No matter how the Sania-Shoaib saga pans out and I write this a full week before her announced wedding date of 15 April, the question now is: Did this headstrong girl from Hyderabad choose the right man?
Love all: Sania and Shoaib are likely to marry on 15 April. Mahesh Kumar A / AP
Sania is standing by her fiancé with laudable, and some would say, misguided loyalty. What about her judgement—or her family’s judgement—in choosing a man with so many strings attached? A foreigner at that.
Let’s put aside the religion, nationality and politics of this match (pun intended), even though they are the three white elephants staring us in the face. Instead, let the question be merely this: If someone you care about, be it a beloved sister, a daughter or even a dear friend, chooses to marry a man who is a foreigner, “not one of us”, how would you feel? How should you feel?
Before she became prone to injuries, before she began to slip in the semi-finals, before her personal life became volatile, this nose-ringed, spunky girl from Hyderabad served and volleyed her way into our hearts. Just as Saina Nehwal is doing now.
Psychologists must have a word for this process by which an athlete or movie star goes from being an unknown entity to a national sweetheart; from being a stranger to becoming one of us. Perhaps it happened because we watched and cheered Sania countless times on TV from our living rooms. But that’s not the only reason. I have watched Katrina Kaif and Kareena Kapoor countless times on TV but I am not emotionally invested in them. Neither Kat nor Bebo have been invoked as role models in the same way that Sania was. Hundreds of Indian parents told their daughters: “You can be the next Sania. You can be like her too.”
Perhaps it is because racquet sports are less risque than Bollywood. Perhaps it is middle-class Indian prudishness where we don’t mind our daughters being on centre court but don’t want them to be on the silver screen. I think it is because Sania and Saina are pioneering world-class champions who have broken the mould. Sania, in addition, happens to be more confident as a celebrity than the more reserved Saina. The nose ring, the dimpled smile, the mini skirt and let’s face it, the fact that she is a Muslim girl, all contributed to her presence, both on and off court. She was, if not unforgettable, not exactly forgettable either.
And now she is entangled with a guy with prior entanglements. As she combats the Siddiquis instead of cutting her losses and distancing herself from Shoaib’s past, one that she had nothing to do with; as she answers questions and lobs accusations, Sania in her personal life resembles the spirited headstrong player that we loved on court. That’s the problem. As countless athletes including Tiger Woods have demonstrated, the traits that serve you well on court are not the ones that you need off court. Sensitivity to nuance, for instance, has nothing to do with winning a match but everything to do with a happy married life.
In India, marriage is as much about nuance as it is about all the other stereotypes associated with it. Stereotypes that are being broken with every passing generation, I might add. Yes, the average Indian probably places the sanctity of a marriage much higher than his Western counterpart; yes, the average Indian will probably think longer about breaking off a marriage than her Western counterpart even if she cannot stand her husband any more. But the same Indian, thanks to Tamil actor Khushboo and her laudable victory in the Supreme Court, is beginning to accept—and in a few cases, revel in—live-in relationships sans marriage or legality. Yes, Indian arranged marriages were precipitated on ticking a number of boxes (caste, sub-caste, religion, vegetarian, fair, etc.) and not just blind love. Yes, they are “alliances” between families and this familial web was thought to be the reason for their success—for the low divorce rate in our country anyway. But as a growing number of love marriages prove, the Sindhi daughter-in-law can forge just as close a familial bond with her Kannada father-in-law to the point where the father forgets his earlier unease over his son choosing a wife who wasn’t a Kannadiga; wasn’t one of them. Love marriages can strengthen (or weaken) the great Indian family just as much as traditional arranged marriages. Now, here comes the nuance.
A long time ago, a family friend “uncle” of mine explained his sadness at his Indian daughter marrying a Pakistani man this way, “It would have been different if she was a son and brought in a foreign wife. But to give a daughter up to a Pakistani...” He trailed off.
At that time, I didn’t get what he was saying. I didn’t understand the difference between “losing” a daughter and “gaining” a daughter-in-law. Son or daughter—both happen to be your children. What’s the difference? But there is a difference although it is hard to vocalize or put down in a pros and cons spreadsheet. It is a feeling; a nuance really.
This is why we are uncomfortable with our Sania marrying Shoaib. They may sort this all out and get married at the appointed hour. They may be deliriously happy and I hope they are. I wish them well. They have much in common: sports, religion, family values. Except that she is Indian and he is Pakistani. That’s the nuance. She gets asked to play for Pakistan, but never once is he asked if he will play for India. That’s nuance.
You know the feeling of going to a party and feeling vaguely uncomfortable even though everyone there is perfectly nice. That’s nuance. You know the feeling of having to explain Mallu or Sardarji jokes to a firang (foreign) brother-in-law and how unfunny they become in translation. That is cultural nuance. That’s why it will take us Indians a while to get used to Shoaib. It’s not that he and his family are not nice. It is just that they are…different. And she is ours.
Shoba Narayan wishes Sania a wonderful married life. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org