Culture Clash

Mili
New Beginnings
Mili stood silently in front of the newly placed marble slab. Freshly imprinted on the slab was the name Angelo Marconi and in smaller letters it indicated he’d died in a motorcycle accident at age 30. Mili, just turned 29, stared at the freshly turfed ground around the slab and bent down to place flowers in the vase provided at the foot of the slab. She’d asked the family if they’d mind letting her have these brief moments alone with Angelo. Then repeating an ancient text in Bengali instilled into her from childhood she made Namaste to the grave and turned with a sigh to walk the long cemetery path down to a procession of cars where the Marconi family stood in black dressed formality waiting for her in silence.

She blinked as she took in the extent of that family and wondered what her next move would be. She’d have preferred her Bengali family, the Bhattacharyyas, to be there at this time as it would have been appropriate for her to express her grief loudly and feel the warmth of women of the family as they swept her into their comforting arms of embrace. Their loud wails would have accompanied hers as they held her close.

But the Marconi family, while loudly expressive as a rule now watched her advancing steps in silence. There was still that cultural barrier through which neither side quite knew how to interpret the other and what would be appropriate on each occasion. The Marconi’s were staunchly Catholic, the Bhattacharyyas of high caste Hindu stock. Priests had frowned at the marriage which in their eyes was no marriage, and Mili had lost her place in the Hindu schedule of castes for marrying beneath her status. The Brahmin culture was as unaccepting as the culture of the church.

Mili and Angelo had been treated with coldness by both sides of the family but they never regretted their decision to visit the Marriage Registry on that fateful day and begin their life together with a slip of paper that confirmed their status as a married couple was at least recognized by the state. Now Mili would have to make her way in life all alone and most likely without the warmth an extended family relationship would bring.

Brushing aside tears that couldn’t be held back she nodded her head in acknowledgement and adjusted her sari for entry as Marco, the brother of Angelo opened the rear door of a black limousine where Angelo’s Mother and Father were already seated. Then the procession made their less formal way to the Marconi residence where food had been prepared for the family and their guests.

Mili was glad friends she and Angelo had made would be there to diffuse a potentially tense situation and they’d be the ones to take her back to her rented apartment after all family formalities had been completed. This would probably be the last she’d see of the Marconi family. She was neither Italian nor Catholic and there was no grandchild to cement generational interest.

Naresh Bhattacharyya

Naresh was the youngest son born in Dacca East Bengal to Narayan Bhattacharyya during the ferment prior to division of the sub-continent into single India and two state Pakistan nations in 1948. The Bhattacharyya’s were of proud high caste stock whose history could be traced to ancient times and their lands had been granted by royal decree. Identity of a family in their world is tied to land and genealogy.

Naresh’s father had keen intelligence and understood the turmoil of those times could change fortunes of the family. He began to invest considerable wealth in emerging Calcutta industries. Knowing whatever political entities arose from the Quit India Movement those new entities would need sons of the sub-continent to replace British managers forced to leave when independence was obtained. He sent his sons to foreign lands to gain the latest knowledge in business and industry so his family would be well placed to carry on the Bhattacharyya name. Of course land was their heritage so that must be preserved whatever cost so Narayan continued to keep a presence in Dacca and make the trip to Calcutta on occasions to supervise sons who he’d placed in new business ventures.

On completion of his studies at MIT USA Naresh was to make his way to Australia where Narayan was setting up a branch to distribute products from his textile mills. But first Naresh was told to proceed to Calcutta for instructions. Naresh was surprised on arrival to find his family had taken permanent residence in Calcutta. The 1948 break up into India and Pakistan had seen much bloodletting between Hindus and Moslems and in the process his ancestral home had been destroyed and lands occupied. Narayan and his family based in Dacca had barely escaped with their lives to Calcutta where they settled waiting for the political situation to clear before venturing back to claim ancestral lands.

Naresh was further surprised to learn he was to be married before departing to set up offices in Sydney, Australia. His bride had been chosen from distant relatives located in villages outside Calcutta. Narayan was making sure his son didn’t fall under the spell of some foreign woman and thus isolate him from his heritage.

Thus it was Naresh and his new bride took up residence in Australia to manage his father’s interests, and one by one he added to his family until Mili, the last child was born.

Angelo Marconi

Angelo’s father Con had been a prisoner of war in Australia during the Second World War and during that time he was assigned with others to work on farms to help out during times when a significant number of Australian men were fighting overseas and there were not enough men in rural areas to maintain food production. They were given limited freedom to move around but watched carefully by local army units. Con was a cheerful character one could not help liking in spite of his POW status. The farmers did not consider him either a flight risk or for that matter an enemy and Con often reflected how lucky he’d been to go through the war period in a land of relative plenty and with muted animosity considering his status as an enemy alien.

