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Love Inc. in Mumbai city
Love isn’t just a concept in this city of 17 million, it’s the basis of a circus-like cottage industry that counts matchmakers and movie makers, aura-readers and agony aunts in its troupe
It’s Valentine’s Day weekend 2010. That time of the year where 'the number of heart-holding teddy-bears sold' is an actual scientific unit of measurement. Somewhere in India, fundamentalist Hindu politicians are flexing their tongues while liberal-minded women activists are gathering frilly pink underwear to send them in return.
Me: “What is a janam-kundali?”
However if you’re an intrepid businessman hoping to make some quick cash off Valentine’s Day, the truth is, you’re missing a trick. In India, there’s money to be made off love all year round. There are futures waiting to be divined, there are romantic slap-fights to be had on national television, and those perfect matches aren’t going to make themselves, you know.
Meet some successful Mumbai men and women in the business of love.
Mahindra: Chariot driver in Colaba
In a city with an official population of 17 million people and an unofficial population of "Wait, HOW many?!", it's nigh impossible for a young couple to get any time alone. But if you can't be alone, why not do the next best thing? Lose yourself in a crowd. Which is exactly what most of Mumbai does on its public transport system. The image of nervy, awkward lovers canoodling in the back of a cab is so typically Mumbai that you could put it on a postcard. Most taxi-drivers accept the lovers' commute as part of the game. Others frown. One taxi even had a sign that threatened backseat canoodlers with a Rs 500 fine. The truth is, in a city where hotels are expensive and quite forbidding, 500 bucks for a spot to play kissyface is a bargain.
If she’s a keeper though, nothing matches the old-school charm of the Victoria chariot ride, or the ghoda-gaadi. Makes a taxi-ride feel downright mundane. It's a gesture that could even be the Mumbai equivalent of a heart-shaped box of chocolates. There's an odd sense of romance to it all, from the ratty throne-like seating to the gaudy light patterns running down the chariots. Chariot drivers confess that they prefer couples to tourists. “They stay longer, so they pay more” reasons one. So grab a quick kathi roll from local culinary legend Bademiya and clip along the city's heritage mile, from the Gateway of India to Marine Drive, and you've got yourself dinner and a show. At about 400 bucks a pop, it's cheaper than being fined by an irate cabbie, and infinitely more romantic.
In a culture paralyzed by moral prudence, talking about sex and related stuff isn’t really an option. Especially not to your parents, who will live in denial until you’re married, following which they’ll thank god for the immaculate conception that gave them their first grandchild.
Cue India’s agony aunts. Battling ignorance, despair and an army of angsty question marks in the papers, on the radio and online, they’re a whispering wall for the confused, the misguided and the flat-out clueless.Which explains the seemingly inane “I saw the back of her head, or well, just her left ear, once. I’m in love.” queries that litter Agony Aunt columns in India. “Well, what’s inane to you might be life and death for someone else” argues Pooja Bedi, agony aunt for Femina, the most popular women’s magazine in India. “People get wrapped up in their realities, in their world-views, and my job is to give them perspective.” Touché.
Dibakar Banerjee: Mouth-on-mouth Bollywood movie making magic
Somewhere in the saffron fields of Punjab, two flowers are enjoying their retirement in peace. It’s been a while since they were last called into service as a metaphor for some chiseled on-screen couple’s first roll in the hay.
Because at long last, in Bollywood, the times they are a-changing. An entire industry is slowly rejecting its longest standing notions: that of love as a virginal, coy absolute to be enjoyed chastely by a 'hero' and 'heroine' whose ultimate expression of physical intimacy is a bear hug.
Leading the charge are a bunch of filmmakers who are willing to accept love for what it is, warts and all. Cut to “Love Aaj Kal”, a 2009 film that opens with its lead pair celebrating their breakup like the mature adults they are. Cue, another film from last year, “Dev D” (a modern re-telling of Sarat Chandra’s classic if ubertragic Devdas) whose bruised, unapologetic, self-destructive protagonist finds redemption in the arms of an equally bruised, equally unapologetic prostitute. The difference being that they now live in a world that allows them a ride into the sunset. Fade in to “Love, Sex Aur Dhoka”, or LSD, a film on the eve of its release that taps into India’s new favorite medium of scandal; the MMS. The film’s central conceit involves telling multiple stories of love, sex and betrayal using hidden cameras. Auditions involved make-out sessions. Virginal heroes need not apply. After all, this is the new Bollywood, deflowered at long last.
VJ Andy: Host of the Dare 2 Date show on Channel [V]
Asking a person of the opposite sex out is, to be fair, no fun at all. Your palms are sweating, the flowers you bought her wilted on the way, you are inevitably having a bad hair day (by which I mean you’ve singed the left side of your head off), and abject terror has reduced your carefully prepared speech to “Erk.” And meanwhile all you can think is “Why oh why did I have to do this on national television?”
