Salaam Brooklyn

weddingphoto.jpg

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.

18 thoughts on “Salaam Brooklyn

  1. Amitava: I welcome you to SM. Fresh and different perspectives on the trials and tribulations of the “South Asian” diaospara always interest me. Thanks.

  2. 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.”

    Actually, Amitava, if it were the New York Times weddings section, there would also be a precise list of both of their respective Ivy League degrees, as well as some sort of reference to family wealth (the parents must do something impressive, like Neurosurgery, or owning a major department store chain)… All of which is tailor-made to make one feel like an underachiever with an insufficient number of Facebook friends.

    In fact, the “Mutiny” reference is much cooler (for multiple reasons!) as a starting point than what one usually sees in those Times announcements. (i.e., “They met in Washington DC, while working in the same microbiology lab, the summer before they both started medical school at Yale.”)

    Congrats to the couple. And welcome to the (other) Mutiny.

  3. Inter-religious marriages are becoming increasingly common in Indian cities. My sense is that they are still unusual in Pakistan and perhaps Bangladesh too – at least without the bride needing to convert to Islam. Any correction to this perception would be welcome.

  4. I enjoyed reading this, as I’m sure I’ll enjoy every Amitava post. Best wishes to Priya and Farooq!

    Whose baby did Suketu have again?

  5. Y’all know that I meant “Diaspora” and not ” “die o spara”. Spelling mistakes runs in the family – I guess ;-)

  6. Everything you say about Priya and Farooq can actually be set in India as well

  7. “The air is thick with spices.”

    My favorite line from the film. What I remember most vividly other than Emma Thompson’s amazing moment of acting towards the end.

  8. Wonderful, refreshing, and enlightening perspective. This was a joy to read…I look forward to your upcoming posts! The Sepia Mutiny I once loved is back!!

  9. I lived in NYC for 3 months and will forever cherish that lovely experience. However, the place that I associate with the sentiment ‘the kind of felicitous meeting, and new crossings, is easier here’ is a small agricultural town called Krasnodar in southern Russia. In Krasnodar, at 19 years of age, I saw Tamil Hindu-Sinhalese Buddhist cohabitations (in the troubled 80s); Brahmin Hindu-Pakistani Muslim marriages; fair and lovely Punjabi women bearing the children of Angolan rebels, and many other unimagined permutations and combinations of potential gene interactions. Ditto was the scene in Kiev, Moscow, Odessa, Lvov, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Havana, and from what I heard, Mauritius, Madagascar, Moldavia and even Maples, Winnipeg, Canada. So why does New York get singled out more often than others as the city of new beginnings? Is it because writers (and film-makers, news-makers and other movers and shakers) come to New York early, in large numbers, and get to talk about it more effectively than others?

  10. Prof. Amitava,

    I have been a fan of your work for a while, and especially your very nuanced and truly intelligent understanding of human rights, fiction, writing, language. Thank you for all that you do. It’s very surprising to see you here, to be honest.

    Cheers.

  11. It’s very surprising to see you here, to be honest.

    What the heck do you mean by that Neha?!

  12. I love the painting! And I enjoyed reading the post. Yeah, we’re trained to expect a certain background in the NY Times wedding announcements. I heard a Desi-style parody of a wedding announcement at a spoken-word event in Chicago years ago. I had a tummy ache I was laughing so hard.