By Jennifer Allen
Delicately dressed in a pale purple shalwar qameez, her glossy jet-black hair ties back in a low ponytail, the soft-spoken Indian matchmaker sits intently on the edge of a silky pink chair in her living room, where she welcomes all her clients. A pearl necklace and subtle make-up perfect Fazal Khan’s elegant demeanour. Bunches of fresh flowers are prominently displayed on the coffee table and below them and are water lilies gracing the cover of a magazine with the headline “Celebrate an All-American Christmas.”
But, what Fazal Khan is doing here is anything but all-American. Next to Khan is a matching plush sofa where all the magic happens.
It’s a scene straight out of Deepa Mehta’s recently released film Bollywood/Hollywood: Her client is ushered into the hot seat, made to feel comfortable with coffee and small talk, before the barrage begins — an intense session of incessant questioning.
Imagine an interviewer on speed: What’s your age? Height? Weight? Religious sect? Income? Family background including the names of maternal and paternal grandfathers, uncles and brothers are also important. References? Recent photo? Afterwards the deal is sealed when a $100 initial fee is passed across the coffee table to Khan.
It’s at this point that Khan’s face transforms and takes on an astute, thoughtful appearance. She pauses momentarily, staring blankly ahead. A moment of silence before a slight smile spreads across her lips. And then she declares, “I have your perfect match.”
Khan’s matchmaking agency, the Worldwide Islamic Marriage Bureau, is just one of the ways South Asians in Toronto are trying to preserve their cultural practices surrounding marriage. The second largest visible minority group in Canada, South Asians are increasingly trying to preserve their traditional practices in the Western world. And with almost half of the South Asian population living right here in Toronto, there are plenty of services to help them in the “meet market”.
With a degree in sociology, Khan has been playing professional matchmaker for over 14 years. She started with about 20 clients, but has grown steadily and says she now gets 20 new clients each month. She also plans around 15 weddings a year and has a database of 200 clients — ranging in ages from 16 to 70.
Matchmaking requests come from as far away as Pakistan and India, but she says that the majority of her clients are young second and third generation Canadians of South Asian origin. Instead of adopting Western dating practices, her clients are opting to carry on the centuries-old tradition of arranged marriages.
But because the social structure of the South Asian community in Canada is not as conducive to the matchmaking process that occurs in Southeast Asia, the chances of finding a spouse who fulfills a family’s requirements are slim. As a result, professional matchmaking has become big business. For Khan, this means that her agency stays open seven days a week to meet the demands of clients eagerly looking for a mate.
The first meeting between Khan and a client is usually a family affair. South Asians view marriage as the union of two families and not just a single man and woman. In a typical situation, the client and his or her immediate family will gather in Khan’s living room to negotiate a match.
The negotiating process is anything but simple. The family must wade through a labyrinth of caste, sub-caste, language and religious affiliations before settling on a prospective mate. Khan then arranges a meeting between both families, also held in her living room.
From there, depending on whether the young man and woman like each other and the families approve of one another, subsequent meetings may be arranged. But Khan makes it clear that the parents have the ultimate say in the decision. “The parent’s word is always the final word,’ she says. “When they say no, it’s no.” But if the match is a success and the parents give their approval, the couple is free to get married. And Khan is remunerated $500 for her efforts.
Khan claims to have a 99 per cent success rate, although she can’t guarantee a perfect marriage. For that guarantee, some people are turning to Puru Kaushal.
Kaushal is a well-known Rexdale astrologer who specializes in marriage compatibility. Born in India, Kaushal started studying astrology at the age of 18. Six years ago, he turned his passion for the oldest science known to man into his profession.
Like Khan, Kaushal started with only a few clients in his first month of business. He now boasts to have served more than 5,000 people. “Every year my popularity is growing,” he says. And at 64, he has no plans to retire.
By entering the date, place and time of birth of two people into his computer, he can determine whether or not the couple is right for marriage. Kaushal explains that the Vedic Indian astrology espouses the belief that, “Boom! As soon as you’re born, your destiny is determined. Your education, family, fortune and everything else are all set.”
Although two people may meet and fall in love, their destinies may not be with one another, says Kaushal.
If they choose to ignore this and go ahead and marry, their marriage will undoubtedly fails because it’s like mixing “a packet of lemon juice with a ton of milk.”
In his small office on Albion Road, Kaushal leans back in his chair behind an enormous desk that engulfs nearly the entire space. To his left, beneath his numerous statues and portraits of Indian gods, is a stick of burning incense saturating the room with a spiritual aura.
Kaushal is on the phone — not a surprise since his clients come from all over Canada and the United States. On the other end of the line is a mother from Terrace, B.C. who’s worried about her daughter Vicky. Vicky is set to have an arranged marriage to Steven, whom she likes very much.
But, there’s a problem. Kaushal has told the mother that their horoscopes don’t match and that if they decide to go ahead and get married anyway, their marriage will collapse after just two years.
Kaushal says that it’s hard telling parents that the person their child wants to marry is not the right one. But he adds, “I cannot be a diplomat. I speak the truth.”
Even though may Canadians of South Asian origin are opting to follow tradition and have arranged marriages with the help of professionals like Khan and Kaushal, they are also modernizing the centuries-old practice in the process.
Through the Internet, the tradition is being redefined as a slew of Websites, such as Suitablematch.com founded in 1996, are striking a compromise between ancient social traditions and the contemporary attitudes of South Asians by eliminating the intermediary of arranged marriages: the family.
But not only have websites simplified the process — they’ve hastened it phenomenally. Users of matrimonial websites have the option to reduce a process that usually takes weeks or months to a couple days.
Instead of waiting for the families to introduce the couple to each other in person, users can send off a simple email relaying their interest in a meeting. And at $20 per month, or $75 per year for a membership with Suitablematch.com, it leaves more money to spend on a lavish wedding.
Despite the various transformations the tradition of arranged marriages has undergone, it still remains vastly popular among Canadians of South Asian descent.