From my parents’ inter-caste marriage, I learned that love was worth hardship This is how my parents met: it was a big city in the mid-1980s and my mother went out one night with a friend, who was trying to set her up with a guy she knew. That guy brought his roommate along – maybe for moral support, or maybe so it could be a double date. My mother didn’t like the guy, but she thought the roommate was cute. She told her friend to pass the message on that she wanted him to meet her at a cafe. Two weeks later, they knew they were in love and decided to get married.Starry-eyed, the fact that they came from different castes, communities, and parts of the country, and that my mother was older, seemed immaterial. But my mother’s parents were furious when word reached them that she was dating someone who wasn’t from their community: her mother cried, her father threatened to shoot her boyfriend (not metaphorically: he owned a gun) if he ever came home. Her mother met my father’s mother, to convince her to forbid the marriage. I’m told that his mother said she wasn’t happy about it either, but then said something that even today, fifteen years after she died, gives me feels despite the fact that I don’t remember her very fondly: “We don’t want to lose our son.” My mother’s parents, it turns out, had no anxieties on that front. They threw her out of their family.When I was younger, the years of my childhood felt like they were lived in an awkward, in-between place. Between my father’s parents, who lived with us and were doting grandparents but mean and oppressive in-laws, and my mother’s parents, who were larger than life in their absence, between communities, languages, castes and later, between homes and neighbourhoods, when my parents lived separately for a few years. I would sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a mutant at school to pre-empt further questions about my family.To avoid conflict with my paternal grandparents about language and culture, my parents simply avoided it all. We spoke only English at home, celebrated no festivals and followed no traditions. You’d imagine that a child from a mixed background would be a smooth, multilingual chameleon. Instead, I am language-stunted, and on some days I still feel like an awkward interloper wherever I go, with no roots in any cultural tradition that I can authentically claim.But growing up with no traditions also meant that we could make fun new ones of our own. Our way of spending time together was to listen to music or watch music videos. Sunday mornings meant turning on MTV and singing along to the 1993 song Informer by inventing gibberish lyrics, as we couldn’t understand the words anyway. I remember head banging all night as a small child with my father while we listened to Metallica, and the aching necks we had to sheepishly deal with the next day. Our lives were not always smooth, and as a child I witnessed a fair share – as I imagine most people do – of unpleasantness and upheaval and sad stuff. Even so, my strongest memories of my childhood are of things we did together, like singing along to my mother’s cassettes while she would pause her housework to do a little jig.As a child, there were times I regretted not having an easy answer every time someone asked me where I was from (and it’s something I still fumble with). But I never wished that my family was different. The tremendous thing that my parents did for love was never lost on me. People in my mother’s small community still speak of her as having “run away” with an outsider (even though she did not elope, and it was her family that decided not to show up to the wedding), and the whiff of scandal surrounding us has dissipated somewhat over the years, but never quite left. Often when someone asked about my parents, I would hear, “Oh, lou marriage aa?” That has always been framed as the context to my existence, and there has rarely been a time when people have not responded as if it was not remarkable – whether or not they approve.When at fourteen, I attended a family wedding, a cousin explained my situation to her friend using the term “Mudblood”, a Harry Potter term used as a slur within the books for a magical person with mixed blood. Oddly, I was thrilled at the time – it felt like a term that everyone immediately understood and that described me perfectly (the overtones of racial purity escaped me entirely at the time). Today, some of my cousins still use the term to tell people that I am of mixed parentage, and although I feel like I should be annoyed, to be honest, I’m really not.“Yaav (which) caste?” was a question that I felt used to follow me everywhere I went. I would usually answer “no caste” or “inter-caste” because I didn’t know what other answer to give (sadly, as not everyone is a Harry Potter reader, “Mudblood” wouldn’t do the job). How could I want to admit to being part Brahmin, when I know that some of my father’s Brahmin relatives would decline to eat meals that my mother prepared? Equally, how could I be proud to be from my mother’s meat-eating community from Coorg, when many of its members are so openly chauvinist to outsiders, and even though they have no organised religion, some represent themselves as upper caste or being from a Scheduled Tribe depending on which serves their purpose better? I spent many years wondering how to present myself to people, and wondering how they see and judge me, and trying to manage all my conflicting feelings and shame and anger. Who doesn’t want to have an unquestioned feeling of belonging, and yet, how could I want to belong to communities that don’t see me as theirs? And there was a time when I thought, how could I love myself for who I was, when I felt particularly unloved by my extended families?But you know all that anger and shame and mixed feelings and stuff? With time, it lessened for me. And I have a theory – a totally unscientific one – about why this is so. Growing older and wiser and going to therapy might have something to do with it, sure, but I think there’s something else that has been infinitely more healing: romance.I have always marveled at my mother’s confidence as a young woman that my father’s love could make up for the love her family denied her. At how she could take the incredible risk of being alone in the world if her marriage didn’t work out. And really, at how she was able to leave one life behind and step into another, without holding on to anger at her parents over the fact that she had been forced to make that choice (especially because I am still raging about it on her behalf). The relationship between my parents is far from fairytale-like, but my mother still speaks of the the early years of their romance as she has always done – dreamily, and with tenderness. In a way, that made me unafraid to make my own decisions, and unafraid of failure. Although I knew that I never had to worry about my parents disowning me if I was with someone they didn’t approve of, I also knew that if my parents did cut me off, at the end of it, I might be fine. Because from them, I learned that love is worth hardship.When I eventually did fall in love and begin my first serious relationship, everything seemed shiny and new, like I was looking at the same old things in my life but through a pair of sparkly new spectacles. Here was someone who loved me joyously and completely, for my achievements and my flaws, and who wanted to hold my hand in public and show me off to everyone he knew. My insecurities about