There is a common saying, “Birds of a feather flock together”. As a young girl I didn’t quite understand this and being an inquisitive child, I would ask why each and every time I heard it. Now a mature adult woman, I get it. I do believe that this idea has somewhat changed though, as more and more people broaden their horizons by exploring new concepts.
For the past two years I have been romantically involved with an Indian man. What started out as a few short chats blossomed into so much more than I would’ve ever imagined. He was living in Delhi, India and I was in Connecticut, USA. Imagine over seven thousand miles apart, a continent away. Things escalated and he brought up the words, “I love you” which by this time were mutually felt. The desire to meet and blend lives grew with each passing day but the way we wanted this to work was not to be. He had never left his country and for some reason I had only been as far as Canada. In order for the two of us to be together one of us would have to make a move. Discussions ensued about his current job and life in India. We seemed to agree that the US would be a better choice to meet and therefore he would need to apply for a passport and visa. We settled on this option but applying for a tourist visa to the US proved much more complicated for various reasons, and so after two tries at it, we gave up. Next up, I would travel to India to be with him. Excitedly I bought my ticket and plans were made. I was flying to India, leaving my life behind to be with him.
In September of 2018 I made what has been called by my family and friends, a major life shift and what was most shocking to some was that I was soon to be sixty years. He was thirty four, living at home with his parents and his brother’s family. As is the norm in many Asian countries, men and women usually stay with their families until they are married. And most of these marriages are arranged in accordance with the family’s wishes. Our relationship went against all that an Indian family would expect and therefore he knew he would not be able to share “us” with them, only divulging this to a handful of his close friends. I am not delusional and never expected this shift to be smooth and honestly it hasn’t been. You could say I had two strikes against me in accordance with Indian culture and tradition. One, I was an American woman and two, I am sixty years young! Sixty according to today’s standard of life span statistics is considered young.
India is a country rich in culture, tradition and Hindu beliefs. It is also, even in this day and age, limited in its way of thinking. It is still considered a third world country on the grow albeit unsure of its direction. It embraces different “norms” or ways of living but doesn’t quite understand the what, why or when’s to achieve the end result. America has appeared to many countries as the example of life and living holding the “how to” blueprint that seems to work well.
Throughout the centuries and continuing into today, we are aware that tradition becomes and remains a stronghold due to the stubbornness of elders. It is because of this and the fear of appearing disrespectful that society refuses to open their minds to any alternatives. One other contributing factor to this stronghold is peer pressure and the desire to conform.
We moved forward inspite of anything that felt like a wall and placing this to the back of our minds continued to have many conversations broadening our knowledge of each other. With each one I discovered something refreshingly new and that although he had the structural beliefs of a Hindu, he was different. He didn’t seem to be worried or concerned about my being an older American woman and I found that I enjoyed this and him. He was and still is, refreshingly funny and extremely knowledgeable. He proceeded to tell me a story of how the discussion of arranged marriage was brought up by his family. This resulted in what I call a “bride see”. As Indian tradition mandates he was coerced into going on this venture, with his family in tow. His father made the arrangements and he reluctantly had no choice to refuse. The time was chosen and even though he did not want to go, he knew that his father did not want to socially upset the “apple cart of society”. Prior to leaving his home, he already knew he would refuse and this decision was firm in his mind, no consideration of wavering. The “bride see” was soon over and the discussion of marriage shelved until it reared its ugly head again, and that it would. At that time, a firm, resounding “not interested” and a statement, about never wanting to marry ended the topic. I truly believe he knew that there was something different about him that would never quite meld with an Indian woman. He knew himself so well that in making his decision not to marry he was saving two people’s lives, his and any potential bride’s. Only a man who is extremely self-aware would make such a decision. In my year here in India I have seen a recurring theme in almost all Bollywood movies, marriage.
All one seems to hear, in a rickshaw, in a crowd or on the metro is wedding or shaadi (the hindi word for wedding). A good percentage of Bollywood’s older films depict marriages that were arranged but notably as the years passed recent films began to show love and personal choice. Regardless, in movies or in life, marital status seems more important than one’s name. Attend a family gathering as a single man or woman and you can be sure to be drilled about marriage. It is inevitable and unavoidable. My loudest and most sincerest kudos go to those who shut the nosey questions down before they are even uttered.
