Monday, July 4, 2011

Some Stereotypes and a Love Story

Thanks to Chetan Bhagat, a college senior and The Husband (not necessarily in that order) I am writing this piece. Chetan Bhagat is not known to me personally.Though I am a tad bit tired of NDTV trying to get his opinion on everything under the sun, just because he wrote some popular fiction. Admittedly I enjoyed his book :Two States, which I read this week. The enjoyment purely because, I have been there and done that. My LSR college senior, because she has been putting up lovely shayari(poetry) on her Facebook status updates, evoking beautiful memories.And The Husband because without him the story would never be :)

Stereotyping is something which at times we are victims of and sometimes something which we are equally guilty of. My love story is abound with plenty of stereotyping and efforts of rising above them unscathed. Some of those incidents may seem hilarious today but were far from funny then.

Before I continue a disclaimer: I have been blessed with a great Sasuraal(Husband's immediate and extended family). The journey has been more or less smooth and I have been loved. Main Geeta par haath rakh kar kehtee hoon ki am not saying this, because someone from the In laws side may read this.

I come from a conservative Dogra Brahmin Family (as north Indian as it gets). And my husband is a Bihari Rajput (eastern India). A Bihari!!! at a time when Bihar and Biharis had unfairly become the National joke thanks to Lalu Prasad Yadav. The amnesia that Bihar has produced Chanakya, Chandragupt Maurya, Gautam Buddha,Babu Kunwar Singh, Rajendra Prasad to name a few is surprising to say the least.

When I first told my mother I wanted to marry and marry a Bihari at that, my understanding and progressive mother who had already met him, was happy. This sentiment only lasted for thirty minutes before it was replaced by an increasing sense of anxiety and panic. For God's sake a Bihari!!! How was a honest Dogra Brahmins family supposed to produce the kind of gold, cash, 'gifts' a Bihari Rajput family would expect. I told her in self-righteous anger and with LSR and TISS honed sensibilities that the mere mention of the word dowry and all hell would break loose on the boy's family. With lots of trepidation my mother went ahead with the task of informing my first love Dad!.

Daddy dearest like all the daddies, thought the guy was, a degree or two less than what I deserved. After all I was the star of the khandaan. I was a Delhi University Topper, done what no other Dogra girl (P.S. known to them) had done before...had gone to one of the Nations best college and Institute. All this at a time when my parents had to justify to the rest of the family why I could not do a 'simple' BA if that was all I wanted to do in some college in Jammu under the eye of any of my three loving but scary looking, bearded Mama's (maternal Uncles) and the loving but overly protective extended family.

I was allowed to study in Delhi with some conditions. The family also gave in because I was the 'good girl' ...I could do no wrong. And after three wonderful years of Undergrad years, I did them proud by getting into TISS, Mumbai. And that is where the brilliant track record ends. I betrayed every body's trust by falling for a Bihari in the City of Dreams!

My Dad gave in grudgingly when I said there was no marrying this Bihari, if I did not have his blessings. My dad melted and spent the rest of the following months gathering courage to break the news to the extended family, that his lovely daughter had not only, not, fallen for one of the studs from the Dogra community, but even his last name was wrong! At that stage my father would have married me to anyone from the country as long as he was a Brahmin.

The extended family (barring a few) was displeased about two facts.  One, that I had dared to choose my own life partner and two that he was not from the same community or caste. Someone even asked, if all the Brahmin boys were dead. This was more dramatically put, than it actually reads. Yes those Bollywood movies are inspired by real life and vice versa.

Not strangely enough I experienced some gender stereotyping too at both ends. If there were some in the Husband's circle who thought that I had ensnared their son, there are some in my family who have as recently as this year (after some bad blood between families) said that I had trapped this really eligible and bhola  boy knowing very well that he is a 'great catch'!

Thanks to some spelling mistake by the School authorities and thanks to a weird way that my Bihari family chose to spell, my husband goes with the last name Sinha instead of the more obvious Rajputi...Singh. Though it is one of the biggest sore points for my husband, it proved to be a great help to us. My ancestral village back in Jammu and Kashmir, still thinks, Sinhas are upper caste Brahmins from Bihar. They remain ignorant about the fact that my children go with the last name Singh...the mistake finally corrected with this generation. Ignorance has proven bliss here.

