(I wrote an earlier (and much shorter) version of the story below for one of my favourite publications — The Establishment. You can read it here.)
As an Indian woman, Tinder fascinates me. Here’s why: I think of it as a strange shopping-meets-hook-up-experience whose very basic premise is choosing.
When I stumbled upon #100TinderTales on Facebook – a project by Indian artist and illustrator Indu Harikumar that documents the stories and experiences of Tinder users in India and Indians using Tinder abroad –one of the first things that stood out to me was that most stories featured clearly articulated likes and dislikes, sexual preferences, fantasies, and experiences. Many of these would be considered scandalous by the average Indian standards.
Indu embarked on this project to find inspiring new content for her daily art practice. Having herself used the app overseas, while on an artist’s residency in Europe, she found it was a novel way to meet interesting people. I talked to her about what it means to women contributing to the project, to have the liberty to choose partners they consider for love, sex, and some, for marriage. The very first observation Indu shares with me, is that a lot of women on Tinder seem to be looking for love. Though I have never used the app, many of my women friends have and it’s evident that using it requires women to know what they want, articulate what they’re looking for and then navigate their way through the hoards of men who may or may not meet those criteria.
It’s a strong departure from the traditional Indian mindset towards finding a partner — a pursuit that is only ever meant to end in marriage — where even today, many women are not typically encouraged to actively play a part in choosing. While the West may have a love/hate relationship with Tinder, in India it seems to be a tool that enables choice for women as they navigate one of our society’s greatest obsessions – relationships and marriage.
About 95% of contributors to the project are women, many of whom have shared stories of how using Tinder gives them the upper hand. “In a world where women have always been judged and dismissed based on their looks, a lot of women have told me they feel powerful left-swiping when they see pictures of Tinder users,” she says.
As a woman who, like me, also dated in a time before Tinder, and admittedly, felt the lack of avenues to discuss, experiment and explore her sexuality while growing up, Indu finds that Tinder has time and again made her question her own conditioning and presented opportunities to push her own boundaries and inhibitions fuelled by social conditioning.
“Tinder helps weed out the men you’re definitely not interested in and focus on those who you think may be interesting. It puts us on a level playing field,” she tells me.
I imagine left and right swiping through Tinder to be quite a liberating act because the prevalent notion in large parts of India still draws upon the Ideal Indian Woman whose role is to look after and preen herself, arm herself with the requisite skills that will make her worthy of being chosen. For marriage. Predominant Indian culture looks down about dating, pre-marital sex and any discussions about intimacy or the like are clandestine.
For Indu, that ability to choose has formed the inspiration for her work. “I’m very fascinated by people, cultures, language and I’d rather hear about it all from people than read about it on Wikipedia,” she says, telling me about how she was able to connect with people based on similar interests, when she was an artist in residence in Europe. “Being able to chat with all kinds of different people, meeting them over a coffee, a was lot of it is learning for me.” More recently, many a Tinder connection has turned muse and Indu recounts tales of illustrating men with well-sculpted bodies.
Maybe because I grew up in a time long before Tinder, and my own dating pool was quite literally limited to a physical circle of friends, the idea of choosing from a virtual menu of options is fascinating to me. The advent of the internet in my teens brought along with it online chatting and many of my friends and I routinely used a variety of IM platforms to communicate with a circle of friends. It opened up a whole new world to flirt with – literally and figuratively. But it also opened us up to all kinds of unsavory characters who were quite simply looking for a fast fuck. I was very aware of how quickly meeting a stranger online could go wrong, and weeding out the potentially dangerous men and choosing the more interesting and seemingly safe ones was frankly just a pain. Choosing didn’t seem like a luxury, or a privilege.
So, I played safe and dated boys I knew, first from high school, and later social circle and much later, my workplace. Every guy I have dated has been someone I either knew personally, or someone I was connected to through a friend or relative. Given that I limited myself to a small circle, the idea that I, as a girl, could go about selecting someone was not something I considered. Many girls waited to be asked out by the boys they fancied, and many like me, did the asking themselves. By the time I was of the age where I was interested in and could have been playing the field, so to speak, I met the man who would later (very quickly, actually) become my husband.
