Renu Sud Sinha
THE running joke in Smriti’s friend circle was that it would make sense to call Tinder, Bumble and the like ‘dating apes’, and not apps. “Because people just ape. If a girl or a boy joined a dating app, the rest would too, almost like a compulsion.”
In Manali, her hometown, nearly all her male friends and several girls use Bumble and Tinder to get a hang of dating apps. “I guess our generation is not too invested in looking for love or affection. So, apart from the fun factor, the main reason behind downloading apps is peer pressure and the desire to look cool,” she says.
Dating apps have penetrated deep into India’s tier-II and tier-III cities and towns. From Manali to Ranchi, from Jalandhar to Bokaro, youngsters are exploring friendship, love and sexuality, not necessarily in that order.
Anonymity is a far cry in a small town, and dating apps are no exception. When Smriti (18) signed up on Bumble, the app began suggesting profiles of people in her radius and she ended up finding not only her own friends and neighbours, but also relatives. “When women join such apps, the common perception, sadly, is that they are interested in hook-ups, casual sex too. Seeing the innuendos and the misogyny at display, it was distressing and discouraging,” she says. All this while, there was also the fear of her family finding out that she was on a dating app.
But what drives this nearly 44-crore strong cohort of millennials? In the land of arranged marriages, where casual relationships still make society uncomfortable, the young are actively seeking romance and friendship online with no intention of marrying. The trend is getting accelerated by the growing access to cheap smartphones and data packages, thanks to high Internet penetration. India has one of the world’s highest smartphone penetration rates.
Sumrit Shahi (30), Chandigarh-based author and scriptwriter of Channel V series like ‘Sadda Haq’, agrees that while both men and women have taken to dating apps in equal proportion, it is women who are tagged as “available”.
Sumrit has been on dating apps — Bumble and Hinge at present — for several years now. He says he must meet new people both as an individual and a writer. “But where does one meet them?” Online apps, he says, seem just the right place. He wouldn’t like to specify the number of women he has met on these apps and then dated because “a small town like Chandigarh” would judge him. The fear of gossip is why most of his friends, both men and women, prefer to operate their accounts out of the city. And rightly so, because some of the women he met online, it turned out, were friends with people he knew. Others he dated included IT professionals who have landed here from other places. “Dating apps work for outstation students too as they can go on with their lives freely, without the fear of families finding out,” he says.
He says most men and women in their early 20s are out there for casual sex, but those in their late 20s and 30s might be looking for a long-term relationship. But this woman he met had an interesting perspective. “She said that while she knew her parents would ultimately decide who she marries, she could decide who all she meets until she reaches that destination. The analogy she drew was that of a train journey where the men were stations the train halted at — sometimes for a few days and sometimes for months at end.”
Yes, there are plenty of problems on many of these dating apps, perhaps more so on international apps — fake profiles, older or married men and teenage boys lying about their age, girls/women being judged. Many youngsters speak about the prevalence of a hook-up culture — both women and men share instances of being asked for casual sex even on the first chats, but always in terms of others indulging in it.
But whatever the pitfalls, small-town India doesn’t care and wants to emulate its metropolitan counterparts. Distinctions between the two, however, are quite blurred now, says Santosh K Singh, professor of sociology at Ambedkar University, Delhi. “The mobile phone has flattened the boundaries between rural and urban India. Young boys from my village are huge Messi fans and sport tattoos. It is society and the elders who need to change their presumptions about youth from small towns,” he feels.
The data by desi Indian apps reflects this socio-cultural shift among India’s millennials. QuackQuack, one of India’s first home-grown dating platforms, has 2.2 crore users. “Last year, the platform saw a jump of 34 lakh new users. At least 70 per cent were from tier-II and tier-III cities,” says Ravi Mittal, QuackQuack’s founder and CEO. “Even during the lockdown, we saw 70 per cent of new users logging in from smaller cities, while only 30 per cent were from metros,” adds Mittal.
TrulyMadly, another desi app, has more than 1.2 crore users. Co-founder and CEO Snehil Khanor says 54 per cent are from tier-II and tier-III towns, with the platform getting high revenue from these locations.
Launched in 2014, Aisle, with its 1.5 crore active users, has truly proved to be ‘made in India’. “We were the first to venture into the regional markets, launching Arike (meaning ‘beside’ in Malayalam) in 2021, quickly followed by Anbe (meaning ‘darling’ in Tamil), Neetho (meaning ‘with you’ in Telugu) and Neene (meaning ‘you are’ in Kannada) for South Indian users,” says Able Joseph, founder and CEO, House of Aisle.
To capitalise on its growing presence in tier-II cities like Jammu, Leh, Surat, etc, besides the Northeast as well as tier-I cities, QuackQuack is running performance-based vernacular ad campaigns in 12 languages to focus on the untapped opportunities, says Mittal. The total market share is expected to grow further, says Mitesh Shah of Inflection Point Ventures, an angel investor in TrulyMadly.
