Her father wants to know only one thing: what on earth am I doing with his daughter.
But I hope in doing this that I might be able to shed some light on what it’s like when you’re dating someone who has been forbidden to date you because of their culture.
I am Irish. And I mean I am actually Irish, born and bred in Ireland. I feel I have to qualify that because everyone I ever seemed to meet when I lived in America last year – where I met my Indian girlfriend – swore blind they were Irish too. Even Mohammad Ali was trying to have us believe he is Irish. Though of course we are only too glad to have him.
I first met my girlfriend in New Orleans where I was working as a newspaper columnist and she was is at law school there. We met at a party and shortly afterwards began a relationship.
But since her parents forbade her to date anyone who wasn’t also Indian I had to learn not to answer the telephone when it rang at her place, or make any noise when her mother phoned. This had the curious effect of making me feel like an illicit teenager again, defying somebody’s parents. They lived a nine-hour drive away though, so we knew there was never much chance of us being busted by a surprise visit.
One day however, after I shamelessly used it to prick my partner’s conscience in order to win a quarrel, woefully exaggerating how awful it was not to exist in the eyes of her family, she took me seriously and told them about me. It was a brave decision and the immediate reaction was predictably enraged. Before hanging up the phone, her mother threatened to disown her. Since the initial shock, however, things have turned from furious to curious. I have talked to her mother a couple of times, who seems nice enough. Both times our brief conversations began with a kind of nervous laugh that seeks to defuse the awkward situation we have both apparently been put in by her daughter. This was followed by a lot of rather anxious but polite questions mostly about when I was going to leave the United States and go home.
But now that I have left the U.S. and returned to Ireland, the questions have become much more inquisitive about the nature of our continuing, long-distance relationship. It almost seems as if we have tapped into a rich vein of curiosity in her mother (whose own marriage was “arranged”) that appears to want to know: “What is it like for these people in love?” “Is it possible they might find the happiness that I didn’t have?”
Her father has not been so curious though. He only wants to know one thing: What on earth am I doing with his daughter? He asked me this one day after I’d returned to Ireland and was calling his daughter at his home, ambushing me over the phone. It was a very strange exchange indeed, but somehow I managed to get him away from the subject of his daughter and instead onto the Kashmiri Crisis and the Indian cricket team. Since then, I can only guess that he is hoping that I am a fad his daughter – at the age of 28 – will grow out of. Given that we are under the pressures also of a long-distance relationship now, he may fancy the chances of this.
I can only guess then at what might happen on the other hand if my girlfriend and I decided to get married.
Would the ultimatums start flying then? In that case, would we have to elope and get married somewhere like Las Vegas? Having heard how extravagant and showy Indian weddings in the U.S. can be (spending anything from $100,000 to $1 million dollars is quite normal), you would think this might be a favour I’d be doing both myself and her parents. But somehow I don’t think they’d be very happy with that at all.
Right from the start it became obvious that dating an Indian was not going to be an easy ride. I was learning that many Indians don’t even like their children marrying into a different caste, let alone a different culture. But not only am I not suitable because of what I’m not, but also because of what I am as well – a journalist. That means, like 99.9 per cent of people in this world, including my girlfriend who has taken more than a few brave decisions against her parents wishes, I hold neither of the only two jobs deemed at all worthy by the Indian community in America, namely a doctor or an engineer.
When I heard all this at first, I was convinced I had stumbled into a community of people whose entire belief system smacked of deliberate racism and elitism. And all this going on in North America too – land of the supposedly free and the culturally homogeneous?
How could a culture that had moved to and taken root in a place like the United States reasonably expect to bring their kids up in one of the most free-thinking nations of the Western world, and then still insist that they continue with traditions that I could not even imagine suitable back in India?
My girlfriend though, who sees both sides, has explained to me why her folks think like they do. Through her persistence, she has even managed to show me that there is a case for the institution of the arranged marriage, which previously, like many Westerners, I thought was indefensible. Though I am definitely not ready to cheer for that one yet.
