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Amar and Pamela Bhavra look through photos on their computer in their new home in Edmonton, Alberta on August 4, 2010. The two are a Sikh couple who met on Shaadi.com and married two months after meeting online. (Jimmy Jeong/www.jimmyshoots.com)
Amar and Pamela Bhavra look through photos on their computer in their new home in Edmonton, Alberta on August 4, 2010. The two are a Sikh couple who met on Shaadi.com and married two months after meeting online. (Jimmy Jeong/www.jimmyshoots.com)

Matchmaking: The new generation

A marriage arranged (by us) Add to ...

As Pamela Bhavra scrolled through the marital prospects, a faceless man named Amar stood out. He had no photo up, but reminded Ms. Bhavra of her little brother - a middle child reared by his mother and two sisters.

"Basically he wrote, 'You see ladies? I've been trained well,'" Ms. Bhavra recalled.

It was winter 2007 in Edmonton and the Sikh woman was trying her luck on Shaadi.com, a 20-million-strong Indian matrimonial website.

"My dad had told me that he wanted me to get married. He was joking around one day: 'I'll take you to India and just get you married there,' and I was, like, 'No!' So I went on Shaadi.com."

She messaged Amar, he responded and the two began a thoroughly modern courtship ritual: They started with e-mails and progressed through MSN instant messaging, texting, phone calls and finally an in-person meeting.

"We met on a Friday and he proposed to me on the Monday," says Ms. Bhavra, a 27-year-old health consultant.

Pamela and Amar Bhavra practice a Bhangra dance, for an upcoming friend's wedding, in their new home in Edmonton, Alberta on August 4, 2010.

Both she and her Sikh husband, a 32-year-old financial services manager, used the ethnic dating site as a welcome alternative to the prospect of arranged marriage: "I wasn't the going-back-home-to-India-and-get-married type of guy, what the mother wanted," Mr. Bhavra said.

But it also appealed on another level.

"I grew up in small town Saskatchewan and I married a guy from the same religion, same caste and he's traditional," said Ms. Bhavra, who was born in Estevan, Sask., a tiny town bordering North Dakota. "I can keep my culture alive in my children. … If I were to marry a Caucasian guy, my kids would lose their culture."

The Bhavras embody many of the contradictions of the modern South Asian online dater, many of whom are looking to appease family and still retain some choice over their marital matters. A plethora of online dating sites now cater to the demand: aside from Shaadi, which boasts 2 million Canadian members and opened its first Canadian matchmaking centre in Mississauga, Ont., this past May, there is Rishta.com, which caters to high-income Indians, IndianFriendFinder.com (with more than 16,000 Canadian members) and MuslimFriends.com, among others.

Unlike Lavalife and eHarmony users, members on these sites often have a parent looking over their shoulder - if not running their profile outright. About 30 per cent of the Canadian profiles on Shaadi are made by parents for their sons and daughters - and scrutinized routinely.

"That's something that doesn't happen on other dating sites," said Anjan Saikia, vice-president of Shaadi North America. "Unlike the very individual orientation of white people, [with]people from South Asia, the boy looks at the girl, the girl looks at the boy, but they also look at the two families. At the end of the day, the bonding between families in our culture is very important to both the younger generation and the parents."

Among other criteria, the site lets members search by community, religion, caste and sub caste, although Mr. Saikia said most users don't base their choices on caste, but religion.

The company recently teamed up with FastLife International, which organizes speed dating and singles' events around the world. About two years ago, FastLife launched events for Hindus, Christians and Jews, as well as East Asians. For this community, they host four events monthly in Toronto and two a month in Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa.

"In Canada, there's a greater demand for these events than there is in any other of our markets," says chief executive Justin Parfitt.

Sikh and language-based speed dating are on the way, and the company has also partnered with Zhenai, China's fastest growing dating site.

Mr. Parfitt allows that it can all be a bit tense for some of the more traditional parents.

"They drop their children off and sort of lurk around a little bit. It's our job to put them at ease and let them know that what we're doing is a dating event and that it's all about expanding your social circle and has got nothing to do with sex. … And they calm down and they understand."

Mr. Parfitt is careful about cultural sensitivities, but draws the line at caste, which isn't one of the criteria at the events: "It doesn't fit very comfortably with me because it's based on a pecking order."

Asked whether he thinks it's right to segregate daters, Mr. Parfitt said, "Initially, we were a little leery of offering events based on ethnicity. But ultimately, dating isn't about political correctness: It's about people's preferences. When you're dating, that's the way it is. We decided to cater to that demand."

Özlem Sensoy sees all of it as a good antidote to mainstream sites such as Lavalife, eHarmony and Plenty of Fish, even though all of those allow members to filter their searches by ethnicity.

"The whole paradigm of dating sites themselves is a very Western, commercial, capitalist creation," says Prof. Sensoy, who teaches in the department of gender, sexuality, and women's studies at Simon Fraser University.

She says online dating, which is basically shopping for a mate while sitting alone at your computer, runs counter to the "collectivist, family-based" South Asian communities, but that these sites offer a "safe place" to try it out.

"It isn't just two individuals getting married: It's two families coming together. That's a cultural lens that's not a part of mainstream dating sites."

As for big mother watching the monitor over their shoulders, some are pushing back. Said Mr. Bhavra: "If the parents are doing that, then there's really no difference from what they were doing before."

 

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