Meet two families for whom region and religion have nothing to do with love...by Kushalrani Gulab & Colleen Braganza.
Amid the accusations and counter-accusations traded between sisters Geetika Varde Qureshi and Laxmi Lobo over Laxmi’s alleged non-delivery of the traditional marzipan treat at Christmas a few weeks ago, one voice cuts in, making a firm – and final – point.
“Marzipan made with cashews is not marzipan,” says Dr Mohini Varde, holder of a Ph D in Marathi literature, expert in Hindu and Maharashtrian culture, author of several books in Marathi and English, and mother of (at this moment) two arguing daughters. “Only when it’s made with almonds is it marzipan.”
Which brings that argument to a close, just seconds before Mohan Varde, retired senior vice president, marketing, at a large corporate, remembers that today is Makar Sankranti, a big day for Maharashtrians, and the traditional til laddoos must be handed around.
After all, the whole family is gathered here at the Vardes’ Shivaji Park residence in Mumbai – Mohini and Mohan Varde, their daughters Laxmi Lobo and Geetika Varde Qureshi, their sons-in-law Anil Lobo and Taufiq Qureshi, their grandchildren Gauravi Lobo and Shikhar-Naad Qureshi, not to mention Coco Chanel and Nox, the dogs. If this isn’t an occasion for a round of sweets, what is?
All in one
Not that the Varde-Lobo-Qureshi combine need an occasion to get together like this. The family is clearly close knit. The fact that some of them are Hindu, some Muslim, some Catholic and some a happy mix of two religions and cultures doesn’t matter at all.
“When Taufiq and I got married, a friend of ours called us ‘practising secularists’” laughs Geetika. “People talk about secularism, she told us, but you guys actually practise it and that’s really the way to go about it.”
There was nothing deliberate about this ‘practised secularism’ of course. Laxmi, an entrepreneur in the flower business, and Anil Lobo who is in advertising, met while walking their dogs in Shivaji Park. Geetika, a singer, and Taufiq, the well-known percussionist, met at St Xavier’s College, became friends bonded by music, and stayed friends after graduation.
Both young men had always been welcome at the Varde home. But as all parents know, friends and boyfriends are one thing. When the topic of marriage comes up, life can become a bit tense.
“I wasn’t worried exactly, but I did wonder how my girls would adjust to their in-laws’ families,” says Mohan.
As it turned out, both girls would set up independent homes, so that was all right. And in any case, both were warmly welcomed into their in-laws’ hearts.
“There was very little adjustment to make,” says Laxmi. “After all, we had a language in common – English. And because I had studied at a convent school, I was familiar with the Catholic way of life, so there were no cultural barriers. Actually, it was Anil who had to make the adjustments.”
But such adjustments were few. A resident of Shivaji Park himself – Mumbai’s upper middle class Maharashtrian stronghold – he is familiar with Maharashtrian culture and in fact, Laxmi grins, sometimes has to remind her of a few things she might have forgotten.
Geetika’s in-laws had always been culturally open as well. “Taufiq’s brothers are married to an American and a Gujarati respectively, and my mother-in-law also has an adopted daughter, a Bengali, for whom she did the kanyadaan when she married,” says Geetika.
Music of the heart
So in fact, it was Mohini Varde who, torn between her deepest convictions and the happiness of her daughters, had to learn to adjust. “Those were hard times for me,” says Mohini. “I had studied Sanskrit. I was deep in my religion. I had a Ph D in Marathi, had taught it for 35 years at Mumbai University, had taught Hindu texts… with that as my background, it was not possible for me accept that my daughters wanted to marry out of the community. Intellectually, I knew what I was thinking was not right, but I have just two daughters and I had to make a big effort to change.”
That was a tough battle to fight, but it helped, says Mohini, that she and Taufiq shared a deep love of music. “In Taufiq’s case, music was a strong binding force,” she says. “I have so much honour and respect for musicians. That’s when I realised that my thinking was just a psychological barrier, no more.”
Given how openly – and understandingly – this potentially divisive issue is discussed within the family, it’s clear that Mohini’s battle with herself has been well and truly won.
“Geetika was starting a new phase of life, so those apprehensions were understandable,” says Taufiq. “But because of music, and because we’re all Bombayites, they didn’t stick. They’re Aai (mother in Marathi) and Baba to me.”
All mixed up
If the adults have worked out their difficulties, the children of the children have to face complications in their young lives, which arrive from that standard Indian question: So, what are you?
“My name is Gauravi Lobo!” says 18-year-old Gauravi. “Gauravi is such a Maharastrian name and it’s followed by Lobo. I always have to explain myself.”
“She’s a Mahatholic,” pipes up 12-year-old Shikhar-Naad. “That’s half Maharashtrian and half Catholic.”
Shikhar claims he’s never had to answer the ‘So, what are you?’ question, but if it is ever asked, he has his answer ready. “I’d call myself what everyone calls me – Shikhar,” he says, bowing to enthusiastic applause and cries of ‘that’s a good one!’ from his family.
The ‘so, what are you?’ question notwithstanding, what Gauravi loves about her mixed heritage is the fact that she always has a dual point of view. “It’s an advantage,” she says. “You see the other side of everything. When people talk about Maharashtrians in a certain way, I’m able to answer them. This dual thing makes you more exposed.”
“And,” says her grandmother Mohini, “When people of my generation have arguments about religions and cultures, I’m able to say, ‘keep quiet! None of you know what you’re talking about, how happily everyone can live. You don’t have the right to say anything.’”
“But the best part,” grins Gauravi, “is that you get to celebrate everything. India’s full of festivals, and all of them are ours. We get all the fun, all the presents and all the food.”
