Premankur Biswas, Amruta Lakhe, Garima Mishra
Ululating is not for the faint-hearted. A high-pitched sound that trills through the still air with the velocity of a boomerang and the ferocity of a war cry, it is used sparingly, on special occasions such as Durga Puja and a wedding. In this case, the wedding of a Bengali woman and her north Indian groom in Siliguri, West Bengal. “The ceremony was a mix of UP and Bengali rituals, but it was mostly dominated by theirs. My aunts couldn’t resist the opportunity to showcase our culture,” says Nibedita Adhikary, a 29-year-old PhD scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. Nothing could have prepared the Yadav family of Balia district, Uttar Pradesh, for that moment in February this year when the women of Adhikary’s family took a deep breath and began to ululate. The poor northerners jumped at the bhootiya sound. So much for auspicious beginnings, thought Adhikary, as she prepared herself for a lifetime of combating differences and presumptions, adjusting wardrobes and palates, and hoping that eventually, it will all pan out. “The things we do for love,” she says with a smile.
When 2 States released in theatres three weeks ago, Divya Singh took her mother-in-law along to the cinema hall. The film, based on Chetan Bhagat’s mostly-autobiographical novel of the same name, has struck a chord with audiences across the country and especially with those who, like their onscreen counterparts Arjun Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, have had to overcome many cultural odds for their happily-ever-after. As a Kannadiga woman who married a Rajput from Uttar Pradesh four years ago, Singh, 30, knew only too well the endless battles the young couple in the film would have to face. “My mother-in-law and I laughed together and said that this is exactly what happened. She said, ‘We didn’t tell you, but this is how we felt too’,” says Singh.
In a country with 29 states, over a 100 recognised languages, and diverse religious practices, it should come as no surprise if people from different states, castes and communities met and fell in love and got married. But it is also a truth nationally acknowledged that marriage here is not just between a man and a woman — it is between families. And nothing rattles the parivar more than a son or a daughter marrying outside their communities. “Indian families from any community don’t want to step out of their comfort zone,” says Sonia Vergis Khatri, 35, a Malayalee Syrian Christian from Bangalore who married a Punjabi from Delhi and had three wedding ceremonies to prove it.
Khatri and her husband Sameer met when they were both posted in a pharmaceutical company’s office in Kolkata. It was 2000 and Russell Crowe loomed large from hoardings in the city, the gladiator’s steely gaze bearing down on two young people who didn’t realise that a movie outing would culminate into nearly nine years of marriage, two children and photo albums of two weddings and one court registration. “For his family, everything south of the Vindhyas is ‘Madrasi’, there’s no Mangalorean, Mallu, it’s just Madrasi,” says Khatri. After a registry court marriage and a church wedding in Bangalore, the couple travelled to Delhi for their Punjabi wedding. The only hitch was that nobody could know that they had not been invited to the church wedding. But when the news leaked out, Sameer’s father, a retired civil services officer, came to the rescue and handled the relatives who fretted in doubt and indignation. “My cousins and relatives still talk about it as the Great Big Wedding, with mehendi and the chaat stalls. My cousins were fooled by Sameer’s who arranged the shoe-stealing game and took a hefty cut,” says Khatri.
If there is one thing that polarises families in a cross-cultural union, it is the wedding. The event is fraught with uncertainty. Decisions about the food, décor and music will affect the sentiments and digestive systems of a dozen relatives. How can it be called a wedding if no meat is served? How can one wiggle on the dance floor without a little alcoholic encouragement? Do they put coconut in everything? “At my Mangalorean wedding, a south Indian and north Indian spread was prepared. The Kannadigas with our infamous Hindi tried to make polite conversation, but everybody just smiled. Thankfully, the Rajputs savoured the coconut-flavoured food,” says Singh, whose mother and she decided to jump into the traditional northern festivities with gusto and booked a horse and a wedding band. At the reception in Delhi, the Kannadigas were dragged to the dance floor and for the first time, Singh saw some of her uncles shake a willing leg. “Would my parents rather have married their child to someone their community is comfortable with? Yes. But they improvised with what they had,” she says.
Of all the cultural divides in India, the north-south one must be accorded a special place. If the Hindi heartland is oblivious to the rich traditions of the southern states, then the residents of the south imagine the north to be the Wild West where women are stifled by a regressive culture and nine yards of Balaji-inspired garishness. Will my daughter have to wear a ghoonghat at home? How many hip exercises to touch unknown feet does one do while meeting the groom’s family? And how does one speak to the mother-in-law if she’s not permitted to meet the guests?
Dipa Sinha, a Tamil food rights activist with the Centre for Equity Studies in Delhi, was prepared to marry into a Bihari family. But when her mother and uncle went to meet her fiance Himanshu’s family in Patna, they were surprised to see the women sit in a separate room, a practice that is not out of place in Bihar. During meals, the men are fed first. “But I am always fed with the men. The other daughters-in-law eat with my mother-in-law later. Initially, it felt really odd, but it’s no longer an issue,” says Sinha. What bothered her were the sartorial expectations when she went to live at Himanshu’s house after the wedding. “I was expected to dress up on family occasions,” says Sinha, who usually avoids wearing bright colours and make-up. “All I could do was add a speck of sindoor,” she says.
