1. Ananya and Yan Narayan married in 2003 in Dubai
Ananya and Yan Narayan’s paths crossed in Hong Kong, when they were working together in the hotel industry.
Their first meeting lasted 30 seconds – in 1998 in an elevator at their workplace. Ananya says he’d heard Yan’s name, so remembered her when he was introduced to her. And then they didn’t meet for three years. When they picked up again, they chatted for so long they ended up having dinner together. And each time they met after that they found they couldn’t stop the conversation. ‘So good was our connection, it felt like a meeting of the minds,’ Ananya tells me, as we sit in their airy, travel-trinket-filled Sports City villa. ‘We kept wanting to spend more time together – and that little fact has not changed even now.’
Don’t the practicalities of a relationship so often put the flame out? Yan disagrees. ‘We’re very aware of that, and are grateful for it,’ she says. ‘Being the best of friends. Even now on weekends we look forward to waking up and chatting to each other for hours. Just hanging out with each other.’
This from a couple who have worked together for decades, and still do – Ananya is managing director and Yan is marketing director at Ananya’s company Hunter Foods in Jebel Ali. Some may argue that working together is not ideal for a marital relationship to thrive, what with all the professional disagreements that inevitably crop up. Has it changed their equation in any way?
‘Work has not affected our relationship in any way,’ Yan states. ‘We still crave spending time with each other – even when we go to an event or party and don’t know anyone, we’re so happy to just talk to each other and have a good time. And if we disagree about something at work, we ensure we don’t have an emotional discussion. We pause, let it be, and come back to it.’
While Ananya is from India, Yan is from China. And every intercultural marriage is so often put through the wringer, coming with its set of assumptions – of anticipated culture clashes, of challenges galore, of the difficulty in bridging the gap... Ananya and Yan both shake their heads immediately. ‘The base of your relationship is carried by your culture but it’s not the definition,’ Ananya says.
‘When I told my mum about Yan she didn’t sleep that night. Then after she’d met her the next day, she slept great.’
‘My father-in-law is the only man who’s ever told me it was love at first sight – yes, not even Ananya did,’ Yan laughs. ‘Sometimes couples from the same culture can be more different than those from dissimilar cultures. Just a simple example of that is how we ate more Indian after I came into Ananya’s life. In Hong Kong I would crave dosa all the time, so that’s what we ate! And now we celebrate everything – Chinese New Year, Diwali, ... the list is huge.’
Finding joy in the same things makes everything transcend culture, Ananya says. Like their friendships. Their love for trying new restaurants, watching new movies, getting spa treatments. On holiday, their desire to explore historic hotels, trying new foods and meeting new people.
‘Be it work or life, we put our heads together. That commitment to say we’re going to see through it, that’s the actual essence of marriage.’
Ananya proposed to Yan with 9 gifts in 9 steps – 9 is considered an auspicious Chinese number. It was a proposal that included a scavenger hunt, puzzles, a ferry ride, gold and diamonds. It certainly wasn’t your run-of-the-mill proposal, and that penchant for deviating from the status quo carried through to their wedding, when they decided they didn’t want to merely repeat the words chanted by the priest at their Indian ceremony, but wanted to actually understand the meaning behind them. So they went to the historic holy village of Vrindavan in India and spent three days to understand rituals before they came back to Dubai for their wedding.
They have a 10-year-old son Gyan now, and daughter Tara, who’s seven.
Yan says having a loving and warm relationship with her in-laws helped her immensely when she moved to Dubai all those years ago – they live eight minutes away, and are actively involved in their grandkids’ lives. ‘When families come together to support the couple, that strengthens the foundation.
‘We renewed our vows four years ago, on our 11th anniversary,’ Ananya says. ‘Next time we want the kids to be part of it.’
‘Next time we should do a Chinese one!’ Yan exclaims. ‘Yeah why not,’ he replies.
Through our chat, small exchanges like these speak volumes about the easy rapport the couple share – having regard for each other’s thoughts seems to come intuitively to them. ‘When you see us we’re so different, but drop the look, drop the nationality, and we are so similar,’ Yan says. ‘Just two people who have recognised each other’s strength and weakness.’
Ananya says the time to talk about their cultural differences comes up prominently at one point in life – when the kids are born. ‘And the key word there is respect – respect for each other’s culture. So we have them learn both sets of traditions. We know it’ll only make our kids stronger to be able to identify with 40 per cent of the world’s population.
