When my Twitter feed brought news of Lulu I was horrified.
Lulu is a new app on the love block, designed especially for women. This is how it works: you can log in using your Facebook account, so the app can verify you are female. You can see how other women have rated a range of men in your geographical area, under the link Near You. You can also check out men who are on your Facebook friends list. The logic being that when you are considering dating someone, you can see what other women who he's hooked up with have to say about him and be forearmed.
Men have to consent to be on the site, for which a request is sent to them. But the rating happens anonymously and may be done by relatives, friends or women who have gone out with these men.
Now, the reasons for being horrified about such a thing are practically political clichés. It's objectifying, it's invasive, it's potentially cruel or at least, mean. Many would counter that by saying that men have been doing it for years, rating women, their breasts and backsides and sexiness. Men have been making movies with supposedly crazy female "types", invisible hashtags hovering over the #Desperate40plusSingleton #HomeyDog #MILF or #Cougar (it occurs to me all those trips to the zoo have had a formative impact, eh?).
A little payback is fine, right? And just as we have occasionally cringed when we recognized a grain of truth, or a sliver of ourselves anyway, in the stereotypes and misogynistic clichés, so should they, no?
I don't know about that. When did the world become a happier place by the bullied becoming like the bullies, by nerds becoming the cool guys and then overcharging us for software? Surely new girl culture should have some language of its own, not just a version of what guys have been doing, in order to be seen as free?
So, I log on to Lulu. The site is, predictably, a rich, hot pink. A profile is accompanied by a photograph of the man and his numerical rating, which you can expand to see how he did on looks, personality, manners and other rather routine categories by which most people gauge others. But what really catches my eye are the hashtags.
Each profile has a list of Best and Worst qualities in the form of a number of hashtags. So, Best qualities might be something like #Successful #OpensDoors #SmellsAmazeBalls, #GreatListener. Few men garner many of these encomiums. There's a lot more to be found on the negative list. For instance, #ProcreatesThenEvaporates, #GoneBeforeMorning, #NeverAsksQuestions, #RudeToWaiters.
I found myself alternately laughing (not in a bad way) and grimacing (in a bad way) as I went through the profiles of these unknown people. Although nothing seemed intrinsically mean, it was impossible for me to know how much I should believe these epithets.
And then, I checked out the section titled Your Friends. Now, since Lulu is very US-centric, I hadn't really expected to find anyone I know on there. But.
Four profiles appeared before me when I clicked on the link. To my great surprise, two of these were actually men I had gone out with a couple of times, although with no interesting or interested outcome. The other two were people I knew in a loose professional context. I admit I was nonplussed by this. Suddenly the entire app went from being an abstraction to a reality, and there was a little charge to my attention.
I had met Man One - let's call him Z - several years ago when he moved to Mumbai. A common friend had given me his number. Our first meeting almost did not happen, as he was late with a confusing casualness. "Sorry, I was at the gym, can't miss that, right?" he'd said on arrival. He was a self-conscious good looker, with a gym-goer's body, a clinging V-neck t-shirt, a posed smile and an assumed sincerity in his eyes. You see many such men in the cafés of Versova, and they are usually aspiring models and actors.
He was also good at subtle flattery - saying "that's amazing" in all the right places, with just enough fervor to not sound fake. After a nice enough conversation over nimbu pani, he declared, "you're amazing! Do you want to come hang out with me at my friend's place?"
In truth, I had certainly had a pleasant enough time to meet him again, but not enough to spend time with a group of strangers that very moment. He looked disappointed and asked - "are you sure? I'd really love it if you did" a couple of times but eventually we parted saying we would meet again very soon.
Subsequently Z made periodic calls expressing an ardent desire to meet me, in which he flattered and flirted, but any activity I suggested would result in the vague conclusion of - sounds amazing, I'll call later to firm up the plan. But on the appointed day the call would never come. After 3 or 4 such conversations, I stopped taking him seriously at all.
One day, I ran into him at the airport in the check-in line. He was thrilled, he said. He couldn't believe his luck that we were on the same flight. We have to sit next to each other and catch up on the way to London. I didn't really want to, but being a wimpy sort, I kind of went along with this.
