We’re on the same boat brother (or sister, as the case may be)

“Where I come from,” said Archie, “a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.”

“Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,” said Samad tersely, “that it is a good idea.”

During our stay in UK and visits elsewhere, we always had people asking us about the subcontinental practice of arranged marriages. Which in reality is becoming less and less. And I would lie for the sake of political correctness if I say it was not said with some amount of oh-my-god-you-are-so-primitive-how-on-earth-are-we-even-talking-to-each-other-filled disdain in the voices. And then I would hear about them dating people they met on dating sites, and I would think, “hello? Where is the difference?” Arranged marriages are at least in real life, you see the person, like/dislike, family likes/dislikes, but the guy or girl you met on the net and later dated could be an axe murderer and you would only find out at the pearly gates of heaven.

And then again, it is not to say that an arranged marriage would not dole you out an axe murderer either, but chances are slightly less. The important thing is not to judge other cultures. I had a marriage pretty much like people do in the West – became friends with my husband, then dated and then married – not a religious wedding but a court one. And my brother had an arranged marriage, – the whole enchilada- and many of our friends/cousins fell into either of the two types and I can’t in all honesty say people like my husband and I are going to walk into some sunset hand-in-hand and the others are doomed to a continuum of marital discord.Ultimately, happiness in marriage has no guarantees. Marriages become about ability to live together, respect each other and make compromises and have kids and then live in the same house, drive each other up several walls, sometimes never managing to come down for days, have big fights and little patch-ups and end up wondering what on earth happened to one’s life. That happens everywhere. Marriages might last longer in eastern cultures because of social conditioning and the lack of expectation to begin with but it does not make such marriages happy.

My neighbour’s children in Cambridge were called Chardonnay (the girl), and the boy was called Remy (yup, you guessed it, as in the cognac). I know many Indian ladies called Mohua, which is an indigenous alcoholic drink. See? The girl used to love to come over to our house. From the bedrooms upstairs, I would see the children make a swing out of a rejected car tyre tied to a tree and have a rollicking time. I remember doing that in our houses in our childhoods. The language of childhood is always the same. But then, ridiculously, in some sense, I had a more British upbringing than many Brits did. We had cooks and chauffeurs and gardeners and huge bungalows and lush lawns at home. We used to salivate over tinned sardines and baked beans simply because those had English names, and I hated them only later, when the need to impress anyone left me. When I grew up, that is.

In my boarding school, we had dinner at 6.30 pm, like Brits do. When our insides protested, it forced us to steal bread from the dining hall and have them with cough syrup. Thank god for my friend Raji who needed her cough syrup (she could not tolerate the draught which apparently came from the French slatted windows :)), as that kept the supplies coming. And our bedcovers were called – hold it – counterpanes and napkins were called serviettes. Beat that if you can for posh-ness. And amidst all that sophistication and consequent unease for someone clearly not sophisticated, and learning to purposely put the socks near the ankles (what did I know? This was the done thing. Having them up to one’s knees was completely infra-dig) and getting to know all sorts of people, I learnt that one finds friends everywhere, in the unlikeliest of places. Keeping up with the Joneses was important, but at times we did find that the Joneses were aping us too, so there. Many of my closest friends are people I initially thought were completely not ‘my type‘, whatever that meant in my confused teenage mind, from those years. If we meet, it does feel – cliche’d as that sounds – as though we never parted.

Like I did in UK. Made friends despite the fact that it took me a few weeks to even understand the Yorkshire English. In my first job there, I met so many people who were years older than me, a Pakistani lady who came in her native clothes but who spoke with such a heavy accent that I used to often find it bewildering to connect that voice/accent with that face and get-up. I had the same surreal feeling years later here, when I realized a gentleman at work who I spoke to in conference calls and always imagined to be a sort of swashbuckling Texan (judging by his drawl) was actually a very proper and dapper gentleman when I saw him. I realized that the national past-time of most women everywhere was gossip. Later I met two of my closest friends in UK – they would cook, clean, iron clothes for me, and chat for hours, gladly. Not many Indian friends would do that. They all cried copious amounts of tears when we left, with the entire airport terminal wondering, I am sure, what the hell was happening there. The fact that we almost always did it with wine is neither here nor there. When my son was born, he did not have grandparents with him,  but the first gold sovereign he got was from a British friend of mine.

I have been to aerobics classes in Britain as well as here, and in both places it has done me no good. Sadly, in both countries there were/are women like us living with the fragile hope that it will work one day. Women everywhere keep having issues about their self-image, as my snarky husband likes pointing out. Initially in England I used to wonder how/why young women all wore black and essentially looked the same. I came back home to find that young women, from which group I was now excluded, here do the same. And here it is hot and definitely not cool -not the teenager’s cool, real, temperature cool. In whichever country you go, you will always find children taut as a bow, suddenly endowed with extraordinary strength, refusing to budge from the toy car  or chocolate area in the supermarket. The parents everywhere carry the same “why-on-earth-did-I-think-of-having-a-child” look. In every country you will find children refusing to eat anything they have not seen advertised on TV. Or you can have one like mine, who refused to eat. Period.

One needs to rid one’s mind of stereotypes. The tattoo covered, rings-all-over, bomber-jacketed man could be a wonderful gentle giant of a man, I found out to my utter shame. When one is in England, one needs to understand that you can’t always call dinner dinner, it’s called tea. And so stop wondering why when people were discussing what they were having for tea was shepherd’s pie or roast lamb, while you went home, took out a Tetley’s tea-bag and had a cuppa with just some Bombay-mix (aha! you didn’t know that, did you – that’s what they call our chanachur/dalmoot!). And don’t fret if you had never heard of Balti cuisine before leaving India. Most Indians didn’t either. And here’s one major snub to all our rabble-rousing politicians. Most Indian restaurants outside India are owned by Pakistanis with Bangladeshi staff. It is the starkest example there is that the subcontinent’s people are very similar so stop with all the fighting already, will you?

It is important to integrate with wherever you live, but it is possible to do this without losing your national/cultural identity. Keep your language, love its sounds, its rhythm. But it is extremely important to be able to, while speaking your language and eating your food, march together with people of different languages and colours, remote from your own.

What George Bernard Shaw had once said about men and women could actually be said about our increasingly globalized work sphere too – “They’re destined never to understand each other, but doomed to forever try”. What’s to say he should be always right? Prove him wrong.


2 thoughts on “We’re on the same boat brother (or sister, as the case may be)

  1. One fine day we might all realize that the similarities between us, by sheer virtue of being human beings, far outweigh the differences. Till then, vive la difference!

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