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The Marriage Algorithm, India's Caste-Conscious Answer To Tinder

Kolkata coupling looking good together
Kolkata coupling looking good together
Vanessa Dougnac

CHENNAI — In Murugavel Janakiraman's office, his daughter's drawings are pinned up next to family photographs. He proudly points out his children, Arjun and Anisha, his mother, who lives with them, and his wife, Deepa. They met on India's most popular matrimonial website, Matrimony.com.

And as the old saying goes, if you want something done, do it yourself: Janakiraman founded the website in 2000, and successfully launched its initial public offering in September.

With his generous mustache and frank smile, the businessman embodies what he sells: marriages arranged online — traditional values associated with pure technology. This 46-year-old ethnic Tamil has staked out a strong position in the Indian marriage market. His website, which employs 750 people, has its headquarters on the top story of a skyscraper in the southeastern city of Chennai. From up here, he enjoys one of the best views of the capital city of the Tamil Nadu state.

The originality of Matrimony.com is that it is actually made up of a total of more than 300 different specialized sites, each tailored for a different social group.

"In India, 95% of marriages take place between people of the same caste or community," Janakiraman explains. There are sites for Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and the main Hindu castes. There is even a site for Mangliks, who according to Hindu astrology are unlucky marriage partners, and for military personnel, divorced people, elites and others. "Segmentation is one of the keys to our success," Janakiraman explains.

This recipe offers infinite possibilities within the Indian marriage industry, worth an estimated $800 million. And for good reason: With 107 million singles aged 18 to 35, the potential clientele is vast. Janakiraman's website has led to close to 1 million marriages, and 3 million members pay to find a soulmate on the platform.

"Muruga," as his employees call him, looks out his office windows at Chennai below. The city tells his life story. To the north used to be the apartment, without electricity, where he grew up. His father worked as a laborer at the harbor. But Muruga was always good with computers and, in 1996, he moved to the United States to work as a consultant. There he created a website for the Tamil diaspora. Soon, he added a matrimonial section to the site and quickly noticed that the service attracted many visitors. In 2000 he launched his own website and began charging for access, a winning formula that he has not had to change since.

His vision has succeeded thanks to his ability to understand and anticipate his clients' expectations. The holy grail of arranged marriage is a happy union. According to Matrimony.com, the more a couple has in common, the happier it is. Goodbye exoticism, difference and mystery. "People think they'll be happy if they're similar," he admits. "There are priority criteria: language, religion, caste, horoscope. Beyond that, all tastes are negotiable."

Our algorithm knows that engineers prefer engineers.

On the app, candidates create their profile and select their expectations. They are not obliged to specify their caste and sub-caste, but they are unlikely to get any responses if they do not. Matrimony.com thereby displays, without any apologies, a system banned by India's Constitution.

"Through castes, what we're really aiming at are people from a similar culture, which limits tensions between spouses," Janakiraman says. Users say they do not mind mentioning their caste. For example, for Adnyesh Dalpati and Apurva Mhatre, who married in 2012 thanks to the website, what mattered most was "cultural and social harmony."

Finding one's other half is primarily a social project, something the algorithms of Matrimony.com have grasped well. A team of 20 analysts and 200 engineers works on selecting the elements of potential matches from a database with information on 30 million people who have used the website over the past 17 years. In the case of Dalpati and Mhatree, the result speaks for itself: Both are engineers from the same caste and their families live in the same neighborhood in Mumbai. Bingo!

"We are able to predict the success of potential matches," says M. R. Chandrasekar, one of the site's managers. "For example, an engineer might say the other person's profession doesn't matter. But our algorithm knows that engineers prefer engineers. So we're going to present him a candidate who's an engineer." He also admits that there is an internal selection process based on the candidate's looks, with a grading system.

Janakiraman insists he does not want to change society. "We offer clients what they want. Nevertheless, we have contributed to women's liberation." This was the case for Mhatre, whose family had tried to find her a husband. "You then have to receive the suitor in front of the whole family, and a rejection can be hurtful," the young woman explains. "I joined Matrimony.com and was able to make my decisions freely."

Surprisingly, Janakiraman is not worried by the emergence of Tinder and other competing dating apps. "It's an urban and very limited market that doesn't reflect India's reality. Traditions will survive for another few decades," he forecasts, his sights fixed on rural India, where access to technology continues to expand.

And yet, there is one word that the marriage guru has not uttered during the entire interview: Love. It is simply not one of the criteria his engineers have programmed into the algorithms. In modest, reserved India, love remains a magical secret that belongs to the intimacy of young couples. For better or for worse.

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