When I first moved to Bombay four years ago, I quickly realized that the most frequent chat-up line boys would use on me was a credit card. A space in which this often played itself out would be a nightclub or a bar. It’s India, so we’ve got, you know, those “safety issues”, which means that you’re likely to only speak to new men who are friends of friends. But rather than speaking to me – or even dancing with me – they wanted to buy me drinks. Expensive drinks. Tall drinks. Large drinks. Cocktails whose names I didn’t fully understand.
Now, there’s a part of me that accepts that these men may have felt that I was more likely to have sex with them if I was blind drunk. This is probably true. However, as it happened in more and more circumstances, I began to get the sense that this – this “Here’s my shiny credit card” situation – was being used as an excuse for not having a conversation. Not listening to what I was saying. And not saying anything of substance themselves, because “the move” had already been made: I had a drink in my hand.
This scenario (at least for me; I know that the points of disillusionment will vary from woman to woman), has led to a new trend amongst my single heterosexual women friends. We are all spectacularly failing the Bechdel test. Not all the time, of course – at least 95 percent of my conversations with other women have little to do with our existing, hopeful, or imaginary dates. But what I’m finding is that the conversations in my rarefied, fairly progressive friendship circles eventually land upon and mull over the question: Where are all the interesting, dateable men?
If you’re like me – or like the countless middle-class urban Indian women who have frowned, laughed away, or truly despaired over this question – the most important lesson that 50 Dates In Delhi can teach you is that you must, by all means, rest assured that you are not alone.
Started by a 32-year-old woman who goes by the pseudonym Alice, 50 Dates in Delhi is a blog that takes its inspiration from 100 Dates of Summer – a blog from San Francisco chronicling Elise Moreno’s efforts to break her relationship pattern as a ‘serial monogamist’ by going on 100 summer dates with 100 different men. Alice calls her version of this much-publicized venture an “experiment with social anthropology”. Brutally and beautifully honest about her own life – for example, sharing the story of being a fat teenager in a school where “Alice likes you” was the worst weapon to use against a boy, or feeling the overwhelming panic of turning 30 – we accompany Alice on her journey through the perils, peeves and pleasures of going on 50 dates in India’s capital city.
Dates? With strangers? In our very own “rape capital city” you say? When I finally pin down the elusive Alice for an email interview, I am quick to ask her about safety – no doubt betraying my own small town misconceptions about living in Delhi. She adeptly shrugs it off. “Many people do worry, but I don’t think these people fully understand the Internet, me, or the contemporary world. If a girl who took a bus – not an auto – with a male companion not ‘too’ late at night could be brutally attacked, then what are the rules?” She goes on to clarify, “I don’t mean to say, ‘The world is scary for women, so hide, hide, hide.’ I mean, ‘The world is scary no matter what, so equip yourself to deal with it. Go out. Do things. Learn things.’”
Aside from the dates themselves – which range from delicious, mouth-watering South Indian meals to falling asleep from boredom over a very average conversation – Alice frames her narrative around four theories that essentially comprise the hypothesis of her experiment.
Theory Number One: How Desi Boys are Raised, talks about the fact that “guys are just not taught, as a rule, to accept, acknowledge and articulate their emotional responses to things, because it is not manly.” Theory Number Two is The Dating Bathtub, which is comprises anecdotal, personal evidence as to why, realistically speaking, Delhi’s “dating pool” at her age is closer to the size of a bathtub. Theory Number Three, The Dating Desert, uses the expected trajectory of meet-by-25-married-by-28 to determine the reasons why there are no eligible men by the time we hit 30 (according to Alice, these factors range from “commitment-phobe” to “all-round player”). And then there’s Theory Number Four: The Danger Zone, which addresses all the ridiculous games that getting into a relationship entails playing.
What ties these theories together? I’d see it as perhaps an overwhelming sense of disillusionment combined with a genuine attempt to understand the deep-seated layers of muck through which we conduct our love lives.
By calling out what Alice sees as the conventions by which women are expected to desire men, 50 Dates attempts to expose what the rules for at least a certain group of women’s lives are. It’s almost as if someone took the deeply misogynist bestseller The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, magnified each page in the middle of a circus ring, and encouraged the audience to point and laugh at the sheer ridiculousness it espouses. Albeit with the kind of laughter that comes from horror and/or despair, but either way: the jig is up, because the unspoken game has been named.
But has it? While looking through Alice’s website – which is full, incidentally, of compelling, thoroughly engaging narratives – I can’t shake the sense that there is an incredibly large gap between the stories of these structured dates and the lived, messy realities of actually meeting someone. I think back to all those times a friend’s hand (friend within scare quotes) has brushed my arm for a second longer than it needed to, giving both of us pause for thought. When the night started out as being about a drum ‘n’ bass rave and ended up quite somewhere else. When I went for a drive on a sleepless night by Bombay’s seafront together with a boy who was also craving strawberries and cream – but suddenly I wasn’t quite sure what was going on anymore.
Surely, I ask myself, the landscape of “dating” is a lot more squeamish and filthy and also, yes, wonderful, than a bunch of prearranged dates can afford?