my weight, my looks, my desirability and my accomplishments melted away, and although they didn’t melt away permanently (how could they, having built up grain by grain over years and years?), they gave me a break for a while from self-doubt. What did it matter what community I belonged to or didn’t belong to, when I was now the co-founder of an awesome, brand new community of two?Of course nothing ever works out how you imagine it will. I was determined to never marry, because I saw that as opening the door to the very things I wanted to avoid: being defined by one’s caste or community, being pushed into a neat slot in service of patriarchy, and reliving my mother’s experience of dealing with oppressive in-laws. But I understood what my boyfriend meant when he said he didn’t know how to resist his family’s pressure to get married. His childhood couldn’t be more different from mine – he grew up in a village and later, a tier-2 city, his first language is not English, and his deeply conservative, deeply religious family from a violent communal belt in India hadn’t featured on my list of things to worry about before he brought up the subject of marriage. I don’t think it was an either/or choice for me – if I said I wouldn’t marry him, I don’t know if it would have meant that our relationship would have had to end. But I could see that he was struggling with the intense pressure from his parents to get married, their disapproval over his dating someone not from their community or caste, the possibility that they might throw him out, and his own conditioning about what a ‘legitimate’ long-term relationship looked like. Even amidst this stressful whirlpool he took my concerns about marriage seriously: we talked through the possibility of never getting married (we were already living together), although we knew the constant opposition from his parents would likely take a big toll on him – and us. I don’t think I processed these things with as much clarity at the time, but perhaps his willingness to take hard decisions on my account and bear the consequences made me more willing to do the same. I surprised both him and myself when I agreed to a wedding, and steeled myself to meet his family.That was a source of plenty of confusion for me, because I expected the worst and was proved wrong every time: my boyfriend’s father, after months of fuming and sulking and what-will-people-say-ing, made his peace with our relationship. When his family travelled to meet me and my parents for the first time, I was terrified because I imagined that things would be tense, but our first interaction turned out to be a friendly one. And after we were married, I struggled to reconcile my expectations of how things would be, which were set by my experiences of witnessing the bitter war between my mother and her in-laws, with being welcomed into his family so warmly and thoroughly. How could I, a cool woke urban millennial, who believed that if you were liberal you were good, and if you were religious and conservative you were bad, come to terms with the fact that I was at close quarters with people who were conservative and casteist and religious, but who were also willing to change, and respected the fact that I had opinions and beliefs that differed from theirs?In hindsight, perhaps I have no reason to be surprised that my life is full of crazy contradictions. That’s how things always have been and will be – my father’s parents accepted his marriage but made my mother miserable; after years of warring, before my paternal grandmother died, unbelievably, she and my mother were able to put the past behind them and be friends. My mother, a ‘modern’ city girl who scorns Hinduism and claims not to believe in caste, has always kept separate utensils in our home for domestic workers; my mother-in-law, a proud Brahmin, would not dream of doing so. In my family, we do not hug; in my husband’s family men and men, women and women, men and women, hug, caress, and kiss each other more often than I have ever seen.If my life had been different, and my parents’ marriage had been straightforward in the conventional sense, and I had neat answers to questions about my family, would I have still made the same choices in life and in love? Maybe, maybe not, but I do think that the day my parents decided to get married, it set in motion a chain of events that have made me more okay with life’s glorious messiness, and more willing to find ways to work through it. It has given me more questions than I have answers, chief of which is: can I take my parents’ commitment to love over caste and community, and apply that to everyday interactions in my own life?In this polarised era of vicious social media takedowns, my chow-chow bhath background sometimes leaves me wondering how to wade through online discussions as much as I wonder about how to wade through life offline. I haven’t yet learned how to deal with seeing blind anger from people when discussing caste, whether they use “savarna” or “internet Ambedkarite” as an insult. I’ve seen people I know, from mixed backgrounds like me, attempt to deliberately erase this ambiguity in their online personas, to identify with marginalised groups. I understand the urge completely – I, who have always longed for a community I could belong to without question. If I were to do this myself, I feel that in some circles it would give me a kind of intellectual and moral authority over other people, because it would grant me authenticity and legitimacy, which makes it all the more tempting. In a world in which now being upper caste doesn’t always protect you from scrutiny or censure, I get the desire to dissociate from that part of oneself, and the hope that being the one to shout first and loudest to denounce caste will take the heat off oneself. But I think what has stopped me from taking that route is a need to deal with my own myriad insecurities about my identity. And perhaps a need to re-examine my ideas about the usefulness of identity as a starting point in interactions with other people in the first place.With my in-laws, our beliefs often come into conflict (whether it’s about temple visits, whom to vote for, having grandkids, or what I wear). Sometimes, like in the case of politics and religion, we agree to disagree, not always gracefully. Crazily, it seems to me, given the strength of their own religious faith, they have come to accept that I want nothing to do with religion at all. Through all our disagreements and tense moments, my in-laws have never stopped communicating with me, or stopped being genuinely loving. (Of course I know I am privileged and lucky – unlike so many other people in inter-caste relationships, I do not live in fear of violence.) And I have tried, as firmly as I can, to reciprocate that love without letting them off the hook for their political choices. It might sound trite to say that the personal is political, but it hasn’t stopped being true. Fighting or negotiating them both at the same table can be painful and messy. But I’ll speak for myself when I say that sometimes it’s possibly, maybe, totally worth it. Vi is 30, female, and loves to read.
A Mudblood Child of a Love Marriage
From my parents’ inter-caste marriage, I learned that love was worth hardship
Illustrations by Labonie Roy
CASTE COMMUNITY IDENTITY INTER-CASTE INTER-CASTE RELATIONSHIPS MARRIAGE ROMANCE PERSONAL STORIES AOI PERSONAL STORIES SEXUAL POLITICS AMBEDKARITE
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