So at the conclusion of World War Two Con determined to remain in Australia rather than go back to an Italy ravaged by the conflict. He found willing recommendations from farmers he’d befriended during his captivity and the government eventually granted him resident status. He moved to Brisbane. His family back in Italy were dismayed when Con’s decision was communicated, but as life was tough back home they one by one migrated under Con’s sponsorship and lived a modest lifestyle as an undivided household in cheap housing until they’d mastered the English language sufficiently and found jobs which contributed to a common pool of money used to sponsor more family members. Within twenty years they were all living in separate homes in middle class suburbs and ensuring their children got the best of education.

The family had arranged a marriage for Con with an Italian girl from their village and Con’s happiness was complete when she was permitted to migrate and join him in Australia. He began to ad children to his family. Amongst those children was Angelo.
Angelo remembered growing up in a typical Italian family environment. There were always relatives visiting and food on the table. A deep bond between cousins developed as they holidayed together. But one by one as they completed their higher education they moved to other cities where jobs could be found until the family was scattered and only aging parents kept those frequent appointments together. Family and church bound the older generation together.

On completion of his education Angelo moved to Sydney for work and tried to maintain his ethnic roots by seeking out members of the Italian community. But Angelo’s parents were from a part of Italy not favoured by these later migrants and he didn’t feel the acceptance he’d grown up with. His friendships gradually included a much wider community and to his parents displeasure he began the second generation cultural assimilation most migrant families’ experience. Con and his wife moved to Sydney and slowly other family members followed. They hoped to be able to help their children maintain the family way of life which they considered superior to the rest of the community around them. But while they brought new ideas and cuisine to their adopted country and these were eagerly assimilated, their children now considered themselves to be Australian and had little yearning for ways of the old country as their parents did.

Meeting of Two Minds

Con’s son Angelo was working at the head office of an insurance company in one of Sydney’s office towers when for the first time he came in contact with an unusual woman. She was not from one of the European transplant communities. He was more olive skinned than the average Australian and this woman the same, but she had a fine featured brown eyed beauty he couldn’t place. Sometimes she came to the office wearing dress styles he was unfamiliar with and sometimes she blended in with the same office attire common to the rest of the women working there. Her English had a lilting cadence to it that played over and over in his mind and he found himself studying her, first of all out of curiosity but later with a much deeper interest. He determined to get to know her better.

But Angelo’s attempts at getting to know her in gregarious Italian style were rebuffed. He retreated to think over what it was about him that seemed to repel her. But his background was such that he was unable to sense just as his family was constantly cautioning him about getting involved with a society they could not approve of, so it was that other communities felt the same way about communities they felt they couldn’t assimilate into. From his point of view the second generation was Australian no matter where they came from and he expected the second generation of other migrant communities felt the same. But parental and community influence is much stronger in some communities than it is in others.

He marvelled that such a beauty did not seem to be spoken for. What he didn’t know was that negotiations were already in motion to find a suitable match for Mili. She was aware of it. As the youngest child she had watched lengthy negotiations between families in disparate parts of the world as they sought appropriate matches for their sons and daughters. It was a lengthy and complicated process, sometimes falling apart at the last minute when financial matters were considered to be unsatisfactory. One by one her brothers and sisters had endured the process and most of them were happy with the end results though girls were most often whisked away to other parts of the world they were unfamiliar with and adjustments painful. Mili was apprehensive about current negotiations as one of her sisters had a very unhappy marriage to a controlling husband.

It was during one of her apprehensive thought moments at work she happened to be walking past Angelo’s desk with research files destined for the manager’s office when they slid off the mobile tray and scattered over the floor. Angelo jumped up and gathered up the files as Mili sobbed in frustration. He was not sure what he should do to comfort her so he lightly touched her hand and went back to his desk. Mili averted her eyes and wheeled the trolley to the Managers office, but on the way back she stopped and quietly thanked him for being so kind. In his gregarious style and not wanting to miss this opportunity Angelo asked her if he could take her dining one evening, or perhaps she would like to see a show?

Mili was taken back at his boldness! She explained that it wouldn’t be proper for her to do that as she would need her parent’s approval even though she was of age, and they were in the process of negotiating for her marriage. She felt sorry when she saw the disappointment in his eyes.

