a long talk

A Friend Date With Dating Around’s Gurki Basra

Gurki Basra, the star of the second episode of Netflix’s Dating Around. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

On the new Netflix show Dating Around, New Yorkers of various “types” take out five different strangers and choose one for a second date. Episode two features Gurki Basra, a 37-year-old, Houston-reared Punjabi-American divorcée, who comprises — as does everyone — more than the sum of her parts. Basra fields fairly low-key evenings, save for one. Her date with a guy named Justin turns viral when he launches a sustained attack against her, based, it seems, on the fact of her divorce. “TV’s most cringeworthy date,” as Refinery29 later called it, made rounds on Twitter, via a video clip that shows a restrained Basra next to Justin, as he piles on: “Who says yes to getting married when you have doubts?” he asks. “You ruined eight years of your life. You lied to him, and yourself … How could I ever trust you? How could anyone ever trust you?” Basra defends herself without seeming defensive. “I’m not saying I didn’t lie,” she says at one point. She wants to understand why he’s saying what he’s saying, she says, but still, she didn’t “ruin” anything. Eventually, she points out that they’re clearly not going on a second date, so maybe he should go. (Spoiler alert: Basra also winds up the only contestant who picks no one, another factor in her online popularity.)

Watching the clip, I focused more on Basra than on Justin. She and I are, on paper, twins — I’m also Indian-American, in my 30s, and divorced. Such features make Basra and I members of a small club. Though divorce rates are moving at a clip among Indians and Indian-Americans, the rate across America dwarfs both statistics (30 percent for the U.S. national average, compared to 13 in both India and among the American desi population). One media narrative continues to attribute the relatively low divorce rate among desi people to the still fairly widespread practice in India, and desi communities abroad, of arranged marriage.

Basra subverts that notion on the show, seeming instead to draw a link between the arranged practice and the reasons for the dissolution of her marriage. I didn’t have an arranged setup, nor did Basra, but she seems to see her parents’ marriage as necessary context for understanding why she entered into hers. With Justin, she cites a “culture clash.” If he can’t wrap his head around marriage done out of obligation, they’re going nowhere, she more or less says at one point. Her insinuation stuck with me, not one I’ve heard stated even implicitly before: that a second-generation approach to marriage might track with the parents’ arranged approach.

I messaged Basra on Instagram, and we arranged a date. She suggested the Monkey Bar, an upscale lounge near where she works in midtown Manhattan, as a senior account executive for the luxury fashion brand Brunello Cucinelli. I live in Brooklyn, where I work from home. On a windblown weekday night, I headed, in the manner of a good date, to see her side of the city. She showed up in a well-fitted blazer, more on time than she’d expected. Also in the manner of a good date, our conversation veered off the preplanned route. We talked about her hope to do away with the “tragic” divorcée image, for brown women in particular, the ins and outs of dating between races, dating with purpose, family, and internalized pressure. The next day, as snow fell, we Amazon-ed each other books that helped us in the aftermath of our splits. I don’t know if I’ll see her again. But I had a great time.

I don’t know how you kept your cool the way you did.
Obviously, I cried. I cried a lot more than it showed. But, I didn’t necessarily cry because of him. I cried because he brought up all these other emotions. When I got divorced, there was a lot of shame around it. Since the show aired, I’ve gotten, I don’t know, a thousand messages. Even though there’s obviously a cultural thing to it, it’s not [only] a brown thing. A lot of women experience this shit. And no one’s really seen it before. I didn’t realize I was going through that until I saw it on the screen.

From a zoom-out perspective, I appreciated that clip. I hate that you had to go through that. But, he said the things that maybe other people think, but don’t say, and that messes with your head.
Or the things that you feel. [Somebody] might be excited to meet you and you go on a date and they find out you’re divorced. All of a sudden the mood changes. I didn’t kill puppies, why are you all of a sudden being mean to me? And then it’s like, “Well, why did you guys get divorced?” Sometimes I just want to be like, “Who gives a shit? It’s in the past.”

You seem to have a complex, concise sort of explanation, using your parents’ marriage as a backdrop for how you thought about marriage. “My parents had an arranged marriage, so I thought of marriage sort of like an obligation. I was young, and I later realized that you don’t just do it.”
It’s not like it was arranged, even though he came from the same [Punjabi] background. I knew him. I had a crush on him in high school. When I started having doubts, we were already engaged. I feel bad ‘cause I feel like [my parents] keep feeling like they put all this pressure on me. But it’s not them, that’s just how the culture is.