In the waiting lounge he vanished, saying he needed to talk to someone. He returned shortly before boarding, with a look of regret. "Sweetie" he said. "You won't believe this, they upgraded me to first class. I don't know what to do. I really wanted to hang out with you on the plane." For a minute I wanted to say, "I can tell you what to do. Give me your first class seat!"
But by now I had begun to enjoy his hypocrisy enough to reciprocate with equal hypocrisy. "Oh what a pity." I said with moderated regret. "But I'm reaaa-lly glad you lucked out, ya. See you in London maybe." The next time Z called me, I did not bother to answer.
This was why I laughed when I saw that one woman had hashtagged him #BlockHisNumber. Any conversation with him on the phone would certainly lead to him, as young people call it, "giving indications", i.e. communicating great interest in you while never following through.
Many women will recognize this experience - of men who claim to be interested in word while never demonstrating it in deed. Why do they do this, women ask? If they are not interested it is really fine - but why do they then spend such energy trying to communicate that they are interested? Many women come away from such experiences with their self-esteem a wee bit dislodged from its moorings, like a doubtful tooth, though not enough to go over the edge.
Well, there is a term for this behavior, I later learned. It's called optioning. If you are a bona fide hot girl, a trophy conquest, some people will make their pursuit explicit and persistent. However, the trophy conquest, like the first sushi restaurant in town, always has a long waiting line. So, getting to the sushi-girl may mean waiting or even completely not getting her. So while that struggle is on, they do not mind keeping the neighborhood Chinese restaurant option, which is, you, open. If he does not get upgraded to first-class, he still has the option of company in economy. In other words, if no one more exciting turned up, Z had the option of me - hence, optioning.
Since I was not really in 'the game' I had not been destabilized by Z's rather obvious behavior, though I had certainly been a bit taken in by his assumed sincerity. I had however had enough chance to observe him to agree that the hashtags #AddictedToMirrors, #WearsEdHardy (apparently an unparalleled behavior of the infra-dig and obnoxious), #SSSS and possibly #PornEducated (meaning what he knows about sex he has learned from watching porn), might possibly fit.
I went forth to profile of Man 2, whom I knew professionally, with a sneaky curiosity. I agreed that #PerfectGrammar was possibly the best thing you might be able to say about him and it seemed likely that the hashtags #Boring, #Doesn'tAskQuestions, #StillInLoveWithTheEx probably fit ok.
Jeejus! I thought. This could suck you in and how. Not only did it validate your feelings, it validated the experience of being female in a world of experiences that otherwise made you feel inadequate, where your self-esteem suffered constant blows and where the entire gamut of supposedly 'new' women's magazines tells you that finding love, having good sex, making others happy, progress in life, all rests with you fixing yourself because, the world is always right.
In the old days, symbolized best by The Rules ("never accept a Saturday date if he calls later than Wednesday") and by the belief that ghar ki baat ghar mein hi rehni chahiye, a woman always smiled, never showed her true feelings, and made all the right manipulative moves until she snagged the guy. (What would a male hashtag of that look like though? #SnagsThenNags? This is addictive, like playing Scrabble online.)
Why is playing Lulu-tag so exhilarating? Because the power rests with you. You, who have always been the object, gauged by your appearance and your pliability, your desirability and your ability to maintain interest, had switched the gaze. Now you could have men, pinned and wriggling to the wall, like butterfly specimens. There is both power and relief in description. If women could share their experiences online - because, after all, a hashtag signifies a recurring observable experience to make sense - would they not also be able to shake-off their self-doubt?
In other words, if the experiences of dating, mating and regretting could be understood with a certain clarity and honesty, would that not give you greater strength in the world of love? Especially as a woman, say, in a place like India, where love relationships are undergoing a sea change? Wouldn't we do better at love if we were armed with the crowd-sourced wisdom of what meteorites lurk in the universe of relationships where not that many women have gone before?
But Love is not easy to catch, and it wriggles out of our grasp the more we think we've figured it out. Sometimes, to look it in the eye, you have to look into a mirror (or maybe Harry Potter's Pensieve) which will show you things that have happened in another time.