As her custom was Mili had sized up each office worker’s positive and negative personality traits. Some were office flirts and that was against her culture. Some seemed unfriendly and some were ambitious to curry the manager’s favour and try to put potential rivals for advancement down in his eyes. She had considered Angelo to be a flirt when he first joined the staff but now reflected he was more the office cheer leader and friendly with both men and women without any ulterior motive. He hadn’t been seen to be troubling the women of the office for favours as she’d first thought he would. He was just a nice person!

The next day she found a card on her desk with a rose. The card was an apology for his unprofessional office behaviour in asking her out when she was engaged to be married and the rose was his further apology which he hoped she’d accept. Her first reaction was to return the rose and thank him for the thought, but memory of the disappointment in his eyes the previous day caused her to waver, then to decide to keep it. Mili went to his desk and thanked him for the rose and assured him they would still be friends. She was not formally engaged as he’d think of it, but within her culture the family was looking around. He’d nothing to apologize for as he’d not have known of her family situation. Angelo beamed a happy smile as he took this in.

After she’d returned to her desk Mili regretted her action. It was not appropriate in her family culture to take the initiative and approach a man not known to and approved by the family. Unavoidable work contacts were a different thing. But every time she looked at that rose on the desk she’d involuntarily glance over to Angelo’s desk and each time she’d find him glancing her way. She recoiled the first time, but after some time she found herself looking that way again and there he was with that happy smile on his face. Then Mili found her heart racing in a way she hadn’t experienced before and it wasn’t long before she was smiling too and looking forward to those glances.

Angelo was quick to discern that perhaps this relationship was not a lost cause after all. So when he happened to see her sitting alone in the office cafeteria he asked her if she’d have any objections to him sitting there too. Mili kept her eyes averted while she thought about a possible cultural desecration in allowing this to happen but she nodded silently. They ate their lunch silently and Angelo was disappointed Mili didn’t look up but he wasn’t going to give up. Looks across the aisle between them continued during the day and silent companionship during the lunch break carried on during the week. It was an odd relationship which had other staff laughing behind their backs, but they were oblivious to that attention. Then one day Mili looked up from the lunch table to notice Angelo’s entranced gaze and the smiles from other staff as they watched them. She was appalled!

The next day Mili ate her lunch at her desk and kept her eyes on her work. It was just before work ended for the day she glanced across the aisle and took in the most distressed face she’d ever seen. He looked so unhappy Mili’s heart melted. She slowly walked across the aisle and said she was sorry.
Angelo’s face regained that familiar smile.

“I love you Mili, will you marry me?” Angelo pleaded.

Mili stood there too shocked to speak, but then she regained her senses quickly. “I hardly know you and in any case can’t even consider such a thing; my parents would never allow it! You could never understand my family or my culture!”

Love was not something two young adults would experience before marriage it was something which developed over time within a marriage relationship. That was the way of her heritage, and to go outside of that path would be unthinkable and bring not only shame to her, but to her whole family and community.

But Angelo was not giving up. He knew his parents wouldn’t want to see him marry outside his own community either but he didn’t care about that. Would she at least let him talk with her parents and try and persuade them?

The answer was a very clear no!

With a quavering voice Mili told Angelo they needed to stop their relationship as there was no future in it for either of them. They should not be seen together again.

Disappointments

The next day Mili was not at her desk when Angelo arrived. This was quite unusual as she was very diligent at her work and valued highly by the insurance company. In casual conversation he sought to find out what had happened and eventually Julie, one of the girls who lived near Mili disclosed she was on sick leave.

“You don’t stand a chance with Mili, but I’m available!” Julie the fashion queen of the office gave him a cheeky grin while the rest of the girls laughed at his embarrassment. Julie had the men of the office on a leash but Angelo hadn’t expressed an interest in spite of her throwing out broad hints she was interested in him. He was teased soundly by the girls for the rest of the day and was glad when it ended and he could retreat to his apartment.

By this time Angelo knew where Mili lived in the suburbs and took the train to her station and walked to the street where she lived. He stood on the corner among trees for a long time hoping to see Mili but after an hour he retraced his steps and headed for his own apartment disappointed. What Angelo didn’t know was he’d been observed by two people that day.

Mili had happened to glance toward the street from behind the curtains in her upper room and had frozen when she saw Angelo standing under the trees. She hoped her family didn’t know who he was and they’d been seen together at her office. But feelings stirred inside her as she fought against strictures of culture and matters of the heart.

Julie who lived just two houses away had also been scanning the street and when she saw Angelo her expectations were raised. Was he perhaps interested in her after all but too shy to show it? Or was he there because of an interest in that strict and secretive family and their youngest daughter? If so she’d deal with that!

