All Mixed Up

As some of you are aware, I am occasionally invited to write a blog for Pakistan’s Dawn News. The article below (on the subject of mixed marriages) was originally intended for that publication. However, I was asked to water down its supposed anti-God content, which I refused to do. This article is not anti-God. Nor is it my intent to criticise religion (a side issue on the subject of mixed marriages.) Please read and decide for yourself.

Also note that I am not criticising the blogs editor at Dawn News. He is constrained by the powers-that-be who deem what is acceptable and what is not. Clearly, there is a way to go with respect to freedom of speech in the Land of the Pure …

 

It’s almost a week since Prince Harry’s and Megan Markle’s nuptials splashed the antiquated British monarchy in Twenty-First Century Technicolor. A week on, I can’t get enough of the royal-wedding-to-end-all-royal-weddings. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but who cares. I shamelessly enjoyed the ceremony. More please!

Their union was like the cherry on the cake, a sort of royal seal of approval slapped upon all mixed marriages. Yet there’ll always be someone who’ll pass a derogatory comment or two on relationships between two people with different coloured skins, or from opposing religious backgrounds. To a minority of people from the outside looking in, mixed marriages are doomed to fail. But really, they’re no different from your common-or-garden union between two people of the same faith, race, cast, village, town, city.

But, as a mixed couple, there are, perhaps, more things you need to consider, many questions, some half-baked, some more legitimate, that you cannot ignore.

 

To convert or not to convert?

Ah, the age-old question. Many people who have married members of my extended family have converted to Islam. Good for them, I say. All the same, isn’t it a question of intent?

Before one of my best friends (a Hindu) married her boyfriend (a Jew), she voluntarily went to Jewish classes, because she hadn’t the slightest clue what Judaism entailed. What she discovered was that the liberal Jewish community was, ‘astoundingly welcoming and would rather have people in the community than alienated and out.’ Funnily enough, her fiancé also went along to these Jewish classes. He’s actually an atheist, but enjoyed the classes, even if, ‘there was a bit too much God in them’.

My friend loved the classes, learnt a great deal, but maintains the belief in several gods rather than just the one, so she will never call herself a Jew. But the fact is, she now has an appreciation for the faith that she didn’t have before.

What if, however, someone doesn’t want to go down the path of conversion? They’re agnostic, indifferent, yet they find themselves travailing into a faith without any real conviction. Is asking that person to convert really that important? Will it benefit them? Or will their allegiance to your religion simply make them more acceptable to you? And if that’s the reason, isn’t it rather a simple one? Moreover, ask yourself, is it actually just?

A person is good simply for being the person that they are. Converting to another’s faith won’t make him or her better. It’s like adding more sugar to a lovely cup of chai. It doesn’t necessarily improve the taste.

My other half was born a Catholic but is more or less an atheist. Yet fundamentally, he is, as my mother would say, ‘a good boy’. For my parents, it would have been the cherry on the cake if he did convert, but in the grand scheme of things it mattered little, and let me tell you, that was a breath of fresh air.

Likewise, I didn’t contemplate converting to Christianity. I wasn’t asked to consider it either, and to be honest, it would’ve been rather hypocritical of my other half to even ask me. Not only that, while my belief in God ebbs and flows, I fundamentally believe that God is the same, irrespective of the religious badge you pin on him.

 

How your children will be brought up

Unfortunately, the question of religion doesn’t stop at conversion. When it comes to one’s future children and how to raise them, it is a minefield. Yes, I think it should be addressed and preferably before you get hitched, but it’s a discussion between the parties involved: i.e., you and your other half.

You should hash it out, make sure you’re both on the same page as to how you will embody your religious beliefs (if at all) into your children’s upbringing. If you don’t do this, raising your child(ren) will turn into a tug of war between the two of you. In other words, it will end up in a game of one-upmanship with the kids caught in the middle.

I’m not suggesting you should draw up an excel spreadsheet mapping out a framework of the do’s and don’ts of collective child-rearing. No matter how remote, if having children is a possibility, you should give it some thought.

My best friend who went to Jewish classes, and her husband (the atheist-Jew), agreed to bring up their children with a positive attitude to Judaism before they were hit by the inevitable waves of anti-Semitism.

My other half and I have chosen to bring up our children without imposing a particular religion. In our view, we don’t need it to teach our children our values and the difference between good and bad.

At the same time, we embrace discussions on God. Just recently, our six-year-old daughter asked me whether I believe in God. We had a lovely chat about it; we talked about how different people choose to express that belief, how Nani prays five times a day, and how my daughter says grace before eating her lunch at school.  How people go to a church to pray and sing hymns to remember God, and how others sit in quiet contemplation. Importantly, I told her there was no wrong or right way to believe in God. Likewise, I told her, if people don’t believe in God, then that’s okay too.

The other day she claimed she was a Christian. The next day, she said she didn’t believe in God. Perhaps one day, she’ll scream she’s a Muslim. And then on another she’ll want to be a Hindu. And that’s all right. I’m glad she’s having this internal debate because it’s all part of learning what feels right to her.