The only people I know who have broken off engagements are second-gen Indian and Pakistani people. Because I think it progresses in this way that you sort of didn’t mean it to —

It’s like out of control. I even know a couple of brown girls who on their wedding day were like, “I can’t do this.” Actually, [before my wedding] I had this whole speech prepared about how I don’t want to get married. I drove down [to Houston from Dallas, where Basra lived at the time], and my mom had the flu. She was coughing a lot, so I took her to the hospital and they intubated her. She was in a medically induced coma … for three months. She almost died. She only has one lung now. When she came out of it she was like, “I just want to see you married, and I want to see you happy.” I don’t want that to seem like [an excuse] … and again, I don’t want her to feel bad. But, that’s the thing — life is complex, right? As a 24-year-old young girl, I didn’t have the balls to be like, “Listen, Mom, I know you went through a lot, but I’m not going to be happy.” If this was now, it would be a whole different situation.

Do you feel a need to articulate more than you want to share to a potential partner, to kind of exonerate yourself?
I try not to [go into detail]. “Yeah, I was divorced. It didn’t work out. We were young.” On the show you’re together for multiple hours and someone like Justin really [drills down] about that. He comes from a very conservative background, where divorce is not okay. He sounded like his parents were divorced, so maybe his mom did something similar to his dad.

He was projecting.
Now that I’m watching the show again, I’m remembering the story with the [parents], and I’m like, Maybe that’s where the anger came from.

You didn’t pick anybody in the end. You didn’t find anyone worth a second date?
Everyone’s like, “Why didn’t you go on a second date with Manny?” I thought about it, but I knew that it would only lead to maybe a third or fourth date. As you get older, you’re more self-aware. I knew I didn’t feel the need to lead anyone on just because I could have a second date with someone.

With your attitude about your divorce and not wanting to go too far into that and not casting yourself as a victim — has it been a process for you to get here?
It took a long time. My ex-husband and I separated [when] I was 29. By the time the divorce paperwork happened, I had turned 30, and I’m 37 now. A lot of the immediate years after getting a divorce was like defending myself the whole time.

To who?
His parents, my parents, family, even friends that [I lost]. I actually dated someone shortly after my divorce. Probably should have waited. He reminded me a little bit of Justin. [We] were together for a solid two-and-a-half, three years. I felt like that whole time I was just defending myself.

Was it Manny who was divorced?

I wondered if that was part of why that date seemed to go better than the rest.
He was also really fun. Maybe because he’s 27; he has energy. And he’s really positive. When you meet him, you know you’re going to have fun with him.

People seem to think you should just be going on a date with him because it looked fun.
Which, it was fun. But, I didn’t feel like it had long-term potential, and I didn’t feel that one quantifiable spark, and maybe I’m tragic and I’m going to end up alone. I don’t know.

Dating while divorced or dating in so many circumstances today comes with … it’s like you have to get good at it, right?
Oh my God, yes. It’s the worst. It’s like finding a second job. I mean, I’m not good at it.

But you’re not demeaning yourself or feeling bad. To me, that’s being good at it.
It takes a long time, and I don’t think I really understood that until recently. I’m getting messages from women saying the same thing as you are, like, “How do you get over it? How do you stay confident?” Anyone that didn’t really make me feel great about my choice, I just had to put on pause, like even my parents — I stopped talking to them for a solid six months. I changed my number, and the only person who had my number is my brother. I just had to cut everyone off for a while.

I’ve been surprised at the places judgment comes from.
I had best friends who were not okay with [my decision].

Were they married?
They were single.

Were they friends with him?

With married friends I sometimes felt like they saw my divorce almost as a judgment of them.
‘Cause they’re in the situation.

I had one person take me to coffee and he was like, “I think you’re making a mistake.” He didn’t know anything about our marriage. I realized people have opinions without knowing anything, and basically there is no reason for you to ever leave a marriage — that is the opinion. After that conversation, I felt shocked. I was like, “Am I a selfish, horrible person?”

You said you had this long, postdivorce relationship. Was he a Punjabi guy?
No, he was Pakistani. So that’s a whole other situation.

