Modern-day arranged marriages are a thing

Dating in 2019 has devolved into a horror show of swiping, catfishing and ghosting—an endeavour so daunting that some Torontonians are skipping that step altogether and heading straight for the altar. For young people who are tired of the meet markets and seek partners with similar cultural backgrounds, arranged marriage holds an obvious appeal. They’re turning to matchmakers—parents, aunts, uncles, family friends, clergy—and using sites like Shaadi, Jeevansathi and SawYouatSinai to find suitable candidates. And unlike in past generations, where the spouses-to-be often had no say in the prospect, these modern brides and grooms get veto power. We asked five Toronto couples in arranged marriages to tell us what it was like to fall in love after the wedding.

Tillana Desai and Shripal Shah

She’s 29, he’s 32 and they’re both sales associates at Rogers

Tillana: I grew up in a liberal Hindu household in India. My parents didn’t pressure me to get an arranged marriage, but I was open to it. I thought I could fall in love after marriage. By the time I was 28, I was considered old compared to most other Indian women who were looking. So I put the word out.

Shripal: I moved from India to Toronto in 2017. My parents had introduced me to 200 women and hired marriage brokers, and I registered on matrimonial sites like shaadi.com. I heard about Tillana through a friend in Toronto and looked her up on Facebook.

Tillana: His facebook profile read, “WRITER. DREAMER. LOVER. BELIEVER. SINGER.” He seemed pompous and pretentious. But he messaged me, and we ended up talking on the phone for six hours. His English was good, and he also spoke Gujarati, my mother tongue.

Shripal: The conversation was awesome. I’ve always wanted to be with someone I could talk to. When looks and sex fade, all you have left is conversation. She was intelligent and headstrong, which excited me.

Tillana: On May 6, two days after our first phone conversation, we went to Woodbine Mall to walk around. Shripal was wearing a crisp ironed shirt and polished shoes. My father told me that you can always judge a man by looking at his shoes.

Shripal: When I first saw Tillana I knew she was the one. I thought, Whatever it takes, I’m going to marry this girl.

Tillana: He tried to hold my hand like five times. I didn’t think he’d be so forward.

Shripal: That night, after our date, I told her I was certain we’d get married.

Shripal and Tillana were married at city hall in September 2018

Tillana: I made him wait a month before I said yes. We got married at city hall in September and rented a house in Brampton. I found out that Shripal is particular about certain things: he doesn’t like creases in our bed sheets, and he hates finding my hair on the floor. I’m the kind of person who thinks I’m always right, and we’ve had our share of arguments, but he’s wonderful and caring.

Shripal: When we moved in together, I realized that Tillana is a bed hog. She complains that she has nothing to wear, and yet her clothes are everywhere. But living together is awesome. Tillana is both traditional and a modern woman. She makes food from scratch—I help with prep and cleanup—and she’s always helping my mom around the house when we’re back in India. I appreciate that.

Sumaiya Ahmed and Asad Iqbal Malick

She’s 29 and a communications officer at the Toronto Public Library; he’s also 29, and an account coordinator at a media buying agency

Sumaiya: My parents never expected me to have an arranged marriage, but I wanted one. The process appealed to me: they’d spend time looking for my husband, not me. In fact, my mom was totally against the idea at first. When she finally accepted that it was what I wanted, she got really into it.

Asad: I grew up in Karachi, and I always had the choice of either a love match or an arranged marriage. But I delayed deciding while I did my MBA.

Sumaiya: After my parents spread the news that I was looking for a husband, I met five guys, but I didn’t have a good experience with any of them. My grandmother and Asad’s grandmother were friends, and they thought we’d make a good match.

Asad: Sumaiya was the first and only woman my family set me up with. She was pretty, and she seemed like a good fit for me in terms of her age and education (she has a master’s degree). I wanted a wife who would treat my family as her own. I was willing to move to Toronto for her.