Well, at least she didn’t have to ululate from beneath a ghoonghat like Adhikary had to. After hearing about her family’s vocal calisthenics at the wedding, the women in her husband’s village wanted an encore.“None of the women in the family, except Shashank’s two sisters, accompanied the baarat, so they wanted to hear the sound after the men had described it to them. It was so exhausting to do that from under the long ghoonghat, and they made me do that again and again,” says Adhikary. The short stay at her in-laws’ house was a trial for the young bride. She was confined to a room, sitting in the midst of small groups of women who came to see the family bahu. “I had to get up every day at 4 am, and get ready for the rituals. There are no restrictions on women in my family, while my in-laws are deeply patriarchal. My mother has always been a working woman and a ghoonghat would be unthinkable for her. My only hope was that it will get over, and we will be back in Delhi,” says Adhikary. Her husband’s support helped her wade through all the odds. “He, too, got up with me every day in the morning, brought me hot water to bathe and even helped me tie my sari,” she says.
But nothing, perhaps, not even the confines of purdah, is worse than the cold brush of rejection. Jayashree Chakraborty remembers the first time she walked down the streets of the Jain-dominated Itwari area in Nagpur. Hundreds of people had gathered around the street to look at the Bengali girl that the “brightest boy” of the Jain community of the city had married. “It was quite intimidating. I couldn’t help feeling like a Bengal tigress from the Alipore zoo in Kolkata who has been let loose in the streets of Nagpur,” says Chakraborty. She was led to the Jain temple in the area, only to face the humiliation of seeing her husband’s name written in bold letters on the notice board of the temple. “The notice said that my husband, Prakash Jain, had been excommunicated from the community for marrying a Bengali girl,” she says. That was 35 years ago, and today, Jain is one of the most respected members of Nagpur’s Jain community and his wife is conferred equal respect.
They had met in their first year of college, and married 12 years later. When they decided to get married, Jain kept his parents in the dark about the wedding, even though Chakraborty’s family fully approved of the match. “I belong to a very orthodox Jain family and I knew I would face a backlash. However, when I did tell my parents about the wedding, they accepted Jayashree without any kind of protest. It was my extended family and community that created problems for us. But I knew things would change,” says Jain.
Sometimes, the acceptance comes after many years—and then, too, not entirely. Every time Arun Antony Augustine’s parents are about to visit him and his wife Shweta Sahu at their apartment in HSR Layout, south Bangalore, the ornate Ganesha hanging on a brick wall in their living room quietly goes missing. Overnight, the household turns a little less Hindu, a little more Roman Catholic, a little less north Indian and a little more Keralite. This dissemblance of faith is only a minor white lie in a string of suitable falsehoods that united them in matrimony two years ago. Back in 2010, when Sahu, now 29, told her parents she loved a Malayalee co-worker from Accenture who was also a Christian, it was as if a a bomb had ripped through her close-knit, conservative family in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. It set off a long and terrifying chain of events, beset with suicide threats, deception, tears and every imaginable drama that would put a Bollywood blockbuster to shame. “Her parents still think we first married at the registrar’s office and then followed it up with a Christian ceremony. They mistook the intent-to-marry notice from the registrar as declaration of marriage,” says Antony, who fell in love with Sahu’s tomboyish manner and easygoing personality. It wasn’t the serviceable prose of his blog posts about her that won her over. But a magical 25-hour train journey to Bhopal, a la Jab We Met, would be her undoing. “We didn’t sleep, we watched Wake Up Sid together and time just flew by,” Sahu says, cradling their four-weeks-old daughter who has just woken from her afternoon reverie. Having just shot down a proposal by her father to base the child’s name on her rashi, Antony and Sahu are yet to think of a name. “It might take a while, but it will be just perfect,” says Antony.
The real hard work begins once the last wedding guest has been bundled off, and the argument over wedding rituals has ceased. And then the sparring moves to the dining table. Ahead of the wedding, Sahu got baptised, mugged up sermons and pretended to understand the mass. Yet, north-Indian food is something she can’t go without. “I am resigned to the fact. Though she has started eating meat, I crave Malayali non-vegetarian curries,” Antony says.
When Pune-based Jhumkee Iyengar nee Sengupta (53) married Partha Iyengar (53) in 1985, she carried her love for fish into the vegetarian Tamil home. “Jhumkee was never asked to give up eating fish, but yes, whenever we expected my side of relatives at our home, we saw to it that the house was free of fish,” says Partha. For Chakraborty, too, being a fish-eater in a community that is strictly vegetarian presented several awkward situations. “Though I turned vegetarian eventually, I was never asked to make that decision by Prakash or his parents. It was a choice I made myself,” says Chakraborty. A single remark tarnishes the memory of her first godh-bharai ceremony. “My husband’s sister-in-law came to me and asked if I have stopped eating ganda khana (dirty food). I decided not to answer and looked the other way,” she says.
It was a fish, though, that became a marker of Sameer Khatri’s dedication to his wife Sonia. “While we were dating, my aunt had prepared my favourite dish, meen vevichatu, a very spicy fish curry and invited Sameer for lunch. She and I chatted all through lunch, oblivious to the glasses of water he was drinking, smiling at him when he said it was very tasty,” she says. Later, her aunt took her aside and said that only someone deeply in love would brave such a burning meal with grace. Sameer says with a laugh: “I didn’t want to impress anybody. I just didn’t want to be rude.”
Today, they live in Gurgaon, with a few cultural hiccups now and then, such as Khatri explaining to her well-meaning Punjabi mother-in-law that it wasn’t exactly right to call her up and greet her enthusiastically with “Happy Good Friday!” But why not, the older woman asked. “She’d say ‘Aaj tumhara tyohar hai, aaj chutti hai’,” says Khatri, who would make another attempt to correct her mother-in-law. “If it was a holiday, it was a festival. After that, I just told her to call on Easter Sunday,” she says.