Category Archives: inter-religious marriage

Yes, I am a Pakistani

Are you a Pakistani?”
The first time I overheard this question, my daughter was five years old. We were attending a pre-wedding function at a friend’s home. It was 28 November 2008, and 10 terrorists from Pakistan had laid siege to the city of Mumbai with a series of coordinated shootings and bombings. Staff and guests of the Taj hotel were still trapped in a hostage crisis and rescue operations were being covered live on all news channels in India. Almost everyone at the wedding function was talking about the news. Besides the hundreds of injured, 166 people would die in this attack.
“What is your name?” an older child asked my daughter.
“Sahar,” she answered.
“Are you a Pakistani?” asked the child.
I gasped involuntarily but I was able to stop myself from jumping into their conversation.
“No,” said my daughter. “Aiman is a Pakistani. I am from Greater Noida.”
I didn’t need to rescue my child from this “slur” just yet. It was just a misunderstanding she was clearing. Aiman is her older cousin, who lives in Karachi and visits regularly. Aiman is my children’s heroine. They write school essays on her.
“Aiman is my best friend. She wears jeans and T-shirts and doesn’t like wearing skirts. My mother says I learnt to eat potato chips from her. Aiman loves to cycle very fast in her colony and has many pet animals. She has rabbits, a cat, and fish in an aquarium. She has to keep the rabbits and fish safe from the cat.”
Aiman’s mother is my husband’s sister. It is summer vacation on both sides of the India-Pakistan border these days and Aiman is visiting us with her mother.







My parents-in-law are hosting all their children and grandchildren in their home in a village in east Uttar Pradesh. The adults scan newspapers and check the news on their smartphones. A new government has taken charge in New Delhi. Heinous crimes against women are being reported from across the state. My father-in-law reads editorials in three newspapers, one in English, one in Hindi and a third in Urdu. He highlights passages for me to read and discuss with him.
Litchis, mangoes and melons are peeled and cut. Children run around us, playing hide and seek in the long afternoons, when they are forbidden from going out in the sun. Someone gets hurt. They are thirsty.
They settle down to choose a film from a USB drive an older cousin happens to be carrying. For some reason, the film they want to watch today, The Road To El Dorado, doesn’t play on the DVD player. I suggest Sholay.
“It has too much fighting and Amitabh Bachchan dies,” protests my daughter. Sholay doesn’t play either, it is in the wrong format.
The only other film available this afternoon is Gandhi. Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic on Mahatma Gandhi. It is just a coincidence, but here are a group of children from Karachi, New Delhi and Lucknow watching Gandhi together on a hot afternoon in 2014. I sit down with the children. It has been years since I have watched this film.
I explain events and scenes to the children.
“That’s Nehru, that’s Patel and that is Jinnah,” I say, the first time they appear after Gandhi returns to India from South Africa.
“Jinnah!” exclaims Aiman. “Quaid-e-Azam.”
The afternoon has come alive for Aiman. She notices Jinnah in every scene he appears. Sahar is too tense to be able to watch the violence. She runs off to reread one of the Harry Potter books. Another child runs off as troops led by General Dyer begin to march into Jallianwallah Bagh in the film. The rest of the children watch the scene of the massacre in stunned silence. Hundreds of bodies pile up as soldiers shoot relentlessly at unarmed people gathered for a protest meeting on Baisakhi.
“I have been to Amritsar many times,” Aiman says. She is 12 years old.
The film draws towards its end.
“After this, they will launch the Quit India Movement and then India will become independent,” I say to the children, preparing them for scenes of more bloodshed. “But, there will be the partition of India also. India and Pakistan will become two separate countries.”
Aiman claps her hands. “Pakistan!”
I am startled at first and then I realize that this is where this child recognizes her part of the story. I knock my moroseness out of me and celebrate with her. My mother was 4 years old when her family came to Amritsar as refugees from Lahore.
“When Aiman visits during her school holidays, she gets her holiday homework along with her. Her English books are just like mine. She studies Urdu and not Hindi like us. In her holiday homework, she writes about the things we do together. So do I.”
As I type this column on the roof of my parents-in-law’s home, it is close to midnight. This is the last night that the cousins are together. They have permission to stay awake as long as they want. I can hear them discussing stars in the sky. Hopping on barefoot toes, my eight-year-old comes to me and asks me if it is possible that some stars blink in the sky.
“We see something red that is blinking,” she says.
“Maybe it’s a shooting star,” I say, quite sure I am giving her the wrong answer.
She returns to break the news to her cousins.
“Mamma, in this world there are many different worlds like India, America, Pakistan, but everywhere there is the same sky,” my youngest child informs me.


