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The Telegraph
| Sunday, January 5, 2014 |
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7days

The new mating game

Forget matrimonial websites. Singles networks for urban — and urbane — folks are helping many singletons find their soulmates, says Manjula Sen

Lalit Malhotra saw Nina Maini at a lounge bar in Mumbai. The vice-president in an ad agency, who is in his early forties, went up to 30-something Naini and introduced himself. Six parties later, they were married.

So what's new? It's the fact that Malhotra and Naini met at an event organised by a matchmaking network, Footloose No More (FL). Like them, hundreds of men and women are finding their life partners at such well-curated events.

The mating game, clearly, is getting a makeover. Time was when the village barber played a role that went beyond that of clipping hair. The nai — or even the nayin — would mention an eligible girl to the family of a bachelor. Horoscopes would be matched, and finally a wedding day fixed.

The job has now been taken over by an exclusive set of networks whose mission is to bring couples together. The new age matchmakers — such as FL, Floh, Sirf Coffee (SC) and Twoly Madly Deeply (TMD) — perform the role of old barbers and matrimonial agencies.

These forums are not to be confused with dating clubs for singles or online marriage sites. "It is for those who are done with dating," FL co-founder Varsha Vadhyar says. These are networks for single people, and a certain type of singles at that — urban, financially independent and looking for a serious relationship. They are mostly well-travelled or exposed to different cultures via work, television or the Internet.

"There is a stigma to arranged marriages. We want to fall in love. Parents look for a bahu/damaad. What we want is a spouse," stresses Vadhyar, who set up FL with her brother, Abhishek Agnihotri, four years ago. They felt the need for such a club when they were in their 30s, unwillingly single but determined not to have an arranged marriage.

"Friends said you sound desperate when we asked them to set us up with friends, but we were," recalls Vadhyar, unabashed. A little self-help was in order and that's how FL came to be.

These networks focus on offline activities. Garima Jain, 30, met Kumar Aditya Ray, 32, at an event after she signed up with Floh, an acronym for Find Life over Here. Jain, who works for a non-profit organisation, thought Ray was not just good in knocking out pins at the bowling event but also considerate. Ray made sure the seafood loving Jain had her fill of prawns. She texted him the next day and they went out for a glass of juice. They have been together since then.

"We bring like-minded people together," says Siddharth Mangharam, founder-CEO of Floh. He predicts that this sort of serious mingling by singles will be "mainstream" in three years.

Membership formats for the networks are broadly common. A would-be member has to call or fill up a form online, go through an interview, present documents to prove identity, address and occupation, and then wait for the membership invitation.

Most of the traffic for these networks is through referrals, word-of-mouth and random online searches. Membership to some networks is by invitation only and annual fees range between Rs 10,000 and Rs 16,000. The number of members in each group varies. FL, for instance, has 3,000 hopefuls.

Footloose invites people from age 26 with no upper age limit. "Our oldest member is 52," Vadhyar says. Floh's age width is 25-35 while SC's clientele is up to the age of 35, though it does have a 42-year-old with an interesting profile. TMD has no age limit.

  • Siblings Abhishek and Varsha, co-founders of Footloose No More

The applicants are asked questions about their background, interests, goals and passions. "We look at common interests, values and life goals to try and put together people. This common ground is what fosters conversation and the initial discovery of each other," says TMD founder Chaitanya Ramalingegowda.

FL has worked out a "non complicated system" to figure out if would-be members are patient and polite. Floh says it tries to ascertain if they are "comfy, exude vibrancy, make great friends".

Once in, members meet at activity-based events. It could be sailing on a yacht off Mumbai, making cocktails, dancing, blind tasting or a cook-out at a posh restaurant. "The events can cost anywhere from Rs 500 for a movie to Rs 4,000 for an upper crust event. But most are priced Rs 1,500-2,000," Vadhyar says.

The meetings, attended by 20-40 people, are meant to ease members' confusion and anxieties. After the events, the organisations follow up with feedback.

The authorities stress that the networks are gaining in popularity because they are much safer than the often unreal and threatening virtual world. And, of course, they are less time consuming.

