I’ve been rejected more often than I care to remember, but never before by 500 women in the course of a single evening. The two marriage melas, or saathi sammelans that I went to in London last week were crowded to the fullest as hundreds of Indian women turned up in search of husbands, outnumbering men in search of wives. What better chance to end that search for someone, somewhere? But I must be destined to go to weddings as a guest.
The sammelans were held in Wembley, where they have that stadium the British visit sometimes. Well, they have a right to. But this is the land of daandia and garba, chevdo and gaathia. To the Indian Londoner, a home not far from home.
For the occasion, Indians came from London and outside, hoping to find their soul mates. It wasn’t easy to find parking space for my ancient banger amid those Mercedes Benzes and BMWs outside the school rented for the sammelan. The children had gone home, to make way for girls and boys of a different generation. A kindness of Indian tradition, that. As long as you’re trying to be husband, you’re a boy. "You candidate?" asked the chap at the door, and let me in on a £5 ticket. I walked into the school hall, with no way to go but forward. Prospective brides, grooms and their parents sat in three rows along each side, watching everyone come in. By the time anyone figured that out, it was too late to run. I was never sized up and written off by so many, so soon. A catwalk almost, if one could walk like that.
A woman behind the desk asked: "You from Southall?" Not a pleasant question. In Southall they come big and loud. In Wembley, they’re gentle and traditional. "What your specifications? What year you want?", I wasn’t sure. She pointed me to the next desk with a board that read "50 to 59". For girls born between 1950 and 1959, that is.
The lady behind that desk wasn’t wasting time either. "What’s your caste?", "I don’t know," I replied. My ticket said this was a social gathering for all single Asians to meet prospective partners. Asians meant Lohanas from Gujarat. I was visibly an outsider. "You are Hindu Punjabi?" the lady asked. Nobody in India had ever called me that, but we’re called HPs here. Fellow Hindu foreigners. The lady was looking through her lists. "We have one Hindu Punjabi girl here, but she’s too young for you." "I was thinking of the Gujaratis," I said. "It is very difficult but I will try." A plain-speaking lady. I’d made it past the gate. I wasn’t going to get beyond the reception.
I retreated to the candidates rows and sat next to what looked like a very expectant family. "Smile, for God’s sake, smile," a mother was telling her semi-bridally attired daughter sitting in the front row. We all sat looking, trying to not be seen looking. To get us into the mood a volunteer switched on "Aaj main oopar". That number goes wherever Indians go.
Another pert young volunteer took to the mike after the song. "All you boys and girls, please come up to the desk and register. Please stand up and mingle. Don’t just sit. Make the most of your time, or what’s left of it. Parents, will you please sit down, encourage your children!" And so, a little more than before, boy began to meet girl.
I walked up to a lady in pink. "Can you help me find a wife here? I am Punjabi," I said apologetically. "Doesn’t matter," she said. "Some girls won’t mind, tell me who you like and I’ll introduce you." As every Indian male knows, this was the moment of cowardice. But I was going to be brave.
"You see that lady in the black sari, I think she’s wearing it really well."
"Oh, she has three little children, she’s just helping. Anyone else?"
A lady in a darker shade of pink passed by. "She’s graceful," I said.
"Oh don’t be silly, she’s my maasi." This was going to be my evening of near Mrs.
"It’s good that you’re asking," she said. "Now you’re getting into the spirit of it. But what is your caste?" Ah, that question. I’d once overheard my grandfather say it was pretty low, and was asked to swear not to tell anyone. Tactlessly, I told her this little story. "Doesn’t matter," she said. Again. "Well, good luck, I have to feed my baby."
I wasn’t the only one getting nowhere. I ran into a Tamilian friend who runs a shakha of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the British wing of the RSS. "I am looking for my son," he said. He wasn’t getting a Gujarati daughter-in-law easily. Another man, looking, joined our complaints corner. "All this is just money-making," he said. "£5 per head makes it £1,500, take away a bit for hiring the hall and snacks, and they make a packet," he said. "I am going to the other sammelan." So were most others. We’d run out of time and faces here. A colourful single file began stepping along Ealing Road, up Stanley Avenue to the hall of the other school, to see and be seen, to meet that one person who could change our lives. And the traffic thought we were just pedestrians.