Blowing the Lid off a Marriage

A good long day being folded and put away for the night suddenly flares up with an unexpected argument.
I forget what the disagreement was about but I remember how we went about it. A casual remark sparked a more vehement assertion from one of us. My tone became sharp. His voice grew louder. It felt like he was yelling at me. I stopped yelling back, but by now he was on a roll.
I looked at the child who was watching us. I hoped that he would see that both our child and I were distraught. I held her in my arms and lay down with her to sleep. I wanted to reassure her that it’s just a temporary fight, that arguments are a part of life. We’ll sort it out tomorrow.
I slept through the night instead of lying awake like a younger me might have done. It is a milestone in our relationship that I can turn away from an unfinished fight and just fall asleep.
The next morning demanded its own rhythm. Children get ready for school. There is a bus-stop and breakfast routine. He appears. He is sorry but he won’t say sorry. He sits around looking sorry. Some tears flow down my cheeks. We distract each other with conversations about logistics. We talk about other people. Future plans are made. Then we replay the “sorry scene” one more time. He won’t say sorry.
It might be faster to do that. But we are not efficient. Love is not efficient. It slows us down. Marriage chugs along, getting the work done. It has deadlines to meet.
We used to be the annoying couple who never seemed to disagree with each other. Friends would mock us for being so well behaved.
Last year when my husband and I exchanged gifts on our 10th wedding anniversary, I asked him for a few good arguments. I want to let go of the silences, I said. I realized that our “differences” scared us. Afzal would get angry and give up too easily. I would be fearful and try to cover up and deny them. One reason we seemed to get along so well was our fear that we had very little in common.
In the 11th year, we learned to fight. This month we complete 11 years of being married and to celebrate I am going to blow the lid off our marriage.
I am really good at making money and Afzal is really good at spending it.
“You are not supposed to keep money,” he reminds me, “you are supposed to spend it on what you want.”
I don’t get his logic at all. What are banks for? What are accounts for? What are envelopes stashed between saris for? Before I had children I was saving for their school fees. Now I must save for their higher education, no?

Apparently not. Well, I am learning to spend money after I have earned it and he is learning to earn money before he spends it.

I spent most of my growing-up years living in big city apartments. His home is a sprawling haveli in his village. He opens doors and windows and lets fresh air circulate in the house. I am learning to live with dust everywhere.
I grow indoor plants in cracked coffee mugs. He plants tree saplings. He is beginning to share my joy at the tight fist of a new leaf on the windowsill. I pretend to be interested when he gushes about the trees that will surround us 10 years from now. We live on the edge between my city and his village.
When setting food on the table, I use the words practical and logic a lot. He talks of adaab-e-dastarkhwan. I get impressed and accept his version of table etiquette. Besides, he’s in charge of the rules he sets.
We have the compulsive habit of showing each other the mirror. There was a time I would come home enamoured of this CEO I worked with, and narrate anecdotes in awe.
“The property dealers I meet are better than these corporate honchos,” he said. “Whatever they are, they are on the outside. They are honest that way.”
I am worse. I hit out at what he calls family. I show him what his mother endures. Propound theories about his father’s patience. The games other people play.
Outsiders in each other’s worlds, we are blind to hierarchies and unwritten rules. We make each other very uncomfortable in what used to be our comfort zones. Sometimes it is too much and we fight. Stripped of our security blankets, we find ourselves forced to redefine and articulate our choices again and again.
Marriage is the bad cop who keeps us on our toes. Love is the good cop who announces the tea break. The time to look out at the setting sun.
“Stop analysing everything, Natasha,” he interrupts me. “Life is not for analysing, it is for living. Live it.”
“Okay,” I say.
“Why are you so quiet?” he asks me after a long pause.
“You said, no analysis,” I say, “so I am being obedient.”
His face crinkles up in amusement.
Don’t be afraid to love. It is a terrible thing, but it keeps you alive. Be an adventure hunter, determined to keep some part of your innocence alive. I’m still new at this, jotting down notes on the side as we go along.
…………..
[This was first published on Livemint.com here: Blowing the lid of a marriage

What were we afraid of losing?

We spent our best years fighting
That was the best thing about them.

We began to live together when we began to fight
We began to fight when we became unafraid of losing.

What were we afraid of losing?
I know I was afraid of losing him.

I was afraid I would be hurt
Now I treat words like falling leaves, not a sharp knife.

When I have no words to counter the barrage from him
I leave the room.

Sometimes I stay and make faces at him
I let him fight with me.

Because that is love
Love slicing through silence like curtains pulled suddenly.

Too much sunlight makes us wince
Sometimes the view distracts us.

