Independence Day is a good time to consider pride and prejudices. Nisha Susan looks at the Khap panchayats inside each one of us
YOU’VE HEARD people say, “I thought my parents were liberal.” This is the moment when a lover is brought home. The moment when you hear parents using unfamiliar words in your mother tongue. You learn precise invective for people your family considers alien. Words that ascribe meaning to the length of legs, the size of eyes, the colour of skin, the shape of nose. Who would have thought your father considers falana community promiscuous or dhimkana people unwashed?
Three generations of my family have grappled with love coming home to roost. A cousin chose to marry her best friend from architecture school. Her parents wept at her marrying a low caste, an Ezhava. Who knew they were so pleased at being Syrian Christians? The God of Small Things had not made that particular merger a moment in literary history yet. This was before. “How can she marry him,” they kept asking. The secular mask was not for when you are losing a child to people who in a betterordered world were not allowed in the house. My church-bashing, union-loving kin had acid, outlawed nicknames for Ezhavas. The kind that can earn you a lynching or a lawsuit in post-Independence Kerala.
Propelled by an inexplicable and unprecedented impulse, my grandparents, who ordinarily liked girls behind electric fences, intervened. They persuaded the cousin’s parents to attend the wedding. Afterwards they liked to serve up malicious details from that wedding — no guests, my uncle cried, because he had to wash the Ezhava pujari’s feet. Afterwards they’d refer to my cousin affectionately and with the same invective. They felt good about how liberal they had been.
I assumed two older, sophisticated friends, ahead of me in the political emancipation game, would pity me for belonging to such a backward family. But both looked sheepish when I related this incident. ‘Our parents! They’re shocking but what’s the point of quoting Annhilation of Caste to them? They’ll only laugh at you.’ If I’d been smart I’d have understood then that my political beliefs were as unexamined and as automatic as my grandparents’ prejudices.
A few years later the same two friends decided to get married. Their families kicked up some fuss, but what surprised them was a sense of being stretched uncomfortably. The male half said glumly to his Parsi boss, “The church said no. Who’d have thought I was dying to be buried in the churchyard?” Quick came the reply from the boss, herself struggling with a wedding to a Dutch man, ‘Who’d have thought I wanted to be eaten by vultures?’
Over the next decade, my friends and family went to every kind of wedding — thwarting caste, religion, language, nationality and gender. Mehendi rasams where every aunt spoke a different language and required a youthful translator as if it was the UN, Malayalis looking outraged that these Gujaratis expected them to be at a wedding without meat, Punjabi DJs causing riot in a Coimbatore hall, Sindhi ladies assuming the chaste nadaswaram notes was invitation to kick up their heels and wave clutches of ` 500 notes, a gay man officiating at the wedding of two hijras in a train. My father laughed at a neighbour who said she’d refused to meet her son’s alien girlfriend and now her son had wed without her. “You brought it upon yourself. Who does this sort of thing these days?’ People did, my father knew, as did any newspaper reader. Couples still run, are still beaten, killed, imprisoned. Marriage and progeny are territory too prized to let go of so simply. But one lives in ambient hope of a less anal-retentive nation. My parents are better behaved than my grandparents, right? Progress is linear, right? Love is progress, no?
My insights into my parents are as hit-and-miss as my ideas about India. They have opened up their home to a cross-dressing auto-mechanic girl but my mother bawled when she thought I was a lesbian. Who knows which way they swing? But the weighing scales came out of storage when my younger brother announced he was going to marry his colleague, a Manipuri woman. If my parents thought of her in those old terms (length of legs, size of eyes, colour of skin) they didn’t do it in our hearing. (But my father muttered he’d known many Filipinos in the Gulf.) My parents interrogated him. Who were her parents? He shrugged. Where was her hometown? My brother’s GK was challenged, but not his decision. My parents boycotted the wedding.
With sheer dogma, I supported him but panicking before the wedding, I asked, “Are you sure? You haven’t known her long.” He replied with great kindness, “We are not like you. We don’t think so much.” A day before the wedding my mother caved. She was a quivering, tearful presence at the small wedding. My brother, a nervous speaker at the best of times, now stood before a crowded hall and declared love for his bride. I gawped.
While keeping up interracial relations outwardly, I asked myself: Why such a large family? Will my brother become an Jesus-lovin’ evangelist? Will the little hall she goes to every Sunday get burnt by Karnataka’s church-burners? What would my father think of her clothes, her will, the teenaged niece she had brought up in her sister’s stead? Everything my family claimed to admire — faith, reticence, self-made people — looked suspicious when embodied in this polite young woman.
Reader, he married her. I had a new sister-in-law. I found myself trying to show I wasn’t one of those who thought she was chinky. I was cool. But I knew I was the great, bumbling South Indian trying to make sure I didn’t offend by idiocy or intention. I felt like those moustachetwirling fathers thinking they can beat this unfamiliar stranger called Love out of their midst. Why couldn’t things go back to the way they were — under control?
The Malayalis looked outraged that these Gujaratis expected them to be at a wedding without meat
WHEN MY nephew was born I hung about in the hospital room. The baby, my friends had assured me, would be a tiny messiah. My mother certainly hotfooted it to him. The room was filled with guests and flowers. A woman crooned Tulu lullabies. A Mizo girl complained about ‘horrid Manipuris always speaking Meitei’. Both grandmothers giggled since they didn’t have language in common. My brother on the phone: “No man, I can’t make out whether the baby is chinky. All babies look chinky at this stage.” We all groaned.
The mist having cleared, I noticed some things. Everyone who came home told my father he was being silly. Who does this sort of thing these days, they asked. I wondered what would have happened if they had all asked him to avenge his thwarted masculinity by shunning my brother.
Many months passed before my father came around. He invited the prodigals over. (Later, my sister-in-law confided her puzzlement, “He’s very sweet. But a little strange. He asked me to step in with my right foot.”) Who knows why he unfroze. My mother keeps saying, “I told you all you had to do was give him time.” My brother’s tiny family seems to have survived their exile. I am not sure I would have. I am not sure there is enough time in the world.
And neither do thousands of lovers who decide every day that there is no thinking this through. If the Khap bans it, so be it, if our uncles kill it, so be it. If the thakurs rape us, so be it. Somehow we shall be fish and bird together. We will think about tomorrow, tomorrow. This is our midnight hour and our tryst is with each other.
Illustration: Anand Naorem