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In their search for love, South Asians swipe right on dating apps catered for them

Most swiping for love on a dating app know the drill.

Strategically pen an inviting self-description. Select filters — age, geographic proximity — for potential partners. Perhaps declare intentions: Looking for something serious? Something casual?

The dating app Mirchi presents another possibility: “Auntie made me sign up.”

The option is part joke, part knowing nod to its audience. Unlike the mainstream apps such as Tinder or Bumble, Mirchi is among the growing world of dating apps created by and catering to South Asians. More than 5 million people of South Asian descent — from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives — call the U.S. home, mostly on the West and East coasts.

For many children of South Asian immigrants, the apps offer a practical tool to navigate the winding paths of love for their cultures, love for their families and finding the loves of their lives.

Mirchi, which means “spice” in multiple South Asian languages, launched in 2020 in Los Angeles. Before Mirchi, there was Dil Mil, which launched in 2014 in San Francisco. Dil Mil translates to “hearts meet.”

The platforms feature drop-down lists attempting to capture and categorize the immense diversity of South Asia, offering check boxes for Tamil, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi (the list goes on). They ask about religion too: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain (the list, again, goes on).

It’s through such questions that Sumitra Tatapudy found love.

Tatapudy grew up living between Mumbai and San Jose. The 31-year-old’s parents, like many South Asian immigrants, had an arranged marriage. The process of arranging a marriage varies, but generally, it means that your parents or relatives help pick your life partner.

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After dipping her feet in the arranged marriage process, Tatapudy couldn’t dive in. “I realized on a call with a guy from an arranged marriage setting that it was going to be very hard for me to determine when we say yes. Like, at what point?” she said. “If our goal is not to just somehow fall in love, then how do you know?”

Then she dated someone outside of her culture. “He was an awesome guy, but he was Caucasian, and that kind of opened this whole can of a lot of really tough times with my parents,” Tatapudy said.

Her parents would ask, “Is it going to be comfortable for us to come over? Is it going to feel comfortable for you to bring your music, your dance, all these other aspects of yourself?”

Eventually, the weight of their cultural gaps and the pressure of acting as a bridge between her partner and her parents, compounded by the natural ups and downs of a new relationship, were too much to bear. “The issues that we had came down to … me having to explain a lot,” she said. “There’s no sort of natural understanding of things, right?”

Tatapudy then did what many 20-somethings would do: She turned to dating apps.

She was familiar with Coffee Meets Bagel — and went on “what felt like a million dates” — but at a friend’s suggestion, she downloaded Dil Mil. She already recognized that she went on more dates with Indian guys anyway, and the dating app made the process more efficient.

Dil Mil encourages connection through culture. When it asks users to highlight personality traits, descriptors such as “chai drinker,” “Bollywood buff” and “bhangra dancer” are sprinkled among general adjectives such as “carefree,” “charismatic” and “considerate.”

In some ways, the dating app scene wasn’t far from her parents’ arranged marriage traditions. You might speak to multiple people during the arranged marriage process before settling on someone, Tatapudy said.

Dil Mil may still require a slight leap of faith akin to an arranged marriage: The app offers options across the nation, not just in your locality, the way mainstream apps do. This means you might talk to somebody for weeks before meeting them in person.

For Tatapudy and her now-husband, that didn’t prove to be a problem. She matched with Sandheep Venkataraman in 2018 after about six months on the app. (His profile said that whoever swiped right would be in for a lot of Costco trips, and she shared her story while in a Costco parking lot).

“As we were chatting, he talked about going to an A.R. Rahman concert, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s great, there’s hope, he likes A.R. Rahman,’ ” she said, noting her love for the popular Indian composer.

About two months after matching on the app, they met for coffee in San Francisco. A few months later, he met her parents over dinner in San Jose. By April 2019, they were engaged. They married in November 2021 in her parents’ backyard in San Jose.

“You can connect really, really well with a person who is from a totally different culture, I 100% stand by that,” she said. “But I wanted it to be easier for me. It’s so nice when you have a person who can articulate the emotional nuances of being from two different cultures and feeling understood and feeling accepted in that.”

One of the original behemoths in South Asian online dating is Shaadi.com. Founded in India in 1996, its name translates to wedding.com.

By their mid-20s, South Asians in the U.S. and abroad often are ducking and dodging suggestions to assemble a Shaadi.com profile, and jokes about mothers creating profiles for their kids remain evergreen.

Still, the website, and newer apps, serve an enduring need. As in most immigrant communities, the generation of South Asians raised in the U.S. often contends with an eternal negotiation of bridging motherland and current land.

“American society is very individualistic. And so the idea of arranged marriage is absolutely the furthest thing you can get from American expectations of dating and life. These are ‘supposed’ to be your own decisions, right?” said Rifat Salam, an associate professor of sociology at City University of New York.

