When cupid loses his arrow: The travails of a matchmaker in times of coronavirus pandemic

As the novel coronavirus started to run rampant around the world, the writing on the wall was plain for him to see. But rather than dwelling on its consequences, he simply heaved a sigh of relief at being able to return home from Chennai without much of a hassle at the beginning of March.

His peace of mind, however, was fleeting as his clients, almost all of whom belong to the educated middle and upper-middle class, stopped seeking his services from Mar 5, considering the high risk of contagion that supposedly comes with venturing out during the lockdown.

Ruhul Amin, one of the owners of a matchmaking agency, Bibaha Bandhan, was at his wit's end when the government enforced a nationwide shutdown of offices, schools and public transports amid a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths in Bangladesh.

The shutdown period has since been prolonged in phases, most recently until May 16, with a further extension to May 30 now being touted.

Running an office in Dhaka's Mohakhali DOHS with a partner and 10 staffers, Amin is now at a loss to explain how he will manage the business.

Earlier, they would have around 100 new clients enlisting their services with at least five weddings taking place every month. But marriage ceremonies have become a rarity now with only one couple tying the knot in the last three months, said Amin.

“We’re facing deep trouble as we need to pay our staff. We have 10 employees on our books, meaning 10 families are dependent on our business,” he said. They have only been able to clear the wages up to March so far.

Their business, which is based on connecting brides and grooms-to-be, had been running successfully since its inception in 2005. Clients usually pay the agency an amount of Tk 10,000 upfront as a membership fee. Bibaha Bandhan then offers them an almost endless amount of biodata to choose from. Once a match is found, the families of both the bride and the groom pay a fee to the agency.

Ruhul Amin (left), one of the owners of matchmaking agency Bibaha Bandhan, posing with his business partner Md Kamrul Hasan (right). 

However, some clients dodge paying the agency a fee after picking out a bride or groom, which always leaves a dent on their income. 

But now they are facing a real fund crunch as the nature of their service leaves them with only a marginal ‘working capital’ as a part of the clients' fees goes towards paying the office rent and staff salaries.

“We don’t have any savings that can help us in these trying times. Our income is more like that of a kitchen market where you make a daily earning,” said Amin.

As they cater to bachelors both at home and abroad, a significant portion of Bibaha Bandhan's client base is made up of expatriate Bangladeshis in North American cities like New York, Toronto, Montreal and Sydney and Melbourne in Australia.

“The coronavirus left us no man's land. If I call my clients abroad now, they’ll think I'm insane."

As one of his clients put it, "Marriage is an optional task while saving one’s own life is mandatory."

Even in the modern world, with its innumerable dating apps and websites, people still rely on traditional matchmakers for a 'personal touch' as they seek out an ideal life partner, believes Amin.

“Working in the corporate sector takes a toll on my social life. I just crash into bed after a long day and have no energy left for checking dating sites or apps. So I opted for them, the ‘cupid’ in today’s world,” said one of Bibaha Bandhan's clients.

Matchmaking services fall under the informal sector while the nature of the business is also very unique. “We don’t expect any incentive packages from the government or anyone. It’s absurd. Who’ll pay us?” said Amin.

Nevertheless, he is looking forward to the time when the local economy reopens after the outbreak ebbs. “I hope things will go back to normal and we can arrange meetings for brides and grooms-to-be like before.”