"Wow! What does his family think?” This is almost invariably the response I get when I tell people in India that I’m married to a Chennaiite. I get it.
I’m a Black woman from a liberal Chicago family, and my husband was raised in a staunchly conservative Tamil household in Chennai.
Even in America, it’s uncommon to see Blacks and Indians date, so I understand the surprise. My response to their amazement was nearly always “OMG! His family is amazing!” I felt I had the best in-laws in the world until I moved in with them.
On my first night at my in-laws’ home in Chennai, before I’d even unpacked, my husband told me, “We need to find another place for you to live.” I was stunned; confused; furious.
“But, why?”, I asked him. Wasn’t this the day we dreamt of during two years of a long-distance (think Florida-Chennai long distance) relationship? How many hours did we spend on WhatsApp video calls yearning for this moment? It turns out that his family was fine with us travelling the world together and with my visits during Pongal, Karthigai Deepam, Christmas, etc. But the notion that I should move into the house before his akka (elder sister) gets married seemed to incense them.
Now, I understood why no one from his family attended our register marriage...I was speechless.
Here I was, 14,933 kilometres from home, with a suitcase full of Chettinad saris, a heart replete with love and a head awash in fairytales, and the love of my life was telling me I have to go. Go where? I don’t even speak proper Tamil!
It turns out his eldest (already married) akka felt strongly that my presence in the household would make it harder to find a husband for the second akka. After all, what decent family would allow their son to wed a girl whose younger brother had gotten married before her? And to a Black American no less! Log kya kahenge???
But my husband and I are rebels. We discussed her objections and resolved to ignore them. And, for one month, all went well.
I grew accustomed to being a wife and a sister-in-law, and I started to find my groove in Chennai. I began keeping urli every day, and I even planted some lemongrass and pandan plants that my husband and I acquired on our most recent trip to Malaysia. Then, this past Friday, his second akka – who had become like a sister to me – suddenly declared that my living in the house would make it harder for her to find a husband and that I should go. Her words hurt like a lover’s departure.
Was this the same akka who days before had been complaining about patriarchy and orthodoxy in Tamil society? Wasn’t it she who used to defend our love marriage? The incongruence quite nearly knocked me off my feet. What had changed?
Apparently, the persuasiveness of judgmental and traditional family members was stronger than I could have imagined.
In the course of just one phone call, they turned my husband’s akka from my only friend in Chennai to the woman who was showing me the door. What hurt most is that she didn’t even say it to my face. She said it to my husband. And, so, we argued. We all called each other words that we’ll regret for years to come.
My husband fought hard for me, but, alas, customs are customs here in Chennai: a thambi (younger brother) simply cannot get wed before his akka.
In his family’s eyes, our union is not something to be celebrated, but rather hidden because we dared to opt for a civil ceremony. And because we were independent enough to get married when we wanted. I thought his family would at least respect the fact that I’d left a well-paying job, friends, and family in America to be with him.
Do they think it is so easy for a foreigner who doesn’t speak the local language to simply go and find a place of her own in a city she barely knows?
Perhaps, they are very much aware of the physical and emotional distances I had travelled to be with my husband, and they simply don’t care. Either way, here I am, typing at 5 AM, on the eve of the day I bid my husband farewell – again – and move to a rented apartment somewhere on the outskirts of Chennai.
I’m heartbroken beyond words, and I don’t know what it will be like living on my own in Madras.
All I know is that, even after all this pain, I have no regrets. Because even if we’re oceans apart forever, my love for my husband will never fade.