Sumaiya: The first time we met was in August 2014, in Karachi, at our nikah, a Muslim wedding ceremony. When I walked down the aisle, Asad looked petrified. In my head, I was like, Relax, buddy. I’ve already said yes.

Asad and Sumaiya met in August 2014, on the day of their wedding

Asad: My palms were sweating, and my hands were shaking. She looked absolutely beautiful. I thought she was out of my league. Two days after our nikah, I asked her out for dinner. I took her to an expensive steakhouse to impress her.

Sumaiya: A year after the nikah, in August 2015, we had a series of additional ceremonies. It took a few months for Asad’s visa to come through, so he didn’t arrive until April 2016. We bought a pre-construction condo at Keele and Lawrence and moved in with my parents in North York while it was being built.

Asad: Living in Toronto has been a huge adjustment. In Pakistan, we always had lots of help around the house. Here, I have to chip in with the chores. Also, Sumaiya’s parents want to know everything we’re doing, everywhere we’re going, all the time.

Sumaiya: Thankfully, we have the main floor to ourselves. Things are great now. We have a 16-month-old son, and we’re building a life together.

Asad: Sumaiya is independent and career-oriented. She challenges me, and I love that about her.

Marc and Anna Sherman

He’s a 39-year-old financial planner, and she’s a 37-year-old psychotherapist

Marc: In the orthodox Jewish community, arranged marriage, or shidduch, is the default option. For me, it made a lot of sense. Your parents pre-screen the person, so you know ahead of time if your life goals are the same.

Anna: My mom’s cousin is great at making matches. He’s set up some of the most difficult cases, like people in their 60s who’d never married. He and his wife are members of Beth Lida, a tiny shul in Forest Hill.

Marc: I was a member because it was close to my apartment. I was the youngest person there, and everybody was trying to set me up with their nieces and granddaughters.

Anna: I was living in New York. When I came home for Passover, I heard my mom on the phone with her cousin. She was like, “How old is he? What does he do?” Next, I called my friend Susan to see if she knew him. She was like, “Oh my gosh, I love Marc Sherman!”

Marc: Susan phoned me and said, “There’s a girl in town. I think you should give her a call, take her out a few times and marry her.”

Anna: She was so adamant about it. She just made the decision that we were getting married, and that was it. We went out that weekend. It was Passover, so we couldn’t go out to eat. We went to a bookstore and had water.

Marc: The time flew by, which I took as a good sign. But I was cracking jokes, bringing my top material, and she just wasn’t laughing. I thought, Wow, tough crowd. After that date, I told Susan I’d go out with Anna a second time. Anna’s reaction wasn’t quite as positive.

Anna: But I agreed to give him another chance, and we went to Second Cup for a coffee. We were both much more relaxed. The next day, I went back to work in New York—and everyone in my department was laid off. I decided to take a contract job in Israel.

Marc: As luck would have it, I was also going to Israel to study at a yeshiva. I wasn’t stalking her, for the record. One day, I said, “It’s safe to say that if we got married tomorrow, it wouldn’t be a complete disaster, right?”

Marc and Anna were married in 2010, a year after they met

Anna: By that point, I was falling in love with him. I was so happy with him and so calm and secure and trusting. We were married in 2010, a year after we met.

Marc: In terms of values, we’re pretty close. Close enough for jazz, as my music teacher used to say. I always tell people, “Love is a terrible reason to get married.” Just because you love somebody, that’s not enough. The truth is that marriage is transactional. You’ve got to work together.

Sadia Qavi and Samad Farooqui

She’s a 30-year-old accountant, and he’s a 34-year-old mechanical engineer

Sadia: My family is Muslim, but no one else had an arranged marriage—my older sisters and parents married for love. I had no interest in dating at all. When I finished my undergrad at U of T, my family began insisting I find a husband.

Samad: I dated two girls in my late 20s, but I wasn’t compatible with either of them. I wanted to find someone who would be willing to live with my parents and me.

Sadia: In November 2013, Samad’s mother and sister saw me at a friend’s wedding and thought I might be a good match for him.