Since I moved here to India we spend our time in deep conversation on a variety of topics. Some of which we might not agree on or have a different level of knowledge about. It is great to do research when we come up against a large disparity in opinion. Most recently, on a whim, we were surfing Google when we came cross an interesting article, “Top 10 Countries with the most Faithful Husbands”. We scrolled the list, holding our breath hoping that India would somehow place. Thank God it was only 10 countries! We both would’ve turned blue waiting to find India. No need to worry about that, disappointingly enough it didn’t place in the list. I couldn’t help but remember the handful of married Indian friends I had known, some of which had suffered marital strife due to this topic. When we finished, we looked at each other. It dawned on me that this is a bone of contention for me, as I find faithfulness and loyalty the most important duo of characteristics in a relationship. On this we agreed realizing that tolerating anything less is not something we could do.
There is a subtle yet strong connection between us that began to develop when we were continents apart. We can be silent and feel it, or at times it will show in our ways of thinking the almost identical thought at the same time. I am sure that the nay-sayers who don’t believe in age-gap relationships would be baffled at this occurrence. I can say, as he would, this like way of thinking happens quite often. There are many times when I wonder how this works and then I look at him and decide that I don’t care. I feel blessed with this man and he feels at home and blessed to have me. One could say it truly blows the social norm of younger woman/older man out of the water. When looking at this in terms of couples, I find that we are more open to learning from each other without the egos of two people who are closer in age. The respect I feel and give is genuine and one of appreciation and it is reciprocated. Most importantly, our minds are open. That is a modern marvel in today’s society and definitely in Indian society.
I would say that the foundation of our relationship is strong but what concerns me especially after rare times when he either sees or speaks to his family is that we would never be accepted as a loving couple. A perfect example of narrow mindedness took place about three months back. In a moment of joy and sharing, he told his older brother about us and that he wanted to marry me. The happy information did not sit well with his brother and he did not hesitate to share his displeasure. This was such a heartbreaking moment for me because his displeasure both over the phone and in a text message were particularly cold. Being sensitive, it really felt hurtful to me. If I had to guess, I would venture to say that up until this revelation his brother may have believed that we were nothing but friends and that he did work for me or is my care giver if I am ill. The remainder of his family, as far as we both know, may still think the same way. This, even now, causes my feelings to become muddled and I momentarily lose sight of “us”. The only way to get back on track is with his affirmation of some sort to gain redirection. What his family doesn’t realize is that we have so much in common and who I am or how old I am is not important. When I arrived in India, his family greeted me warmly and allowed me to stay in their home until “our” apartment was ready. At that time they had no idea that he would be living with me. In the subsequent months and up until they moved, I saw them at least once a week. We would have lunch together, muddle through our language barrier and I always left feeling happy and strange to say, loved.
You might think that feeling momentarily loved by them would be enough and at times it is but it doesn’t alleviate that living on the edge. I have watched and listened to his interactions with his brother and other family members. For the most part, he is quiet and rarely if at all stands his ground or protects himself. He meekly and modestly just agrees or completely listens and says nothing. This is when I panic and worry that one day when he gets tired of all of this, guilt will grab at his heart and he will succumb to what is expected of him. This is when doing what he is supposed to do will kick him where it hurts. It is at these times I remember his words as they play in my ears, “I don’t care what they say, it is our life”. Social norms or tradition will not raise a fist in glory. Not this time.
In closing, I believe that social norms are nothing more than traditions. Many seem to stay for long periods of time depending upon how well they are accepted and others fall by the side of the road, because of lack of importance. As society’s older generations die off, there is the possibility that a percentage of strict, stone-age norms or traditions will go with them. Another factor to take into consideration is the youth of today and how they embrace what is left behind and how they still keep their eyes to establishing their own norms. Young people in India are gaining strength, becoming more vocal and active, asserting themselves in ways they had never done before. If this continues, social norms of the past will no longer be so prevalent. One such dinosaur in need of extinction is arranged marriage. As time progresses India has shown a slow steadying of arranged marriages and a slight increase in love marriages. Each step is a beginning in a new chapter. With this in mind, I end my story with this thought.
“There are times when change charges at us and we have no way to prepare for it, there are other times when it comes so slowly we barely notice the impact.”
In my case, time will determine the outcome.
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I could also say why upset what seems to work but then I would have to stress "seems". As the western world is imitated and misunderstood, so is India and its people perhaps. In order to understand anything better one must live it, breathe it, see it. India has been a part of my life for quite a long time. The protagonist is very real and thank you.
It is interesting to see how these cultural notions will be viewed by someone from another cultural background. At times, I found some of the claims about the country and it’s people to be unrealistic, having been amidst them, but I realise given the predominant information that is portrayed about them, it makes sense that this would be a viewpoint the protagonist will hold. Needless to say, it was a nice read!
I like this story and I admire the heroine.