* * *
The Search for Love
In my twenties I was awkward and tortured. I did not know if I was going to make anything of myself. I was unwieldy, ungainly, unkempt, unpredictable, untidy in every domain of my life. I cried when I was angry or inarticulate, at work, in love and in friendship - so garbled and strangled did I feel inside. I was unformed, un-informed and terribly alone in my head. Men were a mysterious surface that both attracted and scared me.
Then I became friends with some older women. They gave me confidence in my weirdness. They taught me to laugh at my shortcomings. To me, they seemed glamorously sure of themselves and oh, so experienced. I listened to everything they said about men and love and thought it would help me make sense of a maze I felt unprepared for. They were my real-life Lulu.
They spoke not in hashtags, but with the shorthand of knowingness. One of their favorite categorizing methods was as follows. Some men were biryani, but you couldn't have biryani every day, could you? So, till you found the biryani, you settled in the meanwhile for other men, men who were dal chawal, do waqt ki roti. Back then in the early 1990s, this seemed outrageous and exhilarating. It was like a secret - men thought they were so important to women, but actually they were just items on the menu of life.
And it was indeed a new kind of life.
We were the first generation of women to have left home and lived by ourselves in significant numbers. Our lives were, in that sense, free from the constrictions and scrutinies and definitions of home. We could decide our own paths, our own personalities, with a certain freedom. And we did.
We could choose new ways of being - and this included new ways of loving. Looking back I see that the most radical break we had made with our own past was that love did not have to end in marriage.
But while we had defined that much clearly, we had not quite defined what the other outcome was - and perhaps not exactly articulated a freedom from outcomes for ourselves, as we couldn't, being young.
Somewhere in the dal-roti and biryani binary of men rested the story that you had to kiss a lot of frogs before you found your prince. But find a prince you would some day. That there was the type of love you were deserving of, which could not be got in the ordinary encounters with inept men that you kept having. But unlike the older generation, you did not keep a vrat in the hope of a biryani-reward. You ate your square meals and grew stronger, you kept living life and allowed it to teach you something.
It is twenty years since those conversations and confusions, for which we now feel a rueful affection or occasional exasperation with a young self. I called my friend V, who had been the chief architect of the hashtags #dal-roti and #biryani and asked her what she felt about it today.
V laughed at being reminded. "I still sometimes make those jokes - but today they are more like jokes. But these flippant jokes - they do have a root in hurt. When you are younger you hurt more easily and you do generalize. When you are younger you can be more cruel, and not realize how cruel you can be."
V is beautiful and charismatic. In those days she had been an uncontested babe with her warm eyes, her quick wit, her loving heart, her ochre saris and her dogged courage. Any man who met her was instantly entranced, and she could always have her pick of men.
At one point V had become involved with a younger man. She had expressed strongly that she wasn't looking for a commitment. Yet, she felt wounded by the fact that the man in question understood this to mean that things could be so fluid that he did not even need to call her when he said he would; that he could cancel plans at the last minute. It felt like the term 'no commitment' or 'not looking for a relationship' meant there were no niceties in the relationship, and hence bore no evidence of being valued.
What did the hurt come from, I asked her. After all, hadn't she chosen the life she wanted? " Of course I had. But…I think I was in many relationships that were open-ended based on the naïve trust that people would treat each other well just because there was love, or passion. That men who think like me about politics and society would not have double standards about sex and love, the girl you marry and the one you have fun with. That because we are living a new life, the old ways won't enter the equation."
She is quiet for a while.
"I think I was immature in not thinking through the relationships I had very well. But it was also to do with my own confusions with regard to convention, men, women, family. And then I felt stuck: because I did not want the conventional thing, it's as if men felt they did not owe me anything at all. And if I said things, which were really human feelings, they would be thrown back in my face - 'You only said you aren't looking for something serious.' Now that I am almost 60, when I look back - I feel glad I feel no lust for anyone. I have some women friends who feel that way too. It's just simpler. It's a relief."
What does that mean, 'not looking for something serious'? Does it mean that you should not be taken seriously as a person, because you are not looking to give a finite shape to your relationship? Isn't love supposed to automatically carry compassion, kindness and regard for the person before you, even if they are not your official girlfriend or wife? These were certainly questions that beset many women experimenting with relationships in the late part of the twentieth century.
