IT WAS ABOUT eight years ago, when he had turned 30 years old, that Neil decided to look for a bride. But both he and his parents knew this wasn’t going to be easy.
Neil (whose name has been changed on request) is an IT professional in Pune who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was in the final year of his Master’s degree. “I was about 22 or 23 years old, preparing for my final semester exam when I got the diagnosis,” he says. Neil’s life understandably went through a complete turnaround. While he struggled to combat the ailment for the next five years, from undergoing chemotherapy sessions and a bone marrow transplant, raising the finances for these procedures, to even fighting a relapse, after his recovery, he used his experience to help others. He formed a support group for cancer patients in Pune, spending his free time helping patients and their families deal with the emotional burden of the disease and raising money for those unable to afford its treatment. “In Pune, the charitable wing in most charitable hospitals has our numbers. Whenever there is a patient who needs financial help, they contact us,” he says.
The disease had delayed many aspects of Neil’s life. He took longer to complete his education and subsequently took up a job later than most others. Now around 30 years old, he felt he was ready to get a move on.
Neil registered himself with several matrimonial bureaus and online matchmaking platforms. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We accepted the fact and were mentally prepared for it,” he says. Neil was also very candid about his medical history. “I didn’t want to hide anything. I mentioned very clearly in my biodata that I am a cancer survivor, that I had this type of cancer at this age,” he says. Several individuals, from those who knew his family to the relationship managers appointed by the matrimonial platforms, would advise him to not mention his disease status. “They would say you won’t get any companion,” he says.
And they were mostly correct. For the next six or seven years, Neil’s profile gathered no interest. He did occasionally get some matches in this period, all of them women with similar medical histories, but the women and Neil didn’t have much in common.
“It was a difficult period, especially for my parents,” he admits. “But I was very optimistic. I felt there must be someone out there going through all of this too, and there must be some place that would connect us.”
As Supriya Shinde, a popular figure in Pune’s support groups for cancer survivors, puts it, this is a fairly common predicament faced by single people who have been diagnosed with severe ailments. “When someone is diagnosed with a serious disease, the entire focus understandably goes on his or her recovery. But later, as their health improves, nobody really considers their need for companionship,” she says.
Often, the medical history of patients is hidden when arranged marriages are being sought. Supriya says that she has even encountered cases where the agents employed at matrimonial bureaus advise families to not disclose their medical history. “They tell them to let the marriage get fixed first. Once that is done, if they still wish to inform, they can,” Supriya says. In some cases, social workers connected with hospitals play matchmakers pairing sick or recovering individuals with one another. “These are usually small informal groups [created by social workers in hospitals]. So, there will be an epilepsy group, or an HIV group, or another of people with leukoderma. But an HIV patient will not be able to meet someone from the leukoderma group. So, in that sense, it will be small. Since it isn’t open to all, the chances of finding someone are slimmer,” Supriya’s husband Rahul says. But often, many just remain unmarried and lonely.
Supriya had been aware of this issue ever since she was offered the option of leaving her husband Rahul when he was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) just two weeks into their marriage. “Since it was an arranged marriage and it had been only 15 days, my in-laws gave me the option of leaving him [Rahul]. CML was still relatively new then, and only one trial drug was available. I was told he could live for maybe a month, or three or eight. I decided I would remain with him whatever the duration. And we are still here 16 years later,” she says. As Rahul recovered, the Shindes became more involved across Pune in counselling patients and their families and helping them deal with the emotional burden of the disease. But one issue that they kept encountering, even when a person recovered, was the inability to find a spouse. “Medical science has improved by leaps and bounds in the last 15 years or so. Many cancers today aren’t just treatable but curable, too. Young patients are getting treated and then going back to colleges, and to their careers. But they remain very lonely because they find themselves unable to get married,” Supriya says.
WHEN THE PANDEMIC struck, thetwobeganworking on a unique online matrimonial agency where one sick or recovering individual could be matched with another. This platform—called Atman Matrimonial—does not just match prospective couples based on the usual factors like age, family background, and the expectations they have from their future spouses, but also on their disease profiles. “Two types of blood cancer, for instance, could be clubbed together. But two blind individuals wouldn’t go very well. They wouldn’t be able to support one another. Maybe, someone who is polio-affected and walks with a limp can, provided other factors match, be matched with a blind individual,” Supriya says. The process of matchmaking here also involves visits to the doctor, where each individual and his or her family visit the doctor of the other, to understand the individual’s condition better. “That way, if there are any doubts about what the future holds for such a couple, whether a disease is hereditary, for instance, the doctor can best answer those questions,” Rahul says.
