It’s February – the month when the Western World celebrates Love. Heart emojis bombard us and anyone who is over one year married avoids restaurants.
Marriage. Now that’s another story altogether. I read somewhere once that love is a verb. Like walk or run, it is an action word and not a noun. You can practice it in your life but you cannot live on it. Love the noun is that thing that we experience in our late teens and twenties, when our biological systems are programmed to mate. It is that feeling you get in your stomach, that dryness in your mouth, that fluttering in your throat. At that age, it tricks us into believing that we want to spend the rest of our lives with one person.
I would like to introduce you to Rajinder Pall and Santosh Sood, my parents. This year, they will celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Now, myself and my husband have a harmonious marriage, but we are not yet at their level. He does not wash my feet. I do not bite my tongue when I disagree with him. He does not make my breakfast every single morning and arrange it on the table in the order that I ingest each item (in the spirit of retired people, every meal for them is a banquet with the objective being ‘to pass the day’). I do not bite my tongue if he’s had a few drinks too many. I hope you’re seeing the pattern? From the example I grew up with, it appears that if I just bite my tongue, I will be rewarded with a foot-washing, breakfast serving husband in my later years.
I interviewed my parents for this post. They are happily married, so who better to reveal the secret, or at least their secret? I called my Mum to arrange it:
I want to interview yourself and Dad. What? What are you doing? I’m writing a story about your marriage for work. What does our marriage have to do with creams and lotions? Sigh. It’s for Valentine’s Day. Oh, ok, stay for lunch, I’ll make fresh chapatis.
And so, it was arranged. As was their marriage.
My parents are both Indian, Punjabi to be specific. My Dad left India in 1962 and travelled to England with his best friend. He was armed only with a third world engineering qualification and the adventurous spirit of youth. Two years later, they hopped on a boat to Ireland. When asked ‘why Ireland?’, Dad said that he wanted to start a business and it was cheaper in Ireland, it being the economically poorer island. In Ireland, the two friends specialised in door-to-door sales, an activity which led them to many rural parts of the country. In his words, they were much like aliens that had landed from a strange planet. He gave his name as ‘Paul’ for ease. Rajinder was unpronounceable in the Irish brogue. In the Ireland of the 1960’s, two brown men with strange accents were a wondrous sight. Wherever they went, crowds of children gathered, and Catholic housewives blushed at the dark-eyed strangers delivering coveted merchandise from overseas.
Four years later, it was time to marry, and marry in the spirit of their own faith. Not for them the love scenes of Bollywood. Not for them various courtships or the thrill of love at first sight. No. They were to have arranged marriages in keeping with the culture into which they were born. The friend went first. Dad was summoned home six months later.
His family had arranged for him to meet with a lot of different girls from different families. Credentials were documented, genetics were assessed, dowries were discussed, and the Elders made the ultimate decision. I asked him what he thought when he first saw Mum. Western child that I am, I expected him to say something like ‘I knew immediately that she was the one’, or ‘my heart stopped beating when I saw her’. Instead, he said that he had wanted to marry her younger sister, my Auntie. When asked why, he said simply because she was younger. (I think I saw my mother biting her tongue at this point). He was keen to point out that during these match-making meetings, there was no contact – there was no courtship and barely even the meeting of eyes. In his words, ‘all you got was a peep at her, there was no hanky-panky’. The decision was based only on suitability, which was determined by religion, education, class and prospects. It was decided there and then at the meeting that he would marry my Mum (as it wouldn’t do for the younger sister to marry first). They were engaged immediately and married 15 days later in a marquee on the streets of Amritsar, my mother’s home town. My Dad was considered a good catch, as he had Irish residency. For my Mum’s family, it was a ticket out of India for their daughter. India, a beautiful land where to put food on the table was a struggle.
They stayed together in India for 3 weeks after the wedding, after which Dad came back to Ireland to prepare for the arrival of his new bride. She arrived 3 months later, landing in the Irish midlands, 21 years of age and as far from her home and culture as she could possibly be. Her sole companion was a man who was effectively a stranger to her. They lived initially in a one bedroomed flat in Portlaoise town and took baths in the Landlady’s house by appointment only. This was the Ireland of yesteryear – an Ireland of cloth nappies, fervent Catholicism, no telephones, one TV channel and no immigrants. My Dad recalled her driving test. He was a very progressive man and wanted her to be independent. He wanted her to embrace Western culture, swap saris for slacks and cut her hair. He urged her to learn how to drive and sent her off to take the test. She failed. He re-booked the test but told her that this time, she should don her emerald green sari, paint on a bindi and jewel-up in the manner of an Indian movie star. She passed. Another time, he arranged to meet her at a pub in Monasterevin, a tiny Kildare village. He was late, and she went into the pub. This was not a time where ladies walked into pubs unaccompanied. So an Indian lady walks into an Irish pub in 1960’s Ireland alone. When he got there, there were crowds of people surrounding her. A taste of celebrity.
My parents had six children, two girls and four boys. This in itself would be deemed a huge marital success in their culture, where male offspring were and still are valued over females. (As it turned out, their female offspring were not to be underestimated, but that’s a discussion I like to have with my brothers in the spirit of sibling one-upmanship!) They worked hard and eventually settled in County Kildare. He was a shopkeeper, she was a housewife and sometime shopkeeper. They educated us well and set us free – Western born children of Indian immigrants who were never going to agree to arranged marriages. All of us who married, married for Love the Noun.
My last question to Mum and Dad was:
‘What is the secret to sustaining a happy marriage for 50 years?’
Him: Arranged. True love develops after marriage. It’s a mindset.
Her: Yes, I agree. Marriage is very nice. He’s very good. He empties the dishwasher. He washes my feet. He makes my breakfast.
Love, the noun, is as short-lived as a butterfly. To survive a marriage, it must metamorphosise into its action counterpart, the verb ‘to love’. That’s what I learned when I interviewed a couple on the cusp of their Golden Wedding Anniversary. That, and to bite my tongue.
Happy Valentine’s Day!