Tag Archives: contemporary India

Dr Shyam K Bhat MD is a
Psychiatrist and Integrative
Medicine specialist.

He is board certified in
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with additional certification
in clinical hypnosis


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Super Speed Dating (or the Swayamvar is Back)

What is common to a Rabbi and dating? Sounds like the start to a bad joke, but it is in fact a serious question, one that you probably don’t know the answer to, unless you googled it or you happen to be Arul Mani.

So allow me tell you the answer: speed dating.

That’s right. This ultra fast form of dating popularised in the 1990s by Sex and the City and other TV shows in the US was devised by a Rabbi of an ultra orthodox Jewish community, as a way to get Jewish singles to meet.

I first heard about speed dating as a single guy in my late twenties in Illinois. I thought the whole thing was for losers, and even though I went dateless on many a weekend night, the loneliness was preferable to the ignominy of attending such events. Speed dating, as far as I was concerned, was for men and women who were socially challenged, unable to meet and to speak to people in the real world.

I think that was the general perception back then. Even those who went to speed dating events seemed embarrassed by it, indulging in it almost furtively. One of my colleagues at that time in the US told me, when I asked how he met his wife, “We met at a speed dating event, but Sharon doesn’t like telling people that.” His wife smiled and said, “He was a journalist covering the event, and I had just gone along with a friend.” It was almost as if they wanted to distance themselves from the unsavouriness of that evening.

Fast forward a decade and I now live in Bangalore, a city that has morphed from the small town it was when I left 14 years ago into a cosmopolitan chaotic dizzyingly diverse and energetic hub of activity. Ten years back in Bangalore, dating was uncommon, speedy or slow, but now of course, times have changed.

Speed dating has come to Bangalore and is here to stay. A friend’s sister, in her late twenties told us that she had been to a speed dating event recently.

“How was it?” I asked.

She described the event, conducted in the now well known format. “You spend two minutes with each guy, then the organiser rings a bill and another guy comes to the table. You write down the names of those people you want to contact, and then they match it with the guys’ list and then they email those who matched with the contact numbers.”

“Sounds complicated,” I replied.

“Less complicated than regular dating,” she replied.

I asked her if two minutes was enough time to decide if she liked someone or not. “Yeah sure, I know right away if I don’t want to go out with a guy again, or if I am interested in spending more time together. It’s not like I have to decide about getting married right away.”

She didn’t really like most of the men she met – they seemed “not my type” – but, she added, “I met two guys who seemed nice, and I might meet them for a coffee sometime next week.”

As I spoke to her, I was aware that in attending this speed dating event, and in choosing her dates, she was exercising a level of autonomy that would not have been possible in the old India. But in the new India, the confident and independent single Indian woman is exercising her right of choice.

And this should not be surprising at all, because after all, the original speed dating was not invented by a Rabbi. It was an accepted practice in some segments of Indian society centuries, maybe thousands of years ago. We just called it a different name – swayamvar.

I completely understand if the word “swayamvar” has acquired a certain greasy quality after Rakhi Sawant’s reality show. But let me remind you that the process was a noble celebration of female emancipation and autonomy. The swayamvar was super speed dating, an ancient Indian solution to the universal female plea, “Where have all the good men gone?”

The father of the bride, usually a king, invited men from all over the country to compete for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

After several tests and examinations and trials, the bride would garland the best amongst the suitors and, it was hoped, they would live happily ever after.

Once I understood speed dating in the framework of female emancipation, in the light of our own cultural heritage, I changed my mind. I don’t think it’s for losers, at least not in this country. Speed dating is just one more example of an evolving, emancipated society. Thankfully for the guys though, this time it is more egalitarian, more equal – the number of men and women are equal and therefore, theoretically at least, kinder on the men than the original version.

But does speed dating really work? Isn’t speed the antithesis of intimacy, the poison to authentic interaction? Not according to the research. We are instinctive beings. We might think that we are logical and have a notion of the kind of partner we desire, but apparently our choices are made unconsciously.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink describes a study that examines choice. Participants in the study filled out questionnaires about their ideal mate, but these apparently did not match their subconscious preferences.

Other studies demonstrated that we decide whether or not we like a person (in the romantic sense) within three to 30 seconds of meeting them. Apparently there are unknown, almost imperceptible stimuli that act on the deepest recesses of our brains, drawing us closer to some people and pushing us away from others. One theory for example is that we are attracted to people with compatible genes, and we detect this compatibility through our olfactory nerves, through chemicals called pheromones. A few seconds is all we need and everything we use to explain our likes or our dislikes – he is a great listener, he has a great sense of humour, she has a beautiful smile – these occur after our brain has already made the choice for us, so to speak.

Speed dating just taps into our instincts, our ancient signalling mechanisms.

Of course, women are much better at listening to their instincts; the men often are confused by signals from the brain located in their nether regions.

To that extent, it is the woman who makes the choice and the man who competes for her attentions. We have seen this all before in India. Ladies and gentlemen, the swayamavar is back in town.

Keeping it Real

Sartre would have been fascinated by the social workings of contemporary Bangalore. Heidegger would have been inspired beyond insanity. And Socrates, I can just see him now, walking around the social scene urging everyone to look within, saying, with a wave of his wine glass, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

“Authenticity”, defined as “the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite social pressures and expectations”, is the striving to reconcile two sometimes opposing forces – the needs and motivations of oneself, and the expectations and norms of society.

