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    Volume 9 Issue 20| May 14, 2010|

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Love in the Fast Lane

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

You can't hurry love. Or can you? Prepare to be surprised. At a hip café in the city, the mating game is being played at speed.

“Men, you have exactly 3 minutes to impress the ladies,” comes the daunting announcement from the smiling but no-nonsense woman in charge. “Ladies, likewise, you have until the chime sounds to make a lasting impression. Good luck!”

Then, with the tinkling sound of a spoon hitting a teacup, they are off -- the participants in Dhaka's very first speed dating event. The café provides a laid back, almost jazzy setting to the novel game of romantic musical chairs, played by ten slightly nervous couples.

For dating novices, this is how it is supposed to work:
Men and women sit facing each other and are rotated to meet each other over a series of short "dates", lasting three minutes. At the end of each date, the organiser rings a bell or clinks a glass to signal the participants to move on to the next date. At the end of the event, participants submit to the organisers a list of the people to whom they would like their contact information to be provided. If there is a match, emails and phone numbers are forwarded to both parties.

The event in the city, set up by three friends who call themselves the “Love Gurus” requires advance registration, and a small fee. However, the Gurus end up accepting a few walk-ins as a critical need arises to balance the gender ratio.

Not everyone is here to find life partners. Ismail Shishir, young, handsome, articulate, and a student of a private university, says he is here just out of curiosity. “I came because it seemed interesting and new, and I wanted to see how it works practically. I'm really curious about anything and everything.”

Samira, a pert, pretty, 28-year-old banker says she came with no expectations, but hopes to find an interesting man nevertheless. "You never know!” she giggles.

But others have more serious intentions. Sharif, 32, lives in London, and is in town only for a month. He saw the advertisement and thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to make an immediate impact on the female population of the city. Dressed to kill, he is nervous but anxious to mingle.

"I have done speed dating in London in the past, but this is the first time in Bangladesh," says Sharif. “I am looking to get married this year. In London you hardly meet Bangladeshi girls during speed dating. It doesn't really help, because I am a Bengali through and through.”

Starting at Table No.4, Sharif doesn't make the best of starts. His attempts to appear keenly interested come across as open hostility (“so what is it about Dhaka that you like?”) and his compliments seem brash (“That's a lovely saree you have got on. They match your eyes.”). “Who is your favourite character in Scooby-doo?” is met with puzzled silence. Everybody else seems to be having much more fun.

Sharif fears he is coming across as intense and desperate. “Dating was much easier in elementary school,” he grumbles. “If you liked a girl, all you had to do was stick chewing gum in her hair.”

At the other end of the room, Shishir is having much better luck. “I'm keeping it simple,” he says. “The fact that the organisers billed it as a speed meeting rather than speed dating was helpful.”

But many still feel the pressure. Anima, a 26-year-old executive, is cajoled by the Love Guru to participate but she balks. “It's too much pressure talking to so many unknown men in rapid succession,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I came to watch.”

She needn't have worried -- the joy of speed dating is safety from instant rejection. You only hear if you've had any matches. And if dating is like a job interview, then speed dating is a job fair. You get three minutes to explain your resume. You never know what the next table might bring.

At Table No.8 Shishir hits it off with a grad student who has an avid interest in cars.

“She not only likes to drive, but really understands cars,” enthuses Shishir. “She could name the engine parts, and I found that really interesting and unusual.”

For many time-strapped professionals who are single and ready to mingle, speed dating may be just what the doctor ordered. “If you just think about making friends, it takes the pressure off,” Shishir comments. “Main thing is it's about socialising which is really a big deal. We can bring our own friends and make new friends.”

Samira agrees: “It's a great chance to meet a lot of people in a short amount of time. I found out who could carry on a conversation, and if they couldn't it's not like they were there for a long time.”

The Love Guru, a vivacious and irreverent socialite, feels speed dating can be a useful social tool for singles. “Speed dating is a very empowering approach because it gives the single person more of a sense of control over the situation. Dating is no longer a mysterious situation. You check the person out. You can't find out everything, but you can get an idea of a person's goals and values. It is a fun evening.”

But will speed dating work in a largely traditional country like Bangladesh?

Samira and some other participants stress that their parents are "cool". But Shishir says he had to lie to come. “I said it was a friend's birthday,” he grins. Most agree that there are pros and cons in the dating game.

For those who believe in old-fashioned courtship, speed dating is the least romantic situation that exists. This is not a real date. The person across from you does not know you. Yet you are given three minutes to rattle off everything you can about yourself without scaring the other person away. Soon, the questions become protocol rather than intrigue. The possibility of being judged on appearance alone looms large.

“Many people might say this is Western culture, but it could be a popular here if done in the right way,” says Shishir, “but it should be done in an ethical way so that people don't take it personally. Unfortunately people are always good at making negative comments.”

Focus groups and anecdotal evidence clearly show that more and more people in Bangladesh are looking for romantic love as the preferred route to finding their life partners. The problem is not in the new social norms but the way in which we use them, according to Dr. Khondoker Mokaddem Hossain, professor of sociology at Dhaka University. “Our society is in a sense in transition,” says Professor Hossain. “The influence of the family and that of religion is waning on today's young adults. The cultural influence of the media-- movies, the internet and mobile phones-- cannot be ignored.”

Sharif raises his game in the second half of the the city event, and is rewarded a couple of days later with four matches. “I'm definitely going to ask them out,” he says. He is hopeful that he can fly to London with his bride come winter -- provided she can get the gum out of her hair.


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