THE SHRINKING UNIVERSE Why cultural differences are not to blame for the breakdown of ‘multi-cultural’ marriages.

I never stop being pleasantly surprised that people who read this column live not just in different parts of our country, but in far flung corners of the world as well. I recently received an e-mail from Germany asking for my views on multi-cultural relationships. My interlocutor believed that the increase in migration between several countries of the world is likely to result in larger numbers of multi-cultural relationships and marriages, which he believed merited further exploration. I agree with him entirely that we are in an era of multi-cultural relationships. However, I also believe that, in recent times, many contemporary marriages, even those within the same culture, tend to function like multi-cultural relationships. Permit me to explore this a bit.

There was a time when a small number of intrepid Indians who had the opportunity to travel overseas or had occasion to interact with people from different cultures who were visiting or stationed in India, went ahead and crossed the matrimonial kala pani and actually got married to the foreigners they fell in love with. By and large, Indian men tended to do this more often than did Indian women, perhaps because, in those days, men had more opportunities to do so. Often, such couples ended up settling down in India and many have had remarkably stable marriages, owing in the main to the extraordinary manner in which some overseas partners imbibed Indian norms and mores into their personal behavioural repertoires. Obviously, the success of these early multi-cultural marriages was contingent on the almost complete acceptance of the “Indian marriage culture” by the overseas partner, although it must be said, a small number of successful multi-cultural marriages did have a more egalitarian approach to multiculturalism.

Common practice

Up until a couple of decades ago, (and in some parts of the country, even now), the average Indian parent was uncomfortable when it came to sending their single children overseas, whether for education or employment, fearing that said children may engage in “unwelcome”, potentially matrimonial dalliances with opposite gender counterparts in the countries they go to. As a result, it was not uncommon to see young people who were adamant about travelling abroad being compelled to get married much before they were ready to do so. However, trends are changing and urban parents don’t necessarily feel this way anymore, even though the fear of possible “cultural dilution” continues to lurk somewhere in the back of their minds.

In recent decades, we’ve seen a virtual “epidemic” of “portal marriages” (partner selection through online marriage portals) wherein many couples seem to choose each other despite wide variations in caste, community or socio-economic backgrounds. This, along with a higher incidence of immigration and emigration, both within the country and between countries, appear to have played a fairly substantial role in reducing the stridency of the “culture vs. culture” debate. It’s no longer de rigueur for parents of urban children who have chosen to marry outside of their community to have fainting fits, although some propitiation of family deities may still take place. For, even in arranged marriages between persons belonging to the same community and similar socio-economic backgrounds, the cultural issue can become quite a bugbear. As it can, and often does, in inter-caste, inter-state or inter-religious marriages too. It usually manifests in differences in “our custom” or “your upbringing”, but in essence, it constitutes an acute awareness of the dissimilarities between the partners, which usually happens when both partners are unhappy with each other, for whatever reason. However similar your social profiles may be, every family does have its unique styles, rituals and practices. And when things get a bit rough in our marriages, we always yearn for the comfortable familiarity of what we knew and enjoyed as children, thereby becoming sharply conscious of the difference between our “cultures” or “sub-cultures”.

Easy way out

Those who engage in these “multi-cultural relationships”, particularly those that proceed to marriage, often experience fears, concerns and anxieties, mostly centring around the possible discrepancies between their respective cultures and the impact that these may have on the marriage in the long-term. As a result, every time the relationship hits a roadblock, as even the best of marriages usually do, the tendency is to blame it on culture. When they do this, they are really doing themselves and their relationship a disservice, for, culture can never really break a relationship. Only the use of “culture” as a weapon to settle inter-personal disputes can.

I have no doubt that persons in multi-cultural relationships will have to work hard to understand and engage with each others’ cultures of origin. But, as I said earlier, I believe that most urban couples are in multi-cultural or at least multi-subcultural relationships. For, as long as there is mutual acceptance and respect for the differences between their respective cultures, and there is no diktat that the culture of one partner will have to be subordinated to that of the other, then the focus can happily shift from the culture of one’s origin to the bricolage constructed from both partners’ cultures or subcultures, which may well result in the development of an enriched marriage template that can work effectively for all concerned.

vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com