My parents were old-fashioned in their views on arranged marriages and, indeed, marrying anyone out of the specific group that we belonged to was not something they could contemplate for their children. I don’t want to misrepresent my mum as some hippy liberal. That mum was ignorant and had prejudiced views at times is part of the reason she is of interest here. We are all products of our upbringing but the effect it has on our views and actions is, nonetheless, mitigated by experience.
My father’s older brother had come to England several years before the rest of the family followed. He fell in love with a white British woman and, knowing my grandparents would disapprove, he decided to marry her before their arrival to prevent them from stopping him. I have no memories of my aunt or indeed my four cousins.
In the end, my uncle’s alcoholism contributed to his inability to treat either his wife or his children well. Social services eventually intervened. My aunt was given an ultimatum to leave effectively with the children or for them to be put into care. After this, she lost contact with my mum. My cousins have made their peace with my uncle to varying degrees but our estrangement from this uncle means I have not met them since infancy.
But let’s back up. Mum recalls my aunt making every effort to try to integrate with the family. She changed the way she dressed, tried to learn Punjabi and did her best to take part in family life. In Indian families, the different members of the family have all sorts of ceremonial roles, for example, during weddings. It is a way of stressing the importance of each member of the family during these important times. Even with the same background, the difference between my parents on the issue of family relationships was highlighted by this experience. My grandmother rejected my aunt and cousins and my father, aunt and younger uncle shared her contempt.
What got to my mum, and even now I don’t think she can understand why is the way my grandmother treated my cousins. She didn’t want to know them and treated them completely differently to children who were ‘ethnically’ acceptable to her, relatives or no. Mum understood the reasons why my gran disapproved but she couldn’t believe that it translated into actions. What kind of person would treat their grandchildren badly? What kind of person would do that because of their ethnicity? At the end of the day, approve or disapprove of ones grandchildren are one’s grandchildren.
Therein lay the difference between the rest of my family and her. For them, it was their white British sister-in-law and mixed nephews and nieces whereas for my mum it was her white British sister-in-law and mixed nephews and nieces. Same words but the emphasis makes a world of difference, as I have learnt in my experiences.
In the end, my parents reconciled but it was hard for mum that my uncle’s marriage broke down, as it meant a source of support went too.
For me, growing up knowing that my family were not some purebred Punjabi Sikh family had a huge effect. None of my other family members ever mentioned my aunt or my cousins – other than it was wrong to marry outside of the faith and culture. Mum alone was willing to tell the truth of what happened and what my aunt was really like, as well as their poor treatment of her and my cousins.
Mum represents the reality of the struggle between wanting to maintain one’s culture and tradition through marriage but also the bonds, duties and obligations that one has to members of one’s family regardless of what group they belong to. It is to the shame of my family that they did not do more to accept my aunt and my cousins. While I would rather have not learnt the importance of family in this way, it is at least one positive to have come out of this my mother’s melancholy experience.