In the ‘Weddings’ section of the New York Times, I imagine a report that might read: “Priya Bery, a social entrepreneur who focuses on global philanthropy and human rights, and Farooq Ahmed, a writer who like Ms. Bery was also raised in the Midwest, he in Kansas and she in Michigan, got married in a ceremony at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Saturday. The parents of both the bride and the bridegroom migrated from India several decades ago.”
The Times would probably not mention that Priya and Farooq getting married last weekend in a beautiful nineteenth-century Jewish synagogue was a way of staying true to our culture. In Bollywood films, the male can be from Ludhiana and the female from Lucknow, but when they start to sing their song of love, they do so in a field of flowers in Switzerland.
If my mother were there, she’d no doubt gently remind me that “marriage is no joke.” Marriage is no joke, beta. She gave me that advice when I got married thrice–to Mona Ali, first in a civil court, then in a Muslim nikaah, and finally, in my hometown, in a Hindu shaadi.
Mona and I met in New York City. When I think of what happened between us, I am reminded of what my friend Suketu Mehta once wrote about this place: “The first time I met the enemy people, Pakistanis, was when I went to New York. We shopped together, we ate together, we dated each other and had each others’ babies.”
Priya and Farooq met in New York City as a part of an alternative desi music scene called Mutiny, which led a few years later to an evening in their favorite restaurant, where Farooq proposed to Priya, and had the waitress bring out the ring like it was a course during their meal–just before dessert.
In India, if this had happened in one of the small towns where their own parents had been born, this courtship between a Hindu and a Muslim, it could have become an occasion for violence, maybe even a riot, and, if not that, then, under a large and well-lit moon, the singing of sentimental Bollywood songs.
The kind of felicitous meeting, and new crossings, is easier here. It is in part the magic of the diaspora, and for that we must thank all the 330,000 gods in the Hindu pantheon. I’m speaking now as a part-representative of a great religion book-ended on one side by the sublime wisdom of the Bhagawad Gita and at the other by the revelations offered by the British TV show Goodness Gracious Me. However, if your affection is for more monotheistic deities, then perhaps you can thank Salman Rushdie who first laid down the commandments of a tropicalized West, including: the institution of a national siesta, improved street-life, emergence of new social values: dropping in on one another without making appointments, closure of old folks’ homes, emphasis on the extended family, spicier food, the use of water as well as paper in toilets, the joy of running fully dressed through the first rains of the monsoon.
Long before the Indians colonized the literary scene in the West, a writer who had been popular for writing about weddings was Jane Austen. In one of the film adaptations of a novel of hers, a winsome Kate Winslet asks the character played by Alan Rickman what India is like. He lets the question linger for a moment, before saying, pungently, “The air is thick with spices.”
But what if we turn that gaze around and look, with fresh eyes, at Indians in the diaspora?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jhumpa Lahiri is our own genteel Jane Austen. Allow me to quote from one of her stories the lines which the author has given to an Indian man, her own father, who had arrived in Boston on the day that two Americans landed on the moon:
” While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far away from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.”
There is startling insight in this passage about the courage and the achievement of ordinary earthbound lives. Earthbound but not bound or fixed to one place or nation or religion. It seems to me that this coming together of Priya and Farooq, in their own border-crossings, in this meeting of faiths, there is a great tribute being paid to the journeys undertaken by their forbears. By doing what these two young people have done they have also taken a step further in that long journey made with such brave imagination by their parents, Susheel Bery, Adarsh Bery, Iftekhar Ahmed, and Shaheen Ahmed.