Mili didn’t show up for work the next day either and it appeared she had the week off. Julie homed in on her target. She made it her business to drop by Angelo’s work station each day, bought him snacks and made sure she followed him to the cafeteria so she could share his table. Angelo had also categorized the office workers and Julie didn’t rate high in his estimation. He diplomatically excused himself explaining he had family obligations making it impossible for him to take time off at night. He also stopped attending the cafeteria. Julie got the message but inwardly burned with anger at the rejection.

In the meantime Mili had been thinking things through. She came to know the latest potential marriage interest was an industrialist from Calcutta known to the family. His wife of many years had died and he was looking for a suitable woman to care for his children. The age gap was significant and the man conservative to the extreme, but financial incentives for the Bhattacharyya extended family were great. Mili was appalled at the prospect of moving to Calcutta away from friends, family and the comforts she’d become used to in a country the viewed as her own from childhood. How could her father even consider such a mismatch? She compared that match in her mind to a marriage to someone like Angelo who she’d come to admire. She was not sure what love was, but if it had anything to do with the feelings she got when they were in eye contact it must be very pleasant indeed. She wanted that love! Then with a shrug of her shoulders she put that possibility out of her mind. It would mean complete alienation from family and the extended community and she wasn’t sure she could deal with that.

The fateful decision

When Mili returned to the office the following week the whole office watched to see how the Angelo-Mili entertainment would progress. Julie had shared her sighting of Angelo at the street when she lived and they were convinced of his interest now. Julie had also told them all how Mili’s family kept to themselves and she implied they must have been harbouring some secret they didn’t want neighbours to know about. However the office staff knew of Julie’s interest in Angelo so could see she was trying to prejudice them against Mili and didn’t want to be manipulated into thinking badly about one of their fellow staff members who had done them no harm. They welcomed Mili back much to the irritation of Julie.

Angelo slipped a note onto Mili’s desk to welcome her back and tell her he’d missed her company over the past week. Mili read the note over several times in frustration. Hadn’t she told him there was no future for them? She watched him as he talked with the manager about one of the insurance cases. He was a nice man and she was beginning to find him very attractive. How she wished her situation was not so complicated and she wished she could have the same kind of freedom the rest of the staff had in their interaction with each other. She was finding it difficult now to reconcile her two cultures. One which operated during working hours and one at home. It was becoming very stressful for her to try and reconcile these two conflicting cultures. Perhaps the Calcutta marriage option would at least resolve that conflict, but at the same time she resented that decision being thrust upon her without reference to her feelings. She was a mature woman now and felt that should afford her some respect for her own feelings and wishes.

That evening at home she decided to talk the matter over with her parents. She told them she respected their efforts to ensure a happy future for her and appreciated their concern, but she’d decided that future lay in her country of birth, Australia, and not her parent’s place of origin. She was a mature woman now and would like a part in planning for her marriage.

Naresh went into a fit of rage at the audacity of her suggestion. It was his expected job to arrange her future and she’d be expected to go along with that decision like a good daughter should do. When she was married, Naresh said, she’d defer to her husband when decisions were to be made and she’d do it in this household according to her father’s wishes. That was the custom!
That evening as Naresh and his wife considered that confrontation they wondered if perhaps they should have sent their daughters to Bengal for their education. One of their daughters seemed to be unhappy in her marriage, and now Mili was showing a spirit of rebellion. They decided to advance preparations for her marriage.

Next morning Naresh informed Mili they were proceeding with the plan for her to wed their Calcutta contact and she should be prepared to give notice to her office by the end of the month in order for preparations to take place. Mili rushed to her room and wept bitterly, then stoically gathered up her office things and walked to the train.

The Point of No Return

Arriving at the office early Mili sat at her work station and sobbed silently. One of the passing office women noticed her grief and put her arm around her in sympathy. Mili recoiled and then settled into that sympathetic embrace. Mili poured out her grief in a torrent of words which surprised the sympathetic young woman. This was Mili the quiet and reserved person who carried herself with the dignity of her race; this was Mili who the office generally respected. The more the young sympathetic woman listened the more agitated she felt. No one can be forced into a marriage they don’t want in this country she thought to herself. Then patting Mili on the arm in empathy she had a whispered conversation with the other staff who gathered around Mili’s workstation in silent support.

And that’s when Angelo made his morning work entry. Seeing the women gathered around Mili’s workstation Angelo’s face lit up with his copyright smile. He headed over to offer his welcome too but stopped abruptly as he sensed the sober atmosphere. One of the young women whispered what had happened and he pushed through the group and took her hand.

“Don’t marry him, marry me!”

Mili sighed! How many times did she have to tell this wonderful man it was just an impossible dream?

