Below The Belt

What's wrong with a brother and sister falling in love?

India continues to live in denial even as cousins marry in several communities.

 |  Below The Belt  |  5-minute read |   26-08-2015
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My earliest male admirer was my maternal aunt’s eldest son. A moustached, dusky, college-going boy, I called "Dada". He would have the habit of staring at me lustfully. He would follow me around at weddings. Always accompanied me to elevators, which I found creepy. I would try and keep a distance from him. Family get-togethers, it seems, were an excuse for him to get close to me, trying to force an eye contact.

Were my cousin’s affections for me merely brotherly, or sexual? Or was it just my first brush with being an object of male desire? Would his natural propensity towards me escalate into a full-blown man-woman romance ever? Why was I always so nervous around him? I think, I still am.

Are women conditioned into fearing men in this country and keeping them away? Should men be worshipped as objects of distant veneration – the way our mothers tell us to address boys as "bhaiyya"? Strangers. Cousins. Men on buses. In shops. At cash counters. In front of our colony gates.

Will a festival like Raksha Bandhan, celebrated with much aplomb in this country, and defines so much of what is sacred between siblings – besides tacitly validating the eternal feminine need of being protected by a stronger male prototype - be blown to bits by our own moral disclosure that man-woman attractions are pure biology. And nothing more?

That behind all the fuss even with the ongoing Peter Mukherjea’s wife, Indrani’s arrest could be the trajectory of a murdered young woman, Sheena Bora who possibly developed a romantic relationship with her mother’s third husband’s eldest son, Rahul. Technically, her step brother.

Why are we going red-faced at this sudden twist in the case? Because, it’s all in the family, or because we like to preserve asexual notions of who we are as a community? Because we like to quote the most common statistic – that cousin marriages are a widespread practice in much of the Muslim world, with more than half of all marriages in the Middle East being consanguineous. The most common type being that amongst patrilateral first-cousins.

Let’s face facts

Southern India is thriving with communities that practice consanguineous marriages. Gotram (ancestral lineage) is serious business, and while nuptials between a man and a woman of the same gotram isn’t preferred, first cousins tie the knot.

On similar lines, Menarikam is a marriage practice, among many tribes/castes of Andhra Pradesh and other south Indian states, between a maternal uncle and his niece or between cousins, similar to Islamic, Jewish and Zoroastrian customs.

While Islam gives consent to all first cousins being united in holy matrimony, Telugus make a distinction between two kinds of first cousins: cross cousins and parallel cousins, only consenting to the marriage of cross cousins. Sons and daughters of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt are classified as cross cousins.

For example, his mother’s brother's daughter will fall under the category of matrilateral cross cousin and father’s sister's daughter under patrilateral cross cousin. All other first cousins related through one’s paternal uncle or maternal aunt are regarded as parallel cousins and considered brothers and sisters.

Patrilateral cross-cousin marriage is also observed among the Paraiyars and other castes/tribes of Tamil Nadu. In Tamil, a daughter-in-law refers to her mother-in-law as Mamiyar, wife of my mother’s brother.

Among Marathi communities, such as Marathas, Kunbis, Malis, Mahars, etc, the marriage of a brother’s daughter with a sister’s son is common. The other form of cross-cousin marriage, namely, the marriage of the brother’s son to the sister’s daughter is also practiced by some Gonds and other tribes among who consider such a relationship as doodh lautna (give back the milk).

Murias and Bhils of north/central India also practice cross cousin marriage. Among some Desastha Brahmana’s of Maharashtra, a man is considered to have a preferential right to marry his cousin or his sister's daughter. It is known as the right of first refusal.

The concept of Gotra is not just a desi construct. Male cousins in some communities in our neighbouring Nepal have a customary right to demand for the hands of their female cousins.

In China, while patrilateral parallel cousin marriage is prohibited; other types of first-cousin marriages are ongoing.

Balenese culture recognises this as "dadia", with the most sought after partner in Balinese culture is within the dadia - a patriparallel cousin. The Kurichiyans of Kerala too are known to prefer cross-cousin marriage to any other alliance.

Hush hush

Or is it because we don’t like dissecting incest. Openly.

The way we shudder when someone brings up Lord Brahma, one of the three primary gods – trimurti of the Hindu pantheon, creator of the universe, who married his own daughter, Saraswati, goddess of learning.

Stories of her genesis outlined in the Saraswati Purana – one amongst them being that Brahma created his drop dead gorgeous daughter Saraswati directly from his "vital strength" or seminal fluid. The other being that Brahma collected his semen in a pot while lusting after the celestial beauty, Urvasi. This gave birth to Saraswati which is why there is no mention of her mother.

When Brahma saw her beauty, he grew amorous. To escape from her father’s passion, Saraswati tried running as far as she could, but finally succumbed to Brahma’s wish, and lived as his wife. They lived together in a lotus for a hundred years. They had a son Swayambhumaru.

Swayambhumaru made love with his sister Satarpa. It is said Brahmahad two grandsons and two granddaughters.

Did they have congenital problems?

Faulty genes?

Is this why we prefer a shrouded silence?

Writer

Sreemoyee Piu Kundu Sreemoyee Piu Kundu @sreemoyeekundu

The writer is an ex-lifestyle editor and PR vice president, and now a full-time novelist. She's the author of Faraway Music, the best-selling female erotica, Sita's Curse, You've Got The Wrong Girl! and Cut. Last year, she wrote the internationally acclaimed work of non-fiction on single women in India, Status Single. A leading columnist on sexuality and gender, Sreemoyee is also the recipient of NDTV L'oreal Women of Worth Award in the 'Literature' category.

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