By Karima Khan Sep. 18, 2018
I’ve imposed a ban on attending nikaahs within the family. Being Muslim means that I can marry a cousin. Which means the potential of a “bhaijaan” to morph overnight into a prospective groom is 100 per cent and family weddings turn into a cringey, IRL version of Minder.
It was around the fifth time when I sought my parents’ permission to skip a cousin’s wedding over a school-related thing that had “compulsory attendance” that they started becoming suspicious. They knew I wasn’t up to any mischief and had only one best friend, so leaving me behind wasn’t really a problem. It’s just that it was uncharacteristic.
It’s not that I’m introverted or I don’t like attending weddings. The shararas, the jhumkas, the dolling up, the all-round prettiness, and damn, the food… weddings are my jam. But only when someone I’m not related to is getting married. You see, being Muslim comes with superb benefits, like say, not being reborn – but the yin to this yang is that I can also marry a cousin.
Let that sink in. Which means the potential of a cousin to morph overnight into a prospective groom is 100 per cent. Which means family weddings turn into an IRL version of Minder (Muslim Tinder). And I have many feelings about that.
At a wedding, I have filled up my plate with starters and sat in one place with a good view, looking around at my cousins long-distance flirting. Picture this: Cousin Alif, the one whom we only know by name, who lives in an obscure town and appears only at weddings is all grown up now and is of the age where everyone knows his hormones are raging. Cousin Bey lives in my village and we meet when I visit there, and of course, at weddings. She is in second year of college, and has not spent a minute in skinny jeans. Cousin Alif and cousin Bey – who are first cousins and ought to celebrate Raksha Bandhan – are finding ways to cross each other’s paths and won’t stop smiling at each other.
All of this is undone by the scientific argument that marrying cousins might result in genetic problems.
Their parents notice this from the other side of the pandal. I wonder if I need to swap my plate for a tub of popcorn to witness what’s about to go down. But where I expect to see shock and fury, I see sly smiles that indicate, “Iss rishte ko gehri rishtedaari mein badalne ka waqt aa gaya hai.” I all but choke on my reshmi kebab.
Now, marrying cousins is a common practice not limited to the Muslim community – Jewish people, as well as parts of Indian Christian and some Hindu communities follow it. Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein were married to their cousins. Einstein’s marriage was another of level of being related. His second wife, Elsa Einstein, was his first cousin on his mum’s side, and their dads were first cousins as well.
To some extent, marriage within the extended family makes sense. First off, finding suitable people to partner up with is difficult business – this is not just a millennial problem; it’s always been a problem no matter what generation you belong to. So marrying within the family gets rid of one part of the problem, because, presumably, you’re stepping into tested waters of shared values.
All of this is undone by the scientific argument that marrying cousins might result in genetic problems. As Popular Science explains it, “In biology, genetic diversity is all the rage. If something goes wrong with the genetic material provided to you by your mom, you’re more likely to shake it off if your dad’s genetic material is very different… If mom and dad are genetically similar, however, both versions of a gene are likely to shut down at the same time.”
To a regular person, we’re just cousins hanging out. To an aunt who barely knows us, we’re an occasion for a new zardozi sari.
Now that that’s out of the way, I have to say the reason I choke on my reshmis is because I believe the practice of marrying cousins ruins beautiful relationships in more ways than one.
As someone with two older sisters, I’ve often wondered how it would be to have a brother. To which my friends have said, “But you must have cousins. It’s about the same.” How do I tell you, oh naive Hindu buddy, what I’d give to be brotherly with my boy cousins.
I feel like I might have missed out on building deeper, platonic relationships with some people who are so much like me (cuz we related). Imagine being introduced to someone as a sister and being friends with them, then suddenly you’re both young-adults and you can’t hang out anymore because your hormones want to party and the adults have decided you’re no longer brother and sister but are eligible for a romantic relationship. And then you grow up in this weird place where you really like your brother and he likes you too, but you start distancing from each other because of this sudden new paradigm.
My aunts spent a lot of time linking my name with cousins who were around my age, going as far as convincing me I was going to marry one of them. Not gonna lie, I did have a crush on a cousin, but after immediately chugging a litre of zamzam I had detoxed from that thought.
My favourite cousin brother and I’ve always shared a great rapport, so naturally, we hang together at our mutual cousins’ weddings. To a regular person, we’re just cousins hanging out. To an aunt who barely knows us, we’re an occasion for a new zardozi sari. The news that he and I are “spending too much time together” spreads in the pandal faster than the review on the starters. And this has resulted in me having the-opposite-of-wholesome relationships with any boy cousin who is between one to five years older to me.
The strangest effect of this is the strain it causes on relationships between girl cousins. As they also went through a similar brainwash of looking at cousins like suitors, there is sometimes a crush-clash and then things become weird between us all. I’ve seen cousins marrying someone they knew the other cousin was betrothed to and now the two families don’t talk to each other even though they’re closely related.
We risk having stunted inter-personal relationships because of this one practice. So as someone who cherishes deep and meaningful relationships, I’d like to see if not the practice, the way we approach it, change.
I, for one, have vehemently started suffixing “Bhai” or “Bhaiyya” with my cousins’ names (no “Bhaijaan” because it’s half romantic.) When my aunts tease me, I give it right back. I am open with my cousins on who I’m crushing on, and in turn they share their crushes with me. So if it’s a cousin they like, they have my support. I’m still skipping weddings but I make sure to meet my cousins otherwise, without the pressure of being watched by elders.
Hopefully, somewhere down the line, the olds will realise this slow, low-key rebellion, and I will be able to start attending weddings again. My new sharara is waiting.
Karima is a writer and a standup comedian from Mumbai. Her blood tests have revealed that she's mostly made of shawarma. She enjoys back scratches and writing in third person because that's how you feel #official. Hit the girl up on Twitter @karimasanela.