“Everyone knows you’re there to fuck. So, no one wastes time with bullshit.” Nancy, a 25-year-old graphic designer from Mumbai, has met four men in the past five months on Tinder, the world’s fastest-growing dating app. When she says met, she means once, for sex, and nothing else. “The times I have hooked up with someone through an app were purely for physical pleasure. The guys were good-looking and well spoken. And, thankfully, they weren’t creeps. I haven’t met anyone interesting enough to go back for a second helping.”
Hooking up. It is more than a term. It is a culture. A time. In his book that uses the expression as its title, American author Tom Wolfe describes young Americans’ sexual activity thus: “In the 20th century, first base referred to embracing and kissing… third base referred to fellatio… and home plate meant going all the way. In the year 2000, in the era of hooking up, first base meant deep kissing and fondling… third base meant going all the way… and home plate meant learning each other’s names.”
But, that is America, where teenagers get pregnant more often than they attend school and television characters discuss their latest ‘score’ with their buddies at the bar every night. This is India, where hundreds of heterosexual male engineering students celebrate their graduation by getting drunk and dancing with each other; where, despite the supposed onset of modernity, matrimonial websites, on which eager parents list their children’s educational qualifications, are among the most successful internet businesses.
Yet, the number of Indian users on Tinder is growing at four per cent a day. When I logged on to the app, I found a former colleague, a girl I once smoked a few joints with and a friend’s ex in my area, all, presumably, looking to hook up. The success of Tinder and other international dating, or hook-up, apps in India has led to the birth of a number of Indian dating apps too. The six-month-old Krush has had around 65,000 downloads, according to its founder, Rajat Rao, while Ravi Mittal, the founder of Quackquack, which has been around for nearly four years, says it has more than four lakh users.
All the apps are easy to use. On Tinder, you see pictures and bios of single people around you and, if you have logged in using Facebook, you can also see how many common friends you have with each prospect. You swipe left to pass on a profile and right to like one. Your choice remains anonymous until someone picks you back, when a match is formed. You are then led to a chat room in which you can talk to your match and decide whether or not to exchange more information. Most of the Indian apps work similarly, with minor tweaks in the interfaces and levels of security.
Several of the Indian dating apps declare themselves facilitators of long-term, meaningful relationships, and it is true that a section of their users is looking for love and not just sex. Every third female profile I checked out on Tinder mentioned an aversion to hook-ups. However, it is also clear that there is a bevy of young people who see their phones as a portal to someone else’s bedroom. “I use hook-up apps for casual flings as I am not looking for anything serious right now.” Nancy says. “It is not like I am a serial one-night stander. But, yeah, I like to have sex twice or thrice a month. I don’t have time for more than that anyway.”
This kind of insouciant, almost dismissive, reference to sex as a temporary desire, to be satiated quickly and without consequence, becomes a fixture of my conversations with people who use dating apps. Nupur, a 27-year-old actor from Delhi, gives the impression that she fits in hook-ups when she’s taking a break from watching whatever television show she’s currently addicted to. “When you come home from work at 9 or 10pm, all you want is dinner and bed. Weekends are for television-show marathons,” she says. “Who wants the added jhamela of a boyfriend? But, you do crave sex. So, you go out there and help yourself. I had a fuck buddy for a year. I met him on Tinder. We would meet once or twice a week. Then, I moved to Delhi, so now we just chat sometimes. No emotional entangling for me.” Nupur has met three men on Tinder in two months since moving to Delhi. One of them was an artist who asked her to model for a painting after they had slept together. “He had brought his art supplies with him. I posed for him. It was a very different experience; much better than the sex.”
Kushal, a 29-year-old social media professional, says he got drunk one night, decided to test the tints on his beer goggles and swiped some girls right on Tinder. The next day, he had a ‘match’ with a girl from Borivali, a suburb of Mumbai, who wanted to travel 20 kilometres to meet him in Bandra. “She clearly wanted to get some,” Kushal says. Aarav, a 28-year-old copywriter from Kolkata, says he hooked up with a girl on Tinder and realised she was an old primary-school classmate only when they began talking after sex. When Ankita (name changed), a 26-year-old business student, began using Tinder after returning to India from London, a guy she was chatting with followed up a question about her interests with a text that said, “It would be really nice to fuck you right now and caress your nipples.”
