Inter-religious marriages may not be a bed of roses but they are not all thorns either. Smita Shenoy lists the pros and cons of such unions
“I Do”, “Kabool Hai”, “Sowbhagyawati Bhava”; words in different languages but sounding equally sweet and carrying profound meaning. Marriages between persons of different faiths can be an exquisite combination of sweet and sour because it is not just the coming together of two souls in love; it is the merging of two cultures, the blending of two religions and the mingling of two diametrically different families.
Popping the question
Love is blind; it doesn’t conform to barriers like caste, creed and religion. But deciding to get married is a mammoth step forward and one that requires a lot of contemplation and consideration. “Even after Suresh proposed marriage, it took me a long time to take a decision because I come from a family of staunch Catholics and even the thought of getting married to a non Catholic was considered blasphemous,” recalls 30 something entrepreneur Susan Joseph, now happily married to Suresh, a Malayalee Hindu.
Agreeing to get married is just half the work done; next come the customs and rituals. A wedding is a special day not only in the bride and the groom’s lives but also their families’. It is obvious that both would want the marriage performed as per their customs. 27 year old Chennai based process trainer Zyn Milan Sarvanan remembers with a laugh, “I am a Catholic and he is a Hindu. My parents wanted a church wedding while his parents wanted a Hindu ceremony. We decided to do both in succession and then we had to get our marriage registered too. It feels like I married the same guy thrice.”
Susan says she was lucky in that aspect. “My parents were insistent that they wanted a church wedding but although Suresh’s family would have preferred a Hindu ceremony they said they were fine with whatever their son decided. So we had a grand church wedding with the full family in attendance which worked out perfectly for me because I am not sure I would have been wholly comfortable with a temple wedding.”
Says Zyn, “You get to know a completely different lifestyle, something you have not experienced. You have been brought up in a certain way and when you see something completely the opposite you are bound to get enchanted. At least, I did. After marriage I got a culture shock but in a pleasant way. The main transformation was in my style of dressing. I had always been a jeans and T shirt kind of girl but post marriage sarees, bindis, flowers and elaborate jewellery became part of my daily wardrobe. Initially, I struggled to get it right but now I can drape a saree with the same ease as I wear jeans.”
Susan’s experiences were not so amazing initially; in fact they oscillated between disastrous and hilarious. “I have always been open with my parents, sitting cross legged before them, openly airing my views and basically speaking my mind. I continued with my mannerisms even in front of his parents. I would flop down on the sofa next to my father-in-law and start chatting nineteen to the dozen, then I would catch Suresh making urgent signals at me and realise my folly. Suddenly I would change into a demure bride much to the amusement of all.”
“Also, in the initial days of marriage I failed to realise the importance of the thaali in the life of a married woman. For me it was just like another piece of jewellery. I would happily remove it and put it away when I was wearing Western dresses but I was always careful not to let my in laws know. Once for a family picnic, I wore jeans and T-shirt and out of force of habit removed my thaali. The remonstrations and advice I got from all my in laws that day was humungous, to say the least. Now I never part with my thaali,” Susan says with a laugh.
Normally, diverse diet patterns are difficult to reconcile even if they are within the same community but when the dimension of religious difference gets added, it gets a trifle more complicated. Zyn says, “My hubby is a vegetarian while beef and pork have been part of my diet for as long as I can remember but he totally understands my perspective and I understand his. I cook whatever I feel like for myself but I also make sure that his meals are prepared exactly the way he likes. We have reached a compromise on the fact that whenever my in laws come down from Madurai to spend time with us, we do not bring non vegetarian food into the house. My mother-in-law cooks tongue tingling traditional dishes which I have begun to enjoy extremely.”
“Now I find myself veering towards vegetarianism much to the surprise of my parents and sister who can’t believe that I am thinking of giving up meat and have begun teasing me for my evolving tastes.”
“On the other hand, morning meals are a bone of contention between me and Sarvanan. Bread has been a staple on our breakfast table since the days of yore, possibly due to our Anglo Indian roots but he is an idli vada kaapi person. Only sizzling dosas, steaming idlis and coconut chutney can satiate his appetite. He does not consider bread and omelette a proper breakfast at all and chides me all the time for my continental preferences. So I am kind of sandwiched between both my families due to my changing dietary patterns,” she says with a laugh.
The success or failure of all such marriages hinges on the adaptability to and acceptability of each other’s faith. “Both my husband and I are very religious persons. He visits the temple daily while I never miss the Sunday Mass but we never interfere in each other’s religious practices. We respect all religions and I love Hindu customs and traditions but it will take me some more time to be totally comfortable with the idea of praying to a different God,” says Zyn.
