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The grandeur felt more like a fancy Indian wedding than a three-day speed-dating convention. There was a North Indian buffet and a few vendors showcasing Indian jewelry and clothing. On opening night, house music filled the room, except for a brief interlude when “Never Have I Ever” actor Anirudh Pisharody got on stage with his wife to talk about how relationships are about compromise.
We had all paid up to $600 each to attend, and most of us were donned in traditional South Asian attire — colorful lehengas and sherwanis. I had picked a kurta, a traditional Indian suit, that fell nearly to the floor, for the occasion.
My parents had had a traditional Indian courtship in the early 1980s when they were introduced by my great aunt in India and decided to get married within just a few days. But after more than 40 years of living in the United States, they’ve become more progressive and were supportive of my various modern dating adventures — whether it was dating apps or a convention like this one.
Many South Asian Americans from immigrant families are pushing back against traditional cultural norms of family “introductions” — a lower-stake, 21st-century version of arranged marriages — and adopting more modern approaches in the era of app swiping. But while South Asian dating apps like Dil Mil or Facebook groups like Subtle Curry Dating offer a contemporary spin, it is easy to fall prey to the pitfalls of digital dating culture: ghosting, long-distance connections that never materialize into in-person meetings and the illusion of unlimited choice that apps provide.
In the era of “Indian Matchmaking,” a Netflix show about a matchmaker that pairs Indian singles worldwide (its third season premiered last week), the hunger for in-person ways to meet partners can feel like a throwback. But it was worth a try.
My journey to the Mohan Matchmaking Convention in early April started after I spotted an Instagram post: “Tag friends looking to get married.” The post, by 32-year-old entrepreneur Anip Patel, who regularly shares memes about South Asian American communities, garnered more than 6,000 comments.
Patel started planning for a more than $1 million, in-person matchmaking convention. More than 9,600 applications poured in from South Asians across the United States and Canada, and 1,000 were chosen, he said.
It’s not a totally original idea. Actor Ravi Patel, who has appeared in “Transformers” and “Master of None,” chronicled a Gujarati American matchmaking convention in Baltimore in his 2014 documentary “Meet the Patels.” A similar convention for Telugu Americans in Austin is where Mukti Lavu met her husband.
“It’s almost like this segue going from our parents’ day and age of a lot of arranged marriage into this almost like planned arranged dating thing,” Lavu, 43, said.
While a matchmaking convention worked for her and she’s happily married, Lavu says couples who meet while exploring shared interests may be more likely to be successful. “Nowadays, there are so many people getting divorced, because I think a lot of people did things … they thought their community would approve of and what they thought their parents would approve of,” Lavu said.
In Chicago, organizers kept our schedules packed. In addition to the opening night party, there was a dating seminar, a Bollywood dance class, a cocktail event and an after-party featuring British singer Jay Sean.
“It was kind of nice to see a lot of people in the same boat,” said 28-year-old Chicago attendee Priya, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because she doesn’t want her parents to know she attended the convention. “That was kind of a relief to see that you’re not the only one who’s trying to come out here and just find love.”
The key events were the speed-dating sessions where we met people one-on-one for a few minutes at a time based on age and sexual orientation. Over about three hours, I met about 100 women — probably more than all the people I’ve gone on dates with over the last decade. There were a few numbers exchanged and Instagram handles shared.
But only time will tell if any of those connections blossom into a relationship. For some attendees, relationships are already sparking, as Patel continues to chronicle on Instagram.
Toxic biases in modern dating still popped up. One woman bluntly started our speed date by telling me how there were far more “hotter” girls than guys there. I’m still not sure if it was a not so subtle dig at me. A man who seemed around my age told me he was turned off by the women who wore blazers during their meetings because it was “too masculine.”
While extroverts took the spotlight, introverts struggled to stay engaged on the periphery — liquid courage sometimes fueling both. I asked one group of women at a mixer how the weekend was going for them. With slightly disgusted looks, they told me how being around “Brown” guys wasn’t their “usual scene.” When I asked them what their usual scene was, one said, “Whiter.”
Mingling with the crowd were some some famous TV singles, including Brian and Nick Benni of “Family Karma”; Arshneel Kochar, Rinkle Goyal and Aashay Shah, who appeared in “Indian Matchmaking”; and Juhie Faheem from “Love Is Blind.”
Sundeep Singh Boparai-Kahlon, of New York City, who is openly gay, said he was frustrated by the convention’s approach to queer attendees. The two dozen or so LGBTQ+ attendees were all in one room regardless of preference, and Boparai-Kahlon, 31, said some attendees didn’t appear to be out of the closet, which is a nonstarter for him. “Don’t just be inclusive to say that you’re inclusive,” he said. “It felt like it was more so to make friends and connections and less about actually meeting someone as a partner.”
But dating is always hard. As an Indian American, the process can be plagued by communication blunders and generational divides. But this speed dating gathering was a chance to be both American and Indian, connecting with others navigating this dual identity while trying to find a life partner.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that a Gujarati American matchmaking convention that was chronicled in "Meet the Patels" took place in Philadelphia. It was in Baltimore. The article has been corrected.