Marriage: Indian American Style
The array of choices, the coping strategies of mixed couples is exciting and a bit hilarious.
"That day” is around the corner again, the day that rekindles memories of love and intimacy, and precious moments stolen on moonlit balconies or beaches. For my husband and me, as well as the thousands of couples in the United States and India who confounded parental expectations, rolled the proverbial dice and married someone ethnically distinct from across the oceans, Valentine’s Day represents the triumph of love over arranged, of Cupid over karma.
Meeting on an American University campus, as Srikanth and I did 10 years ago, we knew that by tying the knot and circling the fire, we’d be taking Robert Frost’s “Road Less Traveled.” Little did we know, however, what excitement lay in store as two cultures collided and coalesced to direct our day-to-day American, and now Indian, life.
In both Washington, D.C. and New Delhi, I happily realized that we were not alone in this experiment. Seeing American and Indian couples all around me, I found the array of choices, the coping strategies of us mixed couples exciting and a bit hilarious as well. Truth, myth or fun? I resolved to find out, and several brave couples obliged me with their special Bride & Prejudice, happily-ever-after stories.
How They Met (Or as Kareena Kapoor once said: Jab We Met)
In class, through friends, in chat rooms—today’s Indian American couples meet typically and fatefully, even when a love match was not what they or their parents had in mind.
Couple No. 1: When Los Angeles native Heather Halstead, who has a Master’s degree in counseling, was exploring northeastern India to find opportunities for serving people, she met Peter Malakar, a Christian Indian doctor. But romance was the furthest thing from her mind. Having earlier experienced life and customs in a remote, conservative Indian village, she was ultra-cautious. “He would e-mail me (when I returned to California) but I wouldn’t respond for several months, just so that he wouldn’t get the wrong idea,” says Heather. The persistent doctor had the right idea all along: He kept praying. Heather returned to India, this time to New Delhi, where Peter was working. And seeing that they were better together than apart, they fell in love, got married in December, 2005 in California, and returned to New Delhi, where they now run an NGO together.
Couple No. 2: For them, it was an easier choice. “My father told me he would never push me into marriage,” says Moni Basu, a Bengali non-resident Indian whose family emigrated to the United States when she was 13. She met Kevin Duffy, a fellow reporter, while they were working the night beat at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the southern U.S. state of Georgia.
Couple No. 3: Student Sunil Rabindranath, of South Indian-Malaysian origin, found student Ariana Leon, a Midwestern American with a keen interest in South and Southeast Asia, through mutual friends. They attended graduate school together
at Ohio University and now live in Washington, D.C.
Couple No. 4: Anshul Kaul, a Kashmiri, and Jenika Doctor, who now coordinates the South Asian Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., crossed paths in India while she was an intern. He Hindu, she Jewish and Unitarian, they now live in the Washington, D.C. area, are married and looking forward to their first-born.
Meet the Parents (Do you want my daughter’s hand?)
Meeting one’s prospective in-laws is daunting in any culture, but doubly so when you’re dealing with foreign elders. In some instances, it’s the mom who requires gentle persuasion. The first time Anshul visited Jenika’s parents in the United States, her mom was concerned and a bit worried. Why wasn’t he holding her hand or showing any affection? Did he really care for her? Little did she understand that to Anshul, public displays of affection were highly inappropriate, and especially embarrassing considering the “public” included his future-mother-in-law.
American dads aren’t necessarily any easier. Heather’s father flew to India from California to check out Peter before the couple were engaged. Peter won over his future father-in-law quite quickly (as Mr. Halstead was nothing like the tough and rough Robert De Niro of Meet the Parents) and the engagement ceremony was full of Indian culture and color.
But Heather also wanted an American-style engagement. With advice from her American roommate, Peter planned a romantic day (or so he thought) boating on a lake outside New Delhi—only to discover that the water had dried up several years before, leaving only cows lazily grazing on the lake bed.
Not to be deterred, Peter ordered a cup of hot tea, bent down on his knee, and beseeched Heather for her hand.
I Do—But How? (And what color is my sherwani?)
Creativity and negotiation are needed in planning Indian American weddings. Our four couples adopted differing approaches to satisfy the expectations of both sides.
Sunil and Ariana participated in two separate ceremonies, but integrated one another’s customs in both. His family sent Hindu symbols and wall hangings to adorn the front of the church for the American ceremony. He dutifully donned his first-ever tuxedo for the occasion and she wore a purple sari instead of a traditional American, white, wedding dress. For the Hindu engagement, Ariana wore a Malayali-style sari and touched the feet of Sunil’s mother and grandmother, receiving their blessings.
