by Benjamin Gottlieb, guest contributor
Ashok Jain, his wife Neena, and family at their home in New Delhi. (Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb)
On the day of his wedding, Ashok Jain’s parents beat him mercilessly after he told them he married a Hindu woman.
“They didn’t accept my marriage,” said Mr. Jain, whose family practices Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that emphasizes non-violence. “They asked me to walk out of the home without anything… without even a toothbrush.”
Ashok Jain left his parents’ home in New Delhi 34 years ago with nothing but the clothes on this back. His marriage to Neena, a Bengali Hindu, tore his family apart; his parents, completely baffled by their son’s desire to marry outside his Jain religion, disowned him. He would not see his parents until his son’s first birthday, five years later.
In a traditional Indian marriage, partners are arranged for children by their parents, often at very young ages. The idea of wedding for love — let alone outside of one’s community — is seen historically as taboo. But Mr. Jain’s story of breaking conventional attitudes toward marriage constitutes a growing trend in India’s urban communities that rejects arranged marriages as the only acceptable union.
“The more important thing which spoke to me — above love and all that — was that I had to live for my own identity,” Mr. Jain, who works as a tour guide based in Delhi, said. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet and do what was right, regardless of any social pressure.”
A Complex System of Class in Castes
Strict laws concerning marriage in India are fortified by caste, a complex system of social stratification indigenous to the subcontinent. The system is demarcated by four major groupings, known as the varnas, and further stratified into subcastes or jati.
Mr. Jain’s family is from the third caste, known as the Vaishyas, which make up the merchant class of India. His wife, on the other hand, comes from a Brahman family, the highest caste.
“Surprisingly, the resistance came from my family, even though I was marrying up, so to speak, and she was marrying down,” Mr. Jain said.
Ashok and Neena met in Buenos Aires in mid-1970s while both of their fathers worked in India’s foreign service. At first, their families accepted Ashok and Neena’s friendship because, “we needed a fourth person for bridge,” Neena joked.
But when things became serious, Mr. Jain’s family, which he describes as more traditional, became very reticent to the prospect of them getting married. The thought of ripping apart their families forced the two to separate.
“We had decided that she would go her way and see boys and I would go my ways and see other girls,” Mr. Jain recalled. “We agreed to call each other when we decided to get married to someone else.”
After numerous failed attempts by their parents to arrange a marriage for each of them, Ashok and Neena decided to forego tradition.
“When we made the phone call, I said ‘I’m not getting married to anybody’ and she said the same thing,” Mr. Jain said. “And so we said, ‘What the hell?’”
Back in Delhi, the two wed at an Arya Samaj temple, a small sect in Hinduism that, among other progressive ideas, denounced the caste system in 1978. Unlike the typical Indian wedding, which boasts hundreds of guests and lavish party decor, Ashok and Neena’s marriage only included a few close friends; their wedding attendance, or lack thereof, would later exemplify the first few years of their lives together.
“Looking back, I was satisfied with whatever we had,” Neena, who works in Argentina’s New Delhi embassy, said. “It was hard to bring the kids up alone, especially the first year with my eldest son. Not having anyone to help me out, the frustration at times of taking care of our kids… that was hard.”
Intercaste Marriage in Rural and Urban Areas of India
In Mr. Jain’s India — which he describes as urban, educated, and modern — intercaste and interfaith marriages are becoming more commonplace. His two sons married sisters from the same Punjabi-Hindu family, and his close friends are made up of those who have either married outside of their faith or have progressive ideas about marriage.
“But my India is not the real India,” Mr. Jain said. “Changing norms, changing traditions, breaking traditions. This is not happening for a large part of the country.”
While India continues to modernize rapidly, more than 70 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people still live in rural areas. Attitudes toward intercaste or interfaith marriage in these rural areas continue to be traditional.
“Intercaste marriage is confined mostly to society’s elite,” said Sohail Hashmi, a writer and historian living in Delhi. “In [India’s] major cities, if you fall in love with someone from the wrong caste, it’s not so bad. But in rural parts of the country, marrying outside your caste could spell banishment or, in extreme cases, death.”
The killings Mr. Hashmi references stem from well-known horror stories in Indian khaps, or social councils in rural villages.
A common afterthought in an interfaith or intercaste marriage is the identity of the couple’s children. In a society that places great importance on one’s caste and religion for the purpose of identity, the children of interfaith marriages run the risk of being ostracized by society.
But that was never a concern for Mr. Jain and his two sons. When asked what his children’s caste or religion is, he responded emphatically, “No caste. No religion.”
“If you were to break it down, I’d say geographically I’m from Delhi but do I follow religion? No, I don’t,” said Sunny, Mr. Jain’s second son. “I had a very secular education as well, so until the end of high school I never really gave this a thought about ‘who is who’.”
When asked how he self-identifies, Sunny, a 30-year-old software entrepreneur, replied with a smile, “I don’t.”
Despite all turmoil associated with Ashok’s decision to marry outside his community, he admitted he now holds a more favorable opinion of arranged marriage.
“There have been cases when young people have come to my wife and I and said, ‘Oh uncle, you did this… so let us know what do you think?’ I tell them that it is not an easy decision, but it’s your decision,” he said.
“You have to decide what you want, decide what is right and wrong… and then, you have to face the baby.”
Benjamin Max Gottlieb is a multimedia journalist and photographer from Los Angeles, California. He is currently a web producer at The Washington Post and the art director of InTheFray.org. Follow him on Twitter at @benjamin_max.