Why are you fighting with me, he says
You know why I am fighting with you, I say.

We fight because the silence stifles us
We fight to find out if we are still friends.

I fold some fights in the pages of time
Letting them mature over years.

By the time I bring them out between us
Some of them have become stories to tell.

Sometimes we start fighting as soon as we meet
As if we must accelerate everything.

There isn’t time for everything

So lets get straight to the point, lets fight to keep us together.


Rage, rage against the dying of the light

“That girl, your friend’s niece, she got married?”

It was a really random question I asked my mother. We were finishing dinner, she and I. The children had already eaten, I could hear a music based reality show on the TV in the other room.

“She’s back home, didn’t I tell you,” my mother said with alarm in her voice.

“What happened?”

“Oh, she had a terrible experience. The man she was married to was already in a relationship with someone else. He even had a child with that woman.”

“What?”

“Yes. He used to go out alone for long walks after dinner to talk to her on the phone. He would lock his new bride in the house, telling her that it was not safe for her. She didn’t even have a cell phone.”

My mother’s friend is a smart, rich, modern Indian woman. She has no children of her own. Her niece lost her father when she was a child. She has been raised by her mother, her grandmother, her aunt and her uncle (her mother’s brother)

One child among 4 adults. One young, pretty, educated, Delhi-born and raised working woman to be married. An arranged marriage is arranged. And botched.

How did they manage to do this? How did they meet and check out a young man and his family and not get a whiff that they were going to be cheated so badly? I want to know.

My mother tells me more. The in-laws had lied about their property and income. They had been greedy about the dowry they expected. There had been rudeness. Now the girl’s uncle has hired a detective who brought the news of his lover and their child.

No, no, no. Don’t tell me this happens all the time in India. Tell me HOW? Tell me how you guys do it. How and why do you betray your own children like this? Answer me.
Who were you trying to please when you acted against your gut and let this arranged marriage go through? The patriarch amongst you guys? The goddam extended family? The in-laws who never were.

What do you do with your brains? What do you do with your love? I know you felt love for your daughter when you were raising her. What did you DO WITH THAT LOVE?

Did you bury it in a shallow grave and pat in down with your shoe? Put it in the back of a drawer and let it die in the darkness? Leave it whimpering in the dark till it lost its voice?
No. I am NOT crying. I am freaking not crying.

My mother tries to calm me down. I ask her, “Mamma, when they could see that the in-laws were being greedy, that the groom was acting rude, then why didn’t they probe deeper then?”

“It’s not easy to tell these things,” she says.

“They hired a detective now, right? Why didn’t they hire one earlier? Oh I know that’s not how these things work.”

“People can’t tell these things,” she says.

“How can they NOT KNOW? People show so many signs, why do we overlook what is OBVIOUS. Or suspicious. I can SEE IT.

“You were like this even when you were a child,” my mother says.

I know I am screaming for me. I am screaming for all daughters. I am screaming to release the muffled voice inside me. Inside my mother.

I also wanted to live, Neeta screams at the end of Megha Dhaka Tara. “Dada, ami baachte chai.” 
Rescue me, she says. Let me live. Give me permission to live. To love.

5 Diwalis

He is a Muslim and I am Hindu. Both by birth and choice.
The first year after we were married, we went over to my parent’s home and sat with them for the annual family Diwali puja. We sing a bhajan and do a small pooja.

The second year, he was uncomfortable and he said, you go ahead and I will join the family later after the pooja is over. So he did not have to participate…… perhaps he felt coopted and pressurised to assimilate.

The third year I refused to visit my parents on Diwali. I called it cultural confusion…. and it depressed me. As the evening progressed, he just did not feel right about it and very belatedly, when it was all over, we turned up at my parent’s home to meet on Diwali. They were almost already in bed by then.

I cannot remember at all how we got through the 4th year….. which was last year. I think we attended, arriving decently after the pooja was over and just when the feast and firecrackers time started.

This year was the 5th Diwali. My original plan was to get away from it all by arranging to be in Lahore on Diwali…. for a workshop I have been invited for. So I thought, its a good way to avoid the confusion on Diwali. Could not get visas in time, so plan failed.
His mum was in town and ironically her enthusiasm seemed to give me permission to be happy on Diwali. We all dressed up (I wore a sari!) and attended the puja, I sang the bhajan along with my parents, my daughter’s sat in dadi and papa’s laps, my father put a teeka on everyone’s forehead, Mum gave us lots of presents….. and it was fun for most people. He and I were quite tense….. but it was much better. And all because the person we are afraid of offending was there and led the way.
Thanks, Ammi.