June 22, 2009
One day on my way back from Delhi in the Volvo bus I sat next to a sweet looking Indian girl. We exchanged a few niceties, she told me she had gone to Delhi for some MBA interviews and I proceeded to sleep the sound sleep of the Volvo-rider. When I woke up, we still hadn’t reached the Jaipur hills. And my neighbour was feeling chatty.
She was a student in medicine, she said (in India like in France: quite an achievement). But there was no interview in Delhi. She had gone to see the man she loves. They had not seen each other for nine months, because he lived in the South, and her parents kept a close watch on her. This Delhi trip had been carefully prepared for weeks, excuses fabricated, details invented, friends put in the confidence. She looked terribly distressed.
“The problem, she said, is that my parents will never let me marry him. Never. He is a Rajput.”
“And what are you?” I asked.
“I am a Brahmin.”
There probably aren’t two castes more different in their ways and ethics that Rajputs and Brahmins. Although they are both upper class, they are totally at odds. Brahmins are traditionally the priests, administrators and intellectuals. Strictly vegetarian, they are also very orthodox, frugal in their lifestyle and very, very proud of the purity of their blood. The Rajputs, on the other hand, were the rulers, kings and warriors. They were eager hunters and meat-eaters and they led, as long as they could afford it, quite a jolly life. Although in 21st century’s India these boundaries are getting more and more blurred by urbanization and money, in small town India, there is no such thing as a Brahmin marrying a Rajput.
I asked her what she was planning to do.
“I don’t know”, she said, tears in her eyes.
“Have you tried talking to your parents?”
“So many times. But they are so strict. They would never ever consider it. They would just lock me up and marry me off. Besides, I have a younger brother and sister and….”
“You don’t want to ruin their marriage prospects.”
There was no way out. I could totally picture her parents – she would be locked up, which she probably already was technically.
“I think you should elope.”I finally said, while the voice of reason in me barked: who on earth are you to tell this girl to elope with her boyfriend? It is none of your business. What do you know of her life? Just keep quiet! Shut up!
“But, what about my parents? My brother and sister?”
“Your parents will never listen to you. When you go, write them a letter saying that you love them more than anything and are sorry to be causing them sorrow and pain, but that you will never marry anyone else than this man. They will be upset, they will not talk to you for a year, two years, three years, then they will mellow down. By this time you will have had a baby and they will want to meet him.”
“And my sister?”
“Well, this is not like you are divorcing a Rajput, you are marrying one. It will be the talk of the town for a year, then people will find something else to talk about. You can’t make everyone happy.”
She looked pensive. What turmoil this girl must be going through, I thought. What a life. To fight for everything. To be denied your own decisions. To have to plot, lie, and hide.
I felt lucky. We do create our own mess, but what a painless life I had, compared to this girl. I certainly had lied to my parents, met people they didn’t want me to meet, been caught and grounded many, many times. But nothing had jeopardized my future or alienated my entire family. I could talk to my parents about anything, and even though we’d fight and disagree, they would never reject me (we did come close to that in the winter of ’98 when I came home with platinum blonde African extensions, but their anger dissolved eventually).
Freedom, I take for granted. But how priceless it is.