In the old India, people acted in accordance with society; social institutions were still influential in the realm of private life and since individual drives were relinquished in favour of social propriety, people did not think much about authenticity.

Existential questions – what do I really want to do with my life? What does it really mean to be me? Who am I really? – were, if asked at all, buried so deep in the subconscious that the questions might as well not have been asked at all.

In old India, we lived out our lives in neat, pre-ordained roles: first, as a daughter or son, then as a husband or wife, and shortly after that as fathers and mothers, before playing indulgent grandparents, and then a merciful death.

Social norms and rules were followed so carefully, that the complexity of the individual, of being a person, was not apparent and to all outside observations (and often to the person himself) – the person was the role that they played in society.

But things are different now, of course. And if you really want to see how much we have changed, then all you have to do is observe a particular kind of social strata of urban Bangalore. You will notice that an increasing number of people are feeling a sort of “materialistic ennui”, the feeling of emptiness, of despondency, of dissatisfaction, and pain that is peculiar to societies that have plenty of money but have broken free of cultural moorings.

I went to an event recently that can be best described as a “Page 3” party. Lots of young pretty things, and older rich things, appetisers, free flowing booze, intrusive photographers, and lots of air kisses. “Wonderful outfit, love the hair darling.” “Meet Mr So and So, he’s the CEO of such and such” “How are you, sir, so wonderful to see you.” As I circulated through the crowd, I wondered – who here was really having a good time?

The hilarity seemed forced and artifice clouded the air along with the fragrance of Chanel No 5. As I helped myself to some brie and crackers, I overheard two women talking. They seemed to be in their early 30s.

“I don’t like fake people,” she said.

“Yes, me too, she is just so artificial,” the other one answered.

Later that evening, I overheard (believe me, I wasn’t trying – the lady’s voice just happened to have a piercing quality about it): “He is so superficial, I cannot stand it.”

To which her male companion replied, “Fake people, I don’t have anything to do with them.”

The new Indian is beginning to take an interest in selfhood, identity, and authenticity – issues that have long plagued Americans, who after all created a nation that was based on the premise of autonomous selfhood.

It is for this reason that Sartre would have loved a Page 3 party in Bangalore.

In our most comfortable environments, we are not aware that there is a difference between our outward behaviour, and our internal self. We act as if we are doing so without regard to what someone else expects us to do.

But when you are with a roomful of personas and not people, where how one presents oneself has become more important than who one is, then you cannot help but ask – what is fake and what is authentic?

The discordance between what we feel and what we display is normal, and human. But when a society goes through flux – as ours is now – then the social face is mistaken for the real thing. Instead of keeping it real, we are in danger of aspiring, of pretending, of layering our social interactions with the artifice of contemporary India

Nobody Knows The New Rules

Unlike the rule of law, the rules of social conduct are often strictly obeyed. These “rules” ,obviously unwritten and silent,dictate the gamut of social behaviour, from socially appropriate body language, to gestures, mannerisms, pitch of voice in a particular social context, to clothing, dress,etiquette, and accent.

Normally, the majority of people in any group or culture know the rules. But sometimes they don’t. Which brings us to Bangalore. Pardon the hyperbole, but never before have so many people, made such a big transition, in such a short time:in our city of about seven million people, about half are immigrants in the sense of having moved to the city within the last 15 years and the other half have seen Bangalore change so much in the last 15 years, that it’s not home anymore.

From an emotional perspective, we are all immigrants.

In this new, emerging culture,the rulebook is up for grabs.Each group or subculture triesto influence the direction of the culture, writing rules, so to speak. In its most egregious form, the lack of social consensus about these new rules allows such things as attacks on women for wearing western attire. If the majority were in consensus – that women have every right to wear whatever they want and go to pubs if they choose to – it’s doubtful that the attacks would have even occurred.

It is the lack of social consensus about what’s right that allows people to do what’s wrong.

In one way or the other, everygroup and subculture is in the process of negotiating and understanding its own rules:organisations and employees,politicians and constituents,employees and employers,parents and children, between in-laws, friends, and husbands and wives, and sometimes,shopkeepers and customers.

Recently, I was at anupmarket shoe shop in thecentre of Bangalore.

By way of piped music, theywere playing unexpurgatedEminem “Yo motherf*****.”

“Does your manager know you are playing this?” I asked the man behind the cash counter.

“I am the manager, Sir,” he said. And added, by way of explanation, “This is rap music.”

My issue is with the lyrics, not the genre, I wanted to tell him.But what’s the point? It’s not as if I don’t listen to Eminem – I happen to think he’s a genius.I just thought it was inappropriate in a shop I might bring my child to. Then again,the two other customers inthe shop, women in their fifties, seemed unconcerned as they leisurely browsed through the shoes. Why was I suddenly indulging in moral policing?

“You want me to put some other music, Sir?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Thank you for asking.”

We will eventually figure out the new rules. But until then, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a tourist or a long time Bangalorean, son of the soil, or fresh off the plane, boat, or bus.You don’t know the new rules.

Nobody does.