Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Search of the Serendipitous and the Obscure

When I was a child, my mother used to read me The Hobbit as a bedtime story. Bilbo Baggins and Belinda Took became oft-used metaphors in our family for our stability-loving and more adventurous sides. At that time, if you asked me which side I took after, I would have said Belinda Took's. I was always trying to get lost wherever I was, and rummaging through the sandbox for obscure "clues" in the form of found objects.

As I've grown older, for better or for worse I've become more of a Bilbo Baggins, although my research interests still veer dangerously towards the obscure. While I'm not advocating that all of you start researching "hotels", sacred groves and traditional crops, there are two areas of our lives in which we could all do with more serendipity and obscurity: in books and in love. And they're more similar than you think.

During a semester that I spent in London, there was a street near my university filled with bookshops, that I loved to wander down aimlessly. These tended to be specialty bookshops catering to different interests. So when I visited London again last November, that's the first place I wanted to go to. I was devastated to find that almost all the bookshops had disappeared, no doubt a casualty of Amazon.

I am a skeptical and cautious user of technology, and lest I be called a Luddite, let me say at the outset that most of the books that these stores contained might be available on Amazon. But Amazon caters to purposeful keyword searching, not aimless wandering. Even if I was to click on a category such as mystery, which one of the specialty bookstores would have catered to, once I started looking at a particular book, I would be gently prodded towards "other books customers like you liked".

I'm not under the illusion that bookstores don't keep track of their customers' preferences, and sell to them strategically. But one of the claims to fame of the Internet is that they can create a "personalized bookstore" for every customer. I'm sure I'm not the first to notice that this "personalization" actually discourages individuality, because my preferences are being matched to a vast database of "customers like me".

Thankfully, real bookstores, where they still exist, can't rearrange their shelves for every customer who walks through their doors. I can still tilt my head, scan the titles, and find that obscure book serendipitously next to something else that caught my eye.

So how are books like love, aside from the fantasy that many of my friends had about falling in love in a bookstore? Well you might think that most people would agree that serendipity is important in love, if not obscurity. But that might depend on where in the world you're from.

The arranged marriage is a highly purposeful endeavor that leaves little to serendipity. Single women and men, or their parents, decide that it is time for them to get married, and then set out on a very determined search for a bride or groom. Increasingly, this search makes use of websites like Tamil Matrimony.

A few days ago, using the ID and password of a friend, I logged on to Tamil Matrimony. I made it a project for myself to research the profiles of some women on that site, because I was interested in seeing how they represented themselves.

In most cases, the profiles were written by their parents. However, where the women had written their own profiles, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many had described their own interests, experiences and personality, and had written a few words on their views on what makes a good marriage, usually to the effect that it requires both partners to support and understand one another. Sometimes I think that this practical, planned approach to marriage, in which both partners discuss their goals and expectations beforehand, has much to recommend it. But mostly I think that marriage is about the chemistry and compatibility between two individuals, and fashioning and refashioning a relationship around that.

If you scroll a little further down the profile, you come to the "Partner Preferences" section. Not only can you specify the height, weight, caste, language, and occupation you prefer, but if you prefer a doctor, for example, you can also indicate whether by that you mean surgeon, dentist, or (soon to come) gastroenterologist.

My friend had already shortlisted a few candidates, and those were the only men's profiles we looked at. And there, at the bottom, was the piece-de-resistance - "customers who looked at this profile also looked at..." I may not be a die-hard romantic, and I can believe that there's more than one person who's right for each one of us, but the thought that our partner preferences can also be tabulated, analyzed and spit back at us left me speechless.

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