To better answer this question, I ask writer and filmmaker Paromita Vohra – who wrote this wonderful piece on love and online dating for Valentine’s Day this year and writes a weekly column in Mumbai Mirror called ‘How to Find Indian Love’ – what her thoughts on the matter are. “It’s always been mysterious to me how before there was online dating, people defined what was a date and what was not a date,” she says. “Before, you just hung out with people, you couldn’t really tell, and a range of confusions would be carried out. Do I like him? Does he like me? Now [with online dating], there seems to be a methodology in place.” From what began over 10 years ago as people meeting up in chat rooms (remember giving out your A/S/L?) to Orkut and Facebook to the development of OKCupid, Tinder and other dating portals, the idea of “going on a date” has entered our imaginations in a way that we hadn’t seen in India before.
Moreover, as far as the documentation of dating across the world goes, Alice certainly isn’t the only one keeping record. In March 2013, two New York-based friends launched Forty Days of Dating: a challenge to date each other for forty days, while keeping a detailed log of their experiences. Or there’s Hit and Mrs, a blog of “just another Bombay girl, trying to find a ‘suitable’ match”. Or An Indian Girl’s Dating Diary, a London-based website of a South Asian girl’s dates. In fact, a few well-worded Google searches will show that there are countless people using the Internet to document the trials and tribulations of figuring out their own, particular dating scene.
But while many of these projects are more about keeping a record of dating, 50 Dates actually lays out a concrete roadmap for what these dates should look like. In a set of rules that define what a date is and is not (for example, it can be going for a coffee but not “hanging out” at someone’s house) and clearly states that “sex is off the table”, I begin to wonder if the project is perhaps limiting more than it is opening up.
Since I personally tend to feel that sex is something that is always on the table when establishing intimacy with someone, I ask Alice about the reasoning for this rule. She feels that the answer is pretty obvious. “I live in Delhi. Why do you think there’s a no-sex rule?!” she says. “Generally speaking…no sex on the first date is an excellent rule, because it keeps guys from panicking about what you’re going to make of it. Not that anything can really stop them from panicking about this, but still.” Wait, I think. Make of what exactly? While it’s true that society makes many negative assumptions about a woman who is sexually forward, according to me that’s no reason to keep reinforcing this unfair expectation on ourselves.
But perhaps the more important point to be made here is not that sex on the first date is fine, but that the outcome of the evening has already been predetermined. Interestingly, when I chat to Vohra on the phone, she answers my question before I’ve even asked it. “In a way, a date is about something unforeseen happening,” she tells me. “If you are going to be so pre-defined about what’s going to happen between two people, how is that a date?” A date, after all, isn’t just about a series of items or activities happening in a mutually pleasurable manner, be it flowers, coffee, drinks, or conversation. It’s about possibility; it’s about entering into the unknown.
But now it’s got me thinking: if meeting someone new happens in a range of complicated, unplanned ways giving rise to complicated, unplanned feelings, is the idea of a ‘date’, in itself, a fairly antiquated concept? I know the answer to this question will entirely depend on the particular circumstances and universes of the two people concerned. For some, dating itself may be revolutionarily new – filled with possibilities because of the sheer fact that it’s taking place at all. I know that for myself, on the other hand, the realities of love and sex are far messier, and are more likely to involve an intimate dance move than a conversation over coffee. But perhaps – and most crucially – maybe we don’t need to choose. It isn’t a decision that sets itself up as ‘dinner versus dance floor’ or ‘movie versus unplanned sex’.
So while Alice’s experiment is an exciting, bold and vulnerable record of navigating the world of dating in Delhi, I can’t help but stop to pay a quick homage to those arm brushes and sly hand-holdings and all the possible not-quite-dates that made me, and perhaps you too, stop and think – “Maybe”.
* * *
Maybe. Maybe it’s time to return to the question we started out with: “Where are all the interesting, dateable men?” When I ask Vohra, in response to my question she asks me another one: “Is it that there are no dateable men, or that they’re just a lot more eligible women?” This sounds immediately appealing to me, but I don’t know the answer. She goes on to explain, “Today there may be more women who are exceptional in their worlds – more experimental, open, fearless, and willing to try out something new. And aren’t these the same women who are asking the question [about eligible men]?”
According to Vohra, when women deviate even slightly from the paths laid out for them, they are radicalizing their lives, and thus radicalizing themselves. In other words, when we reject the conventions forced upon us by others – something that has previously been possible only for men – we start to see the world differently. We want more – from ourselves, and from the men we love. We don’t always want marriages, but we may want more loves. We don’t necessarily want shiny credit cards, but we may we want conversations or a swing-dancing partner.
In this way, 50 Dates, in both its record-keeping and its goal,can be read as a radical departure from what we, as women, are ‘expected’ to do with our romantic lives. Not to go on 50 dates with 50 men in one year. Surely not to write about it, for all the world to see. And definitely not to come away from the project with anything less than a husband-to-be.
In keeping with this possibility of radical departure, Alice tells me, “I think I’m past the stage where I believe I am entitled to a relationship. If I get one now, it’s a gift.”
So, maybe, if a relationship is no longer The Goal, ‘anything’ is possible. And after all, isn’t it just that – the very possibility of ‘anything’ – that dates are all about?
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Why has one Delhi woman announced that she will date 50 men this year?’ on Yahoo! Originals on 1 October 2014