 

None of your business

Everyone, and I mean, everyone, will have a view as to how you should bring up your children. When it comes to religious upbringing, the floodgates of opinion will open.

You will feel like lashing out when someone passionately lectures you on the importance of God and the purity of your children. This will likely come from the more conservative elements of your family, friends, and friends of friends, but all the same, practise restraint.

At the confirmation of my husband’s godson, an acquaintance asked him whether our children would be baptised. He said no. Her jaw dropped to the floor. How can you not baptise your children? How can you not bring them up as upstanding members of the Catholic church? She spoke to him as though he was the devil incarnate with his liberal approach, unleashing his brood of wholly unholy children on the world. Notwithstanding the fact that this took place inside a church, I salute my husband’s restraint because if it was me, I would have slapped the woman.

Although I very nearly punched a man at a 50thbirthday party. He jumped down my throat when I told him our children didn’t belong to a religion. If his son hadn’t, moments later, run into a glass door and broken his nose I really would have punched him. A timely intervention if ever there was one.

 

What if you change?

This is a legitimate question. Look at Imran Khan. He is a living example of religious evolution. Who’d have thought Pakistan’s pious and nationalist pin-up was once an international playboy, living it up at Annabel’s?

Who indeed?

But what do you do when your spouse takes a path, embracing a philosophy which turns him or her into a person far removed from the one you fell in love with? You can’t make promises to each other that it won’t happen, because there’s always a chance it will. And it will, unfortunately, end in heartbreak. I’ve seen it happen and it’s incredibly sad.

There is no solution that will pre-empt this possibility. It’s always a what-if lingering in the shadows. But for the love of God, do not turn it into an obstacle which destroys the relationship you currently have. It’s a hypothetical. A vague possibility which is, in the present time at least, of microscopic value. Be aware of it, that’s all.

 

The parents

To many, the fact that their son or daughter is getting married is a thing to be celebrated. Finally, Umbreen is getting married! Thank Allah, Farhad is tying the knot! It’s time to get your rocks off, bring out the mithai and send invitations to the fifty million people you’d promised to invite to your child’s wedding.

For some parents, however, the person their son or daughter has chosen to marry is an anathema. The very thought makes them gag on their chapattis. But no matter what they say, their child is intent on marrying that person, even if Hell freezes over. And why do they hate the prospective bride or groom? Because of their skin colour, or their religion, of course!

Of course?

I had a friend whose father told her that she could marry whomever she wanted, so long as he wasn’t a black man. He must have said this to her so many times because she herself repeated it like a mantra. Now, my friend’s father was a lovely man. Kind and quick-witted, but as the song goes in Avenue Q: everyone’s a little bit racist (perhaps). Anyway, my friend respected her father’s wishes, marrying someone she loved: a white Englishman. Her father must have breathed a huge sigh of relief.

For a while, I bore the brunt of my mother-in-law’s wrath. Putting aside the fact that no one would have been good enough for her only son, when it was clear my other half and I were in it for the long haul, her tune changed overnight. No longer was she the charming, warm-hearted lady who welcomed me into her home. In her eyes I had morphed into Osama Bin Ladin, a person with venomous intentions who represented all that was bad about Islam. That I was educated, liberal, open-minded, was of little consequence. I was a no-go zone. You couldn’t argue with her, you couldn’t rationalise with her. She had her view and she was going to rigidly stand by it.

A cold war ensued. My other half distanced himself from her. She didn’t come to our wedding, didn’t congratulate us on the birth of our first child.

And what about me? Yes, her attitude was hurtful. I even wrote a letter as a way of reaching out to her. As time went by, however, I stopped taking it personally. I created a buffer. Whenever we came into contact, I was polite, I smiled. I didn’t give her any opportunity to criticise and for the sake of the peace, I held my tongue. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t being a doormat; it simply wasn’t worth getting into a fight and wasting all that energy.

This is far from a sob story because in the end, she came round. Sure it took the birth of our second child for her heart to melt, bringing an end to all hostilities. Her views were quickly forgotten. I was allowed to set foot inside her home. Her new-found civility turned into kindness and generosity. She formed a bond with our children. She loves seeing their pictures and always asks after them, showering them in love and presents and cakes. She also offers to help when she can. She sends me messages via WhatsApp. She calls me on my birthday and when I’m ill. I send her books that I’ve enjoyed reading. We even go on holiday together. But what matters more to me is that my children are able to spend time with her without a jot of tension. And, above all, they love her unconditionally.

 

Life is too short

So, if there are any lessons to learn, ensure you appreciate the ramifications of entering into a long-term relationship with someone from a different background. Yes, times have changed, people are more aware, tolerant and far less narrow-minded, but be prepared for the views raining down on you like missiles.

All the same, while love is wonderful, there are some pitfalls that perhaps love cannot counter. Be prepared for those as well.

And one more thing: if you are a parent to a son or daughter whose mixed relationship unsettles you, no matter how hard it may be, try and embrace it. Yes, gently ask them if they have thought about their future together, but don’t shun them. Your child’s happiness should be paramount. And if it doesn’t work out, do not, on any account, say, I told you so. Life is just too short. Provide a shoulder to cry on, carry them through their heartbreak and whisper to them that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.