Rachelle Braido Shekhar
I could hear the pleading in my boyfriend’s voice as he held his mobile phone close to his ear. We were discovered as the news of our relationship in Portland had traveled to India via Facebook. His oldest brother had married an American, not culturally Indian, who transformed herself into a stereotype out of Bollywood. She enjoyed her high status as the first-born son’s bride. She was also the one who deduced we were an inseparable couple by the photos on my boyfriend’s Facebook page. She reported her scandalous unearthing to her husband who called his parents and other brother in India. Shortly after, aunts, uncles and cousins were informed of the disgrace.
Filled with anxiety and admiration, I listened to him admit to our relationship using English. I was equally grateful I didn’t speak the Hindi-Maithili mix they were responding with. The intensity was palpable, and my boyfriend was defensive. He furrowed his brow as he spoke loudly into the phone.
I heard the loud female sobs a disappointed mother produces and knew she was having the worst time with the news. A calmer male voice appeared as my boyfriend switched ears. His tone quieted, his speech became matter-of-fact, and then he just listened to the voice on the other end. I was sitting on the bed like a spectator as he paced the floor of my room. A break in the conversation caused my boyfriend to look over at me and stare, without a hint of what he was feeling revealed on his face.
My stomach lurched; this wasn’t going to work. I imagined that look on his face meant our situation was hopeless and he was going to return to India and marry a girl his parents would choose for him. I thought about the countless hours I spent watching Bollywood films on Netflix that depicted forbidden love between different castes. I don’t think one of them ever addressed the unsavory union of an American to an Indian.
“Gorlagachi,”he spoke in respect of his parents, then disconnected the call.
“What happened?” I asked. He didn’t answer right away but continued to pace with the phone in his hands. I waited, quietly screaming inside for a response.
I hate to use culture as an excuse, when he knew the expectations of his family and what would happen if we continued to date and fall in love. We watched several Indian friends have flings with Americans and European exchange students only to break it off before graduation. I assumed the same would happen with us, but I couldn’t suppress my emotions for him and allowed myself to fall in love regardless of the consequences.
On our first date, we ended up back at his dorm room. He showed me the Michael Woods documentary on India, which I found fascinating. During the show, he reached for my hand and held it. The warmth from his hand felt familiar, yet exciting. This was the beginning of a new relationship that also felt predestined. He was a thoughtful man of depth and character, which complemented my creative spontaneity.
“My mother is on the verge of suicide,” he finally spoke.
I smirked. “Well, that’s a relief.” Being raised in a dramatic Italian household, I was used to threats of suicide to manipulate a loved one’s decisions. “Just stand your ground and she’ll come around,” I reasoned. “She’s your mother and there is no way she will cut you out of her life.”
He frowned. “You don’t understand my family.” Unsure of what to do or say next, I looked around the room. My desk was stacked with his paperwork and his empty suitcases were lined up by the door.
“Is this it?” I blurted out. It wasn’t the cleverest response, but it was honest.
“I don’t know what to do,” he answered.
I felt protective of myself. “Do what you want. You moved thousands of miles from home to pursue a graduate degree in another country. You’ve lived in a new culture and thrived without any support system around you. They have no idea what you’ve been through, how we met or how we feel about each other. They don’t care about that, only that I’m not Indian.”
He stared at me without any visible sign of emotion. “I can see why you feel this way, but you don’t understand my family.”
“Are we having a cultural issue?” I asked with extreme sarcasm.
“No, Rachelle. It’s my family and I will deal with them.”
Hearing him say my name was a rare treat and it always caught me off guard. It provoked flutters of excitement, the way females feel in a new relationship when there is nothing more erotic than hearing him say your name. However, in Indian custom, given names are formal and create distance. Families use nicknames and couples use terms of affection. Usually, he wouldn’t refer to me at all or he would call me, “my love.” He had only used my name once before when introducing me to a professor we met for dinner.
“What did they say?” I asked.
“My father is on our side.”
I was stunned. “Your father? Why?”
“According to my astrological chart, it was foretold when I was an infant that I would live overseas and marry a foreigner. He was expecting this.”
“So, we are meant to be married.”
“I think so.”
“When you know for sure, let me know.” I grabbed my handbag and a change of clothes and left him with his thoughts.
I drove 20 minutes to my parents’ house where I still had a key to the front door. I let myself in where the aroma of olive oil and garlic filled the air and put me instantly at ease. “I’m home,” I announced.
My mother was in the kitchen, putting dinner on the table. “Oh, hi honey.” She kissed me hello and set a place for me at the table. My dad emerged from his office to join us. I told them everything and refueled on the strength of validation when they fervently took my side.
“His American sister-in-law was yelling at him that he couldn’t marry me when he was on the phone with his brother.”
“What’s wrong with her?” my father asked, “why isn’t she being supportive of you?”
“I don’t think she wants an American sister-in-law,” I said. “She wouldn’t be so special anymore in an Indian family.”
“She’s that insecure?” my mother asked.
“The caste system within the Indian family places her at the top of the food chain as she is the oldest son’s wife. She can’t assume her dominant role in an Indian family with an American sister-in-law.”
“What role?” my mother asked. “She’s American.” I could hear Frank Sinatra playing softly in the background. Sinatra was always on in our house during meals and all day on Sundays after Mass.
“For some reason, when she married my boyfriend’s brother, she started dressing and acting like an Indian. Apparently, she had to work hard to be accepted by the family. Maybe she doesn’t want me to join the family without a fuss after she blazed the trail.”
My father looked at me and shook his head. “Why are you involving yourself with these people?”
“Because, I love him,” I said. “He’s worth it.”
