Sahil Rajan hadn’t yet figured out how to upload his profile picture to eHarmony, but when the site’s matchmaking voodoo put forward a brown-eyed New York City beauty who also professed an interest in books, he pinged her anyway. He asked Devi Mehta what she was reading.
Although Mehta, a 31-year-oldad agency account manager, couldn’t see what the guy on the other end looked like, she took a chance, too. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” she replied. And him?
Rajan, a 29-year-oldsoftware developer who lived in Jersey City, was deep into “Atlas Shrugged.”
It was January 2011, and Rajan and Mehta, both Indian Americans, were tentatively back on the market after recent relationships had flamed out. When they met at a restaurant, however, their differences seemed to compound.
“He’s, like, 40 pounds lighter than me,” Mehta recalled thinking. “He’s my height.”
“I don’t know about this Devi Mehta chick,” Rajan told friends.
On the surface, this would not have the makings of a love story. And yet, it is one.
Mehta’s parents had an arranged marriage. Though Rajan’s parents were in love when they wed, they had been steeped in Indian culture, which values community and family over romance.
Rajan and Mehta were adamant that they didn’t want arranged marriages themselves. Yet after unsuccessfully dating the American way, both decided to try splitting the difference. They would search for partners, rather than relying on anyone else to arrange a union. But they would focus on potential spouses who shared the same culture and offered the same promise of stability and commitment to family they had seen in their parents’ marriages — and not worry so much about romance.
Thus, they gave each other more of a chance than they might have a few years earlier. Although Rajan wasn’t her type, “there’s nothing wrong with this guy’s character,” Mehta reasoned to herself.
Almost five years later, I met the couple in Northeast Washington’s bustling Union Market to discuss marriage and love. Rajan, a Montgomery County native, joked that their marriage had been arranged, after all — “by an algorithm.”
Mehta said that for her, the turning point came when she realized that sometimes “you have to go back and listen to the people who’ve been married 50 years.
“Indian parents always say stuff like, ‘It’s not about love, it’s about family,’ They married for family.” She paused. “What is it they always say? ‘The love comes later.’ ”
Once she shed her reservations, Mehta realized Rajan “understands my family, my siblings, my world,” she said. But there’s more. “I feel happy and loved and fulfilled, because he makes me feel that way.”
She looked over at Rajan. Bouncing on his knee in a pink fleece and tiny flowered leggings was Diya, the couple’s bright-eyed 7-month-old.
One Indian American couple deciding to forgo instantaneous sparks for compatibility in other areas does not a trend make. But Rajan and Mehta may not be alone in forging what I call a “practical marriage” — focusing first on cultural similarities, financial goals and family, and trusting love will follow. Across the United States, thousands of Indian Americans are meeting via sites such as Shaadi.com, BharatMatrimony and the app Dil Mil, which allow them to search for such unromantic attributes such as language, education and economic status. It’s unclear how many of them are children of arranged marriages and how that has shaped their views on love. But judging from a hit movie on the subject, “Meet the Patels,” there is great interest in the topic.
Actor and filmmaker Ravi Patel and his sister, Geeta Patel, created the documentary, which follows Ravi’s practical search for an Indian bride and his quest to understand his parents’ views on love and marriage.
“In the few times I stopped to think about the future, it was a picture of an Indian woman, little Indian kids,” Patel told me when we met late last year during a publicity tour for the film. When, as 30 approached and he instead found himself ending a long relationship with a white girlfriend he had hidden from his parents, he decided to try to find the woman of his dreams his parents’ way.
“I love being Indian. I love being American, too,” he said. “I think most people from our generation feel this way: Don’t care that much about religion. Love culture, love the rituals that come with culture. I want to keep that going in my life, selfishly, and I want my kids to feel the same thing.”
So Patel polished his résumé — called biodata in the parlance of Indian arranged marriages — and set out to speed date with a series of Indian women who had been vetted by his parents, among others.
Did he feel shame, I asked, succumbing to the system of arranged unions so maligned in the West?
“It’s embarrassing,” he conceded. “But the same shame we’re talking about is the exact same shame every person I’ve ever met has when they start Internet dating.”
In fact, he said, Internet dating may have opened the doors to being honest about the practical things we’re looking for. Kids, faithfulness, a 401(k).
“The only difference with the biodata process is maybe your parents are agenting the process — and maybe that’s not a bad thing, to have someone overseeing things.