Did you tell your parents about him?
Yeah, they met him and everything.

Were they chill?
They were trying to be open, but they were having a really hard time with it.

What about his side?
They were accepting, but there was still this level of shame. “Well, you have to convert, and you have to do these things to make up for this.”

Make up for the divorce or make up for being Sikh?
For the divorce. I mean, they didn’t say that, but that was the way I took it. My ex-boyfriend did mention the divorce a lot. The guy I dated after, John, I met him through the apps. Super-nice guy, a white boy from Minnesota.

Had you ever dated a white guy before?
Not like boyfriend dating.

You never had a “I won’t date a non-Punjabi-guy type of thing”?
I feel like family always wants you to marry the same kind. But that wasn’t why [my ex-husband and I] dated.

And afterward? You didn’t feel any “I’m never going to be with a Punjabi guy again.”
Well, after my ex-boyfriend, I was kind of like, “I’m going to take a pause on the brown guys for a while.” [My ex-boyfriend] could not understand how I could marry someone while having doubts.

Justin was kind of articulating in your experience a by-the-book brown-guy perspective.
One hundred percent.

What did you think about the rest of the show?
I loved all the episodes, I love Leonard [an elderly widower], obviously. I actually ended up meeting everyone on Saturday: Luke, Lex, Mila, Sarah, and Leonard. They were all amazing. We were in Brooklyn and then we made our way to the Standard. Then we ended up going to Luke’s, had drinks there. His friend’s were having some party and we just crashed.

Did you all talk about your experiences?
Yeah, so we met, we did this interview thing, and afterward we were like, “So, do you guys want to hang out?” ‘Cause they were literally the only other people in the world that have gone through this experience. We automatically felt connected. I literally feel like Luke and Sarah are my little brother and sister. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. I don’t want Sarah to focus on the negative comments. I don’t want Luke to get an STD because he’s going to be hit up like crazy by all these young girls. We just had this weird bonding moment with strangers.

Has anyone stuck with their pick?
I don’t think so. I think Luke and Victoria are still talking here and there. They’re doing that millennial thing where they date, and they’re not like committed, and they talk.

I felt like Sarah and Max are really a good match.
They are still talking, like Luke and Victoria, but they’re not necessarily full-on dating.

What made you go on the show?
The way it happened was so serendipitous. I wrote a list of pros and cons, the pros kept growing, the cons kept growing, but then, I don’t know, my gut just told me to do it.

What were the cons?
Creepers. I’m going to make a fool of myself on TV. My parents are going to be embarrassed.

When I was 15, 20, 25, when I got married even, I never saw the brown girl get divorced who was not [treated as] tragic. Everyone was always like, “Aww, she got divorced.” It sounds cheesy, but I was thinking, if there’s one girl out there going through my situation and I inspire her to not go through with the marriage, I’ll basically undo everything that I went through, and maybe I’ll make a difference.

So you were thinking about it sort of as a representation perspective.
Kind of, yeah. I didn’t think I was going to find true love on the show, but that wasn’t really why I went on the show. Last year before the show, maybe even two years ago, I just shut off the apps, and I was like, “I’m going to spend time with myself until I feel okay with the idea of being alone.”

What did you do by yourself?
Whatever the fuck I wanted. Read books about, I don’t know, meditation, all of the cheesy stuff. Hung out with my friends, went hard on work, just all that good stuff that makes you feel good as a human being. Then, just being okay with the idea of not having a guy. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Every day I just get happier.

What is it that makes you happy?
Just that I’m being super honest with myself and with other people.

It’s a strange thing when you’re married and you’re unhappy and whatever, but you’re sort of socially acceptable. Then you exit that experience and you’re suddenly not socially acceptable, but you’re actually living a maybe more honest life.
You’re being true to yourself. And not lying to yourself, and you’re not making excuses for your behavior.

Have you gotten young Indian women saying anything?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of like, “I’m Punjabi. I’m 32. I’m from London. I was just watching your episode, thank you so much.” It’s not like they’re saying they’ve gone through the exact same situation. I think there’s just an appreciation for the fact that I spoke about [the specifics of my situation] without being embarrassed by it.

I’m glad you went on the show.
I’m really glad I did, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

A Friend Date With Dating Around’s Gurki Basra