It is common practice for girls in their 20s to be primed for marriage. Of course, the person who typically gets to actively choose is the man. I devoured Indu’s #100TinderTales because it is quite simply a whole different world than I had experienced. To read about young Indian women (and men) openly talk about their experiences, from preferring polyamorous relationships and fetishes for feet, to managing in cities with a lack of safe spaces to hook up, having period sex, finding love making boring and realizing fucking is more fun, really piqued my curiosity.
I caught up with Indu to chat about her experiences illustrating the whole spectrum of stories ranging from raw and unbridled, to funny and heartbreaking; and to understand if Tinder has put a different spin on choosing, in the love/marriage game amongst urbanized Indians.
Revati Upadhya (RU): You started this project to give yourself inspiring content to draw. But it’s turned into a large project that’s gone viral. What have you learned from illustrating these stories so far?
Indu Harikumar (IH): What I like most about this experience is that the project seems to have given people a space to share their emotions. We don’t have enough spaces for that. Many times even our closest friends don’t hear us out. Or what we want to share is difficult to just open up about. A lot of the stories have been about what people felt during their experiences using Tinder. I find being able to talk about things you don’t otherwise open up about a very healing process.
I’ve read many of the stories and personally felt like I’m not the only one who feels these things. Though we share so much on social media, and we curate the way we want to come across, there’s clearly so much we don’t share. With this project, a lot of the stories were free from those perfect images you generally see. People seem raw and real. For example, the woman who likes fucking. I found that amazing because I am usually not able to talk about these things, even with people I may like or be close to.
(RU): Like me, you’ve also dated in a pre-Tinder world. What is the one positive change dating/meeting people via Tinder has brought?
(IH): The women I grew up around were very clueless about sex. I was always more curious but women I hung out with never talked about sex. Even if they were married, my age, or we were in private – it never came up. So if you start having sex at a later age, there’s so much confusion in your head. There is also such a taboo even about seeing different men. Most women I have known, married the first guy they met and settled. In my 20s, I was told that if a guy talks to you about sex it means he wants to sleep with you. That was how it used to be.
My Tinder experiences have made me meet a lot of men from different cultures and I have realised I can have many of those conversations I couldn’t before, with them.
It has also made me very aware of my preferences, what I like and what I am looking for. When men are open to ask for sex, I am not always offended – I might have been in the past. Also, I now find it easy to say no. And saying no doesn’t always mean we have to stop conversing or communicating. That has been refreshingly different.
(RU): What are your three most favourite stories from the project so far?
(IH): There is one about love and self-sabotage.
I like this from another story: “Earlier, my refusal to ever use Tinder was supported by my belief that life is its own dating/hook up/happily ever after app. But clearly, life isn’t enough. Or maybe human nature is just fucked. Maybe human nature is fucked because life isn’t enough or maybe the fact that life disappoints us first makes even more comfortable with disappointing ourselves.”
And I really enjoyed my Vienna Tinder experience because it made me feel that I could fall in love again, in the way I could when I was a younger person. And the guy left me with a body positive message, “Beauty Needs Space.”
(RU): What was the hardest to relate to and therefore illustrate?
(IH): When I started I told myself I would not judge. There are many stories where I have no personal reference and find it really difficult to relate. For some women things like how they come across when they eat a burger on a date matters, but it’s a trivial thing for me. Similarly, I may judge a man who ran away from his date because she had bad breath. I realised these maybe my own issues of abandonment coming to the fore, but I also realised bad breath is an issue and can turn off people. I was in two minds, but eventually I did put up that story because they’re real issues for people.
There are other stories of abuse that I am not ready to deal with currently and haven’t gone back to.
(RU): What was the saddest story?
(IH): This story was the saddest. It came to me in the beginning of the project and I wrote back to the person, I really wanted to hug her and I felt such a mixed bag of emotions. She told me that writing it made her feel lighter. In my interaction with her, she said: “Life is too short and we keep postponing things.” Then I was holding back from texting someone, interacting with her gave me the courage to go ahead and do it.
For me, the project is therapeutic in many, many ways. Much as I’d like to disengage, these stories help me deal with my own demons, my own fears. One of the things I love about this project is that in most societies, being vulnerable is not okay and with so many people opening up, the lab pup in me thinks it has some company.
(I wrote an earlier (and much shorter) version of the story for one of my favourite publications — The Establishment. You can read it here.)
(All images courtesy of #100IndianTinderTales)