“In South Asian culture, you consider your family in the choices that you make,” Salam added. “Having the app gives you real autonomy. You can filter the choices yourself, but you can do it without going too far from those [family] expectations.”

Dil Mil founder and Chief Executive KJ Dhaliwal leaned into this idea, saying that “with the rise of products like Tinder and Bumble, there was a clear opportunity” for a South Asian dating platform (without the looming pressure of marriage that Shaadi.com connotes).

In the initial research for Dil Mil, the team found that “over 80% of South Asians date and marry within their same community,” Dhaliwal said. “They tend to seek out partners that are of a similar upbringing, of a similar cultural background, because it gives them that sort of deep-rooted need for identity, preservation of culture.”

He said Dil Mil has a core market in the U.S., U.K. and Canada but declined to share the number of monthly active users. Dil Mil was acquired by Dating.com Group in 2019. The deal valued the company at up to $50 million.

Eventually, the app will serve purposes beyond romance. “We’re working on a community feature right now,” Dhaliwal said, adding that there’s “enough demand” amongst South Asians seeking friendships as well.

Dil Mil, Mirchi and Shaadi.com are free, though all three platforms offer enhanced features, such as the ability to “like” more profiles, which users can pay to access.

The dating app Mirchi says it has 70,000 active monthly users, and Ali Tehranian, one of the app’s co-founders, said it aims to add a “new flavor” to the South Asian dating landscape.

The app weaves South Asian culture into its aesthetic. When you open it, a henna-adorned hand greets you with a toss of red-orange flower petals, a practice at some South Asian weddings.

Lighthearted profile prompts ask users which South Asian foods they prefer over the other (idli or dosa?), which Bollywood song is “the soundtrack to your life” or whether they’re a bigger fan of Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone (two major Bollywood actresses).

The seed for the app was sowed at UC Irvine, where Tehranian was a student.

Performances on campus of bhangra, traditional Punjabi dance, seemingly brought the university’s entire Punjabi community together: to dance and, ultimately, to just be among one another, Tehranian said.

“People are still adopting the traditions, the values of past generations,” he said. Even among younger generations, the culture remains “deeply rooted” and an affinity to be with one another persists, he said, and an app like Mirchi can facilitate that process.

For Adil Sheikh, the dating platform of choice was Shaadi.com. Or more accurately, it was his mother’s choice.

She made an account without Sheikh’s knowledge (it’s really not a joke sometimes) and that’s where Safia Gosla found him.

For Sheikh, 38, and Gosla, 39, Shaadi.com proved to be the vehicle they needed for their “hybrid” dating journey — not an arranged marriage but not quite dating in a traditional American sense, either.

“Right after I got out of college, my mom set up my Shaadi.com profile, and when I found out I was on there, I was like OK, let me edit all this stuff — like, oh my God, who is this guy she’s describing?” Sheikh laughed.

He tried other avenues too: Minder, a Muslim dating app; setups orchestrated by his aunts and uncles; even the local rishta-wali, or matchmaker. No one he met was quite the right fit.

Eventually, Shaadi.com began sending Gosla emails suggesting Sheikh’s profile. The “advertising exhaustion” eventually led her to like his profile.

Adil Sheikh gives his wife, Safia, a kiss. Their first date was in July, and they got married in November at a mosque in Orange County.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“All the emails would still go to my mom,” Sheikh said. “So when Safia sent me an interest, my mom came knocking on my door, like, ‘Hey, this girl’s interested. Check it out, she lives close by.’ She was wearing a sari in her profile, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a very cute sari she’s wearing.’ ”

Their first date was in July (at Houston’s in Irvine), and it turned out, their connection was years in the making.

“When I asked him where his dad was from, his dad is from the same small village my dad is from, and they knew each other as kids, so our grandparents knew each other,” Gosla said.

Exactly 45 dates later (the couple recorded every date in a notebook), they got married in November at a mosque in Orange County.

And according to Gosla, ultimately, dating apps aren’t too different from the local rishta-wali; it’s just a virtual, algorithm-driven version. “Shaadi.com was our matchmaker,” she laughed.

Of course, the apps aren’t magical for everyone. For Ria Jain, 26, they’re a passive method to placate her eager-for-a-wedding parents. For 36-year-old Deep Agarwal, who is divorced, they’re an awkward attempt to reenter the “very overwhelming” dating world after a decade-long hiatus.

And for Prince Singh, 27, South Asian dating apps offered a barrier-crushing possibility. Women on mainstream platforms may carry preconceived notions about his choice to wear a turban, so when Dil Mil crossed his radar, he was hopeful.

But nothing has clicked just yet. There’s no difference between South Asian dating apps and mainstream dating apps in that sense, he said. You may worship the same ways or speak the same languages, but that doesn’t guarantee chemistry.

Until then, maybe, the remedy is simple: Keep swiping.

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