Forbidden Love: Some Desis in US are Bridging Racial-Religious Gap

Valentine’s Day 2021: Here’s how some desi Americans are fighting racial-religious biases to marry their true love.

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Image of Indian-American Neha Ehindero and her Nigerian partner on their wedding day, used for representational purposes.
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An open heart surgery opened a father’s heart to let in his daughter’s partner – becoming a message of hope — rarely does a real life story unfold with Bollywood-ish logic. A message from a spiritual guru in Punjab to her NRI disciple in California unclogged the reservations in his heart, filling it with abundant blessings for his daughter’s choice of life partner.

The daughter in question — Maya Assar — now Maya Assar Malik after her 2020 ‘fairytale wedding’ with Zia Malik, her school mate and business partner, who she dated for more than a decade, recalls:

“My father is super religious and was hesitant about my choice. He underwent a blood transfusion many years back when he had an open heart surgery. His guruji asked him — ‘were you allowed to choose whose blood you could use to survive. Blood is blood and human are humans, all the same.’ Coming from his spiritual guru, it was eye-opening for my father.”

Their love melted barriers of faith and borders: the Assars are Hindu-Indians and the Maliks are Muslim-Pakistani. Both families live in California’s Cerritos, and recently celebrated the first anniversary of their union.

Maya and Zia Malik.
Maya and Zia Malik.
Photo Courtesy: ENCOR STUDIO

Customised Mehndi & Symbolism for Cross-Cultural Marriages

Maya’s sister Neha Assar is a sought after henna artist who has been at the heart of Southern California’s South Asian wedding scene since the mid-90s. She draws on a mingling of traditions in cross-cultural marriages in the conservative desi community.

“It is about two cultures coming together. I depict that in the bridal mehndi. I had a Gujarati bride marrying a Jewish guy, so I did the ‘Star of David’ on one hand. There was another Gujarati-Hindu bride marrying a Peruvian groom, so I designed using their ‘Tumi’, a Peruvian equivalent of our ‘Ganeshji’, after making sure it wasn’t offensive to their culture.”
Henna capturing the coming together of a Hindu bride and Jewish groom. 
Henna capturing the coming together of a Hindu bride and Jewish groom. 
Photo Courtesy: Neha Assar Henna Artistry

How ‘Heartfulness’ Brought an Indo-Russian Couple Together

Blessings from another Indian spiritual guru played a lovely role in Julia and Nish’s alliance. Russia-born Julia, who is white, moved to the US as a student, where she found purpose in ‘heartful-ness’ meditation. During her years of spiritual immersion, she met Jammu-born Nish who was working in San Francisco.

Julia & Nish.
Julia & Nish.
Photo Courtesy: Julia Bali

They were part of the same meditation group, but did not start dating in the ‘usual American style’. Julia and Nish visited Hyderabad to seek their guru’s permission to marry. With his blessings they married a year later, and now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Shared ‘heartful-ness’ was critical to Julia:

“I am dedicated to this practice and it is important for me that my spouse understands and practices the same thing. One of the biggest things is that he is a follower for 20 years, and he is a vegetarian. I don’t like people to drink either.”
Julia & Nish’s wedding
Julia & Nish’s wedding
Photo Courtesy: Julia Bali

Are Desi Parents’ Racism Due to ‘Genuine Concern’ For Their Children?

But not all desis are blessed with spiritual intervention in their pursuit of love. South Asian parents don’t willingly embrace their children’s interracial and interfaith partners. Growing up in orthodox Hindu Indian families, youngsters often hear the racist ‘warning’ — ‘don’t marry a BMW — Black, Muslim or White’ — from parents and relatives at family gatherings.

Animosity between countries of origin, threats of disownment by peer groups and family, and social stigma make cross-cultural love a complete no-no for some. Within that scenario, many desis find that a white partner is a lot easier to accept than a black one — which once again highlights the problem of structural racism that needs more attention.

In some cases, desi youth do feel that their parents’ apprehensions are not based on race or religion, but out of ‘genuine concern’ for their child’s future. They also however, mostly acknowledge that the concern might be fallacious and rooted in racism.

Even though they have highly educated, professionally ‘over-achieving’ progeny, ultimately for South Asian parents, it is more about losing their place in society. After the initial upset and reluctance, given time to digest, most desi parents relent grudgingly.

