You would imagine that a place that occasionally strings up eloping couples from trees (village councils called Khap Panchayats in the Indian state of Haryana, for instance, are frequent executioners), where honor killings in many Northern Indian states are de riguer and middle-class families often strangle their daughters for having relationshipsis is not exactly the place to launch dating apps.
Yet, that's exactly what is taking place. An avalanche of them—from Tinder to Thrill, and Krush to Grindr—have rushed here to establish a beachhead in the bet that as India continues to plod down its road to modernity, dating will emerge from the shadows of the illicit world and become mainstream.
Dating within the upper-middle to middle-class economic stratospheres hasn't been anything very new—but it's a change in the habits of the rest of the one billion populace that any business would eye hungrily in order to make the economics of their business work. And much of this population still lives within customs and codes that haven't really changed in centuries.
I remember growing up and scanning the Matrimonial ads in newspapers and roaring with laughter at the fastidious prescription that ads for brides or grooms would have: Fair skin (Dark skinned ones need not apply), slimness, caste and sub-castes identified up front (arranged marriages never happen outside of these groupings), an engineering or a medical degree touted and a US Greencard (rare and the equivalent of a full house in poker if you look at marriage like Jane Austen did and many Indians do)
If you scan today's matrimonials, not much of that has changed, of course, except the bit about having a Greencard which is no longer such a rare commodity that was guaranteed to send prospective in-laws into paroxysms of delight.
Also, much of this action has migrated from papers to the net. Today, some of the leading sites that ply their trade in the matrimonial business in a growing industry are Bharatmatrimony.com, Jeevansathi.com and shaadi.com. In many ways, arranged marriages bring a kind of stability to a society that generally frowns on solo spouse-seeking forays.
But India is changing rapidly. There are more women in the work force, more global companies in India today, increasing foreign travel and the world's movies and television shows piped through the local cable operator. Today, boys and girls are just as influenced by Monica and Joey on Friends as they are by Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Priyanka Chopra. The office going crowd increasing likes to hang out in bars after work and while you could argue that this curious intersection of modernity and traditionalism is creating a schizoid society at some level, it is ripe for exploitation by the dating app.
Enter, Thrill, a social dating app customised for woman-bashing India where women get to make all the decisions—women decide who gets to join and who not. Doors are apparently firmly shut to married people which may be a serious blow to the business model since Indian men love to throng here. Justin Mateen, CMO of Tinder, says that Indians have taken to App-dating like ducks to water and has helped his site grow by 3-4 percent day-on-day.
Men who like men but who feel stifled in India's conservative society can find refuge in Grindr, an app for gay men that says that it has over 11,000 monthly users in India. Krush, a new entrant designed and developed by former Google employees has been downloaded 8,500 times in BETA and uses a uses a Facebook network of associated friends for prospective dates after mining a common social world.
Still, for these apps to take off, your average Indian man needs a reboot, say women here. Or at least an upgrade. Many women suffer from intense harassment from sms's and phone calls where a willingness to have a conversation is instantly misread as being available for a quick romp in the bedroom and a 'no' is hardly a deterrent for someone who is convinced that he's hit the sex-games jackpot. "We are going through a period in which no one is quite sure what the rules are," says Jerry Pinto, noted author of 'Surviving Women', a book on India's gender politics.
The problem is, most men here grow up with little contact with women outside of their families and their most intimate moments are shared with male friends until they are married. In fact, men walking hand-in-hand in India is a common sight and non-Indians often startle at what they think is the openness of 'gay' behavior here, whereas in reality, these are probably close male friends who have never had the opportunity to express such open intimacy with the opposite gender. Women say that when it comes to interacting with their kind, many Indian men just don't seem to understand what kind of behavior is acceptable and where to draw the line.
And when the average Indian male ends up meeting a foreigner who makes the mistake of indulging them in a chat, the results can be hilarious and terrifying all at once.
According to the same Global Post article cited above, When Cristiana Peruzzo, an Italian woman moved to Bombay and joined a social networking site to make friends in an unfamiliar city, she made the mistake of meeting several of them-16 out of 50 over several months (although I'm not sure why a woman would want to specifcally contact men through a dating site to make friends and nothing more, in India). That triggered such an unending torrent of SMSs and phone calls that it forced Peruzzo to turn her phone off for lengthy periods to stay sane. Then, a multinational executive, married with two kids then wrote to her: "my name means Cobra in Hindi n my cobra is a darling! u hv 2 make him dance according 2 ur tunes! he can dance as long as u want him to. Will u make him dance?"
As long as Indian men don't learn the right dances, women may not be so eager to flock to these dating apps, which doesn’t exactly fuel the dating app business model in terms of scale.
Still, these are early days. As Josh Israel, co-founder of Thrill says to TOI. "Everyone said that when Match.com came out in the US in 1995, now they are a $500 million company. I think that is going to happen in India and what we're trying to do is get in on the ground floor," he says.
Till then, someone will just have to figure out a way to tame those cobras.