Conversions are yet another delicate subject that couples face in such marriages. Eminent clinical psychologist Sangeetha Mahesh says, “Some religions demand upfront conversions, some don’t. Whatever the norms and rules, these must be discussed and sorted out with each other before entering into holy matrimony. And the stance should not change down the years. Sudden bids at forceful conversions after a few years of marriage can lead to a lot of conflicts that may erode the basic structure of the conjugal bond.”
The other perspective
The relevance of a supportive spouse is brought home very forcefully in the case of a failed relationship. 35 year old office goer Sumathi had a bitter marriage which eventually ended in divorce. She says, “I am a Marathi Brahmin and my ex-husband is a Christian from Vizag. My parents never accepted our bond so we eloped and got married. Then we moved in with my in laws. My troubles started from Day 1. I could not eat their spicy fare so I used to cook simple meals like dal chaawal (rice and lentils) for myself. But my in laws did not like this and raised hell over it everyday. I was not allowed to keep images of my God in the house; I was forbidden from visiting temples; even when I was pregnant I was mentally tortured. What hurt the most though was my ex husband’s tacit agreement to the agony I was going through. Through all my problems, he just stood by quietly and supported his parents.”
So has she moved on now after her divorce? “Within a year of our divorce, my ex husband married a girl of his parents’ choice and they are living happily. I have also put the bitter past behind me and moved on but I cannot think of marriage again. The wounds are too deep.”
Dr. Mahesh says, “Normally, inter-religious marriages tend to be stronger and last longer because of the extra level of commitment shown by both spouses. They put in their best efforts to make it work because in most cases such weddings are opposed by both sets of parents who probably have the idea that the relationship will not last the distance. This gives the youngsters the added impetus to show the world that they can make the marriage work.”
“My dad had massive misgivings about the longevity of our marriage given the differences in our religions and cultures,” recalls Zyn. “He gave it a maximum of six months before he presumed I would come bawling back to my family. His mindset made us more adamant to succeed. We both struggled a lot in the teething period and for a while I thought Dad’s predictions would come true. But then both my hubby and I sat down and had a long discussion and at the end of it we realised that our love for each other was much stronger than our cultural differences. We gave it our all and tided over the crisis. Now we have completed almost three years of holy matrimony and are going strong. Even Dad has accepted the success of our union which makes me feel doubly proud of myself and my husband.”
Susan says, “To use a cliché, time is the greatest healer when it comes to parents coming around to accepting such marriages. In my case, my family took a long while to accept that their daughter had chosen a Hindu over so many eligible Christian bachelors. Suresh and I dated for three years even after I had said yes as we waited for my parents to agree to the match. In the end they did but not from their hearts. It took even longer for them to completely accept Suresh as part of the family.”
Social isolation is a potential consequence which most inter-religious couples live in dread of. 23 year old systems analyst Zaheera Sheikh is blissfully happy in her two year old marriage with sales manager Ramesh except for one fact: she has become an outcast for her own family. “In the last couple of years there have been innumerable nikaahs in my family but I have never been invited to any. I heard from my cousin who visits the same dargah as I do that there is a strict order in my family to not include me in any of the social events. I need to rely on Facebook to get updates of what is happening in my own house.”
“Now my in laws are like my parents. They go out of the way to make me feel wanted and make sure I feel a part of their family during any function or gathering,” Zaheera says. But Zaheera feels all is not lost yet as she clings on to a small ray of hope. “I am four months pregnant and I hope my first born will definitely fill the gulf between me and Ammi and Abbu,” she says enveloping her tummy in a protective gesture.
Her hope may not be too far fetched feels relationship counsellor Madhu as children form a great bridge in bringing such estranged families closer. “A child with all its innocence and angelic beauty is often able to perform the miracle that its parents have been hoping for. The baby manages to break down the defensive barriers erected by the couple’s families and unites them with ease,” she opines.
Indeed, children may succeed where adults failed and so it is the duty of the couple to plan their child’s future well, thinks Madhu. According to her, “You don’t need to have the entire life of the child mapped out but a healthy discussion on their upbringing always helps in deciding how best to raise them in a free and secular environment.”
Dr. Mahesh says, “Children of such marriages can be at a great advantage if the couple goes about the aspect of religion in the right perspective. The kids can learn myriad things about both religions and choose the one they prefer when they grow up. This makes them independent decision makers and helps them in other aspects of life.
“Alternatively, they may choose to imbibe the best of both faiths which enhances their adaptive abilities and tolerance levels. Whatever decision they take, their decision should be respected,” she concludes