in just under a month,” I questioned. The Chettiar matchmaking process was still unfathomable to us unwitting subscribers to the Netflix-and-Chilling generation.
“You know, my brother had to go on a 1-year backpacking tour of Europe with his wife just to test water and see if they can survive each other after marriage,” J. added.
Despite not having the kind of dating knowledge that would come with Thank-You-Next-ing a bunch of people over a period of time, L. had a certain clarity that surprised me. “I agree there should be no pressure from external sources and more time to decide. Such traditions are not going to last much longer, the younger generations are not going to follow,” he predicted.
“But look at some of you. Not everyone has been lucky trying to source for a life partner on his own, so I guess there’s still some merit to arranged marriage. It could be a viable alternative if you can’t make a decision in a sea of options, and you’re forced to make it work.”
A few months later, inside of Sri Thendayuthapani Temple, all of us watched as L. finessed through the ceremony in a resplendent white kurta. If L. himself had admitted that it’s a dying practice, I had to also admit that the culture of fast love has hit a plateau and is, similarly, showing signs of fizzling. Just as quickly as Tinder has gotten us sexcited about a glut of hot strangers at our fingertips, it has made us flaccid with burnout and fatigue. The paradox of choice has made us lose sight of the kind of happiness that matters, which is why ‘slow dating’ is the latest trend that is catching traction and staying power – potentially longer than the likes of ghosting and catfishing, at least.
In case the name hasn’t already given it away, slow dating is essentially the opposite of the swipe/show up/shag sprint cycle you’ve come to know and love. You can think of it as the yoga of dating: a mindful approach to help foster meaningful relationship with that one person you’re going out with.
Here, you would genuinely lose yourself in discovering life stories that make her who she is over coffee, rather than fast-tracking to the boudoir two hours after dinner to find out each other’s juicy sexual history. Dating apps like Coffee Meets Bagel and Hinge have bucked the trend by doing away with bottomless swiping and introducing online daters to limited, highly curated profiles, so users have better chances of getting it right the first few times.
But the dredges of online dating remain hard to scrape off, like gum on your shoe; having tasted the forbidden fruit, relationship hunters with a mind to settle down may constantly wonder ‘what else is out there’ and let themselves be steered off course. And in one of our news pieces last month, research data has shown that a worrying fraction of online daters don’t convert online matches to face-to-face meet-ups, despite an increase in number of matches. Are more people getting dangerously comfortable with texting/sexting and allowing themselves to risk retarding their real-life interaction skills?
Over at the table, my friends might have made jokes about L.’s parents flipping an album of girls for him, but could it be that the joke was on us all along? That we’ve been getting our hands dirty sacrificing so much time, money and mental wellness on unfulfilling swipe blitzes, while L. had his happiness handed to him?
(2nd sidebar: last I checked, L. uncharacteristically started an Instagram account to document selfies of himself and his wife, and I’ve never seen him look happier. Bugger never once gave me a genuine smile.)
Now, I’m not expecting you guys to keep dating apps under lock and key after today. Nor am I banking on you to become the next guy after L. to join the Arranged Marriage Club. But dating burnout is no fun, no doubt. So with all the truths of matchmaking customs and slow dating laid out, here’s my little dare for you to marry the best of both worlds: let your folks shoulder the burden of online dating crappiness.
Get your Mum to swipe for you.