Rishte Hi Rishte: Ek Baar Mil Toh Lein (Matches and more matches, meet us at least once). This was the writing on walls, literally, along railway tracks across north India in the 1980s. The catchphrase scrawled in Hindi was followed by an address: 28, Regarpura, Karol Bagh, Delhi - an address millions of Indians would remember as well as their own. Rishte Hi Rishte was the Capital's first marriage bureau, started in the early 1970s by Dharam Chand Arora, a teacher.
It still survives at the same address, albeit with new name: Connex'on H. Poonam Sachdev, 45, Arora's niece, now runs her late uncle's business. "While our business is not as big as it used to be, we are still doing pretty fine. Many couples, whose marriage my uncle brokered, now want me to fix the marriage of their children," she says, sitting in her fourth-floor office in a building called Arora's KDC at 28 Regarpura, Karol Bagh.
Sachdev, who assisted her uncle in his business till he died two years ago, says his secret of success lay in the personal touch he brought to match-making. Dharam Chand Arora, she informs, hit upon the idea of starting a wedding bureau as friends, relatives and neighbours often asked him if he knew someone who could be a suitable match for their daughters or sons. He saw a good business opportunity in it and started Rishte Hi Rishte in the ground floor of his house in Regarpura. "It was an instant hit. His office was always packed with parents in search of suitable matches for their children," says Sachdev, who has switched to a digital database.
Arora, a pioneer in the marriage brokerage business, maintained hundreds of registers according to castes and communities, and had earmarked a particular day of the week for arranging meetings between families of a particular community. Unlike her uncle who had hired a number of painters to travel across the country to write Rishte Hi Rishte on walls along railway tracks (even on rocks and mountain sides), Sachdev mostly relies on word-of-mouth publicity. "The goodwill he built in four decades is enough to keep us going," says Sachdev, who brokers about 50 weddings a year.
The business, she says, has become tougher than in her uncle's time, because families are much more demanding now than they were 15 years ago. Then, she adds, a lot depended on a family's reputation. Her job involves arranging meetings between families, "showing" the girl, conveying messages to both sides, negotiating wedding budgets, among others.
"While the demand for dowry in terms of cash, jewellery and other material things has come down in metros, people, especially in Delhi , are much more particular about style and content of weddings - the venue, the food and the decorations," she says, adding that it takes about four-five meetings between the families to arrive at a decision. "Despite rising levels of education, caste and horoscopes continue to be factors," says Sachdev.
The most frustrating part of her job, she says, is sudden breakdown in negotiations between families at advanced stages, because the girl or the boy reveal to their parents at the last minute that they are in a relationship with someone else. "They do so because they wait for the conversation to break down on their own over some other issue."
There are other "sticky" issues too that lead to breakdowns in talks and, in some cases, Sachdev says she takes it personally and is upset for days. "Recently, the family of a girl terminated the talks at an advanced stage because the boy had done his graduation through correspondence. The boy is soft-spoken, well-behaved and belongs to a rich family, so how does it matter if he had done graduation through correspondence? I felt bad for the boy and have promised the family that I would find a much better bride for him," says Sachdev.
The idea of a suitable girl and a suitable boy has seen a sea change after liberalisation, she says. As far as the girl's parents are concerned, nothing matters more than the financial status of the boy's family. And the boy's family looks only for beautiful girls. "But the problem is the definition of beauty has changed, too. A beautiful girl is not someone who is educated, sweet, homely, well-behaved, but someone one who has a high-flying job, who is traditional at home and ultra-modern outside," she says.
There has been an increase in the average age of marriage for women which is now between 26 and 28 years, and Sachdev attributes it to the fact that women are more career-oriented now. But as ever, Sachdev points out, there are more women in the marriage market than men. "Seventy per cent of our clients are the parents of girls. Boys' parents tend to think they will get a good 'rishta' on their own."
Sachdev says that in the past few years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of the families of divorcees approaching her for re-marriage. "Divorced boys always want an unmarried girl. Unfortunately, a divorced girl does not have such a choice," says Sachdev, adding, "Bias against girls in the marriage market continues in many ways."