‘And being in Dubai is great that way because we celebrate holidays of all religions. We joke around that we’re a Chindian family. Funnily enough in Singapore that is a category now!’
Where do the differences come in? They joke about trivial skirmishes. ‘I like the room temperature at 18, Yan at 24,’ Ananya laughs. ‘Now it’s at 23, so obviously I’m losing. And she likes to be at the airport three hours in advance when we travel – I want to be the last one to get on the plane.’
‘Marriage is not about a 50-50, you each give 100 per cent of yourselves,’ Yan says. ‘We give our best, and there’s really nothing more we could do.’
2. Payal and Kishore Bhatia married in 2005 in Mumbai
Payal and Kishore Bhatia first met after exchanging emails via a matchmaker. ‘I think the matchmaker had zero confidence in us as a match,’ Kishore says, as we sit in their JLT apartment.
In fact, no one had confidence in them working out as a couple – not even themselves; they were poles apart in almost every way. ‘To start with, he didn’t really make a great first impression,’ Payal says wryly. ‘He replied to my first email with no emotions, just a few quick words.’
She was in Amravati near Nagpur in India, he in Dubai working in the FMCG industry. They decided to have a quick phone chat – ‘and we spoke for more than two hours on an international call,’ Payal says. ‘He introduced himself to me as if he was interviewing for a job. Post that call, we didn’t think we would make good partners at all. I went to my mum and just said, “no”.’
The dissimilarities were many. He’d never worn a pair of jeans in his life, says Payal, who now works as an international headhunter. He did not have many friends, grew up in a boys’ college, led a very disciplined life...
She was a complete people’s person, and didn’t know what a timetable was, Kishore says – 8pm was late lunch for her, ‘and at 12am while I’d have been asleep for a few hours, she would start to decide what she wanted to have for dinner.’
Payal agrees. She was an outgoing pampered daughter. ‘He’d done an MBA and was a merit holder throughout… and I said to him, I’d throw a party if I even passed my exams!’
Today she says she takes pride in his achievements. But at that time all she thought was that he was boring.
‘For me every small thing was a celebration – I remember a party thrown when I lost 1kg – I probably put on 2kg during that party. He’d never partied once when we met. Not once.’
This story sounds all too familiar, a classic case of opposites – until you get to the part that 14 days after that first conversation, they were married.
‘Yes, we have no explanation,’ Payal says. ‘There’s really no logic to it. But the short answer is that when we met, we couldn’t say no to each other.’
Not that they decided to get married as soon as they met. ‘She’d come to see me in such casual wear, as if she couldn’t care less about making an impression – and there I was dressed in formals.’
But what struck them both after a while of that first meeting was how comfortable they were with each other.
‘I could see he was a genuine person. He was selective with words; I’d say five sentences and he’d say ‘OK’. He was sober and intelligent. And there was a softness and sense of dependability about him. We were fully convinced in that hour.’
‘Yes, I’m a gentleman, it’s easy to fall for me,’ Kishore says with a laugh.
This easy camaraderie the couple share is evident throughout our chat.
In July 2005, during heavy floods in Mumbai, they got married.
‘I liked that she was honest, didn’t try to project anything different. I knew what I was getting into,’ Kishore says.
‘And later you knew much more than you bargained for,’ Payal chirps in.
Even now, they say no one can believe theirs is an arranged marriage. ‘Everyone thinks we are lying when we tell them so. We’re so different – plus who marries in seven days?’
Speaking of which, how did they pull off a big fat Indian wedding in a week?
‘I have designers in my family, my cousin worked with Neeta Lulla, one of India’s well-known fashion designer; so I got 10 people to work on my dress,’ Payal says.
‘And I went to a shop, and bought three outfits for the three functions in three hours,’ Kishore says.
They admit they couldn’t have said they were in love then – they were more comfortable with each other. ‘That’s probably the secret – if you know the ins and outs of each other and spend years together, there’s nothing left to discover after your marriage,’ Kishore says.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses. The first few months they admit they found it quite difficult to merge their two lifestyles.
‘He and his family had such a structured way of eating – they ate three full meals, like regular people. I’d never had even two full meals in my life. I had snacks,’ Payal says.
But they slowly learnt to combine elements of both their likes. ‘And the result of that is I’ve gained 10kg,’ Kishore says with a straight face.