Started in May last year, Atman Matrimonial, the Shindes say, began picking up steam in recent months. They have had 33 individuals who have registered on the platform so far, many of them signing up in the last few months, and one of their pairings has already gone ahead and got married. “We initially thought of restricting this only to cancer patients and survivors. But we have got people with all sorts of medical conditions registering themselves, from those who have had cancer, HIV, kidney transplants, and even blind people,” Supriya says.
Another matrimonial agency of this nature, Divine Relations—started in 2017 by Vivek Sharma, a former marketing professional who was looking for ways to help others after he lost his five-year-old son to an undiagnosed condition—has been witnessing a lot of interest in recent times, too. “It’s an entirely non-profit operation. But we are now looking to scale it up,” Sharma says.
At Divine Relations, Sharma explains, an individual gets matches based on their age, location, and medical condition. While some individuals might have suffered from, or still be suffering from, severe ailments like cancer, in some cases, the individuals may be suffering from non-life threatening conditions. “Something like diabetes, for instance. An individual might be on insulin, and while it is really a lifestyle ailment, it is seen as a burden, and finding someone becomes difficult,” Sharma says.
Since its establishment, Sharma says, over 1,000 individuals who are suffering from or have suffered chronic ailments have registered on the platform. Out of these, 54 individuals have found their matches on the platform.
One of these couples is Himadri and Neha (names changed upon request), who met on the platform last year and got married in January, earlier this year. Himadri’s sister Sudeshna Datta, a chartered account in Bengaluru, describes the depression the two siblings fell in when their parents died after contracting Covid in 2021, followed shortly thereafter by Himadri being diagnosed with chronic kidney disease (CKD). “We had all contracted Covid. And while my parents passed away, the two of us had been over-drugged with steroids, resulting in my brother’s CKD,” Datta says.
As the elder of the two, Datta took on the responsibility of finding a way to move ahead in their lives, and started looking for a match for her younger brother. “But it was very tough. There were a few matches through matrimonial websites with girls who had undergone other medical issues, and in some cases, there were conversations too, but they didn’t go ahead,” Datta says. In one case, preparations for a wedding had even begun, when the other side called it off.
When Datta learnt of Divine Relations and began to look for a suitable match there, she initially did not inform her brother. She was afraid that it might lead to another heartbreak. Last year, however, her brother was matched with Neha, who had undergone a kidney transplant in 2020. Neha had given up the idea of finding someone after her procedure and had only recently begun to look for a match again.
“The two of them exchanged their medical records, met each others’ families, she even met my brother’s nephrologist, and earlier this year, she moved to Bengaluru and got married,” Datta says. “This is an inter-community marriage. We are Bengalis and she is Punjabi. I don’t think either of them ever thought they would marry someone like the other. But here we are.”
A matchmaking service of this nature however comes with challenges of its own. Supriya points out that the biggest among them is that very few women register themselves on such a platform. Out of the 33 registered on her platform, only seven of them are women. “It is really sad but for girls’ families, admitting that their girls have a disease is seen as a stigma. So, they hide the medical condition. They just want the girl to be married off and the responsibility passed down to another,” Supriya says.
About eight years since he first started looking for a partner, a fellow cancer survivor and member of the support group of which Neil is a part told him about Atman Matrimonial last year. “We are of the same age group and we share everything,” Neil says. Neil signed up on the platform where he was soon matched with Riya, who was diagnosed with CML in 2019.
The two met each other a few times, and visited each others’ doctors, and when their parents got involved, even they got along well.
The two got engaged first, and got married six months later in February this year. “Just having any type of cancer doesn’t mean you are compatible. A marriage means so much more,” Neil says. “So, we didn’t just look at our disease backgrounds. That was a big factor too. But there were other things as well, like our interests, and the kind of people we are. And it all gelled.”