My husband’s decision to marry a ghori, or “white girl”, wasn’t a cause for celebration among his relatives. I recall how the seriousness of our situation hit me like a physical blow when he explained our relationship could cost him his family.
The eldest son in a Pakistani household, custom and family honour dictated his responsibilities and choices. Many Asians of his parents’ generation saw Western women as disrespectful, slutty and irresponsible. Growing up as a British immigrant, it hadn’t crossed his mind that one day culture and family would force him to make a difficult choice.
Our relationship unfolded in a raw and reeling, post 9/11 world. Following the 2005 London bombings, Muslims were regarded with suspicion. Anyone matching the Identikit of brown skin and a backpack was scrutinised warily. Paranoia bloomed and it felt like social attitudes to race and culture had abruptly regressed to “Them and Us”. Although we knew the risks involved for K, I had no idea how my parents would react.
Not for us the heady, early-relationship delirium of getting to know one another – we had to be sure from the start, and the pressure was immense. We asked ourselves questions other couples need never consider. Could we cope with being vilified by one another’s cultures, or our own? Would the differences be too great to overcome? Society seemed to think so. How would we handle society? It would make some peoples skin crawl just to see us holding hands. How would our children be treated? In lieu of answers, we went with instinct. We were stubbornly optimistic – in the face of hostility and scepticism, a little obtuseness was no bad thing.
So, we had talked it through and decided to continue – now all that was left was to break the news to our families: the final step that would make it a reality and irrevocably change the course of our lives. It was time to face the judgement of society.
Despite my ambivalence at the suggestion, K insisted on phoning my father and asking his permission to marry me. He figured it was Western custom, “It’s how it’s done, right?” – I thought it unnecessary. I wasn’t even on speaking terms with my father at the time, and would have married with or without his blessing, but K was adamant – he was still my father and deserved the respect that incurred.
I don’t remember my mother’s reaction to our news. I’m sure she expressed happiness; it just wasn’t the excitable, infectious, high-pitched kind. Neither of my parents questioned my decision, or asked if I was aware of the difficulties that lay ahead. There was no pre-nuptial passing on of parental advice, or enthusiastic discussion of wedding arrangements. All the usual elements of an engagement were absent. Mine is the kind of family that pointedly ignores the elephant in the room. With no-one admitting to a problem, it was impossible to address it. An invisible gulf lay between us, no doubt filled with the questions they couldn’t bring themselves to ask. My siblings also kept their distance; once married it was as though I ceased to exist. Ultimately, even gaining two nieces and a nephew didn’t penetrate their detachment. By the time I moved to Canada, my eldest was five. Of my three sisters, one never met my children, and the remaining two saw them for the first time when I arranged a farewell meal.
In contrast to this inertia, K’s family were predictably more voluble. Having disgraced them in the worst way imaginable and denied them a marriage they approved of, the sinful boy had succumbed to the temptations of the West. Torrents of angry Punjabi rained down. Passionate condemnation gave way to absolute disapproval, threats and finally, the silence of rejection. The one thing that stood in my favour was the fact that I was a muslim, but this was still eclipsed by the colour of my skin. The message delivered was indisputably clear: consider yourself disowned.