While this was happening in my family, I can imagine the fear clawing at my husband's family. I was this strange North Indian girl who had 'phansaoed' (trapped) their innocent (if they only knew) boy. The whispers doing the round were that the boy was under the spell of a Punjabi/Kashmiri girl. Some sympathized over the loss. After all the boy was fair, and highly educated, especially for a Rajput boy. Rajput boys usually choosing to look after their ancestral "zameen jaydaad"(property) and living off it. Moreover the boy was Phoren (foreign) returned...just back from a year long stint in England. The possible dowry was also estimated by some.I have to clarify that my in laws could not care less for the dowry and were more worried if I would fit in.

Horoscopes were matched upon the parents insistence and we breathed easy as it was confirmed that the stars do not frown upon inter-caste, inter-regional marriages. The planetary positions are still thankfully above (no pun intended) discrimination based upon color, caste, creed, and national/regional/linguistic affiliations.

My family with their North Indian arrogance thought my husband would be dark(as if that's a crime) ugly and uncouth. Surprise! Surprise!the husband if not fairer is the same color as I am. And is definitely not ugly, even if I may say so. The family in Bihar on their part were thinking I would be some loud mouthed North Indian Idiot (read Punjabi, by their own admission), who would not wear sarees or touch every body's feet as a mark of respect,when required).

The wedding went smoothly because as decided, since the marriage was happening in my house, the rituals were to be conducted our way. My family had successfully engaged with all the Bihari Rajputs that rained down on us that day in December. There was conversation and it was fun to hear the Dogra accented Hindi intermingling with the heavy sing-song Bihari accent. Each side thinking the other funny. We did our best with the Bihari rituals of Tilak, chaandi ki machhli, dwaar puja etc.
Our Dogra Pandit silenced the Bihari Pandit who seemed unsure of the sanskrit shlokas and wisely chose to slurp on his tea while our Pandit completed the wedding rituals. This was seen as a major victory by my side.
Along with no dowry my family had also respectfully declined to provide Non vegetarian food for the Baraatis. I understand all the young guns in my husband's family were disappointed at the prospect of 'ghaas-phoos'(vegetarian) for dinner.

Thanks to caste dynamics I had also been warned by a concerned friend and a member of the 'enemy' caste that Rajputs are known for their parochial attitudes towards women. It seems atleast according to this person that Rajputs have "Nachaniya Bajaniyas" ( dancing girls), especially engaged as part of the wedding celebrations. I had severe anxiety attacks,and visions of the husband,drunk, with strings of flowers around his wrist, and dancing around a Nachaniya-bajaniya all the whilst firing shots in the air, in the midst of the wedding party. Shudder!

I flew to my husband's hometown and cried on the way from the airport to my new home out of fear and frustration. Fear because I was genuinely scared of the Biharis waiting for me and what they would make of me, a non-Bihari. And frustration because my husband had failed to provide me with a rough sketch of the rituals that were to take place. I went in clueless and almost toppled over while hopping from one basket to another with my husband holding me from behind. These baskets lined my way from the car to the mandap where I sat down for some more Puja. The basket hopping is a quaint and charming Bihari ritual. There was an understandably added interest during the munh-dikhai. At that point the close family members walked around tense, waiting for me to make some mistake. And the casual onlookers hoping to spot the horns?
I am not sure what they expected of a North Indian Daughter-in-law...did they truly think I would be high-fiving and back slapping my Husband's Great Aunts and Uncles, cracking loud jokes, and breaking into a Daler Mehendi song. All this as I almost suffocated under the heavy wedding Lehenga and jewellery.

The third day, post-wedding as I prepared to go out to greet some guests, my Mother-in-law worriedly reminded me to touch their feet in respect and unnecessarily added that if I do not do so (as if I would dare/choose not to) they would think I was a Punjabi with no 'culture'. This brought on a fresh batch of tears, less because of the stereotype, but, more because my Mother-in-law still had my ethnicity wrong!!!