When you are at the frontier of certain changes - as urban women who were among the earliest to choose less conventional lives from the 1970s to the 1990s were, one truth remains unchanged. It is a difficult choice. For a generation of women who put aside conventional relationships and took the path to a perhaps "purer" idea of love - an idea that love did not necessarily lie in the categories of marriage and known relationships, but could take different forms - the world of romantic relationships hasn't always been hospitable. Women like V might have accepted that the world is not going to change fast enough for them. And while they are just relieved that age has decreased their investment in heterosexual love relationships, their core beliefs about love and their philosophy of life choices remains the same. "However hard those choices were, they also brought many riches for me," says V. "I made genuinely affirming friendships and communities, so that today I don't feel as alone as some might. I have people to draw on, to share my self with."
It was a thought that M, 43, echoed. But she had learned something from the experimentation of an earlier generation.
M has always been a questing, idealistic sort of person, drawn to ideas of spirituality and passionate living. She married young - for love - and divorced in her mid-twenties, because marriage seemed to be eating away at who she was.
"Suddenly there were all these conventional expectations from a man who had said so many radical things when we were younger." M has a striking way of laughing loudly at the irony present even in the most painful memories. It's as if she really thinks hard about the meaning of what we become in relationships; that pain is something to be understood, not simply avoided.
Living on her own in Mumbai, M spent a lot of time rediscovering her artistic self, building new relationships with friends and other artists. Her next serious relationship did not happen until her early thirties. She ended it in her late thirties, an age when most women would prefer to preserve what is there, rather than embark on a solitary life once more. "It became very different from how it was at first. I wanted more friendship and honesty - that is my quest. While I was in a relationship, it felt like I was giving no space to that other kind of love. Now, I feel that I have learned to recognize love in many forms. And truthfully, at 43, I am really enjoying having all this kind of love around me. I find it far more sustaining than a relationship was. I am not even sure I ever want a relationship, though that could change."
What you hear as these women talk is that at some point like-minded men and women, who did not identify with conventional choices, embarked on the adventure of love with a certain curiosity and a certain innocence. But somewhere along the way, women feel a bit left alone in the journey, tackling the quest of love rather single-handedly.
But where has this chapter of adventure left them? Has it led to a new chapter in how urban women think about relationships and love?
Nowhere have these complicated experiences of changing love relationships been better documented than in the history of the American romantic-comedy. Through the 1990s, rom-coms, such as those made by Nora Ephron, looked at love with irony and gentle wit; they recognized that men and women were different and it was love that made them find a way to accept (not overcome) the differences and create new kinds of relationships. They documented the confusions that resulted in romance from the changing roles and expectations of men and women.
But somewhere in the 21st century, even the rom-com changed. It's as if women began giving themselves a big talking-to for being too idealistic. A whole trend of films turned the elusive business of love into a self-help manual, as in the 2001 Ashley Judd film Someone Like You where a heartbroken woman has to learn that she should not make generalizations about men, but fix herself psychologically instead.
Where we looked on with love while a crazed Julia Roberts learned some lessons about love and herself in My Best Friend's Wedding, we now cynically watch Sandra Bullock in The Proposal playing a bitter, emotionally unavailable working woman who needs to get over herself and get more feminine already!
While in theory one cannot argue with the fact that we are often the barriers to our own happiness, it seems curious that the onus of making a relationship work should rest in such a hard-edged way with the woman. It's as if the sight of women falling apart in love is an eyesore and classifies them as desperate and lacking in dignity. It feels like there is an unspoken edict - if you want to be different, then you better take responsibility for the shit that's going to come to you. Only bitches and bitter women make generalizations about men. The discussion about what men might be doing to leave women hurt and bewildered is often elided. Even if it is included in the story, it is not in focus. The discussion is not about how men and women need to deal with changing roles. Instead, it is suggested, women simply need to stop choosing the wrong guy - which also sometimes means they need to be more sensible and hanker less for romance.
And for many women, this translates into Life Isn't All Sex And The City.
