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December 4, 1999


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The Vows On The Web

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Sonia Chopra

Jaya is the kind of girl that mothers want to take home for their sons. She is a gourmet cook, who also stitches, knits, sings and plays musical instruments. She makes a high salary as a computer programmer in the United States. A real catch, one would think.

Except that in today's world, Jaya's clean scrubbed face and, short, petite figure, do not endear her to many Indian men who slaver over the models on the covers of Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines.

Jaya (not her real name), 32, does not have many avenues open to her.

There was a time when she could have relied on word of mouth recommendations but as families break away and form units in other countries, it is getting harder and harder to find suitable partners.

But cyberspace could be of help -- and playing Cupid is a Boston-based firm, Suitable Match.

"I was always intrigued by the Internet by the growing use and its potential. I had the time and money," says Narain Bhatia, founder and president of the Suitable Match International Inc.

Bhatia's site ( has a one-click "go match maker" which allows south Asians to search for, say someone in New York, Hindi speaking, 35 to 40 years of age, green card holder with a MD or PhD, never married etc with just one click.

"My daughters inspired me into considering the Internet as a vehicle to facilitate introductions among south Asians singles," says Bhatia, who sold his import/export business in Boston and launched the site three years ago.

"Their logic {his daughters} was simple: Unlike local Americans, we have no place to meet and yet we would like to find partners with the same cultural background and education level."

Jaya, who has explored all other avenues, agreed. "I have hope. I am sure that there is someone who wants a simple, plain wife who could give his children a pure, good life," she says.

Tired of taking time off and traveling to Bombay to see prospective grooms that her Maharashtrian parents would line up for her, Jaya finally put her foot down six months ago.

Undeterred, her mother flew to the US to talk her daughter. She then discovered Narain Bhatia's Suitable Match on the Internet. They liked what they saw.

"The initial impression is very good. They are possibilities," Jaya says shyly.

Bhatia was born in Bombay, India. He got a mechanical engineering degree from Sardar Vallabhbhai Vidyapeth and an industrial management at Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management. He worked at Blue Star Engineering Limited, Killick Nixon Engineering Limited and National Steel, in Bombay before immigrating to the US in 1966.

Bhatia earned a master's degree in Management Sciences from Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute and he worked at KPMG Peat Marwick, a technology company, as a partner before establishing an import/export company called Minuteman International Co Ltd. Married, with two daughters, Bhatia lives in Massachusetts.

Before launching his own web site, Bhatia researched matchmaking services on the Internet.

"We found that none paid adequate attention to the special needs of the south Asian community -- ethnic languages, religions, visa status, education level, these were some of the important data elements ignored by most Internet-based services," says Bhatia. He developed a database design and user interface suitable for south Asians after six months of research.

It was not easy, he says.

"Like everything in my life, I wanted the best. I searched and found a team of skilled professionals who specialized in complex web sites, requiring interactive user interface, database searches and anonymous communication," Bhatia said.

He also had to integrate electronic commerce so they could accept secure credit card transactions and provide online credit authorizations and billings.

"Many parents were using the site to search for their children. Their ability to use the Internet was quite different than the normal young adults," Bhatia says. Also, their queries were very specific.

"Some wanted to know the income levels in the profile and some wanted horoscope matching which, of course, cannot be done unless there is correct time and exact location of birth," Bhatia says.

It was also important to incorporate the changing attitudes: "Some young women rebelled against the idea of searching on the basis on 'complexion'. So we had to remove it as a search criteria and keep it in an information field," Bhatia says.

He also had to reassure people about paying on the web.

"Some were not comfortable in using credit cards on the Internet so we had to have an option to pay by cheque," says Bhatia, adding that they had to overhaul the user options three times.

Then there was the database, involving 26 languages, several religions and age groups.

Other issues cropped up.

"Indian women complain that men don't know how to please a modern woman, to send flowers, to treat them as equals and to respect their independence," Bhatia says.

"The other problem is the interference of parents, who dictate who the son should meet," Bhatia said.

Some interference, he feels, is good.

Ravi, 35, a computer software professional has a very dark complexion and acne scars on his face. He had found it hard to attract women but wants to settle down.

"My mother heard about this web site in Madras. She told me about it but I was so tired of rejections that I didn't want to try but I am glad I did," said Ravi, who found his wife Lakshmi there.

The parents of the couple screened them before approving. They are not of the same caste but they "are happy".

Bhatia has "by a conservative estimate" arranged 150 marriages.

It is not always easy to deal with the demands of his clients.

"Here are a few examples of how difficult it is to provide service to our community... They ask me things like, "I have a daughter and a son. Can I get a discount?' or 'Why are you charging money for your service?' or even "Can you assure us about the character of the members on your site?'," Bhatia says.

Others: "We will pay you Rs 10,000 if we succeed instead of $ 100 for a six-month membership" or "We want only Reddys. Will you refund our money if we don't find any on your site?"

Bhatia does not disclose the revenue of his privately-held firm but he is happy with his profit margin and is expanding the nine-month-old site that already has 2,000 members.

"We have accomplished most of our original goals but we have more to do," said Bhatia who is working on a newer version.

In the meantime, Bhatia revels in the success and the feedback he sifts through daily.

One of his favorites is a letter from a couple who found each other on the web site.

"The greatest testimonial to this service is that it helped us find our soulmates... We would never have met otherwise. We are now happily married. We would definitely encourage people looking to find that special someone to avail of this service. Good luck," said Sujata and Sumit Dhanda of Michigan.

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