One of the great book titles in literary history is Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. It is one of those procrustean phrases, universal in its truthfulness and yet generically vague, that would seem adequate on the cover of any book ever written. But most of all, the title seems tailor-made for a published collection of matrimonial ads. Why there is no such book already in the world of letters is beyond me. If cooking recipes, self-help manuals and political speeches — in other words, unreadable guff — can be so glorified with the publisher’s ink season after season, why not matrimonial ads? They have a sociological value, and this besides their high comic potential.
When reading a newspaper fails to uplift, and if poring gleefully over the obituary column is not your thing, then I would recommend you turn straight to the classified pages of any major newspaper and skim through the matrimonials (modern shorthand for matrimonial ads). True, it’s off-putting to find so much emphasis still being laid on caste divisions. A prospective groom, for example, declares open-mindedly in his ad, “All Brahmins Accepted”, as opposed to accepting only a specific variety of Brahmins, thus establishing his progressive credentials. Our society’s great dermatological neurosis — the preoccupation with fair skin — is also still much in evidence in these ads. Either the requirement for a fair bride is explicitly mentioned, or the fair-skinned glory of the family son is highlighted — “Fair, H’some boy” — which of course necessitates a fair bride.
But look beyond these, and look towards the idiosyncrasies of language itself that some of these ads present (after all, we are discussing here the matrimonial ad as a potential literary genre). Success in advertising predicates on a highly developed faculty for lying. And yet an expert advertiser ought to have an honestly utopian outlook — he or she must be able to exactly visualise the ideal case in any given scenario. So it is that almost all of these matrimonial ads are ideal representations of those being advertised. Or more to the point, representations of what our society considers to be the ideal.
Skin tone and casteism aside, the ideal candidate for an arranged marriage in India must be “settled”. This has separate meanings for both genders. A settled man implies someone with a high-paying job, preferably a state-sponsored sinecure or a long-term NRI assignment; a settled woman, on the other hand, refers to an over-educated (PhD at the least) and family-oriented person who is now ready to docilely “settle into” a domestic existence.
One also comes across the word “teetotaller” a lot in matrimonial ads, which, to a cautious eye, can also imply a sordid history of alcohol intake with teetotalling as doctor’s remedy. The other recurring dietary boast on the matrimonial pages is “vegetarian”. Of course, Hitler was both a teetotaller and a vegetarian, but try telling this to these young hopefuls.
In the annals of matrimonial ads, there are obviously some contraventions to the unspoken rule of projecting high virtue in print. One particular ad I read makes no bones about the fact that the bride being advertised — who by the way also happens to be “V.Fair” — is “Non-Veg”. The use of the negative signifier here becomes an interesting tool to show severity and intent. A family looking for a “bubbly Tamil girl” insists that the bride must be a “Non Facebook User”. And another one, looking for a groom, prohibits software engineers from applying.
One wonders if these people, so brusque and inflexible in their demands, get any responses to their adverts. But what confounds understanding further is that newspapers still have matrimonial columns at all. The bandwagon, as we all know, has shifted online. Matrimonial websites are already part of a massive industry, and their user base must be immense, given that they attract even “non-Facebook users”.
There is a problem, though, with the web-based model of matrimonial transaction, at least from the standpoint of someone — like myself — trying to find scholarly merit in these ads. On the internet, the matrimonial ad, quite like almost everything else, becomes image dominated. The primacy of text — and all its attendant ambiguities, its mysteries — dissolves entirely in the online matrimonial ad. The photograph is what matters most of all, making this niche space indistinguishable from popular social media platforms.
All the idiosyncrasies and the endearing shorthands (like “H’some”, which were used in print obviously to cut costs) are also absent online. What we get instead is a corporatised and streamlined “profile” page of the marriageable candidates. Instead of simply calling himself “tall”, the prospective groom now has to mention his accurate height in centimetres on the designated section of the online form. And if you write “well-built” as part of your physical description, the accompanying photographs better be doing justice to the title.
How does one achieve the main purpose of advertising — which involves lying by depicting someone or something in an ideal form — while being subjected to such strict checks and scrutiny as one is on the internet? As a result of this, most of us would never even imagine what an ideal state of living could be. But, then, most of us perhaps would never publish matrimonial ads, these advertisements for ourselves, in the first place. Don’t forget, though, that the literary world will be all the poorer for it.