Samad: My mother used to email me pictures of three or four women a month—my inbox was full of potential wives. I glazed over most of the pictures. I didn’t find any of them attractive until I saw Sadia.

Sadia: My mom and sisters were also sending me pictures of men. When I saw Samad’s picture, I agreed to meet him. Three weeks later, Samad, his sister and his mom came knocking at our door. But I was too scared to even greet them. I didn’t even brush my hair or change my clothes.

Samad: We didn’t really speak to each other that night. Mostly, I spoke to Sadia’s sister, and she spoke to my sister. I was definitely attracted to Sadia, though. A few days later, I asked her out to dinner at Boston Pizza in Milton, near her parents’ house.

Sadia: Samad had a lot of questions about marriage. He asked me if I’d live with his parents—I said yes—and where I wanted to travel. We both said we wanted two kids.

Samad: I always wanted to marry a woman who had a mix of traditional and modern values. Sadia fit the bill. In February 2014, I proposed with flowers and a card that said, “Can you help me pick the ring?”

Sadia and Samad were married in June 2014, then moved in with his parents in Mississauga

Sadia: We married in June 2014 at our mosque, then moved to Samad’s parents’ house in Mississauga. It took some getting used to. At my parents’ house, I woke up late every day. Samad is an early riser, so I had to learn how to get up early so we could share time in prayer. Samad and I made a point of resolving all our conflicts in private. We didn’t want to bother his parents with that.

Samad: In terms of living with my parents, it was really easy for Sadia. We plan on staying with them for the long term.

Sadia: Samad is a very good listener, which I really appreciate. We’re opposites—I’m super talkative, and he’s not, but it works.

Saranya Bhaskaran and Bala Shanmuganathan

She’s 31 and a registered nurse, he’s 33 and a cook at STK, and their son, Ragav, is a year old

Bala: I was born in Tamil Nadu, a province in India. My family is Hindu, and I always knew I was going to be in an arranged marriage. But by my late 20s, I wasn’t interested in looking at matrimonial profiles. I wanted to travel.

Saranya: My mom started bringing up the idea of arranged marriage in 2011, but I was busy studying to become a nurse in Canada. I landed a job at St. Michael’s Hospital in 2014.

Bala: In 2007, I found a job as a line cook on Norwegian Cruise Line. When we landed in Victoria, B.C., in 2008, I was taken aback by the serenity and beauty of the place. I decided to do a master’s at the Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver.

Saranya: When I visited India in 2015, my mom brought up the subject of marriage again. She wanted me to find someone from our home province of  Tamil Nadu whose horoscope was compatible with mine.

Bala: My mom reminded me every day that I needed to find a wife. It wasn’t until some friends suggested shaadi.com that I started actively looking. I wanted my wife to be my best friend.

Saranya: My parents weren’t thrilled with the idea of me finding a partner through a website, but the matches they’d proposed didn’t satisfy me. Bala messaged me in August 2016. For months, we talked three or four hours a day. I had my mom check our astrology compatibility. She said it wasn’t the best match, but Bala’s family checked an astrologer on their side too, and she said we’d be perfect together.

Bala: I visited Toronto in November 2016. When I saw Saranya, it was love at first sight. She was wearing a traditional Indian dress, and she was gorgeous. I was so shy—I couldn’t even look her in the eyes.

Saranya: We went to a temple in Scarborough, then Evergreen Brickworks. After he returned to Vancouver, I missed him.

Bala: Two days after got back, I told my parents I consented to the match, and Saranya told hers. Our parents arranged a wedding for us in February 2017. After that, I moved to Toronto.

Bala moved to Toronto to be with Saranya. They were married in February 2017

Saranya: During those first weeks, I only worked a few days. I wanted to stay home with Bala to help him adjust and get settled.

Bala: I was sad about leaving Vancouver, but Saranya made me feel like the most important person in the world. I realized it didn’t matter what city we lived in. I’d be happy, as long as I was with Saranya.

This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.