Monday, May 04, 2009
This post originates in three conversations I had over the past week with three completely diverse people. Two of them are in inter-religious marriages. The first couple have been in love in like... forever and she was talking about how nervous she was about having kids because they've been increasingly fighting over kids and religion.
Now I assume that somewhere over the last 18-19 years, one of them would say something like, "You know, honey, would it be OK by you if our kids were raised as Religion Xites." I mean, there's only so many sweet nothings you can say. At some point the Big Talk would creep in, you would think.
But no, they apparently never talked about whether or when they wanted kids or what religion such kids would be raised in. The guy is a 'non-practising' (if such a word exists) Hindu, while the woman is a practising Christian, so he was kind of "I don't care" about the religion, so she assumed he'd be OK with her raising the kids as Christians.
Suddenly, three years into a marriage – and after they've been together practically all their lives, the Big Talk comes up. She wants the kids to be raised in her faith because she believes what she's talking about; and he's agnostic. The guy wants any potential kids to be raised as Hindus - because his parents want them to be raised as Hindus. I can understand a Christian-agnostic argument here. But a Hindu-Christian one?
The religion fight is even seeping into home decor. The guy thinks that with his wife's JC-themed paraphernalia shouldn't be hanging all over the house because his parents are appalled by the idea of walking into a room and confronted by crosses and verses and JC pictures. You see the trend.. She makes her choices. He makes his parents choices.Now the second couple – also in an inter-religion marriage – have more or less decided long ago on religion, lifestyles and choices – both of themselves and of kids they may have. Since they live away from both parental families – such issues don't come up on a daily basis. But when they do, practically the same situation crops up again – and again.
“Just do X or Y for my parents sake. You don't need to do it everyday. Just when they're around. Just pretend,” the guy reasons. As if she signed up for acting class when they got married. Not that he changes his lifestyle when they meet her parents. "But then, your parents don't expect me to,” he says. Fine! Just because her parents act their age and don't believe that the whole world should adopt their choices, he gets away?The third couple have been in this process long enough. They've been married over 40 years ago. The woman – when she started off – was educated and wanted a job. Her husband's family “forbade" her from pursuing a career.
Now, 4 decades later, she doles out advice about how her “sacrifices” kept the extended family together. “I did my duty. I took shit from all my in-laws,” she said, “I have worked for the family and because I ignored all the unfairnesses dealt to me, the family is still together. If I had thought about my respect, this family would have split up long ago.” I mean, who the hell really cares!
Meeting this woman in her family set-up makes it clear that she has mindlessly done all her in-laws wanted her to; she still tries to keep up all the traditions of the past, restraining the rest of the clan from moving on with their lives and the times, just as she was restrained.
She has a host of relatives and acquaintances acquired by marriage, but no soulmate. I didn't see a single friend who reached out to her because they wanted to. Everyone came because “it is duty.” The younger members of the family resent her; even her children and her spouse have mentally moved on. She's stuck in a time warp and she doesn't even know it.
She was assimilated and made the sacrificial goat – someone to do all the work and take all the shit. And she thinks this is her duty. Of course, she's probably going to go straight to heaven if God values someone who shortchanges herself so much to be overly nice to other people. But if heaven were full of soppy people, I'd hesitate to go there.
These three women represent to me a large proportion of womanhood in India. None of these couples moved out, to practice their faith (or lack thereof) in peace. No, Heaven forbid! They're doing their "duties" and staying with the old folks - either physically or mentally. Now I really can't understand how long a couple can stay happy as long as one of them is making all his big choices based on another couple (his parents). What if both played the same game?
It's just taken for granted in this country that you do what the guy's family wants – always. Interference from the girl's family is never tolerated. Why can't it be the same for both? If he refuses to take his in-laws' suggestions, it just shows how clear-headed he is, but if she refuses to submit to his in-laws' hints, just shows how arrogant she is. Extreme conservatives will go so far as to teach her her place, so she does not forget her "aukaad."Men in conservative societies such as ours feel compelled to do any and all unreasonable things their parents ask them to – all their lives. They are also quite ruthless about expecting their wives and kids to do the same. Forget that the said son went through teenage rebellion in his early 30s and married the woman who was “intellectual” and “good-hearted” and “broad-minded” and “dynamic” and so diametrically the opposite of what his family wanted for him.
He then proceeds to make his wife pay the price of that one act of rebellion, by killing her personality and making her grovel to his family all her bloody life. She acts as the bridge over which his estranged parents run to make up with the prodigal son. In the enthusiastic re-union, she gets trampled over until her intellect tells her that she is in an insane situation and her “good heart” and “broad mind” are poisoned.
Neither the in-laws nor the oblivious spouse care – or even notice. The good husband tries to soften the process of incorporating her into “HIS FAMILY.” An uncaring one doesn't even bother to do that. I don't know how so many men can expect their wives to behave in ways that would be completely unacceptable to themselves.Somewhere, at some time, perhaps we need perhaps to stop “assimilating” the bahu into the guy's family and just let her be what she signed up for. Someone's wife. Assimilation is so not good. And it's unhealthy. Assimilation is “To make similar; cause to resemble”; “To consume and incorporate into the larger unit.”
If you want a woman (or a man) that you can “consume” or “make similar to” you, then go marry one of the members of your own family, I say! They'll need no painful assimilation process. You can go right on treating them the way you always did and they'll get all the inside family jokes.
If you decide to go find a woman (or a man) from another family/background and choose to marry her/him, then just lump the differences and live with it. Trying to make all your choices based on what your parents think is plain stupid.
The wisest person I've ever met in this context was a 59-year old Tamil Brahmin man whose son fell in love with a Hungarian girl. So the son brings down this girl to "meet the parents." She's dressed in Indian clothes and learning Tamil and he presents her to his Mom as a potential student and practiser of all their family rituals.
"Don't be stupid, both of you" says the wise father. "You love her for who she is, not for her clothes or her religion or her language. Let her be who she is. That's the only way she can be comfortable. If you wanted a wife who wears sarees and doesn't drink and talks Tamil and knows our rituals, you should have found one just like that. Why marry someone different and try to make her into a version of who we are. Be broad-minded enough to accept her for who she is."
To me this man will always remain the embodiment of maturity, tolerance, and respect for others. "It's important in Hinduism that your thoughts, words and actions are aligned," he explained later. "How can I expect another person to act the way that I think? She can only act the way she thinks."
He made the choice to let his daughter-in-law be who she was, knowing full well that she was willing to make changes because she loved his son. To know you have the option to make someone change to suit you - and then NOT exercise that option! Wow! That to me is the ultimate respect you can show to your fellow human beings.
P.S.: Someone who read this post asked me if I was advocating that elderly or sick parents be abandoned. Hell, no! It's a great thing to care for your family and relatives. But I believe that just because someone is older, does not mean that they make all the decisions in your home. It is your home.
While I wouldn't think twice about caring for anyone - friend, relative, family member - who's older or ill, I think that cannot be an excuse to dictate the way I live and what I or my family does in our home. We're all adults here and we all need to treat each other that way.