"People spend three hours online to find someone and things don't pan out offline. What if someone else did the prep work? Man, I'd really love that, a friend visiting from Paris told us," says Floh co-founder Simran Mangharam, who came up with the company's name. "I wanted to put love somewhere — Find love over here. It became 'life' because 'love' made people jittery," she adds as an aside.

TMD research shows that women prefer conversation to money, and being treated as equals, professionally and personally. Men want "independent, not clingy" women but do not know how to deal with them, adds Ramalingegowda, who set up TMD 18 months ago after returning from a stint at a management consultancy in the US.

Ray, who had attended about 30 events at Floh as one of its managers, feels men are often confused and nervous about taking the plunge. "It's the women who often ask the men out," he says.

The organisers urge the members to be themselves. "Instead of dressing up in a salwar kameez and being politically correct, wear a short dress if you like. Don't hide if you like your drink. Be who you are," Vadhyar advises.

Some organisations allow members to bring their families. "A 25 year-old guy was there for his mother, who was 50 and had been widowed early," Vadhyar narrates. TMD had a woman who came with her 14-year-old son.

The networks make their money from subscriptions and event fees. Floh and FL have invested their own money, while TMD and SC have partners. If someone finds a partner, there are no extra charges. "We have a zero marketing budget," Simran says. "Our finest validation is a paying customer; so why go to angel investor or venture capitalist?" Siddharth adds.

In four years, 100 singles have paired up through Footloose, some in marriage and others in long-term relationships. Their 50th couple is to marry in January. Vadhyar and her brother found their respective spouses at FL events. Floh has seen 10 couples go steady and attended a few weddings, including Punjabi-Gujarati, Andhra-Tamilian and Muslim-Hindu nuptials.

"We were pleasantly surprised to find that people want someone who is an equal and not necessarily from your community," Siddharth says.

For many, age is not an issue. "Previous marriages are not a factor either — 2nd, 3rd and 4th chances are taken. There is a willingness to wait for a life partner," Vadhyar says.

TMD has 300 "real connections" of which 20 couples have formed, including two who are discussing marriage. Ramalingegowda observes that it takes the 20-somethings six to eight months to come to a decision while those in their 30s take 15-18 months.

Sirf Coffee does not follow the "mix and mingle" format. "You feel like a cow meeting 40 people at events," SC founder Naina Hiranandani holds.

Once an applicant is accepted, SC sends emails with handpicked matches with a profile outline minus specific details or pictures. There is a minimum of five dates for an annual fee. "Privacy is important," she says. "But the purpose is to go out without wondering who, what, how," she adds.

Hiranandani stresses that something that looks good on paper doesn't always translate into a match. Two members may have similar traits and interests, but lack "personal chemistry" when they're on an actual date.

"I have set up a couple with completely diverse interests — he was a high-flying party boy from south Bombay and she was a quiet artist from Bandra — and a teetotaller. But they fell in love. This year, they celebrated their second wedding anniversary," she says.

SC members are a blend of domestic and diaspora Indians from the US, Canada, West Asia and Southeast Asia. Floh signed its first member from the US last month.

Like TMD, SC keeps tabs on all the dates. "It is a lot of logistics but we set up dates, transatlantic ones too if your job allows you to jet around the world. There is a personal relationship manager who will co-ordinate and set the location and time for you," she says.

The alchemy of courtship at TMD is even calibrated by a psychologist for compatibility framework. "She does full-time counselling for members who want to unload baggage (of previous relationships) and move forward," Ramalingegowda says. The counsellor also screens those who register online to pick up appropriate matches.

Indian attitudes towards love and marriage may have transformed but it is easy to spot someone in love. When Ray says he attended Floh's events because "I am single and I really like going to them," his partner corrects him, "You were single." He blushes. She smiles.

Marriage on the mind

• Online registration, then interview. If you clear the interview, you're invited to sign up.

• Singles defined as of being marriageable age and legally single.

• Membership fees range from Rs 3,600 to Rs 16,000, depending on the package.

• Meet and mingle events are priced separately.

• Eligibility age varies. Entry from 21 (FL), 25 (Floh) 26 (SC) and none (TMD); upper limit is between 35 (Floh) and 52 (SC). Some (FL and TMD) have no age bar.

• Previously married singles are equally welcome.

• Overseas membership increasing. SC has a large diaspora clientele.

• Networks based in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad. Events in cities across the country.