“He must be to put up with that,” my mother commented. Then she gathered plates and walked to the sink. “Don’t forget who you are. You are not Indian.”
“I know that.”
“Don’t change who you are for his parents,” my father added. “We welcomed him into our family without any expectations.” My father was right. They had welcomed my Indian boyfriend to their home, shared meals with him, were curious about his culture and upbringing and celebrated his thesis acceptance with a party. I wondered if I would ever experience that reception with his family.
After dinner, I got into my pajamas, sat in between my parents on the couch and watched television. This is the most comforting place for me, even as an adult.
The next day at work, my boyfriend phoned me twice and I let it go to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message.
I returned home that evening to him stirring homemade chai on the stove. The apartment smelled warm with nutmeg, tea and cinnamon. I kicked off my flats, threw my handbag on a chair and flopped onto the couch as he switched off the stove.
He brought a cup of chai out for each of us and sat down next to me. “I love you,” he began.
“And ? ”I interrupted him.
“And, I’m going to need to work on my family. It’s going to take time.”
“You do what you want,” I said. “Maybe I’ll take that teaching job in South Korea.”
He looked hurt. “I’m going to New Jersey for an internship.”
“What?” I didn’t feel so bitter anymore. He would at least still be in the country. “But, why New Jersey?”
“It’s the only job I’ve been offered, so I have to take it.”
My voice softened. “I understand. I know job searching here has been difficult for you.”
“I leave this Saturday. I’m really going to miss you.” I couldn’t mistake the sincerity in his voice.
“I’m going to miss you too,” I admitted, starring at the swirling skin of milk and spices floating on the top of my tea. “How long will you be gone?”
I leaned my head on his shoulder and allowed myself to feel vulnerable. He put his arm around me and kissed me. I was so in love with this man. “Can I come with you?” I asked.
“You have a good job here,” he said. “But, you can come visit me.”
“Ok, I’ll come visit.”
Saturday arrived with an unusual blizzard in Portland. My father drove us to the airport. He had to stop the car periodically to clear the windshield that was piling up with snow faster than the wipers could whisk it away. Under my father’s gaze, we hugged and kissed goodbye with restraint. I sat in the car and watched him enter the airport and approach the ticket counter to check in his bag.
“Ok if we leave?” my father asked.
“Sure,” I said. I felt like crying, but I didn’t.
We were halfway home when I received the first of many text messages from him. “I miss you already,” it said.
We talked on the phone every evening until we fell asleep. Once a week, I would get a report from him about the phone calls to his family in India. No change in his mother’s attitude toward our relationship.
Each week, I dreaded the inevitable phone call from him where he would tell me he couldn’t go against his family and we should end this. But, it never came.
“I miss you so much,” he admitted one day in early March.
“Good,” I said. “I love you.”
“I can’t live without you,” he said.
"I’ll never forget those words," I thought.
“I want to come back to Portland and marry you.”
“You’re doing this on the phone?”
“Yes. I can’t wait. Will you marry me?”
“Ok, then I’m getting my plane ticket now and coming back.”
“What about your family?”
“I don’t care anymore. I’ll call to tell them we are getting married and we’ll face them later in India.”
I felt lighter and calmer than I had in the past three months.
“But, I need you to do something for my mother,” he said.
“What?” I braced myself for some request of gratitude like sending her gifts or promising to care for her in her old age.
“You need to Skype my family so they can see you.”
A flood of relief washed over me. “Of course.”
Upon his return to Portland, we wrote a script for the call. I bought a series of Hindi language CDs that I parroted in my car and practiced phrases to greet my future in-laws. My fiancé took me to an Indian store and purchased a red Salwar Kameez with matching red, sparkling bracelets. I wore a decorative bindi over my third eye and theatrical makeup that rivaled a Bollywood actress. Aside from my light brown hair and fair skin, I looked like a proper Indian fiancée.
His mother was sitting in front of the computer camera when we Skype called. I greeted her with a very respectful “Gorlagachi.” I bent down and moved my hands to simulate touching her feet while my fiancé maneuvered the laptop camera so she could see. She cried a few tears and smiled, covering her mouth with her scarf to hide her emotions. I spoke a few phrases in Hindi and she responded back in Hindi slowly so I could understand her.
My future father-in-law appeared by her side and I gave him the same respectful greeting. With my fiancé interpreting, I continued to speak with his parents. There were several uncomfortable silences between questions and pleasantries. My fiancé had to prompt me with a few questions to ask them. I wanted them to take the lead with the conversation, but they didn’t ask me any questions about myself, the wedding or my family. I don’t think they were interested.
We planned our wedding without guilt and created a ceremony that combined Catholic and Hindu traditions. We used rosary and mala beads and prayers in Italian and Hindi. His family did not attend, but we emailed photos of the event. The only comment came from my father-in-law. “Her eyes are so blue. I hope your babies have blue eyes.”
Two months after our wedding, my husband told me his mother was still crying over our marriage. “She is sad but she is moving toward acceptance,” he said.
Six years have passed and she is still working on her feelings about our marriage. Last December, my husband’s middle brother married an Indian woman his parents chose for him. We were not able to attend the wedding in New Delhi, so my husband phoned his new sister-in-law to welcome her to the family. I stood by him as he put the call on speakerphone.
“Your turn next,” she said. “When are you coming to India to get married?” My husband looked surprised. I was speechless. She didn’t know he was already married. She wasn’t told I existed.
“I don’t know,” he answered as he turned off the speaker feature.
I stormed out of the room and sat on our bed. I looked at the framed marriage certificate and wedding photo on our dresser and took a deep breath. Acceptance must take longer in India.