Historically, the onus for due diligence rests squarely on the shoulders of parents. Having taken on the responsibility of finding their offspring a spouse, they must now ensure that the prospective bride or groom is suitable looking, appropriately educated, settled in his or her career and that the family in question has a background, reputation and lifestyle to match their own.

It is a critical role and most parents approach it with a curious mixture of zeal and trepidation. On the one hand, they want to unearth everything of consequence about a said family, but on the other, they sincerely hope that their search has come to an end, that this candidate who seems so suitable in every respect might really be the one. It is a hard job, for they must try to find skeletons in a closet, which they are hoping to god won’t have any.

Parents go about the task by making calls, tapping contacts and conducting a series of direct or indirect inquiries. Sometimes, this approach works effectively. Calls can reveal temperamental mothers-in-law, financial difficulties, undisclosed reasons for previously broken engagements or, as in the case of my friend Karishma, a guy who considered denims unsuitable for girls from “cultured” families.

But sometimes, parents go overboard and their inquiries can hinder their cause rather than help.

Here’s a conversation that the mother of a girl had with my cousin in response to a classified ad they’d posted for his younger brother.

Mother: So, do you have an apartment in Mumbai?
Brother: In Navi Mumbai, yes.
Mother: Is that where you currently stay?
Brother: D, as you know, stays in New York. We stay in Goregaon – it’s closer to work.
Mother: Is that apartment rented?
Brother: Yes.
Mother: How many bedrooms?
Brother: Two and a half.
Mother: How many people?
Brother: Two.
Mother: How many square feet is it?

At which point, my cousin very politely told her to send across her daughter’s biodata, and should it seem suitable – almost certain that it wouldn’t – they could have the first meeting in the said apartment itself.

Mej recalls a conversation she had with the mother of a boy who called to speak to Mej’s Mum, but found herself talking to Mej instead. The sole purpose of her three-minute call seemed to be to find out if Mej was slim.

“Will you describe yourself to me, beta?”
“Uh... I could send you a picture, aunty.”
“No, no. Just tell me, are you tall, short, slim... are you slim?”
“Yeah, I guess. I have an average build.”
“Good, good. My son is very slim, so it is important I find a thin girl for him. Do you exercise?”
“I go for walks a few days a week.”
“Yes, walking is very good, keeps the figure in check... so what did you say your height was?”
“5 ft 6 in. Aunty, can I ask Mummy to send you my biodata?”
“Yes, yes, please do that... 5 ft 6 in. is a good height for a girl. These days all the girls seem to be so tall and slim.”

She continued asking Mej a bunch of questions, half of which involved trying to gauge her weight, and was only satisfied when an exasperated Mej assured her that she was as slim as Bipasha Basu and, like Mej told her mother later, about as likely to entertain a proposal from the lady’s son.

In both the above instances, the answers were important to the parents, but maybe there are other ways of arriving at them.

Here’s an out-of-the-box approach.

The father of a girl once asked Prashant, a friend who works in advertising, for the reference of his previous employer. Prashant was used to spending long hours at work and the father figured that if there was anybody who could have no vested interest in talking up Prashant it was someone he no longer worked for.

The father called Prashant’s ex-boss and asked for an appointment. It was unusual, but Prashant and his boss had parted on good terms and the boss agreed to the meeting. The girl’s parents showed up on the designated day and spent an hour with the boss discussing Prashant’s work habits, his temperament and the nature of the advertising industry in general.

Advertising is a glamorous industry, fraught with a reputation of fostering alcohol binges, drug abuse and promiscuity. The parents wanted to know how much of it was true and how much of it applied to Prashant. The boss put their mind at ease and the meeting ended with a tour of the office.

And here’s another. When the parents of a girl accompanied her to my friend Tinu’s house for a third meeting, the mother, albeit very hesitantly, inquired if they could possibly see the certificates of all the degrees that Tinu had mentioned in his biodata.

It was an unconventional request, but the arranged marriage landscape is rife with stories where computer software diplomas are passed off as engineering degrees and receptionists refer to themselves as “Executive at an MNC”. And while there’s nothing wrong with either holding a diploma or being a receptionist, the information provided paints such a different impression that it is best to do a bit of digging of your own.

As with everything else in life, when it comes to digging, there’s a fine line you are better off not crossing. For instance, the parents of the girl my friend’s friend, Maanav, was engaged to, asked him to send them copies of his salary slips. It was not only too direct a request but also ill-timed, they were going to be married in a month. It annoyed Maanav so much that he almost called off the engagement.

Excerpted with permission from Do You Know Any Good Boys: A Woman’s Guide to the Arranged Marriage, Meeti Shroff-Shah, Pan Macmillan India.