I am a Dogra for all that it is worth and very proud of my roots.I love my fellow Punjabis and Kashmiris but I was beginning to have a serious identity crisis by then. I was also beginning to wonder if the Punjabis had it worse than the the Biharis in terms of stereotyping.

The languages spoken in my husband's house are what I call the 'Bihari kind of Hindi', Bhojpuri and Maghi. The in laws benevolently spoke to me in 'their' hindi which seemed very foreign when on the sixth or seventh day my MIL asked me to get a 'chhipli' from the kitchen. I stood in the kitchen desperately wanting to make a good impression and frantically thinking of all the possibilities of what a 'chhipli' could be. In the end I did end up taking the wrong thing to her. It turned out to be a small bowl and what I took instead, better remain a secret. But I am wiser now and have another language skill in my kitty.

My husband too suffered likewise. He was at the receiving end of all jokes when he went to Jammu. He showed-off his Dogri speaking skills and repeated the only line I had taught him " Main eda mundu aan" pointing towards me. What he really was saying was that "I am my wife's servant", much to everybody's amusement and my utter delight.

Food was another story. As I braved the bland and super healthy food in his house (not particular to all Bihari homes), he stoically ate tons of paneer, rajma and nandadu (lotus roots) drowning in oil. I spent the first week throwing the too sweet Awla ka murabba out of the window, into the kitchen garden.He on the other hand had nightmares of being chased by Rajma and giant gulaab jamuns.

If I was amazed by the bright red nailpaint every married Bihari woman lovingly wore on her toe nails, irrespective of age they claimed to be blinded by what they called the garish colours and heavy embroidery, women from my community adorned.

Even after a year of marriage my MIL dreaded to introduce me as a Non-Bihari girl and would tell people I was from Ranchi which was technically correct since I grew up there. But the deliberate attempt to skip over my Dogra identity was insulting.

The stereotypes are not even restricted to our respective home states. In Mumbai everybody from UP and Bihar (I dont think they know the difference there..oops stereotyping) is a 'Bhaiya' ...a term more deragatory than complimentary. Once I told a girl, a Mumbaikar and a total stranger, who was in the midst of giving me a facial massage that I am married to a Bihari, and she shrieked "You married a Bhaiya!!! I was too shocked to give her a coherent and rational response and just managed to stutter " Nahin Mera wala Bhaiya achha hai!!!"

My husband has it easy at times, since the expectations are set so low for a Bihari that he always comes out with flying colors, impressing the skeptics with his knowledge, courtesy,and friendly and polite ways. For the still doubtful, my advise is to check the IIT and UPSC list of successful candidates. Education and hard work is not something the Biharis lack, most definitely.

I have it tougher, for being from Kashmir means, I am expected to be a stunning beauty with nothing less than our National favorite "milky white complexion"! Sigh. Thankfully it ends here and very rarely do I have to bring to life the image of a me in a shikara with flowers and a santoor, humming a melancholy mountain tune. Yes it has happened where I have been asked if I get off at the Jammu Railway Station and take a Shikara to my parents residence!!! And no that is not even an option!.

I am not sure which is easier for a Jammu and Kashmir state subject... being suspected to be Anti-National and terrorist or expected to be a raging beauty!!

With all the misgivings and amidst all the one upmanship games, the husband and I have largely remained unaffected barring when we fight and I blame the entire state of Bihar for what I percieve as his stubbornness and my resulting misery. Yes we can be petty too...the pretty mountain girls.To his credit he rarely brings in my regional status into a fight. But our accents can be amusing for him much to my chagrin.

What it means for my children is yet to be seen as they are already under pressure to do well academically because of a stereotype that children of mixed marriages have a higher IQ. They also have the added and misguided responsibility to justify their caste DNA. Well read, academically and spiritually inclined like Brahmins and brave and heroic,to justify their lineage to the warrior caste of Rajputs.

But it has been a decade of a marriage between two families,states,languages,litti-chokha and rajma-ambal, Madhubani and Basohli paintings, holi and lohri, sarees and suthan-kurtas and more. It has definitely made us less judgemental and increasingly tolerant of differences and more loving of all people.