Love can transcend tradition, or the two can go hand-in-hand as our couples in mixed marriages discovered.
Falling in love was the easy part for Varadhan Radhanath and Doan Thanh Huyen. Despite being from countries over 3,000km apart and barely speaking a shared language, the couple felt that nameless essential element was there.
“I was so besotted,” admits Radhanath (Radha), 50. “I could not wait to marry her. I thought my wife was the nicest person I had ever known in my life and my opinion has not changed. She did not know much English but it happens that she’s very smart. Because we only spoke English with each other she improved rapidly. And it’s not just the language, she picks up physical cues, the tone of the voice, she just knows. It’s very hard to find somebody that is super smart as well as super nice – she’s both.”
Radha, a journalist and former banker, moved to Hanoi 14 years ago where he met and equally impressed Huyen, 37. They married a year later in 2003, holding one Hindi ceremony in Chennai, southern India, and another in Huyen’s northern home city of Thanh Hoa. Overcoming the usual humdrum struggles of a lifelong relationship hasn’t been the only hurdle for the couple. They have been faced with appeasing two traditional families from distinct cultures, handling doubts from friends and negotiating prejudices within society. On the whole Radha plays down these challenges but Huyen is happy to highlight them.
“Some friends told me maybe I should marry someone from a rich country,” she says. “They asked why I would marry an Indian and I found it offensive. I know that people did have racism in their mind but you don’t marry a person because of the country they come from. I believe Radha has faced racism based on his skin or because he is Indian. I do not care much about what people say so long as I can choose a good man who cares about me. If we can overcome [prejudices] between us there’s no more challenges out there.”
The couple who have a young son decided to stay nearer to Huyen’s parents in Vietnam although Huyen takes time from her job as the director of a digital sales company to visit India once a year while the Indian side often visits. “Radha’s parents very much let us decide how we want to carry on our lives so long as we are happy,” explains Huyen. “Of course they would have preferred we stayed somewhere near them when they got old and sick; I guess every parent wishes the same.”
Long term expat Radha emphasizes that he is out of touch with the complexities of India, however his time away has not stopped observations of cultural similarities. Both are collectivist and patriarchal societies, although he’s quick to add, “If I stepped out of line, I’d know about it pretty soon.”
Both encourage living among an extended family and stress the importance of child bearing, particularly having male children. “If I had been dating a Westerner it would be all about the individual,” Radha contemplates. “In Asia it is about the community and the family so we did not worry about giving each other space; that helped a great deal.”
Radha’s family comes from the Brahmin caste and, like most Indians, Brahmin are vegetarians who eat using their right hands. This naturally caused a stir at the first few communal dinners of both families. “[Indian eating etiquette] sounds a bit bizarre but I’m pretty sure it came from the need for hygiene. My mother is still particular about that and my grandmother would only eat off of silver. When we eat together, her parents find it hilarious my parents eat with their hands. There has never been anything openly said to each other although my wife and I talk about it.”
Radha’s father has been left bemused when interacting with locals while strolling the streets of Saigon. “In Vietnam it is rude to say they do not understand. He did not understand why they were nodding and saying yes when they clearly did not understand,” says Radha.
Huyen has adopted a Hindu custom by giving up meat, but for health rather than religious reasons, and Radha will soon face their next big decision: where to send their two-year-old son Shyamalan for education. Radha pushes for a state school to further immerse his son in Vietnamese culture while Huyen wants him to attend an international school. She is keen for him to speak several languages including Tamil and English like his father and French and Vietnamese like herself. “He will have the Indian touch from his father and I’m very much open to this,” she adds. “He can pick up the best things from both countries.”
“Marriages are made in heaven and take place on earth. She is educated. She is beautiful,” says Pankaj. “She knows how to talk, she knows how to cook, she knows how to behave; she is a perfect life partner.”
“I love him so much I cannot live without him,” adds Poonam. “I’m so lucky he is with me. We are always smiling.”
