Collateral confusion

Celebrating differences

Collateral confusion

(Marriage itself is a funny institution. So, what do you expect in inter-caste marriages? Well, confusion more confounded, of course.)

A couple of decades ago, an inter-caste marriage was a big deal. However, with downing of international barriers and increased urbanisation has come a whole new acceptance of unions between people from different castes, family situations, and even financial backgrounds.

For, love conquers all, at least initially.

There is a cultural remix happening now in the country on an unprecedented level. All over the country, inter-caste and inter-state marriages are bringing Indians closer to a more homogenous mix. Punjabi, Bangla, Gujju, Bihari and Mizo are tying eternal knots with Tamilian, Kannadiga, Keralite, Telugu and Konkani, blurring and sometimes even erasing caste and cultural barriers, while encouraging national unity. Incidentally, this phenomenon also throws up many comic moments.

First off, mixed weddings themselves are crazy. Couples who marry without parental consent settle for the registrar. But, once the families of the lovers have accepted the cross-cultural match, each of them wants to contribute ideas on events to be conducted on the Big Day. From time immemorial, Indian weddings have been bastions of faith and significance, and naturally, both parties want the matrimonial bond cemented with at least a few of their own traditions. The end result is somewhat like going to a discotheque and finding two traditionally-clad ajjis, one Kannadiga and one Marwari, together on the dance floor, jiving to Lady Gaga.

Ever go to your Iyer friend’s daughter’s wedding and see the Dilliwalla bridegroom arriving on a white horse to be received by madisaar-clad maamis? Or hear conches at a Gowda wedding? Does the wedding hall look like a fancy dress party with saris worn in Marathi, Kodava, Keralite, Gujarathi, and Kannadiga traditional styles? And, does the wedding feast resemble the menu of a multi-cuisine restaurant with dishes culled from kaara oota to thali to tandoori to Continental and Chinese? Most of us have been to these kinds of dos, and if you haven’t already, chances are that you will, sometime soon.

Once, a wedding was a solemn occasion in which there was an underlying competition between families to see who would be more traditional. With mixed marriages especially, the wedding has become a spectacle or a pageant, where the families of the bride and groom are introduced to the other’s cultural identity. At least, that is the intent. What really goes on is a lot of funny compromises and a whole lot of gawking. 

In the old days, being a guest at a wedding meant having to awaken reluctantly at unreasonable times of day and night, dress traditionally, and yawn through interminable sessions of same old muhurats. These days, you eagerly charge up your camcorders, wear what you want that is jazzy enough, and dare not blink in case you miss something interesting, like the bride’s North Indian father dressed in a dhothi over his pants at a Tamilian wedding, or a groom’s mother wearing Kannada sari at a Kodava wedding. The homogenous nature of the cacophony heard at weddings has also changed, with the occasions sounding like an audio version of the rupee note’s list of official languages… and don’t forget the dialects!

Kitchen politics

Once the music of the shehnai, nadaswara and vaalaga have become mere echoes in memories or recordings on memory sticks, the newly-wedded couple settle down to real life routines… and realise an immutable fact. Marriages may be made in heaven and enjoyed in the privacy of the bedroom, but they are cemented in the kitchen. Yes, one may love rotis or puliyogare once in a while, but if one grew up on rice and menusu rasam or naati koli saaru, sooner or later, something… or someone… has to give in. This point is definitely a factor in the everyday lives of veg and non-veg combos in a marriage.

Flexibility is the key word here, and since inter-caste couples have already compromised on the most sensitive decision, this usually works itself out in a year or so, though not before throwing up some interesting versions. Most men adjust quickly, especially if they don’t want to cook, with vegetarian men turning omnivores without turning a hair. Women, on the other hand, go nuts initially before establishing ground rules.

Some women turn non-veg themselves, some cook meat for the husband but do not eat it themselves, and a few neither cook nor eat it. Women of the latter category come to another decision point when children arrive on the scene. Kids with one carnivorous parent mostly tend to become carnivores themselves. The same woman who turned up her nose at meat in her kitchen usually relaxes some rules once her children are born, because ‘my children like it, what to do.’

Language is another potential variable in a hybrid union. A woman generally picks up her husband’s mother tongue rapidly, basically since only then can she keep tabs on what the husband’s family is saying. Of course, she justifies this by saying that this is to enhance communication with her husband. But she soon realises that the communication barrier at home is not so much due to the language, but due to the fact that her man has severely impaired listening skills (except when it comes to sports and car talk, when he just won’t shut up), probably due to his Y chromosome. That is when she switches to swearing in her own mother tongue, as swearing is done most efficiently and satisfactorily in one’s own mother tongue.