How to Beat ‘Anti-Black’ Attitudes & Mindsets

With the desi fetish for ‘fairness’, introducing a black partner to South Asian parents is among the most difficult to navigate. Ugandan born American Jonah is married to Guntur, Andhra-born British Swetha. Coming across ‘anti-blackness’ racist attitudes in South Asian circles led Jonah Batambuze to a call for action — the ‘#BlindianProject’ was founded to ‘dismantle anti-blackness’.

With thousands of followers across social media platforms, the founder of the ‘Blindian’ community aims to normalise black and South Asian relationships.
Jonah and Swetha Batambuze with their kids.
Jonah and Swetha Batambuze with their kids.
Photo Courtesy: Jonah Batambuze

‘Blindian’ couples share their stories online via pictures and videos, and receive help and support in the group. Jonah conducts workshops to explain what anti-black racism looks like in the South Asian community, and finds that the #BlindianProject is relevant in and beyond the Indian subcontinent.

“I found that when I started teaching these workshops, people started joining from India. It started resonating with people from different regions. Foundational level is love – people struggling in inter-faith and inter-caste relationships, not necessary only ‘Blindian’ couples.”

‘Shared Values Matter’: What Brought an Indian & Nigerian Together

Refreshingly, some South Asian parents embrace their children’s partners more spontaneously than anticipated.

Neha and Tunde Ehindero have been married for a decade. The two met at their MBA school in Atlanta. They recognised early that ideally Neha’s parents would prefer her to choose an Indian partner, and Tunde’s family would prefer a Nigerian match for him. Growing up in Seattle, Neha’s was a ‘stereotypical Indian home, straddling both Indian and American identities’ — Hindi-speaking, vegetarian, Indian social circles, and Sai Baba followers.

Neha and Tunde Ehindero’s wedding day.
Neha and Tunde Ehindero’s wedding day.
Photo Courtesy: Neha Ehindero

After four years of being in a long distance relationship with Tunde who is black, Neha understood that they shared common values. She says:

“As our relationship progressed, we had the will to recognise that there were cultural differences but a lot more similarities in our upbringing, things that mattered — education, ethos of hard work, moral-ethical compass, the value of family, respect for elders, being kind, judging someone by their actions and not by skin colour.”
Neha and Tunde Ehindero’s wedding
Neha and Tunde Ehindero’s wedding
Photo Courtesy: Neha Ehindero

Neha took her time to meet and get to know Tunde’s family in Nigeria. She introduced him first to her siblings and then over time, with their help to her parents, which went smoothly. “I arranged for his parents to meet my parents. My dad being my dad said at the restaurant — so when are we thinking about the marriage! We weren’t even engaged then.”

Mexico was the destination for their Nigerian-Catholic and Indian-Hindu wedding, with guests flying in from multiple continents.

Neha and Tunde Ehindero’s wedding.
Neha and Tunde Ehindero’s wedding.
Photo Courtesy: Neha Ehindero

Why More Communities Are Being Added to the ‘No Go’ Love List

While more desi youth continue in their endeavours to bust prejudices of race and religion, the list of cultures and races that are taboo for love in desi communities also keeps growing – Chinese, Vietnamese and Latinx have been added to the ‘forbidden’ ‘BMW’.

Steve’s traditional Chinese parents and grandparents are open to him marrying his Sikh Indian American fiancé who grew up in California’s Silicon Valley. He gets along with his fiance’s siblings, but her parents are not in the know. Steve finds the ‘Indian way’ stifling.

“She is working up the courage to introduce me to her parents. The Indian way of looking at marriage — ultimately it comes down to the parents. Here’s a line you can’t cross — you are not supposed to date, plus limit your contact with the opposite sex. That’s un-American. Her extended family are in interracial racial relationships. None of us see this as a big deal — this is how we move forward as us in a melting pot. Diversity should be cherished. Basically every Indian I know in my age group, the millennials face that, and are in relationships they don’t tell their parents about.”

Desi Dils Still Beat For Partners Across Culture, Race & Ethnicity

Halfway across the world from South Asia — though not the norm yet — desi hearts are taking the leap of faith into other cultures. In spite of prejudices stacked against them, desi dils (hearts) trust that cross cultural partners supplement their individual identities instead of replacing them. Fundamental values and love trump race, religion and borders.

(Savita Patel is a senior journalist and producer, who produced ‘Worldview India’, a weekly international affairs show, and produced ‘Across Seven Seas’, a diaspora show, both with World Report, aired on DD. She has also covered stories for Voice of America TV from California. She’s currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She tweets @SsavitaPatel. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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