Pankaj and Poonam have an arranged marriage. It began while Pankaj was celebrating Diwali back in India in November 2013. His parents were looking for a suitable match for him. Poonam’s parents visited his house with common relatives to meet him and his family. After the meeting, her parents invited them to meet Poonam who was coming to her uncle’s house that evening. Unlike times gone-by, consent is now sought from the bride and groom in India. The first meeting between Pankaj and Poonam was a success. This auspicious sign was only one factor in a handful of considerations including the background of the families, their gotras, or subcastes, and, perhaps most vitally, their horoscopes that the pandit (priest) would analyze and match. Factoring the time of their birth and zodiac signs, the couple’s horoscopes were compatible – they were made for each other.
On the first meeting, Pankaj and Poonam asked each other some basic questions and “felt comfortable with each other and, moreover, we liked each other and agreed to go one step further – say ‘yes’ to the wedding.” Two days later on November 10, 2013, there was a ring ceremony where they both exchanged rings and a pre-engagement ceremony called roka was held formalizing the relationship.
The news triggered an intricate and staggering process saturated with rituals and traditions spanning two months (after the ring ceremony) until the wedding on January 31, 2014. A passport was arranged for Poonam who would be leaving the country for the first time and embarking on a new life in Vietnam.
The wedding took six days following another engagement party. During the wedding rituals the groom wore a holy thread called a janeu, meaning he was not allowed to leave his house until all the rituals were completed. Turmeric paste was applied to both bride and groom in their respective locations to purify themselves. It was mustard oil on another day and at one point Pankaj wore the torn rags of a homeless person and asked his relatives and friends for money or fruit to complete the customs of one part of marriage and following the tradition and a ritual.
Pankaj describes the final day, which demanded an early start and plenty of assistance from all his relatives, of bringing out his clothes, putting tilak on his forehead, and getting the horse ready. He took blessings from God before riding the horse from his house to the temple where he prayed to God and his ancestors for further blessings and to complete the wedding rituals. Pankaj then went to his friend’s place (a groom should not return to his home once he has left for the wedding) to get ready for the main function at the wedding venue. A singing band and dancing relatives accompanied him along the kilometer ride to the venue, taking the party three hours to reach.
The couple lapped around a fire seven times, each one signifying a promise in the marriage which was the most important and auspicious ritual as the couple will be knotted for seven births (signifying the seven vows).
Once the vows were said Poonam’s father performed the Kanyadaan ceremony: he brought Poonam, took her hand and placed it in Pankaj’s. This marked the beginning of the ceremony of giving away the bride. The groom accepted the bride’s hand, while the kama-sukta (hymn to love) is pronounced in the presence of the father, the bride and the groom.
Along with other rituals Pankaj and Poonam took their seven vows: “We have taken the Seven Steps. You have become mine forever. Yes, we have become partners.
I have become yours. Hereafter, I cannot live without you. Do not live without me. Let us share the joys. We are word and meaning, united. You are thought and I am sound. May the night be honey sweet for us. May the morning be honey sweet for us. May the earth be honey sweet for us. May the heavens be honey sweet for us. May the plants be honey sweet for us. May the sun be all honey for us. May the cows yield us honey sweet milk. As the heavens are stable, as the earth is stable, as the mountains are stable, as the whole universe is stable, so may our union be permanently settled.”
Afterwards the newlyweds visited Poonam’s family home and thanked her parents for her upbringing, stating she was now a daughter of Pankaj’s family. Then she saw her groom’s house for the first time and was welcomed by Pankaj’s family where more rituals were performed.
“There are no words to describe how beautiful Indian weddings are and I am lucky to have Poonam in my life as my soulmate. Parents always find the best suited for us,” says Pankaj.
Poonam, who has a Masters in computer applications, says she enjoys a more liberal lifestyle in Vietnam compared to India but misses her family in India. “I like it here now. My best friend is Vietnamese who is my language teacher as well and I have so many Indian friends and we enjoy it here,” she says.
“We celebrate festivals here and this is so far the best Indian community I have seen. It’s like our family now. When I left my home I was crying so much because it was very difficult to leave. The first time I met him I liked him as a person and the opportunity of leading a good life. Everything was perfect.”
When asked whether she thinks arranged marriages eliminate personal choice, she adds: “Your parents always ask what you want so it doesn’t matter if marriages are arranged. If you like your partner and your families are happy and agree, that’s the best it could be.”
* Images by Ngoc Tran.