Sexting, getting some strange, down to fuck, just casuals, fuck buddies, random lays: the phrases darted through my mind’s crevices, vaporising all the ideas I had about the way relationships and sex worked in India, creating a haze. Suddenly, I was convinced that I was the only person in the country who had not got consistently laid through my early adulthood. While I had been moaning into my beer mug about how hard it was to meet someone in India, everyone around me was fucking, all the fucking time. It took the high-pitched shrieks my sister-in-law used to tell me about one of her friends using a dating app to shock me back into reality. This was still a country where a sexual encounter conceived in cyberspace and destined for vacuum elicited astonished reactions and hushed gossip.
I remember standing outside one of Mumbai’s most popular lounge bars three years ago and being approached by two Indian Americans who had just moved to Mumbai. They wanted a light and the answer to a simple question: “How does one get laid in this city?” They looked exasperated, like they had been visiting pubs all night in the desperate attempt to meet a girl. “You’ll have to meet a girl through a friend, date her for a few weeks and then make a move,” I told them, meaning every word. Now, in an altered memory, I see Nancy, Nupur, Ankita, Aarav and Kushal peering out of the windows on either side of the street, each with a date from an app draped around their shoulders, laughing at me.
Several theories are plausible. It could be that hooking up has been a subculture in India for several years and that it is only a small circle of people using dating apps for hook-ups while the majority of Indians on them have different priorities. It could be that the structure of relationships in India has been evolving rapidly and online hook-ups are just the next step. It could also be that apps such as Tinder have not just facilitated casual sex but acted as a catalyst for it.
Most of the makers of Indian dating apps are convinced the first hypothesis is true. Sachin Bhatia, co-founder of the recently launched TrulyMadly, says the group of people looking for short-term relationships is simply not big enough to target. “Our app is aimed at young people looking to meet interesting single people and have long-term relationships. They may not be looking for marriage immediately, but they are searching for something stable,” Bhatia, who also co-founded Make My Trip, says. He, in fact, sees Truly Madly even taking on matrimonial websites, with its enhanced security features (“you can’t log in even if you have pictures of yourself wearing a mangalsutra on Facebook”) making it a preferred option.
Nitin Gupta, founder of the one-and-a-half-year-old Vee, says his app does not see a spike in activity on Friday, like American dating apps do, clearly indicating that people are not using it for weekend flings. “Vee’s users just want to meet like-minded people,” he says. “Their intentions may not even be romantic. They may just end up making a friend.” That seems to defeat the very purpose of online dating, but Gupta’s point is that India’s social setup still doesn’t accommodate hooking up in its mainstream. Ravi Mittal, Quackquack’s founder, says only 20-30 per cent of users are looking for casual sex.
But, then, Tinder’s co-founder, Justin Mateen, is vehement in denying his app is used just for superficial relationships too, despite all evidence to the contrary. It is just better PR to say you are a champion of everlasting love rather than a virtual window display of possible lays. Rajat Rao, founder of Krush, an Indian app that only shows you people you have common Facebook friends with, has no qualms in admitting Krush is a vehicle for quick and uncomplicated sex. “I went to school in Bangalore, and, from my experience, young people were looking for sex with no strings attached.” Krush is aimed at an urban audience that is unambiguous in its intentions.
Aarav agrees with Rao’s theory. “People hooked up all the time. Boys and girls lose their virginity while in high school. You think they even know what a serious relationship means at that age? They think they do, but all they want is something physical. That’s absolutely normal. Hormones drive you crazy.” A number of Indian users on dating apps, by the way, are in the 18-20 age group. Ankita says that after she returned from her business course in London, she had three or four one-night stands with people she met at bars or through friends. “But, none of the guys were people I would ever want to talk to again. In fact, I went online to find a better quality of men; maybe someone I could have a conversation with and explore something more serious.”
Anyone who has been to an Indian pub, club, coffee shop, book shop or any of the other places men and women go to pick each other up, would find it hard to believe that people are pairing up organically. For starters, many Indian pubs and clubs don’t even allow men in unless they have a date. Hook-up culture comes unhinged at the door. This is why the story of online dating in India could be unique. It could, if its popularity continues to grow at the rate it has been, change the dynamics between men and women in this country.