Varsha Agnihotri Vadhyar, 43, moved to Mumbai from Delhi in her early twenties. Initially, this was to work as an actress, but later she also moved into advertising film production. She was outspoken and what most might describe as "fun-loving" - she describes herself as "the life of the party". Over the years in Bombay she was part of a party scene of sorts with young, urban Andheri West-type media professionals, "which I enjoyed." Her Facebook photos were certainly very Sex and the City, replete with LBDs and girls nights and glitter-girl-power status updates. But it brought its fair share of hurt and disappointment.
"I felt like men were constantly giving me the run-around. I was tired of it. I was having this terrible vision of myself as a woman in a shiny dress whose legs need ironing (because they would be so wrinkled), dancing on a bar top somewhere!" she laughs.
"I think we also looked for love and relationships in a very pure sense. We have fended for ourselves. We have actualized ourselves - we have made it in our heads. We only wanted men for companionship, not as providers. But men haven't reached that point. They can't deal with this. So what are you going to do?
Though it is unsaid, from everything the women say, they have learned to define an identity outside traditional roles for themselves. But this same offer of freedom from traditional roles, when extended to men, has caused men to balk, become uncertain about relationships.
"Women have been liberated for a long time. It is men who need to be liberated. Indians have not understood the meaning of 'date'. Ninety percent of men think 'date' means - you have to end up in bed, or, 'ok at least a kiss. Kuch toh de do!' Women are already choosing the wedding card paper. The idea that it's an exploration hasn't quite set in and both sides feel short-changed."
Some of these assertions can certainly be borne out by signing on to dating websites like OK Cupid where the attention of Indian men certainly seems focused on the prospect of quick sex with 'broad-minded' girls and the profiles of women try to tread some elusive balance between sexy and demure.
Fed up with not being able to find a nice man, Varsha started Footloose and Fancy Free No More, a singles network, along with her brother. It began in August 2009 rather informally. There would be get-togethers you could pay to be part of and meet other singles - usually at popular Mumbai watering holes in the Andheri West area, home to TV and film industry types.
The idea caught on surprisingly quickly and today has become much more formalized, no longer catering to a group of older singles but to a wider, possibly younger crowd. Events include Karaoke nights and special Happy Hours at Ye Olde Watering Hole in Andheri West.
"I think things have changed now. Now, people grow up a lot faster. Our first boyfriends may have happened in our twenties. These days first relationships happen in the early teens. After that you are just on a repeat cycle of the same thing. So you are ready to settle down much earlier. And people don't see having freedom and having a relationship as mutually exclusive. But mostly people just go to work, they move to cities only for work and they don't have a social network. Here, you never know who you might meet."
Footloose No More describes itself as a new-age marriage platform for People Like Us who are well-educated and independent. While this new dating and marriage world conveys a new openness, it is nevertheless as carefully, if differently, curated as the old matrimonial columns.
"Earlier it was pay and come. But then you can't guarantee that people will be trustworthy or genuinely single. 'My wife doesn't understand me' doesn't make you single, you know! We also want people who are emotionally mature enough to try the relationship thing, who want to change. There is nothing more pathetic than an ageing party girl or playboy," says Varsha.
I am perplexed by this definition of singleness as being synonymous with incessant partying, and ask Varsha if there are not other ways in which people are single in more serious, reflective ways?
"I have never met a woman who said she was happy being single," she declares.
"And if she did, I'm not sure she's telling the truth. I was one of those women, who claimed she did not want to be tied down. I chose a host of freedoms. Being single - being alone, being independent, making your own choices, having no one to answer to. When we were growing up, wanting to get married was not cool. Many people in my generation hid it if they wanted to get married. I was one of those women. Now it's not like that. People in Footloose are looking to get hitched - it's just that you want to be with similar people, people like us, as we call them."
Of course within that selective space of finding a partner, who becomes popular is still as random as life is. "People marry at different ages, choose different body sizes. You may be gorgeous and ignored while someone who has a certain X-factor might be the most popular." In fact, Varsha met her husband in just this context, and he is a few years younger - besides not being common in Indian society, it ironically seems contrary to the "let's be realistic" narrative that the marrying game seems to be about. You can be as sensible as you like, but the random encounter of love might happen even within the boxes of typology.
