Elephant Beach in the Andamans was not where I thought I would have to justify my life choices. Yet there I was, feet dipped in clear water, staring into the horizon, trying to convince two middle-aged women whom I did not know that the man I was with was indeed my husband.
By the fourth day of our vacation on the islands, we had got used to being stared at. But when curious glances turned to quizzical looks, we began to realise that we were considered an oddity: a brown woman with a white man.
“Who is he?” one of the two women asked me as soon as my husband left my side. “My husband,” I replied after a while, snapping out of savouring my first-ever snorkelling session. She then asked me questions about our wedding and everything that had led to it. Then the other woman, who had remained silent until then, asked me for proof. “Where is your mangal sutra? Where are your bangles?” Her tone reminded me of a teacher scolding an errant student in moral science class. I showed them the fading mehendi on my palms. Why did I do that? I later kicked myself for having misunderstood their questions as friendly banter.
When many Indians see one of their women with a man of a different race, they make assumptions, and offer unsolicited advice. An Indian woman who has got a white man must be enlightened, even by complete strangers. A lawyer whose services I was seeking for a few marriage-related formalities started by giving me a sermon on running a background check on the man I wanted to marry because “you never know how these firangs are”. I didn’t call on her again.
Probably every woman in India has one story about having been subject to lecherous looks as she has walked down the street. Now make her walk next to a white man. The male gaze turns more brazen by several orders of magnitude.
Ketki Pradhan, a French teacher in Pondicherry, told me about the time she was holding her German boyfriend’s hand when a group of men started making vulgar gestures. “One of them grabbed my other hand and held it very tightly for a few seconds, and ran away,” Pradhan recalled. “I was so angry that I shrieked, and we ran after them. At first, he laughed. Then seeing that I was not going to go, he apologised.” Another time, a group of men sneered as they passed by the young couple: “Hum mein kya kami thi joh iss gore ke saath chali gayi?” What do we lack that you chose this white guy?
My friend Neha Belvalkar’s first visit to India after two years in a film school in the US was “appalling”, in her words. Chris, her American boyfriend, had accompanied her. One day when walking on a street in Pune, Neha’s hometown, a biker slowed down near the couple and almost hit her. She asked him to watch where he was going. She said she sensed a mixture of repressed fury and lust in the man’s tone, when he hissed back: I will f*** you.
To many Indians, the idea of a mixed-race couple is alien, repulsive even. Nicholas Chevaillier, my friend Aarya’s French-American husband, has been asked more than once in India where and how he “picked up” the woman he was with. Her experiences in those two years in Mumbai before the couple moved to Los Angeles forever clouded the way Aarya thought of the city in which she had grown up.
“Being with my own husband would make me uncomfortable because men would pass lewd comments with even more alacrity than when I was alone,” said Aarya. At times she ignored the comments, but when she did try to fight back, some men found the aggression titillating: “Kya fataaka hai!” What a firecracker she is!
A closet full of stereotypes
At play here is the stereotype that Western men are interested in women mainly for sexual gratification. By extension, the Indian women they are with must be promiscuous. Then there is patriarchy: women who venture out of the nest to seek a mate must lack decency. And there’s the drive towards conformity: the ugly head that raises itself at the sight of anything that dares to deviate from the norm.
Milan resident Divya Kapahi was visiting Jodhabai’s palace in Agra with her Romanian husband when their tour guide made a comment that angered her. “While talking about Akbar’s many wives of different faiths, he cited our marriage as an example,” said Divya. “I found it out of place since he was talking about Akbar having a good time with many women.”
Mixed-race couples often have to deal with scepticism about their relationship masquerading as concern about cultural differences. When Aarya decided to tie the knot with Nicholas in 2010, she often got lectured about the sanctity of marriage and how it should be preserved.
Such attitudes towards mixed-race couples are just another expression of the intolerance that won’t countenance Hindu women marrying Muslim men or an upper-caste woman someone from a so-called “lower” caste. And a mixed-race couple in which one person is black often brings out the worst kind of racism.
Family and friends
When I decided to marry a Frenchman, my family’s concern was the normal one that parents have about whether their children have made the right decision; my partner’s nationality played only a minor role. So when a neighbour took it upon herself to tell my mother that I was being an irresponsible daughter by marrying outside my “caste” and moving abroad, it upset me at many levels. I wondered whether she would have felt as much concern over my being so far away from my mother had I married an Indian.
Or whether a policeman from a Mumbai police station would have muttered under his breath when Aarya went for a no-objection certificate required for her American visa: “What else would you expect from the daughter of divorced parents?” Or whether sadhus at Pushkar would have rebuked Divya for being a “bad Hindu”, marrying a white man and not making him convert to Hinduism.
Or whether Ketki would have been asked to leave the building she was living in, in Nashik, because other residents did not want their children to be exposed to a “modern, unmarried mixed couple”, as some might put it.
In a country where jingoism is at its peak and love is being politically exploited, such comments are no surprise. If romantic love is not confined to the community, which is as narrow as a person’s worldview, it becomes, in the minds of some, a serious threat to the social order.
I urge them to listen to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who said: The doves that remained at home/ never exposed to loss/ innocent and secure/ cannot know tenderness.
To the neighbour who tsk-tsked at my life choices, I would like to extend my tender invitation to a home cooked Indo-French meal.