This was the Lohana And All Hindu Gujarati Youth sammelan, An Event of Get-Together & Introduction Programme, organised by Jethalal Hindocha, a Lohana match-making rival to Mudhuben Rabheru who had organised the earlier mela. A woman outside the hall was collecting £7 per candidate and handing out badges—a bright orange badge for ages 20-24, green for 25-29, blue for 30-34, white for 35-39, and red for 40 plus. On the badge we wrote our name, educational qualifications and ticked one of two boxes—single/divorced. ‘Match Your Heart’, read the slogan on the badges. Within your own colour.
A woman behind the counter handed me a list of girls aged between 30-34. I read some entries: "9/11/62 GMD 034 4.9 Chunilal Acc assistant O A level Middx." Or another: "5/16/62 GLF 449 5.0 Raja Office Secretary course Middx." The list below explained some of the abbreviations. GLD: Girls Lohana Divorced; GLE: Girls Lohana Engagement Broken; GLF: Girls Lohana First Time; GMD: Girls Mixed Divorced; GME: Girls Mixed Engaged Broken; GMF: Girls Mixed First Time. ‘Mixed’ meant anyone not Lohana. The GLF etc was followed by identity number, height, surname, job, education and location (like Middx meant Middlesex). My list had about 250 entries. Refunds are not available for lists purchased, it said. But for £2 the list was fine.
The girl put me down on another list. "You are a BMD," she told me. Better that than other three-letter abbreviations. "You go look inside, and if you don’t find anyone I’ll introduce you to someone," she said. "But she’s like this." And she stuck her elbows outwards.
This sammelan, everyone outside was saying, is more organised. More than the badges, the organisational skill lay in one simple act. A rope was stretched half-way across the hall to separate the parents from the boys and girls. The parents sat on chairs facing their wards and, well, mingled. As one of the boys, I crossed the rope smartly and thought, this was it again.
For once someone approached me—a man. "I’m looking for my sister," he said. "She’s over there." The sister looked dark and bright and very attractive in her sea-green salwar-kameez, or Punjabi suit as Gujarati women call it. "Oh yes, I’d love to meet her." "Tell me about yourself," the businesslike brother said. "Are you Hindu Punjabi?" "Yes." "Actually my sister wants to marry a Lohana." Oh Lohana! He must have caught my disappointed look. "I don’t mind as long as you’re Hindu," he said. "But it’s her choice."
A woman walked up, looking interested. She wanted to advertise her own sammelan. "I have a boyfriend and I told him I’m coming here just to advertise," she said. "But I’m also looking." We chatted a bit, then she left. "I’ll go chat up someone else now." Two steps on, she looked back. "I’m honest, you see." A suited Lohana took the mike on stage. "Hey guys and girls! It’s stupendous to see you mingling out there! Great, Great! Just carry on!" An announcement followed for someone who had been sought. "Yogesh, will you please come to the stage. A really lovely girl wants to meet you." And there were the rest of us feeling non-Yogeshy. Being Lohana is a help, but not a guarantee. And after the Yogesh introduction, that song, Aaj main oopar... Heard that one?
As I queued up for my batata vadas, a parent was offering his views on the evening. "UP ka avay chhe, Punjabi avay chhe, doctor avay chhe, Dentist avay chhe. Moto problem chhe." A mother said that her daughter in Southampton had seen all the Gujarati boys there. "If she needs to meet someone else, what does she do?"
The men and women who get these sammelans going see this as social service, not business. "It took me four years to find a match for my daughter," said Hindocha. "What to do, there are no opportunities to meet others like yourselves." This was the 11th sammelan he had held. "Results usually take two to three months after a sammelan. Every week, I get a call or two from people who met through my gatherings and are getting married," Hindocha said. "Don’t worry we have your name," he said. "You will hear from someone." At the time of going to press, I hadn’t.