Well, isn't that what love is most famous for? Being a random character? Love is an untidy emotion and does not always choose suitable boys and girls. This is also why it is a challenge and a pain. It demands solutions that society does not always have available. The collision of two different worlds - pairing a provincial with a sophisticate, a quiet person with a flibbertigibbet, a banker with an artist - can make for frustrating conflicts that love is not always enough to overcome.
Singles Services seem to control some of this volatility in some sense. There are options, which is something all of us today want, but they are controlled options - people no parent would object to in theory. It is the acknowledgment of chemistry and personal choice within the grid of similarity and identity. Is this a more grown-up idea of love or is it something that gives love a more minor role in the story of relationships?
Given the high acceptability quotient of singles services, perhaps it is not so surprising when Siddharth Mangharam of Floh, a singles service based out of Bangalore, tells me, "30 percent of our checks are signed by parents."
Founded by Siddharth Mangharam, his partner Simran Mangharam and Sid Misra in Bangalore in 2011, Floh today operates in 15 cities across 4 countries and is rated one of the hottest start-ups on the scene by Forbes India magazine. It costs Rs 7,500 to join for six months and Rs. 15,000 to join for a year. It has a waiting list of over 2,000 and a membership of 500 at a time.
Floh chooses people after a very careful selection process. Most have masters degrees, are well-traveled, culturally exposed and have opted to live in India though they could choose to settle abroad. Like with Footloose No More, Floh too has found that married men may have a flexible idea of singleness - for instance, one man who applied said he went home to his family in Mysore on weekends, so he was single in Bangalore from Monday to Friday. So, the single status checking is carefully done.
Once you are selected to be a member, you meet others at a series of curated events which reflect these lifestyles and interests - merengue dancing workshops, vintage car experiences ("Dress code: Colourful and Classy"), heritage walks and even graffiti. It is, if you want to describe it like that, good art direction - a reassuring setting for meeting the right kind of person. If you meet someone you like, you take the relationship forward online or offline and see where it takes you. If you lose your single status, you leave.
For all its open-endedness, the strong taste of eligibility laces the Singles Services cocktail, based as it is on fairly practical (let us not use the value-loaded term external) factors - like income, success and education or exposure. Along with its very goal-oriented structure, this makes it taste quite a bit like arranged marriage, served with a twist.
New communities of class and exposure replace the old ones of caste and degrees. But of course the new communities have emerged from the old ones, expensive new threads worn over old, sacred threads. It is a cheerful, cosmopolitan swayamvar with parents smiling from above and the likelihood of Karna crashing the party is slim.
Mangharam considers my description. Perhaps he suspects now that I am what he calls me later in the interview, an "outlier".
"Let me tell you a story," he says. "A 45 year-old woman, a TamBrahm writer, wanted her daughter to join. Her daughter is working in big law firm, will soon be on the partner track. The mom had an arranged marriage - there was no question. But interestingly, the girl's grandmother feels her marriage should happen differently. She sees that the girl is a kind of trailblazer in the family and wants her to have the best in her personal life. She wants her to find someone compatible, albeit the type the family would like. There is a kind of interesting jive going on between the generations looking to make sense of a rapidly changing social order. But families don't want to fight, they want to remain connected. The whole thing of you met someone twice, or the NRI came for two weeks and next thing you are married - it's not like that. There is greater agency for the young people here and more choices. "
Change does not proceed by a politically correct manual. And it is also, like love, rarely neat. Some ideas have certainly gotten less rigid.
Floh has commissioned India's first ever Urban Singles survey. While there are all sorts of interesting findings (Delhi men are obsessed with hair. More men believe in love at first sight) the overwhelming one is this - women are changing much faster than men and for them the relationship business is harder. And the older a woman gets, the harder it is for her to find someone, at least conventionally - even within these new conventions.
Mangharam says this is borne out in the encounters with potential members too.
"It's a very complex business. India is a complex society with many different kinds of groups and trajectories for those groups. There is no one solution to finding someone. Sometimes it's luck."