“He’s right,” the young women supporters cried. “We know you and Angelo are a number and we have seen those unspoken communications between the both of you. You’re a mature Australian woman and need to stand up for yourself!”

Mili thanked them all for their sympathetic support and withdrew her hand from Angelo’s grasp. She motioned for him to leave and Angelo went to his desk crestfallen.

Julie burning with jealousy planned her next course of action. Going to her telephone directory she looked up the name of Mili’s parents and made an anonymous phone call. She told Mili’s mother who answered the phone she was a well-wisher and a respecter of their family. She’d been observing the unwanted threatening attentions one Angelo Marconi had been making to their daughter and felt they should be lodging a sexual harassment case against this man as Mili was powerless to handle the situation. Half an hour later Naresh burst through the elevator doors and marched into the insurance office.

Sweeping his surprised daughter along with him he made an abrupt entrance into the manager’s office where a meeting was taking place. In a torrent of anger he demanded one of their staff members Angelo Marconi be brought in to face charges. There was a shocked silence in the room; then the Manager indicated the meeting was at an end and turned to motion Naresh and Mili to sit.

Mili listened in horror as her father poured out the accusation. She tried to interrupt several times but Naresh ignored her and continued to demand action. So the manager called for Angelo and as charges were explained to him he looked at Mili in hurt surprise. The manager looked at Mili and noticed she was shaking her head vigorously.

“Is this true Mili?” He asked with a puzzled look on his face.

“No it isn’t sir!” She stated emphatically. “This man has never acted in any way toward me other than as a gentleman. He has always been helpful and pleasant and has never, ever harassed me in the way this is being presented.

Naresh looked at his daughter in shocked unbelief! “But I received a phone call from your office to say you were being sexually harassed?” He said. “Why would they do that if it were not true? I came down here to protect you and now you have made me look foolish in front of everyone! We are leaving this place.”

The manager ran to the door to block exit. “Sir you’ve burst into our office making accusations against two of my staff and I need to get to the bottom of this, so you will sit while I investigate.”
He dialled security and requested they send someone up in case the matter got out of hand. Naresh felt both foolish and betrayed. He was an important man in the business community. He’d have someone’s head for this.

Then the manager called for a phone log printout. After some time the printout arrived and he asked for Naresh’s home phone number. He quickly traced the workstation where the call had been placed and asked whose it was. Then when Julie opened the door along with security personnel and saw who was already seated there she became agitated. When asked if she’d placed the call she shook and began to cry and ask for forgiveness. The manager motioned to a security man and told him to help Julie clear her desk and take her belongings. He wrote a note to personnel asking them to pay her out what was owing to her and collect her office entry stripe card. He handed the note to the security man then motioned for Angelo to leave and apologized for summoning him.

Naresh requested the manager to write a note authorizing Mili to collect her termination benefits too as he was taking her home.

The manager turned to Mili. “As an adult Mili you know you will have to write out your resignation before I can do that as there is no accusation of impropriety against you, is that what you want? It’s for legal purposes”

Mili shook her head with determination. This had been the final straw and she saw it as an opportunity to assert herself. “No sir, I intend to continue working her if you will have me.”

“Of course we don’t want to lose a valued worker,” said the manager. Then he motioned to the other security man. “Would you kindly take this valued employee back to her desk and keep an eye on her to make sure she is safe for the rest of the day.” He looked at Naresh meaningfully.

Then he said, “Sir I can fully understand your actions this afternoon. If I’d have received a phone call like that I’d have been very quick to protect my daughter’s honour too.” I apologize for the confusion. Then he smiled and shook Naresh’s hand before seeing him to the door respectfully.

Naresh paused at Mili’s workstation. “How could you embarrass me like that! This evening we will make arrangements for you to join our relatives in Calcutta in preparation for the wedding so you need to put in your resignation as the manager suggested. This country has almost ruined your life and we need to protect you and the family from further embarrassment.”

Then almost without thinking Mili poured out her frustration in a torrent of words. She’d not go to Calcutta and she’d expect to have some input into whatever future marriage proposals were made to the family.

Naresh stood stunned; this was unheard of in his culture. A daughter would listen to parents, not the other way around. He looked at Mili.

“If you have no respect for our ways you have no right to be a part of this family. You’d better make a quick decision. You’ll come with me now or you’ll not return to our home this evening or ever again. Which will it be?”

Angelo had hovered behind Naresh with the security man protectively while Naresh was lecturing Mili at the workstation. She looked at Angelo who put his arms out in a symbol of embrace. Mili wavered momentarily and then said between sobs, “I won’t embarrass you by coming home again ever!”

Naresh left the office with a mixture of sorrow and angry determination.

