Mushtaq Ahmed is a small time trader who runs a wholesale business in Shah Alam Market, Lahore. A couple of years ago, he and his family were looking for a girl he could marry. In the face of a financial crunch, and in need of money to give his dwindling business a boost, he was looking for well-to-do in-laws who could help him solve his financial problems. Whatever he received from his in-laws, he reasoned, would belong to their daughter; he would be just a custodian. Not that he was greedy.
Ahmed and his family could not share their expectations with relatives or acquaintances so they benefitted from the services of a wacholan – a woman who brokers marriages though an informal matchmaking setup. The lady was given an advance for her services and handed over the wish list.
It took her hardly a month to spot a family which, in her words, wanted to gift their daughter a brand new 1300cc car in dowry, and an additional two million rupees to her husband. After a couple of visits, things were agreed between the two families. The boy and the girl were married three months later.
Soon after they returned from their honeymoon, Ahmed dropped his wife at her parents’ house so that she could spend some time there while he could go out of the city to look after his business. What happened that day caught Ahmed completely off-guard. Within a couple of hours the girl returned home with a message from her father that from now on she was her husband’s responsibility and that he was no longer in a position to support him financially. A married woman must stay at her husband’s house, is how the girl’s father put it.
Ahmed called the wacholan to investigate the matter. She had lied to them about the financial arrangement. Her interest was in getting orders for gold ornaments commissioned by both the families for the wedding. Her brothers were jewellers who would in turn give her a handsome commission whenever she helped them secure business.
This is just one example of how an already challenging exercise of finding the perfect partner has become even more so, in some cases involving money. This has created an atmosphere where several businesses surrounding matchmaking are flourishing at the expense of the families involved. While there are instances where there is fair business, there are also occasions where the chances of being duped are high.
The foremost among these is that of marriage bureaus, both on ground and in the virtual world, who claim to have ‘verified’ databases carrying details of people who want to get married. These entities match the requirements of a client with the details available with them and bring families in contact with each other against monetary compensation. Many bureaus claim that they do not demand a fee in advance, and expect the families to give whatever they want to willfully in case of success, some clients report that they were handed over detailed rate lists in advance. The rates offered vary for registration, first visits, supplementary visits and final agreements between families. These rates also vary depending upon the social status and profession of prospective brides and grooms.
Muhammad Zubair, owner of Zubair Marriage Bureau in Lahore, says that he has been in the business for twenty years and during this period has earned a large number of ‘satisfied clients’. “A large number of inquires I get today are on a referral basis. People ask for a reliable marriage bureau and they are referred to me.”
Zubair tells The News on Sunday that they receive Rs 5,000 once the clients have seen the details of eligible men and women and agree to pursue a case. The visits carry a ‘nominal’ charge, and their hopes hinge mainly on an agreement being finalised. The fee charged in case of a success, he says, varies according to the financial status of the families involved, and based on the fulfillment extent of wish lists. People desire a match that is from their caste, who belongs to a certain profession, and is of a specific height and age, who enjoys a certain financial status and has the ‘desired’ nationality, he says. On occasions, he says, there are special requirements – like divorced women who can look after the children of the clients after marriage, that demand a higher price. The average rates for successful agreements between clients range between Rs 30,000 and Rs 100,000, if middle-class families are involved.
Over time technological advancements have given new form to this age-old activity which has now shifted to online spaces as well. There are a large number of websites that allow eligible clients and their families to carry out their ‘match’ hunt online, and sift through the database after formal registeration. Payments in this respect can be made online using credit card.
Shaadi Organisation (shadi.org.pk) is one such website. It has a huge following and engages allied services/businesses to form synergies. What it does is that it invites all the businesses engaged directly or indirectly with the marriage business through its affiliate programme. Under this programme, these businesses can earn a decent income according to the traffic they direct to Shaadi Organisation’s website by placing its logo on their website. These allied businesses may include, but are not limited to, caterers, designers, event organisers, florists, beauty parlours, wedding music bands, confectioners and dating websites.
Then there are istakhara specialists and numerologists whose approval is required by some families to ‘play safe’ before agreeing to a match. They fear that if this approval is not accorded the marriage might not succeed and harm the groom or the bride or both. Muhammad Mujtaba, an expert in this field, says he practices his skills for the welfare and well-being of people and does not expect money from them. However, he says, he does not refuse a gift of money or cash meant to buy a black goat or a black hen to be slaughtered as sadqah.
Marriage bureaus, wacholans and rishta aunties claim that they are introducing trustworthy people to one another. Frequently, they cannot provide evidence in support of their claim.
To address this concern, there are organisations that investigate people on behalf of their clients and try to provide evidence to support their investigation. There is an informal system also where people from the family or from among friends are assigned the task of verifying the antecedents of prospective candidates.
Syed Masood Haider who runs a private detective agency called Fact Finder, with offices in both Pakistan and the UK, says they are providing investigation services to people. The organisation, he says, is licensed and has private experts as well as former employees of armed forces and civil investigation agencies on board.
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The list of services the organisation offers is long, and includes investigations like searching for evidence of cheating by spouses, bad behaviour by spouses to establish grounds for divorce, locating children to strengthen case for one of the parents to win custody, and pre-marital investigation among others.
Haider mentions an investigation which caught an engaged girl cheating on her fiancée who was based abroad. Ultimately, he says, it saved the couple from entering into a troubled relationship. “Though we have sufficient evidence to provide in support of our findings we do not share it with unrelated people,” he claims. Haider says protecting the privacy is the hallmark of their policy.
He refuses also to share details of the fees the company charges for the investigation services saying only that these vary.