Why? Because hey, all the cool kids are doing it. By 'it' we mean falling in love with the idea of love, on national television. Like on Channel [V]’s Dare 2 Date, a show that delights in packing two polar opposites off on a romantic weekend just to see if the sparks will fly. Two young people on a romantic getaway on television seems light years away from the traditional Indian concept of meeting your match under the watchful, samosa-eating eyes of your aunt. But VJ Andy, host of Dare 2 Date, begs to differ. “It’s actually pretty similar to our old-world concept, when you think about it. The people could be complete opposites, there’s a go-between, in this case, me. And you know nothing about each other.”
Fair point. But it doesn’t explain that other show about people spying on their cheating partners. And the other one, where the son of a deceased politician chooses his bride from a gaggle of sixteen vapid hopefuls. Never mind that his only claim to fame is being found coked-up in a hot-tub with one very naked and one very dead man by his side. Clearly, a suitable boy.
Anjali Awataramani: Game, set, matchmaker
Anjali Awataramani takes on only one job a month. She has carefully organized files and chooses her clients after impeccable background checks. And, she only takes cash after the job is done. With a job description like that, Ms Awataramani could well be an assassin. But to some stubbornly single young adults, she’s even more terrifying than that. To worried parents, she is a savior. She is a matchmaker, the Jason Bourne of the Mumbai marriage market.
“Not business, actually” she’s quick to clarify. “More like social work.” This is India, where singledom after a certain age is a sign of one of two things; either you’re gay, or you’re the devil. Or maybe you’re the gay devil. But, have no fear, the matchmaker mafia’s here. Like Ms Awataramani, most matchmakers are simply well-networked women within their community that become the go-to person for a good match. All you need to offer them is a list of specifications (e.g. 24/female/good-looking/educated/must take s**t from mother-in-law) and they offer you a dossier of eligible (and compatible) partners.
In case it sounds like a giant joke to you, think again and head online like the 20 million people that use Shaadi.com, one of the world’s largest matchmaking sites. The site represents everything that’s progressive and regressive about Indian culture all at once. As an online portal that claims responsibility for “over 1.3 million successful marriages,” it’s a fantastic example of modern technology taking over traditional roles. But with an option that lets you specify searches on the basis of caste (one option simply says “scheduled caste”), it remains steeped in a distastefully orthodox ideology. But lest you doubt our matchmakers’ progressiveness, well, don’t. Anjali Awataramani will match-make for the divorced and widowed too. And how else do you explain the success of the oh-so-subtly named secondshaadi.com?
Larra Shah: Oh, my, starry-eyed surprise
So you’ve met someone, and they’re smart, funny, gorgeous, rich, not entirely averse to commitment, and there appear to be no shrunken heads in their freezer either. Things look good, but there are a few formalities. People need to be informed, arrangements need to be made, and a quick consult with the stars is in order. The cosmic police must acquiesce to your request.
In India, the word compatibility doesn’t refer to the fact that you both think Harry Potter deserves to drown in a vat of acid. No, it refers to the fact that your parents want to know whether your stars at birth are “in alignment” or not.
The big daddy of them all is the janam kundali, the Vedic birth-chart that supposedly maps out your future, and more importantly, offers a guide to who you might be compatible with. For the purpose of clarity, I spoke with someone who has greater knowledge of these things. This is how the conversation went:
Me: “What is a janam-kundali?”
Them: “Oh, it’s your janam-akshar.”
Me: “Okay, what’s my janam-akshar?”
Them: “Well, for example, you could have Mangal, in which case you should look to marry a Maanglik.”
Me: “What’s a Maanglik?”
Them: “Well, you could also marry someone with Shani.”
Me: “What happens if I marry neither?”
Them: “Oh, you could die.”
This is why this country pays other people to make sense of heavenly bodies for them. If it isn’t marriage you’re worried about, but just the odd lovelorn problem, there’s an army of oracles that’d be happy to divine what your stars foretell. Pick your poison. Palmists and parrot astrologers line the streets, and your chances at a happy ending increase exponentially for every note that leaves your wallet. If you’d like to sit down to a more civilized, detailed chat with the cosmos though, tarot-card and aura readers are at your service.
“I don’t offer solutions, I offer people strategies and timelines,” says Larra Shah, a holistic healer who consults in everything from the tarot to the crystal ball. “I’m not going to say ‘Oh, you’re doomed, you’re definitely going to fall into a hole two months from now’” Shah explains. “My job is to offer you possible courses of action that will lead your life away from that hole.” At Rs 3,000 a reading though, you could argue that it had better be a deep hole she’s saving you from.