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English & Indian
“I think those difficulties made our relationship stronger because we had to fight to prove to people that we could make it work”.
You’ve been married forty years and still live in the village where you met Faqir. I think that’s very romantic. Can you take us back to your first encounter?
Well, in those days it was quite strange because out in the countryside you just didn’t see anybody who had a different skin color. Faqir came to preach at the village chapel where I used to go with my family, and my brother invited him round for tea.
We came across each other several times after that, and got married very quickly! It was a bit of a whirlwind romance, we started going out in February and were married at Christmas.
Was Faqir based in England at that time or just visiting?
He was born in India and came to this country at the age of sixteen; he couldn’t speak any English. He was of a Sikh background, his parents were Sikh, but he converted to Christianity, so that was how I met him. He was about twenty-eight at that time.
Was he preaching as a member of the clergy?
No, he was working in the civil service but also as a lay preacher. In the non-conformist churches, you don’t have to be a minister to take a service.
Did either of you experience ‘love at first sight’?
I think it was, as far as he was concerned! He eyed me in the congregation and picked me out, but I took a little bit of persuading.
When you first started going out with Faqir, how did your friends react?
For my generation of friends, it was not a problem. It was almost a bit of an excitement for them, they were more open about mixed marriages; it was becoming the thing-to- do. Faqir’s friends felt the same way, I think.
Parents from the previous generation were less open to it. Forty years ago, yes, it was a problem, but nobody thinks of it now, it’s not an issue anymore. Leicester itself has a high number of people from Asian background, so it’s not a problem here.
How did Faqir propose?
We were sitting in a field of buttercups, out in the countryside on a lovely summer’s day.
It sounds nice. Did you expect it?
I think so.
And did you accept?
How did your families react?
Not well! Initially, both sides were against it. Faqir had already been thrown out of his family home because he had become a Christian. His parents had disowned him. In fact, he was chased by a group of Sikhs with swords and had to go into hiding.
That sounds terrifying. Did things calm down, in time?
Well, later, when we were going out together, his father found out about me and sent some men over to Leicester to try and force Faqir into an arranged marriage. I had to leave the house quickly and hide at a friend’s place. I did not meet any of his family until a while after we were married.
What did your parents make of all this?
My mother was very upset, she told me I was a wicked girl and that she wasn’t at all happy. She apologized before we got married and she was all right. But sadly, she died a few years after we got married and so that relationship ended.
My dad was better, the only thing he said to me was, “What if you have children?” Otherwise, he was OK. He’s a very reserved, quiet man, and not a big conversationalist. He accepted Faqir, they got along well and it was fine.
Also, before Faqir and I got married, my sister asked me, “Do you realize you’ll be giving up all this?” She meant the house and property that my parents owned. Her words came true eventually, as my father left everything to her. She has always been politfe with Faqir, but never treated him like a brother. Otherwise, she was OK.
Why was your father worried for your future children?
Probably because mixed marriages were not common forty years ago, so it was quite unusual. I think my mother was worried about what people in the village would say, she was scared perhaps of people’s opinions about my marrying a colored man, that’s what it would be. But, over time, she came around to the idea, apologized, and everything was fine in the end with my family. And I have three lovely children now, grown up, very well balanced, and happy, with lovely families of their own.
You say you did not meet any members of Faqir’s family until quite a while after the marriage. How long was that and how did they react?
I met Faqir’s family after we had been married for about seven months. He’s from a large family – seven children, including four sisters – and one of his sisters persuaded his parents to let me into the house. But when I entered it, his father completely ignored me as if I were not even there! It was very difficult.
His mother would’ve been all right, but she was under the subjection of his father; it was a traditional Indian family, the way things worked.
So, it was always a difficult relationship because they weren’t happy with Faqir changing religion and they weren’t happy with him marrying a white girl. It was kind of tolerated, I think, but, yes, I always felt I was ‘second best’.
And that never changed?
Not really. I would visit his family with our kids but always felt second best. Ironically, after Faqir’s mother died, his father fell ill and came here to live with us but it was difficult even then because he would speak to my husband in Punjabi only, even though he could speak English. That cut me out of any conversation, so it was difficult.
Did Faqir’s father ever explain? Why behave like that if his son was happily married to you?
I think it was prejudice. You know how white people can be prejudiced towards colored people? It can work the other way and because I wasn’t Sikh, and because I wasn’t the right color, I was 'second best'.
But you have to understand where they came from – a small village in India, where people weren’t educated, lived in a very tight knit community and seemed very fearful of how the community would react. The fact that their children married out of the community caused them to be ostracized, I believe, so I can partly understand their reactions towards me, but I just think it’s a shame because they missed out on being part of our family.
To me, race never came into things when considering marrying Faqir. Strange that it may seem, I was more worried that I am taller than Faqir, than that he was Indian!