For Jenika and Anshul, who choreographed and participated in a “big, fat” five-day Indian extravaganza, the American wedding part incorporated both cultures, including a canopy that represented a Jewish huppah and Hindu mandap, poems by Rabindranath Tagore and the perennial favorite, Punjabi bhangra at the reception.
Heather and Peter tied the knot in multi-ethnic Los Angeles, and enjoyed adding all the Indian touches and flourishes they could find. Her bridesmaids wore lehengas tailor-made in New Delhi based on e-mailed measurements, and a woman acquaintance originally from Hyderabad prepared all the mouth-watering food. The most moving part of the ceremony came during a short, simple phone call, when Peter dialed his parents on their landline in Assam. With a microphone held to the receiver for all to hear, Peter’s parents prayed for God’s blessings on the marriage from halfway around the world.
The Quickest Way to Your In-Laws’ Hearts (Through their stomachs, of course.)
Americans married to Indians quickly learn the importance of food in their partner’s culture. In fact, eating skills seem to be an avenue of acceptance into the new family.
Kevin was astounded the first time he visited his in-laws in West Bengal. As a mark of respect, he was presented with a silver plate holding 22 types of food. “Where do I even start?” he wondered. Since that awkward first encounter with Indian cuisine and overwhelming hospitality, however, he has proven himself to be a good desi by learning to eat Bengali fish dishes with his hands. “He can sail though the tricky fish dishes,” says Moni with admiration, “even the bony elish fish.”
Biryani, kebabs, fish and masala dosa—-these are some of the Americans’ favorite dishes, covering the north, south, east and west of Indian culinary culture. With practice, Ariana has become quite an Indian cook herself. “She used to measure out everything with great pains when she cooked Kerala dishes,” Sunil explained, “but now a pinch and a smidgen have become valid measuring units for her.”
Cultural Blunders (A Fashion Faux Pas)
Navigating Indian culture can be tricky, say the American spouses, even after studying it for many years. Sometimes the Americans try too hard and err on the side of excess. When gallant, suave Sunil tied Ariana’s first sari on her, he miscalculated with some of the pins and left half of her top exposed.
Sometimes these well-meaning spouses do get it right. Kevin is called a movie star when he dons Indian dress. And Ariana, after the initial botched attempt, is more comfortable and relaxed wearing a sari than a Western style dress, says Sunil.
Holidays: Twice the Usual Fun
Indian American couples tend to have double the fun when it comes to celebrating holiday traditions. Ariana and Sunil made their annual Diwali party a tradition at their Northern Virginia home. Moni and Kevin celebrate Durga Puja in Atlanta, Georgia, while Anshul and Jenika enjoy celebrating Christmas, Holi and Hanukkah.
Most mixed couples celebrate Christmas. “Although Christian, Peter was not used to seeing a Christmas tree,” Heather explained, “but he is patient with my American customs.” Sometimes it’s the other way around. Moni recalls her first Christmas with Kevin, “I grew up (as an Indian in America) longing to celebrate Christmas. So Kevin did all the traditional things for me that one would do for a child, from buying and decorating a tree, to gift-wrapping presents—everything except Santa Claus!”
Jenika makes sure that Anshul gets his own stocking and a Christmas ornament every year, along with a traditional lamb dinner that sits well with his Kashmiri heritage.
Three Cheers for the Ties That Bind (And the love that endures.)
When asked what they appreciate most about their spouses’ Indian culture, the Americans I interviewed were unanimous: their strong sense of family. Moni observes: “In India, the house is open to everyone in the family.” She says Kevin understands the importance of family and enjoys the “family ties I have.”
For all four young couples, marriage to someone from another culture was as interesting as it was illuminating. And as the years go by, do the differences diminish? To answer that I had to find a couple whose marriage had withstood the test of time and distance. I found my inspiration in Ophelia and Amos Gona, she an African American professor from the southern United States, he a professor from Goa, both living in suburban New Jersey since the 1970s and now retired. When I asked Ophelia what insights she could share with SPAN readers about bridging cultural differences, she wrote: “It sounds strange, but after 46 years of marriage, I can’t think of anything I could possibly add.” I went back home and told Srikanth, and we both smiled.
Anne Lee Seshadri is an assistant cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.