And perhaps luck is also worth waiting for. At least the story of how Siddharth and Simran Mangharam met tell us so.
The Mangharams are a personable couple - they have a relaxed vibe, which communicates that wealth brings an appreciation for the good things in life, and the good things are not shiny Ferraris and Fendis, but stinky cheeses.
"Simran and I met at a party. We both have a passion for pungent blue cheese. I don't know too many people who like sharp cheeses. So, standing by the blue cheese the conversation went organically to other interests. An hour into the conversation we realized we didn't even know each other's names. We hung out, we got married and now we have a baby," he says, and you can hear the smile in his voice, a gentle delight at the wonder of life.
This meeting formed the basis for Floh. "I mean, sure, it's a business opportunity but…you know, it's a difficult problem to solve. There's a lot of decent people out there. And they suffer from how difficult it is to find love today. It's a serious problem. A painful one."
He has been animated and precise throughout our conversation, the quintessential out-of-the-box management professional. But now there is genuine human quiet in his pause. "Why is it so difficult to find love?" I ask.
To my surprise, Mangharam is surprised. "I've answered many questions but that's the first time someone's asked me that!"
"But why is it?" I persist. If a man devoted to making matches is not going to give me the answer, who will?
"I don't know, really…"
"Is everyone who comes to you looking for love?" I ask.
"Hmm. Maybe not. I mean it's an instinctive human thing, right, to feel attraction. But maybe, in India, the manifestation of love and relationships for a long time has been a matter of accepting marriage. Sometimes people get married because they are bored or lonely. Post 25 you hurtle towards marriage in our culture. People don't question the idea of marriage."
But, I say, people are always questioning the idea of love, right?
"Look, personally, I think, romantic love is a surrender which you go into without expectation of any concrete return or outcome. If you can do it, you can come out of it feeling spectacular. There are some people who are in a quest for this kind of love, sure. They are deeply introspective, questioning. They are able to respect a contrarian view, go down a path not knowing its end. But they are outliers - they are the disruptors who change society, shake it up and their choices eventually do become mainstream. But their lives are hard. Love is hard. It is painful! It means relinquishing control and going through pain and willing to have your soul ripped out and lose everything if need be. You have to be willing to lose, to make mistakes - without it there is no insight. Not everyone can do that or wants to do that."
He is passionate in his expression as if he knows whereof he speaks. Then we both laugh, dispelling some of the momentary intensity.
Then he adds, "But at different points in my life I have felt differently about love. Now, at 40 I feel love for my daughter - it is so incredible, so life changing. I feel love for friends, a different love for my family. I see love in a lot of different places and in a lot of different ways."
Gosh, I think. He sounds, now, just like my friend M, who has decided she feels love in a lot of different places and that this understanding of love does not only sustain her. It is in fact miraculous and transformative and flows from her choice to remain single, just as Mangharam's understanding seems to flow from his choice to be a family man.
* * *
And then there was Lulu (or, You are not alone)
In 1998, Karan Johar's film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai put forward a very radical question in the Indian context. The film begins with a central enquiry - "is it possible to fall in love twice?" Like many of KJo's films, radical enquiry wrestles with acceptability and family, and we are always a little unsure which has won in the end. But certainly the suggestion of the film is, yes, you can fall in love more than once.
For many Indians, this idea continues to be a challenging one. Even as young people hook up more, speak of sex more casually (albeit with just as many misconceptions and some of the same lack of agency as before), and participate in a kind of dating culture more routinely, whether online or offline, there continues to be a tension with the idea of love - the idea that you might have invested yourself in someone without an assured outcome. There is in a sense no confidence in the idea of love. Its dubious status flows from the fact that it brings strong possibilities of failure with it.
As Gunjali, a BSc student from Meerut who I interviewed for a film, said to me, "you can only fall in love once. And that is the relationship which ends in marriage. If you get involved with someone in any other way, then that is not a true love and unnecessarily you can bring shame to your family." So, all interaction with the opposite sex must be carried out with a guardedness, a holding on to the self, until the outcome is assured.
All of it leads us to the question - is there no room for mistakes in our society? How do we grow, if not through our mistakes? If we move forward always fearing the mistake, where will our new relationships come from?