Mili looked up at Angelo between sobs. “I have no family now. Do you understand that?”

“You have me,” he said with quiet assurance. “I will make sure you never regret this choice!”

A Dangerous Encounter

Mili hadn’t had a chance to think through what she’d do after her work had completed for the day when she made her snap decision to leave home. Now the reality of the situation hit her and she began to shake with fear at what she’d done. Was her family connection really severed? She deeply loved her parents, her brothers and sisters and her extended family in spite of her parent’s conservative ways and she’d felt up to this time they’d loved her in return. Perhaps when her father settled his anger he’d see her point of view and look for a suitable younger man in her own country Australia. She even hoped Naresh would understand what a decent man Angelo was and accept him as a potential suitor in spite of the question of caste and culture. Then she shook her head sadly as she realized their family culture was just too rigid for that to be a possibility.

In the meantime the sympathetic young woman who’d stopped by Mili’s desk earlier that morning had been in to talk with the manager and had phoned her parents. She now appeared at Mili’s desk and nudged Angelo back to his own workstation with a whispered explanation. She sat at the desk and took Mili’s hand. Softly she told Mili there was an unoccupied room at her parent’s home as her sister had recently married and her parents were wondering if Mili would be willing to rent it. They’d supply meals as needed. She urged Mili to consider the offer and after a moment’s thought Mili wiped her eyes and nodded in agreement.

“It’s a big office so you probably don’t know my name, I’m Sally, why don’t you call me Sal?”

Mili sniffed and smiled through her tears. “Thank you Sal,” she whispered.

“You probably need to buy some clothing and personal items Mili, so the manager has given us the rest of the afternoon off to do that. Don’t worry about money, we’ll use my credit card and you can repay me later. Is that OK with you?”

Mili nodded and collected her purse. They walked out of the office while the whole office watched. The office workers were very angry with Julie and glad she’d been terminated for her cruel act. The manager watched as Mili and Sal left the office then ordered the rest of the staff to get on with their work.

That afternoon Naresh and Mili’s brothers waited for staff to emerge from their day’s work. But after checking the insurance office was closed they began to make their way home puzzled and unhappy. It would be a great loss of face to the family if it came to be known Mili had left home rather than be married to their Calcutta contact. Naresh thought he must do all in his power to prevent that happening. It was not for him alone, it was for the family.

It was while they were walking to the station one of the brothers caught sight of Mili with Sal. He shouted and ran to meet her. He was sure she’d be glad to come home with them now that Naresh’s temper had subsided. He loved his sister very much and would hate to see her banished from the extended family.

He caught up to Mili and hugged her. “Come on home Mili, it wouldn’t be the same without you!”

Naresh joined them and took his daughter’s arm smiling. “I forgive you, come on home now.”

Mili glanced at Sal then back at her father. “I do not want to go to Calcutta and marry that man!” She said emphatically.

Naresh’s face clouded over. “Indeed you will young lady. Parents know best and this is in your interest and the family interest to honour this marriage proposal.” He took her by the arm and pulled her toward the station entrance.

Sal yelled to one of the security men patrolling nearby. “My friend’s being kidnapped!”

The security man grabbed his radio and spoke into it as he raced to the scene. There was a scuffle as security and father fought over Mili. Soon two other security men arrived.

Mili’s brothers grabbed their father in embarrassment as a crowd gathered. Naresh yelled “This is my daughter and I’m taking her home with me.”

The security men turned to Mili. “Is it true this is your father?”

“Yes this is my father and these are my brothers!” Please let them go, but I will not be going with them as I’m being forced into a marriage I don’t want. This is my country and I want to stay here, please let them go in peace.”

Naresh and Mili’s brothers retreated in embarrassment. He yelled as he went toward the station entrance. “You no longer belong to this family!”

Transition

The next few months for Mili were bitter sweet. There were times of acute depression which Sal and her parents did their best to counteract. It was a loving home and Mili found herself drawn into that loving environment. But she missed the atmosphere of her Bengali culture, its celebrations and food. She felt herself pulled in two directions, a yearning to be part of her heritage and a yearning for the perceived freedoms of her country of birth.

Occasionally she’d see her brothers in passing as they did business in the inner city. She’d feel wretched as she saw the hurt in their eyes as they passed with mumbled words of greeting. She felt like a traitor to her community at those times. Then she’d think of the words of her father and resentment would arise to cancel out her feeling of loss. In weighing her decision of the past she felt she’d chosen the right path, and any other choice would have led to a life of unhappiness. She would rarely have seen her parents and brothers in any case.

