In the India of today, would we still celebrate inter-community marriages like they did in 1996?

Unlikely, going by the reaction to IAS couple Tina Dabi and Athar Amir-ul-Shafi’s marriage.

One couple were Saraswats. But the wife was a Chitrapur Saraswat, and the husband a Goud Saraswat. What’s the difference, I might have thought. They are both Brahmin, both Hindus, both call Konkani their mother tongue. But to them, and to others in the two communities, there are profound differences. That is why they believed their marriage was such an unusual occurence – because it bridged those differences.

That is why they were there, that evening in 1996.

This was a gathering of “inter-community” couples – in which the wife and husband were from different communities. Married into the Chitrapur Saraswat community as I am, my wife and I had been invited too. We were all expected to say a few words about what the differences between us were, why we chose to look past them, and what it had meant in our marriage. And with the news of Tina Dabi and Athar Amir-ul-Shafi – Indian Administrative Service officers from different religions whose marriage last week is giving many empty-headed people acute indigestion – I have had this gathering of married couples on my mind.

Across the great divides

I went to it, admittedly, nursing a faint scorn. By “inter-community”, I had assumed the organisers had meant marriages across religious lines. Like Tina Dabi and Athar Amir-ul-Shafi, that is. Now, there was no particular reason to make such an assumption, but there you are. At the best of times, religion does nothing for me. So I expected to hear an entire evening’s worth of platitudes that would go in one ear and out the other, and then we would go home.

But then the couples – there must have been 40 or 50 of us – began trooping up on stage and saying things that chipped steadily at my foolish scorn. Adjust was a word we heard a lot all evening – “We had to adjust quickly!”, “His mother is the one who had to adjust to me!”. Food and language were two major themes that required the pair to adjust. That applied even between the two Saraswat strains. But Konkani is their language, you say. And how vastly different could their cuisine really be? Well, Goan Konkani of the Gouds is substantially different from Mangalorean Konkani of the Chitrapurs. And Gouds like their daily diet of fish, which is not exactly the usual fare on Chitrapur menus. So adjust they must, and did, and seemed blissful about it.

Later, a Hindu woman walked on stage, her Catholic husband behind her. In their case, the barrier they had crossed was the one between religions. So, more than food and language, that is what they spoke of: they had a church wedding, they had a temple wedding, both families were initially against their marriage but over time that opposition had melted away. People nodded their heads – this business of familial opposition was familiar, clearly – and clapped. Was this a slightly broader divide than the one between Chitrapur and Goud? Only if we on the outside wanted to see it that way. From the way the couples spoke of it, the amount of adjusting, and the effort it needed, seemed about the same in each case.

Some dozen or so couples later, we heard from an Indo-French couple and then an Indo-Armenian one. Their stories were again different: how much the foreigners, despite some early hesitation, had come to like India, Indian ways and Indian food; how lovely their Indian wedding ceremonies had been; the way the Indian spouses had reacted to foreign cultures; the challenges of bringing up children in such a home.

The organisers, at any rate, had some kind of ordering of the divides in mind. The Saraswat pair early on, with others like them. The Hindu-Catholic pair in the middle, with Hindu-Muslim and other such, including languages, packed around them. The Indo-Armenian types at the end. (Somewhere in there, my wife and I). From differences within a particular sub-caste, we had moved smoothly along to differences between religions, and thence, still smoothly, to differences between nationalities. And as we moved along, the lesson slowly sank in. Community, adjust, divide – these words were only as narrow or as broad as any of these couples chose it to be. (Take me: I never saw much of a divide between my wife and I, and I think I can speak for her too).

Then and now

And yet the strange thing was that each of us couples were being celebrated – actually so – for what we had done. Celebrated for our apparent contribution, by merely getting married, to building an India we might all cherish. Celebrated, amazingly, for doing what had come only naturally to us.

Today, I wonder where in that evening’s parade Tina Dabi and Athar Amir-ul-Shafi would have been positioned. I am especially curious, because they are getting a remarkable amount of abuse for doing what came only naturally to them. Just before writing this essay, for example, I came across this remark – only typical, really – directed at them:

That’s right. This man wants Tina Dabi to drown.

Looking back to that gathering of us couples in 1996 from this India of 2018, it seems almost naïve, almost sepia-toned, almost ancient history. I read about Tina Dabi and Athar Amir-ul-Shafi, I read about the nonsense of “love-jihad”, and I marvel at how much a country has changed.

I wonder: who would even think today of such a gathering, such a celebration?

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