So what’s driving this change? According to statista.com, a global data aggregator, India’s online dating market is expected to touch earnings of $783 million by 2024 from $454 million in 2021.
Puja Kumari (24) from Gurugram is an introvert who is looking for friends in cyberspace because not much confidence is needed to send a text, she says. Virtual dating offers safety, too.
It was lockdown’s loneliness that drove Patiala’s Kirandeep (23) to seek company online. Rising crimes against them in physical as well as the cyber world have understandably made women paranoid about safety. With precisely this in mind, Kirandeep swipes right only on NRI profiles.
For Ruchika Sharma (28) from Bokaro, it was heartbreak in the real world that made her look for solace and friendship on dating apps. Her earlier relationship had turned into a long-distance one due to the lockdown. Now, she looks for people she can meet.
Ayush Panwar (28) from Nahan, who has been on Bumble and Tinder for barely a month now, is here “just for time-pass”. “I am preparing for competitive exams. As most exams are scheduled for later and I was also feeling lonely because I recently had a tiff with my friends, I downloaded these apps,” says Ayush. However, his gender is not guarantee enough for him to seek local dates. “Nahan is a small place and I don’t want others to know that I’m on dating apps,” he says, insisting that once it is time for exams, he shall delete these apps.
Most of the youth on these apps are not in for a serious relationship but it is more of a ‘situationship’, says Tanya Gupta (28) from Jalandhar, who first took to Bumble after she’d gone to work in Delhi for an advertising company about seven years back. The dictionary defines ‘situationship’ as a romantic or sexual relationship that is not considered to be formal or established. “Back then, I didn’t have many friends in the city. My roommate introduced me to dating apps and I got hooked on to these. In a period of around four years while I was on the app, I came across 20-25 persons and had four boyfriends. However, none of these relationships worked for me. I finally left the app because it was too time-consuming and didn’t meet my expectations. Also, I felt that most people on these apps were very confused and were not sure of what they wanted from life.” She reveals that while some of the persons she came across were genuine, the experiences were not always good. “A person I had been interacting with casually mentioned one day that he had been using a fake ID. I was petrified and immediately blocked him,” she says.
Not everyone is on these platforms for casual dating. There are some who are looking for long-term commitment, even marriage. Bankim Bhagat (33) would not even wear a shirt chosen by his mother. Marrying a girl of his parents’ choice was unthinkable. With his options limited in a small town, he joined Bumble three years back. In 2021, he found his ‘soulmate’. His partner, Chandigarh-based Sukriti had been on Bumble for similar reasons — the very thought of an arranged marriage was scary. With options limited in the physical world and matrimony apps more of a parental domain, she chose to find her forever on dating apps.
A woman I met had an interesting perspective. She said that while she knew her parents would ultimately decide who she marries, she could decide who all she meets until she reaches that destination. — Sumrit Shahi, Author & Scriptwriter
Shashidhar Gowda’s (33) story did not have such a fairy-tale ending. The Mysore-based start-up owner has been on dating apps for over a year-and-a-half now. “Inspired by love stories of my friends, I too wanted to have a love marriage. I looked in the virtual world. Nothing worked as most people on the dating apps, particularly those between 20 and 26, are not looking for long-term commitment. I wasn’t getting many ‘right swipes’, perhaps because of my age or my interests. Friends advised me to include keywords like ‘vegan’ or ‘pet-lover’ but I wasn’t comfortable being someone I wasn’t. Once a girl started asking about my net-worth and my father’s property within 30 seconds of connecting first time.” Singed, it’s back to matrimony apps for Gowda.
Are there any red flags we as a society should look for and remove? Santosh Singh cites recent murder cases — Shraddha Walkar and Nikki Yadav. “As parents, we should be accessible and not preachy. No society is against love but we should also teach our children how to handle it.”
Love, friendship in 40s
It isn’t only the young who find the ease of approach on these dating apps a facilitating factor. Neera Singh (47), a doctor from Chandigarh, is a widow with two daughters in their early twenties. “I lost my husband eight years back. In the initial years, raising my children consumed all my energy. Loneliness was not much of an issue. After my girls grew up, it was my eldest who created my profile on Tinder during the lockdown. Initially, we found it fun but now I am keen on a long-term relationship. There have been some unpalatable experiences of men looking for one-night stands or married men posing as singles, but I have also found two-three long-lasting friendships, which have now made it to the real world. However, not comfortable with the whole ‘tamasha’, I have deleted the app. My search will now continue through regular channels,” she says.
(Some names have been changed)
— With inputs from Seema Sachdeva and Sarika Sharma
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