This question is actually not an abstract one but a vital question to ask in a society where more and more people are falling out of the 'eligibility range' of marriage - and so, maybe love, because we are unable to devise new relationships that involve love and caring, even if they are not in the shape of marriage. The question is not whether marriage is valid or not - but merely if we may arrive at a time when marriage may be one of many ways of having a lasting love relationship.
To that end, we could ask if spaces like Lulu might not be a positive space - where hosts of young women could speak about their 'mistakes', could take the shame away from mistakes, could laugh, become stronger and more equipped for a new way of being?
Here's the thing.
Of the four men I knew who were on Lulu, one had not a single bad thing said about him. He was rated #Successful, #GlobeTrotter, #AlwaysPays, #OpensDoors and so on.
But I would have added one to that: #PerfectOnPaper.
Except I couldn't, because the app didn't give me that option.
True, there was nothing wrong with him at all. But our single 'date' had been anodyne and unexceptional. I have no reason to think he thought differently, although on paper I too might have seemed a more interesting proposition to him.
My point is not only that one woman's #MeraWalaDream is another woman's #Hohum Shah. But it's that Lulu does not or cannot, in the interests of reaching the widest possible audience, allow for making your own tags. Eventually, the hashtags available offer an analysis of common trends on the basis of a huge database of experiences - so they make little room for the outlier experience.
We seek to control the unruliness of life with our categories. And sometimes we can rely too much on technology - the technology of the hashtag, the technology of social media, of matrimonial columns - and maybe the technology of marriage too.
It takes very little time before tags become flattening, constricting; they cease to be a humorous, perspicacious observation of human behavior and become labels that generate more uncertainty and shame about what works for you in love. Yesterday's trend becomes today's norm.
To exist in the world of data, you have to become a piece of data yourself. But unfortunately, only a part of you is data. What is the other part? The part that shows up for the random encounter but then skulks, ashamed of all the things that do not fit into the database? It may be called being human. Or maybe every one of us has an outlier in us which we squash as we go through life.
Nowhere was this more beautifully rendered than in Nicole Holofcener's 2013 film Enough Said, which starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus (best known for playing Elaine in Seinfeld) and James Gandolfini (well known from The Sopranos) as divorced singles in their forties. Gandolfini is fat, not very successful, droll and loving - no database's idea of hot stuff. But after they hook up, Dreyfus finds him very, very sexy. She unknowingly ends up becoming friends with Gandolfini's ex-wife, a delicate new-age poet who constantly speaks of her ex-husband's poor qualities in tones of shuddering distaste. In theory, Dreyfus cannot but agree that #KeepsBooksOnFloor and #SortsOnionsFromSalsa are annoying habits. But she hasn't noticed them to be so in her lover until she realizes he is the ex-husband in question. From then on, she becomes ashamed of her choice, is critical of him and tries to 'fix' him, and is eventually heartbroken because they split up.
Twenty-five or forty-five, this sort of love-shaming atmosphere is always around us because the labels are all about sorting the eligibles from the ineligibles, the losers from the winners.
All matches are random encounters, of course. Arranged or for love, every match carries risks, challenges and the possibility of love. Yet those who seek love may in fact be quite a different species from those who seek a match.
Why do we hesitate at the frontier of love? Because we sense, maybe, that ironically, it liberates us into being alone; into deciding, assessing and feeling things the database did not warn us about. It asks us to value emotion and people for themselves and not through the external value that a relationship or identity might give.
There may be a reason love is hard to define. Because love may be an idea that exists to constantly challenge and change definitions. It is the exception to the rule that won't go away. It rewrites the boundary of difference, changes the equations of numbers, constantly shifts the goalpost, and that is how it slyly changes the world.
The language of love does not yield itself to quantitative knowing. It is, in that way, outside the matrix of data, and provides us a way of existing as more than data too. It is our chance to remake who we are as men and women.
That's going to take a lot more than Valentine's Day. Dammit.
Paromita Vohra is a documentary filmmaker and writer whose work focuses on gender, desire, urban life and popular culture. She is currently working on a book about love in contemporary India. More at www.parodevi.com and less @parodevi