In the West, online dating seems to be the logical next step in a society that has become increasingly superficial in the way it approaches sex. I remember visiting a club in Berlin once where single men and women danced around each other, made eye contact and left with a stranger. As the crowd decreased in number, it became clear it was also diminishing in beauty. By the end of the night, all that was left were a few awkward, unattractive singles resignedly settling for one another. It would be just a matter of ease, then, for someone who frequented such an establishment to swipe left and right on their phones rather than visit the club.
In India, however, singles nights at clubs are avoided for fear of surges of desperate men flooding establishments and scaring off women in the process. Even in pubs that do have a healthy male-female ratio, single people rarely approach each other. “Men are scared to approach you at bars and pubs these days,” says Nancy. “They might flirt and all, but most men draw the line there.” Aarav says he is scared women will react angrily to any advances he makes in a public place. “Apps are definitely an easier way of meeting people,” he says. “It is a lot of hard work for men to hook up with women at bars or clubs. Women have become more careful and afraid of men in such spaces, and understandably so. A virtual conversation is always easier because you can get out of it quicker. If you make a wrong move, apologise profusely and log out. But, up front, you’ll face brickbats. Or, you are scared that you will face brickbats.”
MW’s relationship columnist Sanjay Lafont says dating apps have taken hook-up culture mainstream because they have taken all uncertainness out of the equation. “I don’t think the hooking up culture was there in this form before. Because of the nature of the technology, there’s no confusion. Everyone knows what they’re using Tinder or another app for. It’s not like Facebook or a social space, where some people may be looking to hook up, but some are just socialising,” he says. “These apps serve a need and desire that exist. People do want to hook up. But, it wasn’t so easy before. Technology has really supported it.” When you find a match on Tinder and begin talking to the person, you’ve got a giant sign on your head that says, ‘I like you’, or, given the app’s reputation, ‘I’d like to fuck you.’
Online dating has been around since the 1990s, but, until recently, people were deterred by the stigma that resorting to looking for a mate online reflected a resignation that one could not find someone in the physical world. When Tinder launched in 2012, though, its clever marketing tactics and simple interface made it instantly popular. Suddenly, being on an online dating platform was not desperate; it was cool. That message was transported from the West to India in the backpacks of the hundreds of students who come home after their foreign adventures every year and the briefcases of non-resident Indians and expats looking for work experience in a developing country. The regular coverage Indian apps such as Krush and Thrill have managed to get from trendy publications such as Vogue and Elle has dissipated apprehensions that joining a dating app would risk you being classified as lonely and unpopular.
Not everyone is keen on admitting they are scanning their neighbourhoods for potential quickies, but, in general, young people seem quite unembarrassed about being on Tinder or other apps. The main fear girls have is that of “creeps” and “married men” duping them into meetings. Apps such as TrulyMadly are highly focussed on providing enhanced security to all their users. TrulyMadly actually asks you to upload a scanned copy of an identification card before it allows you to connect with other users. Some apps, though, are clearly still working out glitches. While browsing through Krush, I was given a rude shock when I was offered the chance to connect with my wife. She hadn’t downloaded the app. It would appear that Krush was simply showing me people off my Facebook friends list, which I allowed it access to.
The next step for dating apps in India is tier-two and tier-three cities, says Josh Israel, co-founder of Thrill, which launched earlier this year. “There’s been a drastic change in the way people in smaller Indian cities approach dating,” says Israel, who, along with his business partner, Devin Serago, has been researching the online dating industry in India for several months. “People in tier-two and tier-three cities, in fact, need dating apps more than people in metros as they have even less means to meet people of the opposite sex.” Thrill’s main aim is to ensure it can be run on slow 2G connections, which don’t support apps such as Tinder, so that it has a stranglehold on the Indian smaller-city market.
Dating apps have come under intense scrutiny in recent times for popularising a culture that judges people solely on their looks. On Tinder, a large percentage of your decision to approve or disapprove someone is based on a few photographs. “A guy’s photographs give you an idea of who he is – whether he has travelled, what kind of a job he has,” says Nancy. Nupur insists on her Tinder hook-ups being hot and buff, while Aarav has a thing for women with perfect teeth. As dating applications become more popular, we may find superficiality and instant gratification being debated here soon.
For the moment, though, India appears to be still experimenting. The structures of arranged marriages and cohesive families don’t seem to be under any threat yet. Hooking up is more a phase than a lifestyle choice. “Dating and hooking up are two different things,” Nancy says. “If I want to date someone, I will take it slow. If I am genuinely interested in the person, I want to stick around.”
Illustration By Locopopo