Did Faqir’s siblings marry Indian or foreign spouses?
Faqir’s two brothers married white girls. He also has four sisters – two of them had traditional arranged marriages, but one married an Englishman and the other married a Scotsman!
That seems an encouraging blend of traditional and modern, within the same family. You’ve faced strong challenges from particular aspects of Indian culture, but in general how have you adapted to it?
I enjoy the Indian culture. It’s very lively and colorful. I come from a small village too, a small farming community in the quiet English countryside, and so I found the quite noisy and vibrant Indian culture to be rather a contrast!
Did Faqir bring those aspects of Indian culture into family life in England?
Yes, definitely. We’ve never denied the Indian part of our relationship, we’ve always encouraged the children to know about the Indian side of the family, and tried to own it, although we live in England so we have an English life too. I didn’t know anything about Indian culture until after we married, because Faqir had been thrown out by his own family and was no longer living in the Indian community, so I didn’t experience any of that until later on. It was quite an eye-opener – I married the man first, you see, not the culture!
Did Indian culture surprise or intrigue you, in any way?
Yes, one aspect is the hospitality – it’s a big thing Indian culture. My family was quite closed and didn’t receive many visitors, but in Indian culture, guests are always very welcome into the home and you must feed and look after them, so in that way it’s more open.
The other thing I found difficult was the sense of obligation to all this extended family, all the things that you must do. For instance, when people get married there are certain things you have to give. One of the Indian cultural things is, you have to give a shirt and money to all the men, and all the women have to have material so they can make a suit – a shalwar kameez – you know, the long tunics with trousers. You have to buy the material for the women, they might be people you don’t know at all but because it’s a big family, you have to do all this.
Was this when you got married?
No, not for my marriage, I didn’t have anything Indian in my own marriage. Faqir was cut off from those aspects of his culture. I mean ever since we’ve been married, if we go to Indian weddings there are so many things you have to do.
Must the bride and groom bring shirts or buy material for everyone else?
For anyone who is related, so it’s not just your brothers and sisters, it’s uncles and aunties, cousins, you know, this big thing! It’s just traditions, exchanging presents and so on.
How do you like Indian films and Indian music?
When we first got married, we’d go to Indian films together and I’d be the only white face in the cinema, and because I’m very tall, I was head and shoulders above all the Indian ladies in their saris and everything! I enjoyed the Indian films and they had subtitles, or if not, their stories were so predictable that I could easily follow them.
We like Indian music, yes. I’ve been to quite a few concerts with Faqir. We’ve been to hear Ravi Shankar several times, and his daughter, yes.
Have you visited India?
Only once. Faqir used to go fairly regularly when the children were growing up, every two or three years he’d go back to the family home in India. But I didn’t because it was too expensive. I stayed behind with the children.
After they’d grown up, I made a visit out there and saw the area where Faqir grew up, and I traveled around, yeah, it was good, and I hope to go again soon!
I know Indians love their cuisine. Do you enjoy it?
I hadn’t eaten a curry until I met Faqir. He cooked one for me and I found it very hot! But since then, I’ve learned how to do all the Indian cooking. I can make curries and the chapattis – the flat breads – and so on, all sorts. We have Indian meals two or three times a week. He cooks, I cook, yeah! People come round to eat curries with us.
Do you blend your own spices?
I don’t grind them but I do buy all the separate spices and mix them up. I don’t buy curry mixes; I use all the proper things. I go to the Indian shops and buy them.
I love Indian food and we use curry mixes. But I’ve eaten in Indian homes and Sri Lankan homes, and those meals tasted completely different to what I cook!
Yes, what you make at home with real spices is very different to what you eat in a restaurant. I like Indian cooking because you can be very creative. I rarely follow a recipe – I just get the spices out and make whatever I like.
It seems you've adapted well to the culinary aspects of cultural difference?
Yes, but I had to learn things which are different – like how to eat with my hands, and not a knife and fork, when we had curries!
Faqir had to learn how to drink English tea – not laden with sugar like Indian chai and that men can make it too and that a cup of tea in bed, in the morning, for your wife, is an English tradition!
Yes, my English husband sometimes treats me to breakfast tea in bed. In general terms, how did you feel raising a family in two different cultures?
We always acknowledged the Indian part, so we tried to make our children realize that they came from a mix of cultures, but I think that more important to us was to bring them up as Christians, rather than, say, as British or English. It was more important what we believed, rather than trying to be from one side or the other.
The children went to local schools and, I think, may have been teased a bit, but they seem to have come through that all right and, as they grew up, there were more and more people of mixed race around, so maybe over time they did not feel so uncomfortable.
Personally, I think they are very good looking children.
Oh, I bet they are!
So, that’s a benefit for them, isn’t it?