Angelo had been her rock through it all. He understood the difficult transition she was making and was content not to push her while she adjusted to the realities of her new life. But he was always there offering support and encouragement. Difficult as it would be for her she saw a life with him would bring as much happiness as it would be her lot to have.

The first time he’d introduced her to his family had been a difficult time and Mili had almost decided their relationship would not work after that meeting. Italian customs were quite different to hers. She could see it was a vibrant loving extended family relationship and that was somewhat akin to what she was used to. Food and culture were different nevertheless and their staunch religious customs were as rigid as her own and quite foreign to her. Angelo’s father Con had taken his son aside and tried to convince him it would be an unworkable marriage. But Angelo refused to listen. Mili was the only woman he was interested in.

Then their feeling of mutual isolation from the cultures they’d been raised made them realize eventually happiness for them could only exist in their lives being shared together. When Angelo sensed that Mili was ready he asked her again to marry him, and this time she accepted gladly and without hesitation.

Mili rejected the idea of a Catholic marriage ceremony and knew a traditional Bengali style marriage would be out of the question for the community as a whole wouldn’t have agreed with Mili’s choice to marry Angelo. So in a pragmatic move they opted for a celebrant marriage with a reception attended by most of the office staff and Angelo’s family. Mili’s family did not attend, but after the reception one of her brothers emerged from the darkness with a present and a substantial cash gift. He then hugged her silently and melted back into the shadows of the night. This raised Mili’s spirits greatly and from that time on Mili dreamed of an eventual reconciliation with her family.

Mili and Angelo adopted a hybrid culture, she learning to cook his favourite Italian dishes and he learning to appreciate the cuisine of the sub-continent. They were deliriously happy in their rented apartment and each saved carefully for the deposit on their own home where they’d raise their family when financially stable. The years passed by and their love deepened. Neither of them regretted their decision to share their life together.

But five years into their marriage fate intervened. Angelo was killed on his motorcycle at an intersection by a speeding car being chased by police as it ran through a red light. Sal who’d remained Mili’s close friend became her rock of support as Mili faced life alone and estranged from the family she still loved.

Life after Life

Mili and Sal were sitting on the balcony of Mili’s rented apartment one Sunday when a BMW pulled into the driveway and familiar figures emerged looking around. They glanced up at the balcony and then headed for the apartment ringing the bell as they reached the door. Mili’s heart quickened. She had recognized her brothers and for an instant froze in anticipation of another possible confrontation with the family.

Sal touched her and indicated she’d answer the door as she’d also recognized the brothers, but Mili shook her head. She took Sal’s arm for support as she headed down stairs to the front door. Her heart skipped a beat as she opened the door and saw her family there. Tears formed in her eyes.

There was a moment of strained silence. Then the brothers looking uncomfortable asked quietly if they could come in? When Mili nodded her head one of the brothers returned to the car and helped Mili’s mother out and up the pathway. This was too much for Mili. Tears flowed freely.

When they were all inside and seated the eldest brother cleared his throat. “Our father died yesterday!”

After a moment of shocked silence Mili ran to her mother, touched her feet in the customary mark of respect and hugged her as the two women sobbed together. Sal went quietly to the kitchen and prepared tea and Bengali sweet meats for all. Mili had become expert at preparing these.

Then brothers nodded in silent appreciation as Sal served them.

The elder brother continued. “Before he died our father expressed his regrets he’d been so unkind to you. We’ve all watched you from a distance and seen the happiness that came to you in your marriage. We were saddened when we heard of Angelo’s accident and death but it was only as he was facing death the magnitude of injustice done to you became his obsession. He wanted us to come and beg your forgiveness for that injustice. We’ve all missed you and share the blame for not having understood your wishes sympathetically at the time. We as a family would also like to ask your forgiveness and to let you know you’d be a cherished family member from now on in any of our homes.

Mili still holding onto her mother sobbed, but this time they were tears of joy. She slowly rose and greeted each in turn as was the custom, then held each of them in turn.

“Thank you!” Mili replied in a broken voice.

She was then formally invited to take part in the funeral preparations.

After they’d departed Sal and Mili sat hand in hand on the balcony watching as the sun began to set. Sal glanced at her watch. “I guess I’d better be moving home to put food on the table for my husband, he has quite an appetite these days.”

That night Mili slept through the night for the first time since Angelo’s death. Perhaps there was to be life after life after all she thought as she woke to face the next day.

