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July 19, 1997


Padmaja and Venkatram
Padmaja and Venkatram
Made in heaven?

Shobha Warrier in Madras

Love, you have heard often, is blind. Piggishly, prudishly, unreasonably blind.

But society -- no, you haven't heard this -- is blinder. Much, much more so.

So what happens when blind love and blinder society collide head on? Particularly, when there are those disgraceful social factors, Religion and Caste, involved?

Plenty, with the accompaniment of fire, smoke, noise and a lot of soot.

"She/he will marry him/her over my dead body," roars the father, that eternal symbol of societal pressures.

"If I marry, it will only be him/her," holds belligerent youth, blind with love.

And? Well, in most cases, youth wins. To heck with the society -- there is always the quiet option of a marriage court!

And then?

Then, that great healer, Time, moves in. The fire dies down, taking the heat with it; the noise follows suit. Now all that is left is soot -- dirty, black, casteist soot.

But not to worry. The healer is here, remember? Let it spread those same soothing fingers with which it balms aching hearts, let those fingers wipe off the marks.

Which it does, sooner than later. And, hey, you are home and dry-eyed!

Indian society has not really changed. Superficially, yes. But deep down, it is the same closed, conservative, caste-based society of yore. And there is nothing which serves as a better barometer to this than inter-caste/religion marriages.

Marriage counsellor Poongothai
Marriage counsellor
Thirty-two years ago, Keralite Sarasangi married Bengali film photographer Kamal Ghosh, against her parents' wishes. "After the drama of my marriage, my colleagues in office, especially Brahmins, started ignoring me," Sarasangi recollects. "They just couldn't digest the idea of a registered marriage. Our neighbours too ignored us. They didn't want to have anything to do with a couple who did not follow the 'social rules'. "

Sarasangi's inlaws wouldn't accept her either -- she was an alien, belonging to a different caste, a different culture altogether. "They even made fun of the fish I ate; they said only untouchables in Bengal ate it!"

But that was then. Thirty-two years ago. Surely, everything must be all right now.

"Yes," she agrees, "But it took three decades for his people to accept me! Now we have achieved respectability among his people, among my people. Not that they have become progressive, but because our children have come up successfully in life. Now that they are well placed, we are respected. Recently, one of our relatives commented that the reason for our children's intelligence is they are 'cross-breeds!'

"I don't think either society or people have changed all that much," Sarasangi continues. "But what has happened is that today's youngsters, especially girls, are a spunky lot. They have the courage to defy society, the strength in them to win over others."

Tamil Brahmin Padmaja and Telugu non-Brahmin Venkatram decided to get married after 10 years of courtship. Naturally, there was strong opposition from the Brahmin family. "It was more of 'what-others-will-think-if-you- marry-a-non-Brahmin' than anything else. Their main objection was he ate non-veg food!" Padmaja says.

"But we haven't had any problems from the society at large. In the advertising field, unconventional marriages are quite common." Venkatram says.

The only trouble, it seems, is this little matter of eating meat. "But I make sure I have my quota of non-veg either from my parents' house or from a hotel," he grins.

It has been over 13 years since Karate exponent Shihan Hussaini tied the knot with his student Malarvezhi. But her parents are yet to reconcile to the fact their daughter married a Muslim.

Shihan Hussani married a Hindu
Shihan Hussani
"We lead our lives independent of religion. We believe we are human beings first, not Muslim Hussaini and Hindu Malarvezhi," says Hussaini, "Both my community and hers did not want anything to do with us. My people were angry because I refused to get her to convert -- in fact, many boycotted our wedding reception. But Malarvezhi is still Malarvezhi. She still wears a pottu (a kumkum dot) on her forehead, she still goes to temples..."

"Now that I am well known in Madras," Hussaini went on, "people accept me and act as if they are pleased with my progressive attitude. But I know it is all pretension. I don't believe them at all."

Fifteen years ago, well-known Tamil writer Dilip Kumar responded to an advertisement in a newspaper from a Tamilian girl. Though writing in Tamil, he was a Gujarati by birth. Kumar had decided earlier he would marry a Tamil girl, as he felt only such a wife would be able to fit into his life.

"I could see he was a good person when I met him first. After talking to him, I knew he would understand me; I had no hesitation in marrying him," Ambika, Kumar's wife, recalls. "I wanted a good person who would love me. All the other things like caste, religion and language are immaterial. We didn't have any difficulty adjusting, though none of his relatives were there to help us."

Says Kumar, "I agree getting married to someone from a different cultural background is like entering a different nation. But we never had any such problems because both of us are not religious. Problems arise when religious attitudes surface above relationships. After the initial fascination wears off, your insecurities, your religion, your beliefs and the rituals that you follow take an upper hand."

Many of the so-called progressive writers, Kumar adds, when it comes to own marriages, forget what they had preached till then and prefer to cling to tradition.

Generally, it is assumed that inter-caste, inter-religious and inter-community marriages end up in a shambles. I checked this belief with marriage councellor Poongothai.

"Love marriages do run into trouble," she says, "but you can say the same of arranged marriages, too. In case of love marriages, it is 50-50."

The reason, she explains, is that such marriages are under tremendous pressure from all sides. They do not have any support but themselves, and have to manage everything alone.

"After the initial days, religion, values and the likes start coming to the fore," she says, "In arranged marriages, the problems are of a different nature. For example, a girl who was brought up in a very liberal atmosphere would find it extremely difficult to adjust to an orthodox household. Thus, in both cases, incompatibility and clashes may occur."

Dilip Kumar and Ambika
Dilip Kumar and Ambika
Sarasangi and Kamal Ghosh, Dilip Kumar and Ambika, Hussaini and Malarvezhi and Venkatram and Padmaja -- they represent the changing face of conservative Madras in the last three decades.

But, by and large, societal pressure on anyone braving the age-old marriage system remains the same all over India. You go north, go south, go east or go west: the dress, the language and the rituals change, but the basic attitude towards life, towards marriage, it remains the same.

For, when it comes to culture, India has only one face -- that of an arrogant, intimidating, conservative master.

If there is an increase in the inter-community and inter-caste marriages in Madras, it is not because society has become more progressive or sympathetic. But because more and more women have started moving out of their confines, are meeting people. Many are earning and this financial independence gives them the confidence and strength to brave pressures. Statistics show that generally 'unconventional' marriages occur among people who are in the same profession.

Dilip Kumar stresses the point. "Sadly, caste continues to play a major role in our country. Inter-caste and inter-religious marriages will go a long way in mitigating many social evils. I am sure we will be better human beings if we have more such unions."

Photographs: Sanjay Ghosh

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