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Home > India > News > Columnists > B S Prakash

Finding love on a flight

May 09, 2008

Is it true that marriages are totally arranged between strangers in India?" I am often asked by foreigners at parties. Along with curiosity about the caste system and the significance of the bindi on the forehead, it is one of those questions that all Indians abroad are perennially confronted with.

I struggle to explain that as with anything about India 'it all depends', that there is no one simple answer: Are we talking of urban or rural India, the westernised or the more conservative, caste and class, temperament and inclination and so on.

I point out that and similar sites are among the busiest in the world and yet can lead to so called arranged matrimonies. I also tell them that it is simplistic and even silly to talk of 'love marriages' or 'arranged marriages' as if these were iron clad and mutually exclusive categories; that in fact there are only shades of difference: purely arranged, purely 'love', and the in between -- semi-arranged or arranged love. And more importantly, what difference does it make? What comes after the marriage is more crucial than what went before.

"What about your society? How do you date, fall in love, and meet your life-partner?" I ask. "In high school or at work," they normally answer. As we toss around our tales and experiences, it emerges that in all societies it is so much a matter of chance and circumstances, of kismet or karma.

Still I was curious as to how these things happen.

In this frame of mind, I was witness recently to how love came to be arranged between two young and trendy Americans. It was a case where the kundalis in their horoscopes must have matched perfectly resulting in the inevitability of their union. This is how it went.

I was traveling in the first row in the premier section of the Virgin American airline flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It is a new airline, not yet well known, and there were very few in the premier class. Also in the front row, across the aisle was a young couple, looking very chic and self-assured. The man looked familiar: he might have been one of the Silicon Valley whiz kids who make a billion before they are 25, like the founder of Facebook or Flickr, some new company with a hot technology.

I mentally labeled him as the Innovator. The girl looked like a model, but a brainy and smiling type rather than haughty and aloof.

In front of us, a young and chirpy airhostess busied herself. She was rather short for an American, five feet, but really attractive with a friendly word and smile to all, as she went through her motions before the take off.

As soon as we were airborne, the Innovator asked the air hostess for a gin and tonic. He is celebrating some mega deal, I thought to myself, though I had no idea as to who he was or what he did. He also opened his new ultra slim Apple laptop with its lustrous surface. The friendly hostess was curious as she came to hand over the drinks -- gin and tonic to him, a glass of red wine to his girlfriend.

"So, do you guys live in San Francisco? Are you in IT like every one else?" she asked. Such easy conversation and ready connection is not unusual between passengers and staff, time permitting, and this was not a packed flight.

He said something about himself which I did not hear clearly. From his bearing, style, tone, it was clear that he was confident, almost cocky and a man who trusted his own instincts and impulses.

They talked a little; I would not call it flirting as his girlfriend too joined the conversation; and soon they were discussing their favourite music and restaurants, as young Americans are prone to. I was overhearing all this, not eavesdropping mind you, but this being an open conversation, it was natural.

Soon -- too soon -- I too had learnt the essentials about this overtly bubbly airhostess: Stephanie, originally from Colorado, in her first job with Virgin American, now living in San Francisco which she loved, but as yet didn't have too many friends in the city.

"So, Stephanie. I just have this really cool friend, who seems just your type," the Innovator was saying. "My best friend, Dave, he just broke up with his girlfriend and just moved to San Francisco, doesn't really know anyone here. You guys should really get together," he was telling the hostess, who he had first seen, half an hour back.

"Tell me, do you like skiing?" he asked.

" I am from Colorado, remember, I love skiing," she was replying.

"What kind of food are you into?" the other girl asked.

"I love sushi, but also like Italian. I am not really into French food," Stephanie answered.

"Too pretentious. Mmm. What else? I totally love yoga these days and am trying to cut out red meat."

"Oh, my God, Oh, my God. That is incredible, just like Dave," the girl told Stephanie breathlessly. "Only, he likes to lift weights."

"We should totally get together," the CEO said. "I am going to tell Dave and set this up," he told Stephanie.

During all this, Stephanie continued with her duties, walking up and down the front of the aircraft, giving a coffee to me, a blanket to another passenger, but exchanging some words here and there with her preferred customers, the young couple. It is just an hour's flight and soon we were landing. Before she opened the cabin door for us to step outside, Stephanie was seen giving a card to the Innovator.

I was surprised but delighted with what I had witnessed, the easy camaraderie between passengers and the air hostess on this flight, the ready give and take about private matters in a matter of minutes, and the lack of reserve about inter-personal relations.

That was the end for me of a glimpse of these lives, I thought. However it was not to be. It had been destined that I would get to see two more slices of this everyday story.

As we came out into the terminal, I headed towards what the American system euphemistically calls 'restrooms', the toilets. As I stood, a few feet away our hero was relieving himself but at the same time talking on his cell phone. I could not but help hear.

"Awesome, Dave," he was saying, "We just met the perfect girl for you. She is so cute, exactly right for you and guess what, she is so short that you will be actually taller than her."

I did not know what was being said by the unseen Dave at the other end.

"Trust me, Dave," the innovator continued. "You will just flip for her. Loves skiing, Thai food, Nirvana, just your type. Tell you what, to be honest, if Laura had not been with me, I would be hitting on her myself," he said as he zipped up.

The last that I heard as he walked away still talking was "We should all go check that new sushi place out."

It was fascinating for me, but that was it, I thought.

Three weeks later, I went into this nice Italian restaurant down town with a visiting Indian business executive. The place was really buzzing and we looked around wondering whether they would find a place for us. What do I see? In a corner table was Stephanie looking deep into the eyes of a short man, who seemed to be looking deep into her eyes. His muscular arms -- result of weight training? -- bulged, as he lifted the glass seemingly toasting her.

They seemed lost in each other and the benevolent aura of the Innovator seemed to hang above them in the air. Was he Dave? I don't know, but I think so. What lay ahead? Again, I don't know, but something tells me that love had been arranged and ordered.

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash