In a recent TV commercial for BharatMatrimony.com, a mother approaches her family in the living room. “He’s bringing that Amy,” she informs her daughter, husband and mother. “Amy?” asks the grandmother, “Gori?” The father expresses grumpy disapproval and buries his head in a magazine. “Please be cool,” the mother begs. The ad cuts to a handsome young man sitting across from the father. “Dad, meet Amy,” he says. The camera pans left to reveal a pretty young desi girl sitting next to him. “Namaste, Uncle, I’m Amritha,” she says, “My dad’s a doc in New York.” Everybody smiles and the dark clouds scatter.
This nearly racist ad sums up the received wisdom on the ideal mate for most Indian-American parents, who generally see their children marrying within the community. Yet, South Asians across North America appear to be marrying non-South Asians at much higher rates than two decades ago, as older generations of immigrants come to grips with the American melting pot. “It’s definitely increased,” says Arpana Inman, professor of sociology and South Asian studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She admits that there is limited data on such marriages, particularly from previous decades. Yet, “I think you could safely say that it’s doubled.”
What’s more, among South Asians, inter-ethnic unions often fare better than intra-ethnic. “Desi-desi marriages are more fragile than desi-White marriages in the US,” says Shaifali Sandhya, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist and the author of Love Will Follow: Why the Indian Marriage Is Burning. She cites an excess of parental involvement and the couple’s resulting inability to find privacy as possible explanations.
Precise data is very hard to come by, but according to Census Bureau information, less than 1 per cent of all US marriages in the 1970s were inter-racial or inter-ethnic. Today, the overall number is 15 per cent, and among Asians, it’s nearly 29 per cent. Further, a study by Inman found that for Indian females in America, the US-born are more than four times likely to marry White males than women of Indian origin born in India (19 per cent to nearly 4 per cent). Similarly, Indian males born in the US are more than thrice as likely to marry White females than their Indian-born counterparts in America (18.5 per cent to 6 per cent).
Still, it constitutes a defiance of tradition. For centuries, Indians and other South Asians have tended to marry within the same geographic region, religion, socioeconomic status and caste. For many who emigrate to Canada and the US, keeping up matrimonial traditions is one way to avoid cultural dilution as a minority arrival to a country of many peoples. Also, the bias against marrying an ‘outsider’ is stronger among certain sub-ethnicities and castes, such as Tamil Brahmins. [Detailing traditional views on marriage and their reasons would require an entire book, not to mention an exhaustive and exhausting study. Thus, for brevity, this article will tend to view Indians in North America as a near-monolith.] South Asian parents also view intra-ethnic marriages as a short-cut to finding mates with similar values, and worry that mixed unions could create a distance between first-generation parents and their grandchildren, undermining the family unit.
Decades ago, prominent Indian-Americans like Zubin Mehta, a Parsi from Bombay who became a leading American orchestra conductor, began blazing a trail. Mehta, the longest-serving lead conductor of the New York Philharmonic, married Canadian soprano Carmen Lansky in 1958. After their divorce, he married American actress Nancy Kovack in 1969.
In more recent years, well-known Indian-Americans like Fareed Zakaria have also married people of other ethnicities. But few highlight the changing times better than Anu, a Canadian-Bengali based in Ottawa, whose narrative may be representative of the broader experience of Indians in mixed unions. Now a development economist, Anu left Calcutta to study at Cornell University in the 1960s and has lived in Canada for most of her adult life. In 1972, she married a White Canadian man despite the reaction of most of her Bengali friends at the time. “It was extremely uncommon,” says Anu. “The people who knew my family were completely scandalised that we’d done this, and they’d ask, ‘Did your mother know?’ ‘Did she approve?’”
Anu admits she came from an exceedingly liberal Calcutta family: “My mother had said to me, ‘I’m not going to find you a husband, so you must choose who you want to marry.’” Anu and her first husband divorced after 18 years, but cultural differences played no part in the split. In 2001, she married again, this time a White Jewish man from the US. Today, some of her friends who were scandalised by her first marriage have White sons-in-law. “I’ve now sort of become part of the furniture,” says Anu, laughing at the changed response. “They no longer see me as horrible or a groundbreaker or anything else. In fact, I think Indians have become more accepting.”
Jimmy Soni might agree. His parents are from Rajasthan, but he was born in France and moved to the Chicago suburbs as a four-year-old, the eldest of two boys. Now 25 and a mayoral adviser in Washington DC, Soni has dated mostly White women. “That’s just how it happened,” he says, “It was never by design.” But the reaction has been something of a surprise. “It’s kind of affirmed for me how open people can be,” he says, speaking of his friends, relatives and parents. “I had prepared all these long speeches that I would give if it became an issue, but I’ve never had to use them.”
Soni says his parents have had more issues with the fact that he was dating than who he dated. Mainly, they want his future wife to have a similar set of values—emphasis on education, importance of family and respect for elders—and a level of comfort with her family. “I know they were sceptical at first,” says Soni. “But as they’ve met the girls I’ve dated, maybe they’ve learned that my radar isn’t as bad as they thought it was. They’ve come to realise that I’m not picking people who have no ability to interact with them, so they’ve managed to give me the benefit of doubt as a result.”
Soni’s case is something of a surprise to some. Sandhya says that males of Indian origin—particularly the eldest—face stiffer parental resistance on the idea of a mixed union. “Hindu society places a lot of importance on propagation of the family line through males,” she explains, “So there’s greater pressure on first-born males to marry within the community.” It’s not just Hindu society; only a fifth of Asian males in the US go in for mixed marriages, while some 40 per cent of all Asian females do.
Consider this case. An American girl named Cara, a journalist living in the New York area at the time, met a Tamil Brahmin man on a connections website. Their relationship progressed slowly at first, but then became serious, and within a year they had moved in together. Cara soon found that a White American girl was not welcomed too warmly by his family. Once, while riding the subway, he told her of his parents’ ranking of girls, from most desirable mate to least. A White girl ranked fifth, tied with Dalit, Black and Muslim. On a visit to Chennai to attend the wedding of an old friend of his, her reception, at the reception, was icy. ‘Every woman aged 40 and above gave me the coldest stare imaginable, a mix of disgust and anger,’ she says via email.
Later, she met his parents, and asked his father about his favourite adventure—had he really hiked into Tibet on foot? “Yes,” the boyfriend’s father responded, full stop. ‘If this were a movie,’ Cara recalls, ‘the silence would have been so deafening you would have heard the clock ticking on the wall.’ Their relationship ended after five years, and her Tamil Brahmin boyfriend later married an English girl. ‘At least his parents came around and went to the wedding,’ says Cara, ‘I think by that stage, they were just happy he didn’t come home with a boy in tow, announcing he was gay.’
That’s not to say mixed relationships are easy for Indian women. One young Tamil Brahmin woman in the US looked for a husband within her community for years, trying everything from websites like Shadi.com (distinct from Shaadi.com) to family set-ups. By her early 30s, she’d started dating a White American journalist. They married in Chennai in 2009, and during a recent visit to India, the new wife heard her aunt whisper to a friend, “We couldn’t have found a better boy even if we had searched.”
Indian mothers typically expect their daughter-in-law to spend a great deal of time with the extended family, cooking and taking care of the family domestically.
Janis McClinch, an Irish Catholic woman from Connecticut, and her husband Rajive Chaudhry, both architects, split their time between Lexington, Massachusetts, and New Delhi, where they run a boutique guest house and spend time with his family. The fact that all of Rajive’s three older brothers married Indian women may have smoothened the way for their marriage, at least from the Chaudhrys’ perspective. But it’s taken Janis some time to get used to the stream of friends and relatives constantly flitting in and out of their Delhi home. “Occasionally, I’ll have moments when I want to scream,” she says. “It’s not like I don’t want to spend time with all these people, but I do need some down time.”
Subrata Chakravarty, a long-time business journalist whose father served as Indian ambassador to the United Nations, has had a good many years of down time with Bess, his American wife of 40 years. They met in the summer of 1968, when he was 21 and a junior at Yale, and she had just graduated from boarding school.
“I had no intention of getting married… I wanted to join the Indian foreign service,” remembers Chakravarty, an only son. “I’m pretty sure my mother assumed I would marry someone Indian.”
His parents had moved back to India the previous year, when his father took over as Governor of Haryana. Chakravarty’s guardians in the US at the time were an older couple who had been his parents’ neighbours for years. They visited India for his parents’ 30th anniversary and told them Subrata may have met a girl he wants to marry. “My parents asked a bunch of questions,” says Chakravarty. “And my father said, ‘I trust my son’s judgement and if this is the girl he wants, then that’s fine.’”
He was not yet sure how serious he was about Bess. “I was serious about making a decision: ‘You can have foreign service or you can have the girl—you can’t have both,’” he recalls telling himself. “I was leaning towards ‘I want to have Bess’.”
Bess’ family and friends were worried that, since his parents had moved back to India, he might do the same. “She had her family and her friends saying, ‘You’re getting involved with this guy, his visa will run out at some point and he’ll go back home,’” says Chakravarty. In the end, the two of them spoke, and he told her he was indeed serious. “I picked right,” he adds. “She showed an incredible amount of courage and willingness to take risks.”
For some, the challenges are even greater, yet still not enough to keep them apart. Roy Wadia, originally from Bombay, has lived and worked in the US and Canada for the past 25 years. While working towards his Master’s in accounting at the University of Georgia in 1989, he met Alan, a Taiwan-born Chinese man. The two fell in love and have been together ever since—they married in 2008 while living in Vancouver, Canada.
Being the eldest son and one half of an Indian-Chinese gay couple in the early 1990s could not have been easy. But Roy says his parents were neither homophobic nor racist. They did, however, expect him to marry a woman. “It was just once that my mother sent me the photo of a friend’s daughter in the US to see if I was interested,” Wadia recalls. “Once my mother met Alan, however, she just knew, even without my saying it, that we were a couple—it was the way we were together that spelt it all out.”
Cultural differences cropped up often in the early years, causing trouble. Even today, his relationship is still a discomfort to some of his friends in Mumbai, where he’s living at the moment.
But many mixed couples recall incidents of subtle and not so subtle racism. One incident stands out for Chakravarty. On the way to a dance for one of Bess’ friends in Washington DC, in 1969, they were pulled over by a cop while Bess was driving. “She said ‘We’re looking for Georgetown and we’re kind of lost,’” he recounts, “He gave her directions, then asked, “Is this man bothering you?’”
Chakravarty was less upset than he might have been, pointing out that this was a different era in terms of race relations. Anu’s experience with discrimination, on the other hand, was more personal, and more acute. She was at a gathering of the family of her first husband, sometime in the late 1970s. “I remember one of my husband’s cousins saying, ‘Oh, there are too many coloured immigrants moving into our area, I think housing prices will go down.’” Anu recalls. “I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ And he said, ‘Oh, Anu, we’re not talking about you!’”
But a more recent incident may have been the worst. In 2007, Janis and Rajive were leaving a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after dinner and a middle-aged White man followed them out. He hurried after their car as they started to drive, opened the driver’s side door and closed it again on Rajive’s arm.
“We pulled away and parked across the street,” says Janis, “I was thinking, ‘No way are we going to let this guy get away.’” She told their attacker, who had now retreated to his SUV with his wife and two adult daughters, that she was going to call the police. “He drove over the sidewalk, threw a beer bottle at me and said, ‘That’s what you get for marrying a foreigner!’” says Janis. “And his wife said, ‘9/11 bitch!’”
Janis and Rajive took the man to court and got a restraining order. Though she was pregnant during the stress of the trial, the incident may have actually brought the two closer. “It broke both of our hearts,” she says. “My husband is an amazing human being. He said that it made him realise that people object to the colour of his skin, and it made me so sad.”
Such incidents are no surprise to Inman, the researcher, who recently studied the dynamics of mixed couples featuring an Indian spouse. She found that ethnicity (and being a minority) often plays a role. “This comes into play in terms of how others perceive the marriage, in both the minority community and the majority community—the stares they receive, the discrimination,” she says.
As such marriages have increased, the experiences of such Indian couples have become increasingly diverse, hinging on issues that are not unlike those of more traditional marriages—psychological and emotional factors, privacy, honesty and ability to communicate.
Inman found some predictable clashes of culture. One husband learnt that his wife had never had Santa Claus come to her house when she was a child. “I never considered putting up a Christmas tree would be a discussion,” he told the researcher.
Yet, such problems need not undermine or weaken a mixed marriage. Ask Inman. “These marriages are just as healthy as any other marriage,” says the professor. “One advantage is that these people are going in with eyes wide open and saying, ‘Well, these are differences’, and they deal with them beautifully.”
Janis McClinch seems to have done just that. “People ask me what it’s like to be married to an Indian,” she says. “And I say, well, ‘I’ve never been married to anyone else… My family just sees how good he is, and that I’m happy, and that’s all that matters’.”