Passage to India

Photo: Zohar Lazar

Though Internet dating is still a relatively new phenomenon, some of the most popular sites are driven by an ancient impulse: the desire to meet and marry someone from the same ethnic or religious background. boasts 300,000 users and asks them to specify not just their height and income but their cultural values (Eastern, Western, or East & West Mix), caste, subcaste, and degree of religiousness (Very, Somewhat, Not Very). Along with a slew of competitors, the site has tapped into a hungry market—young Indian-American professionals looking to settle down. The users I spoke to are delighted with the detailed filtering system, which they see as a more empowering spin on arranged marriage. Instead of leaving their parents to comb through the Times of India classifieds or introduce them to children of friends, they are taking the matchmaking job into their own hands—and finding true love along the way.

Sandhya Ganti, 35, is a single Manhattanite who goes by the nickname Single Desi—Desi is slang for Indian-American. She came to the U.S. when she was 22 and is an ER doctor who writes for India Today and Little India magazines about her ongoing quest for Mr. Right. She never doubted that she would marry one of her own. “The South Asian thing works,” she says. “Everything we’ve done in our lives is for our parents, and they are only going to be happy if we bring home someone from the same community.”

The boom in Indian cyber-dating is in part due to the coming-of-age of first-generation American children of Indians who arrived after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Sometimes called ABCDs (American-born confused Desis), they are situated squarely between the two cultures. One user writes in her profile, “I am a fusion of the traditions of the homeland and the energy of the west … When I make pizza— it’s square, yet when I make roti—it’s round.”

Some see the sites as a reaction to, and improvement on, arranged marriages. “I know what I really like in a man,” says Ganti, “so I’m the better judge of who I should marry.”

Mohan, 28, an entertainment executive, has gone on four dates with women he met on and thinks the sites are successful because they let users feel in control while still making dating choices that won’t upset their parents: “A lot of people wouldn’t let their parents arrange a marriage, but if you asked them, ‘Would you go on a blind date with someone?’ they’d say yeah. But anyone from my generation who’s on the sites and says they’re not affected by our parents’ generation is fooling themselves.”

He says the detailed search engines spare users the awkwardness of asking highly personal questions in a social setting: “It’s like going to an Indian party and above everybody’s head is everything about them that’s important—lives in New York, is Christian, doesn’t smoke. The only problem is wondering if they get your jokes, since e-mail really has no tone.”

One downside to cyberdating in an already small community, says Mohan, is that he keeps running into women he’s certain he’s met before. “I was at this South Asian networking event talking to this woman,” he says. “And she was saying things I had heard before. I said, ‘I know you,’ but couldn’t figure out how. When I got home, I realized I had read her profile. She’d been reciting it verbatim.”

Mohan and Ganti would probably make a good match; she says she’s seeking a UMDB, an upwardly mobile Desi boy (“He wears Ferragamo and Armani, went to Harvard or Yale, and lives in a loft with funky furniture”). While most women complain of men who are commitmentphobic, some Indian men are in too much of a rush for a wife. On a date with a UMDB at Surya, a South Indian fusion restaurant on Bleecker, Ganti decided that he was a little too eager. “He didn’t want a relationship and then marriage; he just wanted to get married, period. After dinner, he called me on his cell phone to ask where I had been hiding all his life. The next day he sent roses and his secretary called to give me his travel plans for the next six weeks and ask what hotels I liked. I had to tell him I wasn’t ready.”

Rahul, 33, and Priya, 31, a Chicago couple, met on and are now engaged. Rahul is a business-school student; Priya works in higher education. He met her in a chat room without even knowing she lived in Chicago. After a three-hour chat, she gave him her phone number, and they spoke on the phone for another six. A few days later, he went to meet her. “I was on the train talking to her on the cell phone,” he says. “She told me to look down. As soon as I saw her, I had this feeling overcome me, like, This is the girl I’m going to marry.”

He gave her flowers, and they went to her house and played Trivial Pursuit (“I let her win,” he says). They were struck by how much they had in common—they’re both M.B.A.’s, both Punjabi, have similar families, love to go clubbing, and are involved in community service. “A lot of guys are threatened that I went to business school,” Priya says, “but Rahul wasn’t.”

“If I had written down a list of all the things I wanted in a girl I was going to marry,” he says, “it wouldn’t have been as good as Priya is.” A few weeks after that night, he gave her a blue toy ring and asked her to marry him.

In late May, Rahul’s family came from Texas, and Priya’s from Michigan, to meet. Though Priya wasn’t expecting it, the meeting turned into a roka ceremony—a Punjabi tradition in which the families approve the mate, give jewelry and money to the son- and daughter-in-law, and officially stop their search for prospective mates (roka means “stop” in Punjabi).

The only difficulty so far for their parents has been admitting that computers brought their children together. “My mom is a practicing Hindu and superstitious,” says Priya. “When I told her the day Rahul and I first met, she remembered that she was in a prayer session called a puja that day, saying a blessing for me, for good luck, prosperity, and marriage.”

“They don’t want to believe we met on the Internet,” Rahul says, laughing. “They want to believe it’s the hand of God.”

Passage to India