“© Copyright Ian Grice 2013 All rights reserved”

Above image copyright to bengalipictures.blogspot.com

17 Comments Add yours

  1. Sonny Varghese says:

    Ian, After all these years, I had no idea that there was a great writer hidden in you. You have researched well and your years in India have given you so much insight into the caste and cultural system there. Then the years you went back home and saw all the cross cultural marriages back home filled you with so much inspiration that the writer in you finally woke up. I would like to see a complete book from you on this or other topics. You have so much talent and if you have the time and inclination I would urge you to continue on this tangent – away from what you have been doing all your life. Please keep it up and keep me informed. I know that you will do well. Best Wishes and regards!!

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    1. Then you would also like my previous mini-novels Sonny. Check back on my WordPress page and you will find one on Sri Lanka, one on Thailand and yet another one based in Mumbai and Pune. And even further back there is one based on an Australian couple set in Sydney. Look at the index marked mini-novels. I have lots of single stories based mostly in Southern Asia. You can also read my latest based in Bombay around the early 1800s. I have two chapters up and will put up the third tomorrow. I can assure you I enjoy writing and teaching much more than administration. lol. Usually they had to pull me kicking and screaming into high administrative positions. Nice to hear from you again.

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  2. Mags Corner says:

    Sweet Ian I really enjoyed reading this story. Culture is not all that causes families to reject family members. Religious beliefs do the same thing. My husband’s family members have little to do with us because we did not marry in the church they attend. It is so sad that love and happiness sometimes comes with a high price and other times people miss out on them because of culture differences or religious beliefs. Hugs

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    1. Isn’t it interesting that religion which is supposed to draw us all together actually divides the human race in one form or another. Very sad!

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  3. This is so well told, so truly beautifully told. So many of us who marry and love across cultural barriers live out similar stories. We can only hope reconciliation comes before death.

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    1. I’m sure it will in most cases but unfortunately not all. In the latter case that situation would confirm love in a shared sad experience of rejection.

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  4. jstansfeld says:

    It is a great story Ian, Romeo and Juliet at their best! You captured the office politics well especially the women.
    I agree with Eric that the cross cultural split is hard on grandchildren – my children never had the family support group which my grandchildren have. Dan and I are also cross cultural, but with parental blessings; unfortunately we chose to live so far away that we seldom saw them. I believe that the love and strength of an extended, non judgemental lose family is a true blessing.
    Cheerio, Jane

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    1. I married a Hungarian and it was quite amusing to negotiate the difference in culture and watch the uncertainty on the side of my parents in law who did not quite know how to deal with this Australian. Fortunately we all managed to bond and make little concessions along the way and we are still together. Unfortunately our children with grandchildren now live in the US and we can no longer travel. But the internet allows us to watch them grow in real time and they do visit us as they can.

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  5. We like to pretend that family love is unconditional, yet so many of us have sad tales to tell which prove it is not always so.

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    1. I was fortunate enough to have a supporting family environment to grow up with. My parents gave us room to show our individuality and were always there as cheer leaders when we succeeded and picked us up when we didn’t and pointed us forward. When we chose our life partners they were accepted with open arms and it would not have been a problem for them to embrace another community.

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  6. Jane Thorne says:

    Eric’s comment is heartfelt and end of life regrets are so sad. x

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  7. Jane Thorne says:

    Ian, a heartfelt story so well told. I would love to read a book from you, you have such talent. You had me gripped over my breakfast again, thank you. x

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    1. Hey, breakfast is important! I hope my story didn’t spoil that for you? lol. Thank you. The truth of the matter is it’s such a hassle to go through the process of writing, editing and then begging a publisher to look at your work that it would take all the pleasure out of writing just for the pleasure of it. Writing is not something you just do mechanically either. It’s only when a story theme suddenly appears in my head that I have to sit down and begin to write. Then the story kind of unfolds as I do. I enjoy writing very much but do not even imagine myself up there with the great story writers.

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      1. Jane Thorne says:

        Ian, you write for joy. That comes across every time. I would not compare you, for I think your voice is unique. So, I would want to read what you have to say. x

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      2. Thank you Jane. You are such an encourager

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  8. Eric Alagan says:

    Without in any way diminishing your storytelling skills – which are excellent – this is an all too common occurrence.

    Lisa and I married across cultural lines. My mother never fully accepted Lisa or my children. But on her death bed, she finally admitted that out of the five, Lisa was the ‘best daughter-in-law’. Kind of late in the day, as by that time my love for my mother had long dried up – not so much because of how she treated me or even Lisa, but rather, how she treated my three children.

    This story cut close to the bone, Ian but very well captured.

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    1. I have viewed many tragic cross-cultural marriages in my time. In some cases the pressure of relatives is just too much for the survival of the marriage. I cannot understand the mentality of any community which thinks they are superior or can be contaminated by a link with another. We live in a very imperfect world

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