Meanwhile, the husband, who is not overly worried about his wife’s family’s gossip, has picked up enough language to understand the wife’s cursing, but he won’t reveal that he knows her language just in case she starts expecting him to listen to her more often.  Actually, the wife is aware of this fact but pretends that she doesn’t know that he knows, so the deception is not really a deception… well, anybody with a decade of marriage under their belt can grasp this concept of mild passive aggression quite easily.

It is common knowledge that the first year of a love marriage is harder than that of an arranged marriage, because unlike the couple that enters the marriage with no expectations, the love marriage couple have seen only the good side of their spouses during the courting. And just when the couple have settled their differences, and settled down, children come along to throw deep-rooted convictions and prejudices into high relief.

This means a period of adjustment to deal not just with the new little lovable tyrant who is now ruling the roost, but also on ways of bringing up the said tyrant. Both parents agree that one set of rules only should be used to bring up baby so as not to confuse the infant, but differ on whose culture it should be based. Should the baby be eating porridge made of ragi or of jowar? Should his first solid meal be rice or chapati? This period of adjustment ends when the child shows its preference of a Lay’s potato chip and Cadbury’s milk chocolate over porridge and rice/chapati.  Every child is a born manipulator with cute gummy smiles, and senses undercurrents of emotions far better than adults can.

Therefore, in due time, parents realise that the little one has actually understood what both parents are fighting over and is training them to accede to its wishes by playing one against the other. On the plus side, the child learns languages, customs and cultures very quickly and often acts as an interpreter to its parents and grandparents.

Selective adaptation

And it is in the children of inter-caste marriages that a very important aspect of culture is revealed. These children live their lives naturally by mixing their parents’ cultures and interpreting them in ways most conducive to their own lives, along with their own input as individuals. Where others feel compelled to follow hidebound customs and traditions, children from mixed marriages have the freedom of choice, to pick and choose the ones they want to follow.

They make their own family traditions, and by doing so, they show that culture is not something that is carved in stone, something which is depleted and diminished by change. Instead, culture is a very alive, ever-changing, evolving entity that is enriched and invigorated by change so that future generations are better able to combat challenges that arise with the passage of time.
Therefore, long live cross-cultural conjugations!

go to the gurudwara. Relatives who wanted to invite the newly-wed couple home for Sunday lunch would be shocked when the salwar-kameez clad, demure looking, gori bride would innocently tell them that they would not be able to make it since “theke jana hai”.

When the young bride, trying so hard to make a good impression, did find out what her husband had been up to, she offered to break a few bottles on his head. Now, almost two decades later, communication is not a problem since she speaks Punjabi and her in-laws have caught on with her Welsh accent.

When Boston-based NRI Prithvi Raj Banerjee fell in love with his Benaras Hindu University classmate Anisha Mahajan some years back, there was a face off between Bengali bhadralok and boisterous Punjabi cultures. Since Bengalis don’t have a baraat in marriages and Punjabis can’t believe a wedding can take place without one, groom-to-be was given a crash course on the topic by his would-be wife and her brothers, who even arranged a band for the visiting Bong brigade.

“Since the Banerjee clan (including my parents) had never attended a baraat, they had no idea about its logistical constraints and didn’t turn up on time on the D day,” recounts Prithvi. So, after an hour-plus of waiting (with only him and his young friends having arrived), the band party started muttering that they had a second shift to attend and would not stay much longer. Common friends of the bride and groom even hinted darkly that the band (as well as the baraatis) might just defect to the bride’s side and be at the gate to welcome him when he eventually turned up.

The distraught groom had to finally take a call on it and decided to go ahead without the seniors. The baraat wound its way to the bride’s house with his tipsy friends and a lone uncle doing him proud by dancing all the way. “My Mom still regrets that she could not dance at my wedding. I’ve asked her to be punctual when it’s time for her grandson to have a baraat. I don’t care where in the world his bride is from, we will have a baraat,” he laughs.

Frankly speaking, how many of us can say which gene pools future members of our family will come from? With the world shrinking so beautifully, life is becoming a cultural cauldron. To quote my Kiwi pal Julie Middleton (who incidentally married her mate of 14 years in a Hindu wedding ceremony held in our garden two years back): Crikey! Who cares so long as we learn to celebrate our differences instead of letting them build walls around us.

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