Finding a suitable boy isn't easy, even when the whole family is looking on your behalf. Jo Kearney follows one girl's progress
Anita has just graduated from university. She's off on a round- the-world trip and then she fancies a job in marketing and sales. She wants to get married, which is a good job because her parents are in the process of picking her husband for her. This modern, westernised, young Indian woman is going to have an arranged marriage.

Anita Patel's life is far removed from that of her parents. They settled in Britain in the Sixties, finding employment in factories. Even today most of their friends are Indian and they conform to Indian traditions.

While deeply proud of their daughter's educational achievements and keen for her to have a professional career, they still expect Anita, like her brothers, to conform to some traditions. Notably, an arranged marriage.

For any emancipated young woman in our society, this sounds incomprehensible. But Anita has grown up to expect that one day she will respect her parents' wishes.

To deny her parents the chance to match her with a suitable Indian man from a respectable family would be equivalent to throwing everything they have done for her back into their faces.

"I just couldn't do it to them. They would see it as a failure on their part as parents. It's their major aim in life to see me suitably married. I have argued against it until I'm blue in the face. But I know, and have always known, that one day I would have to have an arranged marriage.

"The most galling thing is that even India has changed. Many young people there now have girlfriends and boyfriends before marriage. Mum and Dad left that country in the Sixties and are still in that time warp. They were married after having seen only a photo of each other."

But she is determined to have the final say. "I will not marry anyone that I don't fancy or like. I think if you get on with someone, you can grow to love them."

For her it is a battle for compromise between modern and traditional, to be able to live her own life but also please her parents.

As a teenager, basic things such as going to discos or the cinema had to be worked at days in advance. Sometimes it required a few little white lies. It was the same with dating boys. Her parents did not allow boyfriends, so when she went out with them she said she was visiting girlfriends.

"They would never telephone the house and I had to meet them in secret. But I always knew that they could never be long-term relationships, and I made that clear from the start."

When Anita reached her 18th birthday, her parents brought up the subject of marriage. "They considered me ready. But I refused. In many ways that was the reason I went to university - to put off the inevitable. Fortunately, Indians consider education to be very important, so my parents agreed to wait until I had graduated before trying to pair me off."

In her final year at university, her parents started to make arrangements. Within the Indian community, finding a spouse for your children takes the form of an informal dating agency. Once a man or woman makes clear that she is ready for marriage, a network of aunts and uncles, cousins, sisters-in-law and friends go on the lookout for prospective partners all over Britain.

"It is almost as if a beacon lights up on the map of Britain," says Anita. "You are known to be available and people phone your parents with names of suitable men."

One of the conditions is that Anita marries a Patel to ensure that he is of a suitable caste and background. He must also be well educated and come from a respectable family. It is just as important for the parents to get on as for the children.

"The whole thing is very underhand. "My parents are constantly plotting. I hear them on the telephone talking to friends about me. "She is ready and looking," they say.

"I sometimes answer the telephone and the person on the other end asks me if I have finished my course. There was a line of men waiting for me to graduate."

For the Patels, weddings provide a major source of potential marriage partners." No one takes much notice of the bride and groom. It is more like a cattle market," explained Anita, who went to around 20 this summer.

"There's usually between 800 and 1,000 people at a wedding so there's plenty of opportunity to find a man. It's also a good place to meet following a previously made appointment. While you're there you are constantly under scrutiny. People come up to you and ask the name of your parents."

If you don't meet at a wedding, a rendezvous normally takes place at a pre-arranged destination. Anita has had seven such meetings.

"The first time I went I was terribly nervous. My mum's aunt knew the family. We'd arranged to meet outside a sari shop in Southall, London.

"It is considered bad luck to have less than five people in the car. So I travelled with my mum and dad, brother and sister-in-law. I was dressed in a sari, even though I never normally wear them.

"As we passed, mum recognised him immediately and shouted: "There he is". He looked like a real nerd. He was wearing glasses and had a moustache, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shiny trousers.

"I was having hysterics in the car, saying 'No! No! No!' I'd made up my mind before I'd even spoken to him. But I had to go and meet him, out of politeness.

"I didn't even shake his hand. Our parents talked. His mum kept on looking at me as if she was evaluating me as a potential daughter-in-law.

"Some 20 minutes later we were back in the car. Mum said: 'So what's the verdict?' and I said: 'Urgh, I just don't fancy him'. Mum was nearly in tears with despair."

The second meeting occurred in Leicester. "This time he was OK. He had a moustache, but I thought at least he could shave it off.

"We went for a walk in a park while the parents chatted. But he was boring and far too intelligent for me. He didn't drink alcohol and didn't like going out. He was a real mummy's boy and I knew that I would dominate him.

"I have grown up with three older brothers and I need someone quite strong."

Another meeting was at a wedding in Leicester. "Mum pointed him out. He had glasses and looked weak and weedy.

"Just when I was thinking I'd never meet anyone, this woman came rushing up to me all excited. 'Where's your mum, where's your mum?' As I pointed to mum, I noticed this really good-looking guy wearing a denim jacket. I thought to myself 'why can't I meet someone like that?' "

She was in luck - the excited woman had approached Anita's mother because the man in the denim jacket, her brother-in-law, had taken a fancy to Anita.

Anita didn't speak to the man but names, addresses and telephone numbers were swapped and a meeting was arranged.

Last week, Anita, her mother and father, brother and sister-in-law set out again, for the seventh rendezvous.

"As soon as we arrived, the woman who had first approached me introduced me to Sunil and packed us off for a walk. We got on quite well and I thought he was really nice. We chatted about work and hobbies for about 10 minutes and then returned to the families.

"Afterwards in the car, my parents weren't too keen. Mum thought he was too scruffy and not as educated as me. They also thought he was far too old.

"He's the best one so far. But 31 seems quite old. I will just have to wait to see if his parents request another meeting. I've seen seven men and they say if you see more than 10 you become known as fussy.

"It's so difficult. I want to get married, but I want to marry a modern man who will let me have my independence."