When I first learned about Sonal Singh Rathore, I thought it was quite unusual for a Pakistani, Hindu woman, to be married to an Indian from Baroda. Only when I got to meet and talk to Sonal at her residence in Baroda, a town in the western Indian state of Gujarat, was I surprised to discover a tradition of cross-border marriages that is so commonly practiced among the Sodha community in Pakistan.
Despite hostilities between India and Pakistan, Sonal’s story is one among many cross-border marriages that have frequently taken place between the two countries, both before and after the subcontinent’s partition in 1947. Sonal is a Pakistani citizen, whose mother was a former Indian. Her maternal side of the family belongs to Rajasthan, western India, while she was born in Karachi, Pakistan. She completed her school and university education in Pakistan and recalls visiting India often as a child to meet her maternal grandparents and attend family functions. “India isn’t that new to me”, she says.
“I belong to a village named Umerkot, in Pakistan. We are members of the Sodha community. The Sodhas are a Hindu Rajput community where marriages do not happen within the community due to religious and traditional reasons. The Sodha community in Pakistan generally marries off their girls to India, while seeking Indian girls as a match for their boys back in Pakistan,” Sonal explains. This cross-border exchange has been going on for a long time now, dating back to the pre-partition era. Most of these marriages in India take place in Gujarat and Rajasthan, regions with a dominant Rajput population. Not many in either India or Pakistan are aware of such a custom.
Sonal continues, “My great-grandparents and grandparents were influential members of the Sodha community. My grandfather’s elder brother, Rana Chander Singh, was a prominent figure in Pakistan’s politics. There is a village named after him in Kutch, India, called Chandernagar. Mine was an arranged match. My aunt knew this family very well and was keen on this match. For Sodhas, marriage for girls is arranged at a relatively young age since finding a groom in India, fixing the alliance, and then travelling to India for the wedding, is not an easy process. I was married in 2010 and have been here in India since then on a residential permit which is renewed every year.”
How does it feel to be a Pakistani married to an Indian? When I put this question to Sonal, she smiled and responded, “I am glad I came here because I really like India. But Pakistan is home and will always have a special place in my heart.” We talk about the reactions that are generated when she tells people she is a Pakistani married to an Indian, living in India. “Of course it is a conversation starter. I get stared at, as if I were an alien. When people learn that I am a Hindu, they express amazement as to how Hindus can live in Pakistan. I am quite astonished by how little we in India and Pakistan know about the ‘other’. There is this stereotypical perception about Pakistan being inhabited only by Muslims. I have had to tell people that there are many Hindus who live in Pakistan.”
Sonal also recounts being asked questions like, “Did you wear a burqa to school? Is it safe for Hindus to live in Pakistan? A long-distant relative once enquired if mine was a love marriage. She thought I was a Muslim converted to a Hindu since I had come from Pakistan to India post marriage! We have a straitjacketed understanding about religious and national identities.”
Has she ever faced any hostile reactions to her being a Pakistani in India? “Not that I can remember any. People are surprised when they learn that I come from Pakistan. But pleasantly, they are curious to know more about Pakistani people and their culture. With Pakistani TV dramas being broadcasted on Zee Zindagi, an Indian Television Channel, many people have come and told me how they admire Pakistani dramas and the fashion trends in Pakistan. There was only this one time when I interacted with somebody from an armed services background, that I could sense a tinge of hostility. But that is quite understandable.”
Sonal’s husband and parents-in-law travelled to Pakistan in 2011 to celebrate Diwali there. She reminisced about the fact that they absolutely loved being there. Be it Pakistan’s rocky mountains, its beautiful terrain, or hospitable people who overwhelmed them with delicious food, they simply cherished the experience. “Similarly, I have friends in Pakistan who want to visit India. They love Bollywood, Indian TV dramas, and want to experience life in India. Though my friends from Pakistan couldn’t attend my wedding due to visa issues, a few of my cousin’s friends from Karachi, who had the opportunity to visit Mumbai and a few other Indian cities, told me that they would love to visit India again. On the other hand, you also have people who continue to hold onto stereotypes, like they feel they will be imprisoned by authorities once they land in India! But, one must understand, that these are unfound fears and people on both sides are victims of decades old hatred and prejudice”, Sonal clarified.
The flipside of a cross-border connection is that travel between India and Pakistan is a challenge. Shedding some light on the situation, Sonal said, “It was quite easy to cross the border immediately after the partition. The cook at our home had his family in India and used to travel regularly to India to meet them immediately after the partition. While he chose to stay in Pakistan, it’s not possible for him to meet his family that easily now. For me, travelling between India and Pakistan is no less than a nightmare and so is it for parents of Pakistani girls married in India. The kind of carefree attitude that was once associated with crossing the India-Pakistan border remains only a sweet memory today. Now, travel is no fun, as one has to encounter the grumpiest and crankiest of officials at the immigration desk who refuse to cooperate and keep passengers waiting for long hours, without even a smile on their face. For parents with three or four daughters from low and middle-income groups in the Sodha community, planning travel to India is a pain. Slow and troublesome visa processes add to the trauma that families on both sides have to go through. I wish travel processes were faster and more efficient.”
On an optimistic note, Sonal has faith that peace will not elude India and Pakistan as long as people on both sides push for it and lead the process through dialogue. There are so many cultural similarities and common aspects that bind people in India and Pakistan. “If people are open, accepting, and willing to question their stereotypical views of the ‘other’, then we do have hope for better times ahead. I am not sure if such cross-border marriages can really help improve relations, but these are means to spread awareness and let people from both sides mingle with each other. In an individual capacity, I am more than happy to introduce my beautiful country to Indians and dispel any stereotypes that they harbour about it. I love India and I love Pakistan. I am happy to be a part of both in so many ways,” Sonal signs off while still admitting to missing Pakistani food in India and using Pakistani masalas while cooking at home.
Dr. Nidhi Shendurnikar is an independent researcher based in Ahmedabad, India. She has a Ph.D in Political Science from The M.S. University of Baroda, Gujarat. She is interested in research on young people in peace building, the role of religion in peace building, and counter-narratives to mainstream Indian secularism in the digital space. She is a team member with Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, which works to promote peace between India and Pakistan. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Dr. Nidhi Shendurnikar and published on 30-April-2016