By Sweta Vikram, Guest Contributor @ssvik
When I was growing up, while entering ‘marriageable age’, on several occasions, I was half-heartedly told, “You can marry any educated, established man from a good family of your choice.” Before I could walk away from the awkwardness, the other criterion was quietly slipped in, “But not any other religion.” We all know what the reference to the “other religion” meant. There were less than 2.5% Christians and even fewer Jewish folks, so the reference was made to ‘Muslims’. And marrying a Muslim was unfathomable.
When I had asked “Why?” I was told that marriage by itself was a huge commitment and adapting to ways of a faith I knew nothing about would make things only more difficult. The logic at the time sounded reasonable enough. So, I made my peace with the verdict and told my heart that it wouldn’t be all that difficult to find a Hindu man in a country where Hindus were part of the majority.
I have to admit that my parents, my father especially, was far more tolerant and open-minded than most families I grew up with. Think of those girls who have to carry trays of samosas and chai to impress the prospective guy’s side, a.k.a. a traditional arranged marriage. Here I was given a reason for not marrying outside the faith; my friends’ parents, across different religious backgrounds, instructed (threatened) to disown them if they married outside their community.
My father’s best friend’s son decided to marry his high school sweetheart, a lovely Muslim girl. The girl’s parents ostracized her, but the boy’s family ‘accepted’ her after a few melodramatic performances. While the Hindu wedding ceremony was going on, the boy’s mother (Let’s call her ‘Auntyji’) declared she wanted the girl to convert: Auntyji decided to change the bride’s name from Shabnam to Sapna. The poor girl had a non-verbal meltdown, but Auntyji was determined. That’s the time my father intervened and asked for the madness to stop. He explained to Auntyji the insipidness behind her thought process. Auntyji, very fond and respectful of my father, valued his words. So, Shabnam remained Shabnam, not converted to Sapna, all thanks to my Dad.
The incident left a mark on me. I was convinced that inter-faith marriages were not for everyone. Perhaps, relinquishing one’s past to adapt an absolute new faith would not come as easily to some folks. I am one of them. I would be miserable if I was expected to become someone I wasn’t since I have a strong sense of identity. And parts of that identity include my background.
I remember Mary, a Catholic roommate of mine from when I was in college in India, was dating a Hindu, Maharashtrian guy named Biren. In times when arranged marriages were the norm, Mary’s parents encouraged her to go to dances and on dates with fellow Catholic, young men. Biren’s parents expected him to settle for a woman clad in nine-yard sari, typical Maharashtrian hairdo, and nose ring—yes, that traditional. Mary and Biren’s relationship met with absolute resistance from the two families. A few years ago I visited Pune to catch up with friends. And that’s when I ran into Mary and Biren at the gas station. I almost didn’t recognize Mary. Since her parents hadn’t accepted their relationship, and Biren’s family eventually agreed to get the two married, Mary had converted to the ‘Hindu way of living’. She was dressed like those ‘shy’ heroines from the 40s-50s India: mangalsutra, non-fitting salwaar-kameez, sindoor, and braided hair. She even sat coyly on the scooter behind Biren, sideways. Her right arm placed around his waist gently. I wondered if maybe the older generation was right. Is it easier to marry someone from a familiar background? But I judged without asking whether she was happy or not. Even after all these years, Mary and Biren are blissfully married.
The once unthinkable has become a part of desi lives—every single Indian in my age group whom I know personally, has at least a friend or a relative who is either divorced or separated. Reasons could vary, but divorce, especially in big cities, is a common occurrence in India. A new Indian matchmaking website Secondshaadi.com now targets divorcees and widowers. I too saw a close friend go through a divorce. Mind you, this was a traditional arranged marriage where the parents from both the sides had sent their investigators to find out about the prospective family: the guy’s income, the girl’s values, the boy’s lifestyle, the girl’s skin color, the boy’s education, and the girl’s weight. The alliance seemed textbook perfect, but sadly, no one once thought of checking the couple’s compatibility. Their marriage broke up because the two people in it, perfectly nice individuals, couldn’t get along. As time went by, they grew apart.
