Saskatchewan·Point of View

Bucking tradition: My immigrant parents gave me the freedom to choose love

My father was just beginning to talk about finding a husband for me, when I produced one of my own. His reaction was nothing I would have ever expected.
My parents' marriage was an arranged one, a grand East Indian affair involving hundreds of people and days of ceremony. Despite years of tradition and their own expectations, they were willing to let me choose something different. (Submitted by Janani Whitfield)

It's hard to forget the moment I thought I would break my parents' hearts forever.

I was catching a ride into downtown Saskatoon with my father when he said, "It's time to start looking for a husband for you."

At the age of 23, I'd been bracing for this conversation, knowing this would be my parents' expectation. Their own arranged marriage was based on East Indian Hindu tradition, a complicated calculus of matching astrological signs, caste and sub-castes, and social strata.

I'd never given them any reason to expect I would choose any differently. I'd gone along with their conservative religious upbringing, never drinking or smoking — or dating.  

But now everything had changed and I had no idea how to break it to them.

An improbable romance

The summer before that conversation, I'd attended the wedding of two friends, an event that sent my life in a different direction.  

One of the guests was a Welshman. He'd met my friends while they were all volunteering in India and told them if they ever married, he would catch a plane from his home in the United Kingdom to come to their wedding in Saskatoon.

Somehow, I caught his eye. Just how this happened is a mystery, given I'd shaved my head for a cancer fundraiser and it was awkwardly growing out, while I was still getting over an embarrassing case of adult acne. I was sure this good-looking and burly Welsh rugby player was pulling a fast one on me.

As we spent more time with each other, I realized he was serious. But the odds against our couplehood seemed so high, based on the fact he lived in another country and my own family's expectations.

"Whatever happens, I hope you find someone special," I told him, during a long bike ride through the streets of Saskatoon.

He stopped his bike and looked right at me.

"Here's the thing: I think I already have."

A long-distance courtship unfolded over the course of a year, with both of us exchanging letters until we met again in Halifax.

I underestimated his tenacity. Over the next year, we had an old-fashioned courtship, with handwritten letters and the occasional unexpected flower delivery simply labelled "from Europe."

When he visited me next spring in Halifax, where I was studying, we had a week of amazing adventures, exploring the beauty of the province and coming to understand each other more deeply. Still when he asked me to marry him, I was blown away. If this was a joke, it was a seriously elaborate one. But laughter was far away as I saw this person before me, wholly genuine and vulnerable.

I felt a faith in him, stronger than my faith in myself. I told him the truth, the only way I believed this improbable romance could work: "You'll have to ask my parents."

The truth sets you free

When I told my father that someone I had met wanted to come and talk to him about marriage, my heart filled my throat.

He surprised me by agreeing to the request.

I'm pretty sure my erstwhile suitor sweated out his body weight in the lead-up to the meeting, but he held his own admirably.  

After a strange half an hour of talking about uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan and debating the most comfortable transatlantic flight options, my dad seemed more or less satisfied.

For everything asked of him, my fiancé agreed, taking part in the elaborate and traditional East Indian Hindu ceremony. (Submitted by Janani Whitfield)

My grandmother marked his forehead with holy ash and gave her blessing.

"He has kind eyes," she pronounced, never realizing that some day, this man would be there to hold her hand while she went through the slow and painful process of dying.

She only had one reservation. "He has a sharp, pointy nose, and you have a short, squat nose. What kind of noses would your children have?"

There was one other point that was not up for debate. If we wanted to get married, there would be no dating or living together, simply a wedding.

Once again, my fiancé agreed. For everything demanded of him, he rose to the challenge, even while few of his friends could understand what he was doing. I couldn't believe that I had seemingly found the one person on Earth who was so steady and sure that he would forego his own cultural expectations of love and marriage.

It all happened so quickly that memories of my wedding remain a blur.

One image from that day is seared into my mind. My husband's parents sat in the front, surrounded by 300-plus East Indians singing and chanting in Sanskrit. I can hardly imagine what they were thinking, watching their son marry a girl they'd only met two days before. Their hands were clasped together tightly.

The two sets of parents and future in-laws met only two days before the wedding. (Submitted by Janani Whitfield)

The East Indian friends I've grown up with have chosen different paths and pursued romantic relationships that would have been taboo in our parents' upbringing, whether it's living together before marriage, marrying people of other faiths or having same-sex relationships. But their partners have been welcomed and are now loved as part of our extended families.

I want to stand up and cheer for our parents. They've crossed an ocean, saying goodbye to everything they knew and loved. They embraced their new country and allowed their children freedoms they never had.

One year after we met in downtown Saskatoon, we were married in nearly the same spot. (Submitted by Janani Whitfield)

And perhaps they've realized something that hit home to me when I saw my husband's parents holding hands. It's something I want my own children to understand, in this country we now call home, somewhere in the middle of the east where I was born and the west where their father was born.

Faith in each other and unity in a relationship is far more important than cultural traditions or restrictions — and love is a force that when found, is to be grasped and held onto with both hands.


CBC News is exploring relationships, dating and sex in Saskatchewan in 2019. Here are some other pieces for you to check out.

About the Author

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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