“You figure out a new way to approach the dream,” Patel said. “You become more amenable to new ways to finding the person we love.”
I first learned of Rajan and Mehta’s unusual approach to marriage a year ago, while hanging out with a cousin who is close to Rajan. I was intrigued. I, too, am a child of an arranged marriage who has long heard the parental adage that love can come later. And, after failing more times than I care to admit at dating the American way, like Rajan, Mehta and Patel, I’ve become more amenable to the idea of a new kind of search.
This is a radical change for me: I was only 7, maybe 8, the first time I insisted to my mother that I planned on falling in love and getting married. After all, my generation camped out in front of the television in the early-morning hours to watch Diana Spencer marry her prince, and went to the movies to see Richard Gere shower Julia Roberts in gems as if she were Eliza Doolittle in thigh-high boots. I wanted that kind of romance, the meet-cute, for fate to arrange my love life.
For a long time, despite my youthful protestations, my parents expected my love life would go the way theirs had. My mother, Lakshmi, met my father, Raghupathy, at her parents’ house in 1973 in what was then Madras, in southern India. He was 28 and set to leave in weeks for a postdoctoral fellowship 8,000 miles away in Philadelphia. But first, prodded by his parents, he took an overnight train to meet the 22-year-old beanpole of a girl with a promising horoscope and a thick braid of jet-black hair running down her back. They talked, briefly, about her cooking skills and whether she hoped to work after marriage (her music degree, my father says, made him worry about her job prospects).
I asked my parents, now married for more than 40 years, why they’d agreed to let their parents dictate their love lives.
“It was all we knew,” my mother said. She had seen so many good marriages, she trusted the system would work for her.
Knowing next to nothing about each other, did they at least feel a spark?
“Sometimes, the very first opinion is the girl is too big ... or her face is different, and you have disappointment,” my father said.
All he will reveal about my mother is, “She was not disappointing to me.”
“I thought he was cute!” my mom chimed in, laughing.
They wed 12 days later.
So, could there be some truth in our parents’ insistence that romance grows over time? And does it mean that we, no matter our ethnicity, should focus on other, more practical matters in our search for a mate?
Indian parents aren’t the only ones who believe it. Research backs the theory.
Pamela Regan, a psychology professor at Cal State University in Los Angeles, conducted a study that compared arranged marriages and love marriages among Americans of Indian descent. She found that 10 years into the relationships, satisfaction and passion among the couples whose marriages were arranged nearly mirrored those of the love matches.
“I love romantic love,” she said. “But these things do fade. They’re probably not the best thing to focus on when choosing a partner.”
Why, then, do Americans place so much emphasis on passion?
According to Ty Tashiro, a New York-based psychologist and author of “The Science of Happily Ever After,” a decline in the mortality rate and the rise of Romanticism in the 1800s played roles.
With more potential mates, people began to have “the luxury to choose someone based on something other than their ability to put food on the table,” said Tashiro. Meanwhile, the new ideas about romantic love dovetailed with concepts of free will. It “became a moral imperative to choose somebody with whom you were passionately in love, rather than somebody who was just practical,” Tashiro said. According to the romantic ideal, that passion “would sustain you for a lifetime of love.”
But divorce has also risen dramatically since the late 1800s. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, there were 6.9 marriages for every 1,000 people and 3.2 divorces.
“The romantic ideal,” Tashiro said, “hasn’t worked out like we thought it would.”
Who is doing the better job of choosing their spouses, I want to know. (Of course I do.) The people who decide based on romantic notions, or those aiming for compatibility, if not fireworks?
Tashiro laughed when I posed this question to him.
“The answer is that it’s the people who are able to do a little bit of both,” he said. Shared religious values are good indicators of stable marriages, and similar backgrounds also help, Tashiro said. “When you have family and friends who are supportive of your relationship, there’s good data that exists that that’s a protective factor for a marriage.”
He added: “Although people who are pragmatic and cautious are not the most thrilling partners for a torrid romance, they are exactly the kind of person who is well-suited to sustaining a 50-year-long relationship with the same person.”
Mehta and Rajan say they hope their relationship can last that long. They moved in together in Jersey City in August 2012, remodeled a condo and married in 2014. Diya was born a year later.
When they compare their marriage to that of their friends who may have had more hot-and-heavy beginnings, how do they think they’re faring? I asked.
“I think we’re happier than they are,” Rajan said. “I do.”
Lavanya Ramanathan is a features writer for The Post. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
E-mail us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.