When a tragedy strikes close to home, we are pushed to reevaluate reality, as we know it. I began to reconsider the elements that made a marriage successful and the people in it, happy. I have always believed that marriage is a gamble—whether the family arranges it or the boy-girl fall in love and decide to wed. But there is more to it. Why couldn’t two people, who at one point loved each other and vowed to grow old together, stand to be in the same room as the other? I started to observe couple-dynamics. But I didn’t find my answers until I went to London to participate in the 2010 DSC South Asian Literature Festival and happened to stay with friends who were in an inter-faith marriage: Vishal, a Hindu boy and Aliyah, a Muslim girl.
The couple appeared perfect together. There was a desire to learn about the other person’s faith but never a pressure to convert. There was also openness to hearing criticism—while Vishal didn’t think twice before condemning any of the Imams who he believed misled poor, young, Muslim boys; Aliyah didn’t shy away from expressing her disagreement with Hinduism. In the same breath, they both defended their culture and the other person’s faith with the same honest passion.
I didn’t sense maliciousness in either Aliyah or Vishal. They communicated like two friends discussing politics over coffee. It seemed they allowed each other to blossom as individuals. Aliyah celebrated Hindu holidays with the same ease Vishal used “Inshallah” in his conversations. Diwali and Eid, Hindi and Urdu, sholak and namaaz were acknowledged in a rhythmic sync in their house. I knew it wasn’t serendipity that Vishal and Aliyah shared a harmonious rapport. They chose to pick the strengths from each other’s backgrounds and let the disparities dissipate. They created a barrier to rightfully keep out the negative influence and interference in their marriage.
Many of my husband’s cousins have married Non-Indians. Knock on wood; all of these relationships are going strong. A few of the couples have celebrated ten years together.
I guess, it is safe to say that it’s not religion or nationality that determine the success or collapse of a marriage; human personalities and their ability to share mutual respect do. Similar cultural and religious upbringing might make things easier, for some, but they do not guarantee anything. More importantly, every couple needs to figure out their own equation and what works best for them. We live in a world of never-ending stress, materialistic awareness, and incessant pressure. Seeking happiness has become a challenge for most people. Does it really matter what ethnicity your spouse is if you can actually get along? If anything, inter-faith alliances are the best way to learn about another faith, culture, and cuisine.
Do we still need to believe that jhatka and halal can’t live happily ever after?
Personal Essay “Halal and Jhatka Live Happily Ever After” excerpted with permission from the book “Mouth Full” published by J Publishing Company Limited. Copyright (c) 2012 Sweta Srivastava Vikram. All Rights Reserved.
More about the Author: Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com) is an award-winning poet, writer, novelist, author, essayist, columnist, and educator. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between India, North Africa, and the United States. She is the author of five chapbooks of poetry, two collaborative collections of poetry, a novel, and a nonfiction book. She also has two upcoming book-length collections of poetry in 2014. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies, literary journals, and online publications across seven countries in three continents. Sweta has won three Pushcart Prize nominations, Queens Council on the Arts Grant for BYOB Program, an International Poetry Award, Best of the Net Nomination, Nomination for Asian American Members’ Choice Awards & Independent Literary Awards, and writing fellowships. A graduate of Columbia University, she lives in New York City with her husband and teaches creative writing across the globe & gives talks on gender studies. You can follow her on Twitter (@ssvik) or Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/Words.By.Sweta). You can buy her book at:
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Great article! I love your writing. For me, I’m a non-Indian Hindu and my husband is a Buddhist. We definitely enjoy religious discussion and are able to balance our two faiths. I worry, though, about what it will be like when we have children. My parents were very united in their beliefs. Are children who grow up in interfaith households confused? Or what if a child has more of an affinity for the spouse’s religion? I think I would be really hurt if my children had a preference.