Yes! Earlier, you said that Faqir’s father would cut you out of the conversation by speaking Punjabi. Have you learned any of that language, in the years since?
I can get the gist when people are talking, but I can’t speak it fluently or hold a conversation. I think Faqir tried to teach me a bit, but he speaks English well so we haven’t bothered with it. The children don’t know any Punjabi.
Did Faqir ever speak Punjabi to them?
No, and we do regret that a bit, because I think if he had done so, then they would have learned Punjabi, later.
That’s a good point. I think we absorb different languages far easier as kids than we do as adults. When you were young, did you ever think you might marry someone from so far away?
No, it wasn’t like I was seeking anyone, but Faqir was a handsome guy and hard to turn down!
What advice might you offer to someone thinking of marrying into a different culture?
I think there are more important things to consider than what nationality someone is. There are more fundamental things that make a marriage work. I think our strong Christian faith united us and helped us through all the difficulties we faced. In fact, I think those difficulties made our relationship stronger because we had to fight to prove to people that we could make it work.
So, I think you need to know one another and know what makes you tick as a person. If you have found someone with whom you can share your life, then where they’re from isn’t a problem.
Although it does make them different, in a fundamental way?
Yes, it does, but it adds richness to life. It can enhance your life, can’t it? You both bring things that enhance the marriage. It’s what you are inside that counts, really, isn’t it? You’re kind of soul mates, aren’t you? I think that’s it.
Yes, I agree, and presumably, you’d agree with the French expression, Vive la différence?
Yes, I think so, because difference is enriching, and providing that you aren’t in competition with each other, and that it’s give and take on both sides, and that neither side is trying to dominate the other, then it will work.
Some women have told me that, when single, they were actively seeking a husband from a different culture, because men from their own culture were very macho and too domineering. Earlier, you mentioned how, in a traditional Indian family, the woman must submit to the husband. Did you ever feel that Faqir would prefer you to behave that way?
No, no, no, not in that way, at all! I mean, he does take the lead in the home, but not in a dominant way, so I’d never feel I am in subjection. Not like how his mother was with his father – she did not have a say in anything!
Has Faqir ever seemed to you like an alien from another planet, because of his ideas or behavior?
No, he’s very thoughtful. He would never do anything like that. I do know that we come from quite different poles of society, I mean, coming from a little village in England, and from a little village in India, it’s quite different.
For example, I was brought up on a farm, so I was always used to having dogs and cats and other animals around. But Indian people, Faqir anyway, and other Indians I’ve met, are quite afraid of animals. So that was quite a problem because I liked pets but Faqir won’t have any in the house, so I’ve had to forego that, which I think was maybe quite a challenge for me.
Just to clarify, I did not mean that his ideas or behavior might have seemed negative to you – I just meant something different, say in the beginning, because of his background, when you thought: An English person would never do that!
Hmm, after forty years it’s hard to think back! But the extended family thing, that was something I didn’t expect, the fact that he would be expected to do something for a relative just because they’re related, however distantly, somebody that we might never have met, and I don’t feel any personal connection to, but we seem to have an obligation to them. That’s maybe something that I sometimes struggle with. He’ll feel a strong obligation to them and that’s a cultural thing, I think.
Does any of your children have spouses from different nationalities?
Well, yes, if you count Scottish! My eldest son went to university in Glasgow and married a Scottish girl. My other son went to university in Wales, married a Welsh girl, and now works at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. My daughter’s husband is from Birmingham. But they all speak the same language!
Have your children been to India?
Yes, my two sons. My daughter would love to go but has an allergy to the sun so she can’t.
Before we finish, is anything you’d like to add?
I’ve never regretted marrying Faqir. We’re still in love and we’ve had a very happy marriage.
And you were lucky to find each other!
Yes, I think we were very lucky to find each other, exceptionally lucky.
And very courageous too, in overcoming all those family difficulties.
Yes, but I think having those difficulties made us strong together, we put each other first you see, and supported each other through it, so that was good.
It’s a beautiful story, thank you for sharing it. Finally, can you recommend a recipe that you both enjoy?
I’m suggesting a very cheap and simple one, which reminds me of when we first got married. We did not have much money, we were scraping by together, with no backing from either set of parents. We used to make a curry with baked beans, you know, Heinz beans from a tin? And even now, if we want to share a simple supper together, we’ll make curried baked beans because it reminds us of the early days.
Baked bean curry
(For hard-up newly weds, also great for Sunday night suppers.)
1 can of baked beans
2 eggs (4 eggs if you are plush)
1 packet of pitta bread
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 heaped teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon salt
Finely slice and fry an onion (add chopped garlic if you wish). When nicely browned, add chili powder, turmeric, garam masala, and salt.
Fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the baked beans and heat through. Crack in the eggs, stir until cooked. Serve in a bowl with warm pitta bread.
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