IT could well be the oldest profession in South Asia. No, not the one that conjures up images of Umrao Jan, but the one typified by the elderly aunt with a gimlet eye and paan-stained mouth who knows just about everyone in town. The matchmaker — immortalised through several incarnations in Hasina Moin’s TV plays — has been a staple of Pakistani culture for generations. In a society where opportunities for men and women to meet are limited or, in many quarters, frowned upon, families have often needed help to find life-partners for their marriageable sons and daughters. This is particularly so when no suitable candidates are available within the extended family, usually the first port of call. As technology developed, this role evolved and diversified. The matchmaker went commercial. Ads for marriage bureaus multiplied faster than you could say “Shadi Mubarak” (although many were questionable, hole-in-the-wall operations) and matrimonial websites offering an array of mind-boggling choices sprang up.
A recent ad for a marriage bureau placed prominently in newspapers and on Karachi billboards illustrates that marriage is bigger business than ever before. The bureau in question boasts a well-designed website, a FAQ page, a newsletter, and a photo gallery with images of its corporate-looking office which, incidentally, is located in one of Karachi’s most expensive office spaces. Such an investment implies confidence in high returns. This booming business can be seen as a commentary on Pakistani society; migration has scattered families, which means the extended family networks are no longer as strongly established. And even though, as Jane Austen said, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”, it seems that he still would prefer one from his own culture.