Time for a round of til laddoos…
The Arya Samaj wedding ceremony was over. The shehnai started its sad number and the Rajput bride’s family lined up for the bidaai with their handlebar mustaches and gigantic safas all in place. As cars started moving out of the drive, the bride Anuja Chauhan and ‘new’ mother-in-law Margaret Alva had a conversation that was something along these lines: ‘Okay, bye. See you tomorrow.’‘Huh, excuse me mamma, but I have to come with you.’
‘You can’t, you are not married yet,’‘I have to go, they are all waiting for me to leave,’ says the bride, perhaps gesticulating at all the Rajputs gravely lined up to bid their daughter goodbye.‘But you can’t share the room yet. You are not married!’
As far as Anuja’s in-laws, the Alva family, were concerned, Anuja and her ‘husband’ Niret, a Mangalorean Christian, weren’t married yet. That would happen after the wedding in church the next day. But as far as Anuja’s family was concerned, she was a married woman now and had to go to her husband’s home for the night.
In the end, Anuja left with the Alvas. But she spent her wedding night with sister-in-law Manira. “I was dropped home the next day where I got ready for the church wedding,” laughs Anuja, adwoman and author of chick lit novel The Zoya Factor.
These are just some of the crazy incidents that make inter-community marriages so much fun. And the Alvas are full of such anecdotes. After all, this wasn’t the first such marriage in their family, nor was it the last.
Like all small communities, the people of Mangalore, a coastal district in Karnataka, tend to be very clannish and
prefer marrying within the community.
But Niret’s grandfather bucked the trend many years ago when he married a Gujarati Protestant. “In those days, a Protestant and Catholic marrying was much worse that people of two different religions marrying,” says Nikhil, Niret’s younger brother, who married long-time friend Pria Somiah, whose family is from Coorg, a small district in Karnataka.
The youngest Alva, Nivedith, followed tradition too when he married childhood sweetheart Meera Haran, whose family originally comes from Palghat in Kerala. Their sister Manira is the only one who married into the community.
Leave aside religion, often there is friction even when people of the same religion but different communities marry. A common refrain is ‘hamare yahan aise karte hain’ and the fight is always to do it ‘our way’. Also, despite the best intentions and the minutest planning, you do get situations no one has thought of how to resolve in advance, like the one above.
So were there any initial apprehensions among either families? Anuja says at the time of the wedding there were none because by the time she and Niret decided to marry, the two families had known each other for about four years.
Any apprehensions were limited to the time she first started dating. “His mum (Congress leader Margaret Alva) is a very tolerant person but my parents reeled at two or three different levels. First it was ‘minister ka beta hai’ then ‘Isai hai’. Then my dad gave me this whole thing from ‘do you know I will have to have Catholic grandchildren’ to ‘I will feel like a failure.’ But that was very initial,” says Anuja, whose parents are settled abroad. In fact, when her dad voiced apprehensions that she would have to give up her religion, “I told him ‘you gave up your country,’” laughs Anuja merrily.
In Meera’s case, it wasn’t her parents but her teachers in school (where she met Nivedith) who were anxious. “They advised me not to get involved with the son of a politician,” she says.
Dating and getting married are two different things. While dating, you are only involved with your partner. When you marry you get involved with the family no matter how hard you try not to. And when you belong to different communities, no matter how cosmopolitan you are, there are sometimes glaring differences in the way you do things.
Food was a big, big issue with Anuja. “The food really threw me in the beginning. I can’t stand fish and Mangaloreans must have fish or prawns with every meal. When I got pregnant I used to get horribly nauseous. I used to be so homesick. There is no concept of dals in the plural in the Mangalorean community. ‘Sirf ek dal banti hai,” she laughs. “Back home, we have so many dals...”
The first time Anuja met Niret’s extended family in Mangalore, she was also thrown by the way everyone kissed everyone indiscriminately. “They grab you and muah, muah. It’s not air kissing. It’s a full on pappi. So by the time I was through, I looked like a red Indian with lipstick marks up my cheeks,” laughs Anuja, avidly enacting what she is narrating. “My family was not so touchy feely.”
These issues are still minor compared to those that have the potential to escalate into something serious like the faith of the children.
Niret-Anuja, Nikhil-Pria and Nivedith-Meera, who have six children between them, resolved this issue much before they married and mutually decided to bring their children up as Catholics.
Anuja explains it well. “Somewhere along a person’s spiritual journey, you realize that God is one. I didn’t want my kids to grow up confused. I knew Niret was passionate about his religion so I was cool as long as I wasn’t changing my religion. It wasn’t much of an issue really and the kids are happy.”
But there are challenges. Leave aside religion, unless both parents in a mixed marriage try really hard, the influence of one side of the family on the children is usually diluted.
Pria agrees. Though she grew up in Delhi, her parents ensured she had a strong link to Coorg. She vacationed there at least twice a year and her parents ensured she was involved in all Coorg functions in Delhi even if she went there kicking and screaming. Pria would like her kids to have the kind of connection to Coorg that she had while she was a child but is aware that link has been diluted.
The Alva children are however lucky to have a wide range of cultural experiences to draw from. All families celebrate Holi, Diwali and Christmas with equal gusto. Pria also takes her son and daughter to celebrations of two festivals unique to Coorg: the harvest festival and a festival to worship weapons and implements, vital to the Coorgs, a martial race.
Our kids are growing up as secular Indians who respect all religions, says Nikhil. But Nivedith gets the last word. “Our daughter is a Mang Tam-Brahm Catholic and that says it all!”