Z, a recent and now single mother, and an old friend, tells me over a casual conversation on Facebook that she has downloaded three of the umpteen "dating apps" on her newly purchased smartphone and intends to "take the swipe at" some of the somebodies around town. When I express my general scepticism, the freshly disengaged mommy of a few-month-old infant coolly says, "The pressure to f*ck isn't all that bad. Keeps you in shape."
Tinder is the night. But also, the knight is on Tinder. And on Woo. And on TrulyMadly, Thrill, Desi Crush, Singles Around Me. As advertisements showcasing a barrage of mobile applications and websites promising "boy and girl browsing" explode on our television screens, the conventions of and behind "dating" - courtship, going out, relationship - change exponentially. The opposite sex, as also the apposite sex, is only a click/swipe away.
How and when did this technology-facilitated mode of hanging out, and/or hooking up, come to be the new norm as far as sexual liaisons and casual dating are concerned? That too in a country in which premarital relationships are still frowned upon, and in which caste, religion, language and class considerations weigh so high as to merit an honour killing every now and then.
But dating apps have transformed the topology of courtships. While India has been slow to catch up with the global trends, it has compensated the Johnny-come-lately syndrome with an app-ing gusto almost unmatched in a usually closeted, much-repressed South Asian context.
A horde of girls and boys, women and men, are rapidly "unsingling" - swiping, clicking, ticking possible "matches" online, then going on to chat up and zeroed in profile, and finally, in several cases, taking it to the next level and meeting up offline, hanging out, and often, having sex. But they are not necessarily "coupling" - that is, their relationship status on Facebook isn't changing to "committed", or even "it is complicated"; they don't see immediately themselves in a long-term partnership. There is not always the larger agenda of finding "the one", the Mister or Miss Right who's the logical culmination of the ordeal that is romance and courtship. The denouement has changed from finding the one to "having fun". This is the ping of good times.
Suddenly the swarm of eligible singles metamorphoses into a massive database of profiles, all eager to unsingle. The shingle is also the online social networking sites; the smartphone screens are the new hubs of mingling and tingling. The sensations are digital first. And unlike the old-fashioned matrimonial sites such as Shaadi.com and its many inflection-friendly clones, these promise not the goal but the score. The very concept of dating - an organic process enabled and disabled by social checks and balances - undergoes a tectonic shift. The interim becomes the entirety with notion of finding the perfect match chipping away as the theory of the plenty takes over.
More is certainly merrier in the dating app universe. The unsingles on app-sphere, who could have been the fin de siècle Columbuses afloat in the digital Atlantics of chatrooms and instant messengers, are now cul de sac experimenters of not just newfound technology but also longstanding social mores, ready to throw away established modes of finding a guy/gal and "keeping" him/her. Not exactly an affluenza of sex, for sex outside permissible bounds was always an open secret, but an assault on the romantic ideal itself. For the scarce ideal is replaced by the democratised, capitalised many.
When they say there is a "market for dating apps", nothing could be closer to truth. Yet, this is a long way off from the times when marriage, the highest pedestal of the courtship ladder, itself was not unlike a cattle market, wherein women and men were traded off as meat packaged in wrappers of family, class, caste, religion, region and language. Dating apps form the logical extreme that a capitalist free market, suitably greased by the lubricants of technology, can sell you. They are, in fact, selling "You" to you - the febrile narcissist of the selfie generating generation, GPS-tagging every square meal and every purchase, ceaselessly instagramming the bildungsroman of the self. We are constantly looking for mirror images that can lock step with our furiously changing and constantly self-generating desires, and taking the best match out of the choppy waters of cyberistan to the slower, but equally impatient shores of real life.
Not so long ago, an article in Vanity Fair had shaken the American dating scene when it had alleged that with Tinder has dawned the dating apocalypse. Men and women were ordering a date the way one would order takeaway food and throw away the leftovers without batting an eyelid. A colleague had narrated a story in which an app-savvy friend of his had a date night in which the date came on Tinder and left on Uber. In India, while the "hookup culture" has still a niche, slightly hippy presence, the dating appo-calypse is certainly a widely experienced though mostly urban phenomenon. Mobile universes on our smartphone screens - where music, movies, multiplexes and modern passions converge - carry within them a multiplicity which was hitherto unseen. Dating apps are the Snapdeals, Flipkarts and Amazons of contemporary "love" - not only do love stories come with an ISBN number, they have a return policy, a shelf life and a substitutability that couldn't be fathomed erstwhile. In this multiplex of love, always a thoroughly commoditised item but never so perfectly showcased, we can pick and choose with such ease that choosing itself is now out of fashion. Why choose when you can taste as many?
Yet the backlogs don't just disappear. The reverse pulls - the expected coyness on the part of women, heightened "security" concerns regarding stalkers and rapists, the parental pressure to eventually pick one and marry - are on low gear but they are not extinct. Hence, dating apps in India haven't ventured into the Ashley Madison territory yet. They don't preach "Life is short. Have an affair" to married men and women, at least overtly. The chiefs and brains behind apps like Woo, Vee, TrulyMadly underline that screening happens to eliminate fishy-looking/sounding profiles, mostly of men. [That this throws open another galaxy of reprimands and discrimination, with "weird" profiles, read transgender, cross-dresser, bicurious, bisexual presences, duly deleted, is another, urgent, story.]
That said, heteronormative desire rarely had it this good, this easy. This exchangeability of bodies/persons/selves has opened up a Pandora's box of possibilities in unmooring us from our sexual/romantic footholds. The substratum of family, society, culture has come unstuck though somewhere this extraction has stopped mid way. Because it is in the very process of screening and choosing and swiping and clicking, that we exercise and perpetuate the most entrenched of prejudices, biases so deep-seated that we are barely aware of them. Or wear them with a casual shrug.
The romantic ideal has dissolved into the million pixels of an instagram pic. Gwyneth Paltrow's "conscious uncoupling" seems like a phrase from a lost world now. Why love when you can "like" and go?