"Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match"
- from Fiddler on the Roof
I seem to have inherited my mother's matchmaking talent by default. Ammi was a compulsive and unabashed (read embarrassing) matchmaker. She would approach people at random in doctors' waiting rooms, weddings and even (gulp) funerals.
"Beta (child), what a lovely colour you're wearing. Whose daughter/son are you? I knew your grandmother/aunt/
sister (she always had connections). Are you married?"
Ammi did this out of love for humanity. A good cause, she would say, while we cringed.
My mother came from a long tradition of happily arranged marriages, her own a fairy tale. As the story goes, her father and my paternal grandfather, who were close friends, sat around munching snacks one day, bemoaning the lack of excitement in their lives. In other words, not enough weddings in either family. The two cheeky old men then connived to marry my mother to my father. The young ones were informed and that was that. My father wooed my mother after marriage and they remained happy until he died.
One day, when I was 16, Ammi's watchful eye fell on my friends. Thankfully, I was ignored as per the matchmaker's unwritten rules: you don't set up your own kids.
The way Ammi worked was to invite a potential suitor and his family to tea, along with the girl and her family. It was done with people the matchmaker knew, rarely with strangers. This is why matchmaking is so successful in the South Asian communities, as the union of a man and woman is more than a marriage of two people, but the confluence of two families. Simply put, in our communities, family is everything.
My best friend, Ghazala, a great beauty, was Ammi's first victim. But unbeknownst to anyone, Ghazala had a secret boyfriend, which in Pakistani society at the time was dangerous. If her parents or Ammi found out, all hell would break loose. She could be pulled out of college or, worse, married off. I was sworn to secrecy. Obviously, Ghazala wanted none of the matchmaking. But my na•ve mother, who till her dying day truly believed that girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, was in cahoots with Ghazala's mother.
The first time a meeting between the two was set up, I helped Ghazala pretend she was ill. The second time, we arranged for her to be late. But by the third time, we were running out of excuses and she was stuck. So we did the sit-down thing and the tea trolley was brought out. Ghazala frowned all evening. Terrified that I would be blamed for her behaviour, I had invited another friend, who caught the suitor's eye. They clicked and later got hitched. A coup! And I'm alive today to tell the story.
In South Asian cultures, parents play a key role in the decisions their children make. The social infrastructure back home is such that youth tend to meet their future partners at family get-togethers, weddings and parties. Someone who knows both parties will act as a go-between. There is an understanding that if it doesn't work out, there are no hard feelings and both parties go on to the next matchmaking event.
It's important to note that arranged marriages are not forced marriages, but more like supervised blind dates. There's an old saying: "Marriage is like a dangerous dessert - you regret it if you eat it and you regret it if you don't." In other words, marriage has to be worked at every day, regardless of whether it started out as arranged, semi-arranged or a love match.
In South Asia, times are changing and children today want to make their own choices. Families that were particular about caste, creed and colour 10 years ago are softening and the circle is wider. In earlier days, family background was very important, because a similar cultural and socio-economic background made adapting easier. Nowadays, it doesn't seem to matter that much as long as two people like each other.
In North America, it's more difficult for South Asians to meet their partners through family events, as families live farther apart and are not as large. But desi matchmaking websites are attempting to fill that void. The dating sites seem to be more popular with young singles looking for a match, while parents eager to marry off their children typically place ads in the newspaper.
Here's a typical ad, pulled from a Toronto desi newspaper: "Parents seek match for handsome son. Looking for beautiful, slim, fair, tall (5'4"), professional woman under 30 who has strong moral and family values. Send photo and biodata."
An ad like this is why I've been freelancing as a matchmaker for many years (the non-commercial kind, like my mother). To suggest that all sons are assumed handsome and specifications for the girl are totally inflexible makes me cringe.
If I know a boy and girl who seem suited, I'll try and bring them together, but with conditions. I have to know them first and beauty is not a criteria. Once, a Toronto mother asked me to find a "beautiful, fair girl" for her "handsome" son. I asked to meet the son first. Well, "handsome" did not accurately describe this young man, who was also sulky and arrogant. That was the end of that.
They say marriages are made in heaven. Well, in Ixtapa, a paradise-like Pacific resort in Mexico, my son has found the love of his life. Taking his cue from my stress on family bonding, he was insistent the families meet. Fortunately, she's from a culture where family is also important. So she turned the tables on him and invited him to her home first, where he was checked out by her family, friends and neighbours. We were summoned and flew over to do our part. My son initiated a perfect coup by taking the best from both worlds.
And with that, I humbly submit my resignation as a matchmaker.