The problem with Westerners like me, her Mother tells her, is that we can only manage about ten years of marriage before we are fleeing for the fire exit. And it’s hard to argue with that. Except to say I have a cousin whose marriage lasted only ten months, and an Aunt who has this year just celebrated (though definitely not a word she would use) 40 long years together with her husband. So you see, ten years is not exactly an average.
She is right though that we Westerners, whose marriages fail at the rate of two in every three, are not a good long-distance bet. Probably the romanticism of marriage in the West has a lot to blame for this. People who get married only because of that thing called love or sexual attraction or some other fading property will surely end up on the divorce heap soon enough. And it is only because I am dating an Indian – and this is a very good thing – that I have been forced to think about all this.
Indians then probably have a much more realistic notion of a marriage: Suitability lasts, love doesn’t. But where I draw the line on this is when marriage begins to be looked at as coldly as a business merger. And I shudder when I hear about the adverts Indians in America place in speciality newspapers and magazines in the hunt for suitable partners for their sons and daughters that also mention “fair skin” as yet another requirement.
Another reason though why marriages don’t last so long (apart from the fact people are living longer than ever) is of another very fine institution called divorce. Older people always seem to forget when they remind you nostalgically about days when people stuck together no matter what, of the abuse many of them suffered in silence, both physical and mental, as a result. Abuse, I feel, that seems sometimes to have left an entire generation looking even more disillusioned than their kids.
Divorce is abused too of course. Surrounded by more choice than ever, we live a throwaway society. New fridge, new car, new wife… But divorce also gives people who are unhappy in their marriage a way out, which is definitely progress. And it can also work another way too in stopping people taking their partners for granted, providing them with an incentive to keep on their toes and respect them more. This has got to be better than countries and cultures that make people stick together out of fear or security or because of what other people will think. Too often it seems that the Indian community tries to force their idea of security on their children.
All parents though want the best for their children; that is universal. This is the reason I can just laugh at the number of questions my girlfriend’s parents ask about my prospects. Even I am wise enough to know: money provides, love doesn’t. Sadly it’s nearly always about money, isn’t it? Certainly it is for them, as they wonder where, as a writer, I am ever going to get any from. Or at least in sufficient enough quantities to keep their daughter and any grandchildren in the style to which they believe they should be accustomed.
I do resent though being judged on how deep my pockets go. Not being considered worthy because I’m not a doctor or an engineer. Loving what you do is important to doing it well and it cannot be the case that every Indian wakes up one day in a state of epiphany and decides to be either a doctor or an engineer. How many of them then are just trying to please their parents and they’re peers, and how many have gone their own way, like M Night Shyamalan, who ignored his parents and twelve of his relatives – every one a doctor – and became one of Hollywood’s most promising film directors (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs) of the future. Hey, someone has to make the films and write the books!
The world is bad enough: Full of people trying to make you live up to what they’ve already proved doesn’t work or else trying to pull you down to a level they themselves feel uncomfortable with. Some people are so busy trying to impress others in this way that they don’t know what happiness is anymore because they’re just somebody else’s idea of what they should be. The idea then is to try and live your own life. Make your own mistakes, even at the risk of one day having them tell you: “I told you so.”
Where’s the fun in life, tell me, where’s the element of risk that gives life an edge that can be challenging, if you have it all mapped out before you even start?
Parents should remember that as immigrants into a new country, they had less chance to experiment with new ways as they struggled to put down roots. However for their children, who will enjoy the fruit of their efforts, things will be different.
But why should it matter in this day and age that I am dating their daughter? As far as I’m concerned I’m just dating a woman I find compatible and beautiful and who happens to be an Indian. As she can’t make a curry to save her life, the being Indian part, beyond making for very interesting conversation, makes not a lot of difference to our relationship. We are simply young Americans in the homogeneous, free-spirited sense of the term.
Except of course that I am from Ireland, and she is from in India.
Perhaps it’s naïve of me to think that it won’t ever matter what culture we’re both from so long as we get along well. Suitability remains when attraction fades, her parents will continue to warn her. And perhaps she should listen. As we are both well suited.