Reaching a middle ground without imposing their preferences on each other helped them work it out. Also never taking each other for granted. They say it’s surprising but in so many years they’ve never had a major fight. ‘I used to say there’s something wrong with us,’ he says. But having the same values helped them overcome their different outlooks on life – ‘living with honesty, living in the means you have, no loans or excess spends on credit cards’.
In short, not clashing on the important things helped them build a marriage. And taking life as it is.
‘It’s been an amazing journey – it’s been a surprise for us,’ Payal says. ‘But I realised that’s how life is, you have to balance the practical and the emotional. It’s not about trying to change things, it’s more about loosening up and accepting things. There doesn’t have to be a rulebook.’
Their son Ssoumya, who is 11, helps with solving fights too – ‘very wisely, he tells us it can’t be her way or my way,’ Kishore says.
‘It’s like the two wheels of a car – if they go in separate directions, the car won’t move,’ he concludes. ‘It’s the same with a marriage – learn to move together, and you’ll be partners in the true sense.’
3. Saji and Leena Mathew married in 1989 in Mumbai
Today, it seems almost incredible to say that Leena and her husband met a week before their wedding. This arranged marriage was set into motion without the bride and groom seeing each other, with just a photo to go by, with all the arrangements set in place by their families – and with one half of the couple not making it to the engagement.
But it’s also a marriage that’s lasted almost 29 years. ‘Yes, we had a perfectly arranged marriage,’ says Leena, in their duplex apartment in Al Mankhool. Saji Mathew was in Oman at the time, she in Mumbai. ‘I said yes to the proposal after seeing his photo. Yes, just a photo. My granduncle did the background checks – the level of detail he went into was astounding, actually.’
Leena puts it down to providence. ‘We were very different people in terms of our personalities and professions,’ she says. ‘I was a journalist while he’s from R&D.’
In 1989, her husband Saji had just returned to Oman from his annual holiday to India. ‘An acquaintance ferried me to Leena’s granduncle’s place where he point-blank asked me if I was interested in marrying Leena. That was when I saw her photo.’ Saji was fine with the alliance and the marriage was fixed by their families. But unfortunately for him, he couldn’t get days off work to attend his own engagement ceremony. ‘I had to save my annual leave for my wedding, but my parents said they would go ahead with the engagement without me,’ says Saji, who works with Jotun Paints.
The venue was decided, cards printed, but the bride and groom didn’t get a chance to meet – until Saji reached Mumbai for the wedding. ‘We thought, we probably should meet at least once before we were bound together forever,’ says Leena, who is now employed with Al Gurg Group. ‘By then though everything was finalised, and we couldn’t have backed out if we wanted to!’
Did they speak over the phone? No, says Leena. Very few people had mobile phones at the time. They exchanged a few letters.
Their daughter Leesa thinks it’s crazy, her mum says, and the 26-year-old nods and laughs from behind her mum. ‘She keeps asking us, “how could you?”. She says, “what if one of you were nothing like your photos, what if one of you had a crazy personality!”
‘But thankfully 29 years later, here we are!’
Leena and Saji don’t remember anything particular about that first meeting. ‘We had a nice chat, some street food, and left,’ Leena says.
The next time they met was on the day of the wedding, which they say was a haze – ‘we got married on Diwali, there were 900 guests, and we were exhausted by the end of it, with the ceremonies being so elaborate.’
Her sisters were apprehensive through it – ‘he’s really quiet, isn’t he?’ they said, wondering how that would work with Leena’s extroverted nature. ‘All you can do is meet the other person halfway,’ says Leena. ‘Today, in hindsight, would we have done it? I don’t know. It takes a lot of patience and baby steps, a lot of right and wrong turns.
‘It’s easy to term it compromise but it’s more about communication. And that’s one reason why we managed to make our relationship work so well.’
For Leena, a good relationship with Saji’s parents has been key to the success of their marriage. ‘I remember before my marriage the bishop at my church said to me “just pray for one thing – a nice mum-in-law!” I thought that was so strange at the time. But enjoying a great relationship with my mum-in-law made a lot of things so easy for me.’
Saji says despite their dissimilarities – he’s fairly quiet, she’s an extrovert – they slowly found out that they complement each other and balance each other out. But they don’t think such arranged marriages exist these days. ‘There’s so many pressures today, especially technology-inflicted ones, and that’s created so many expectations. The perfect marriage, perfect picture... and today couples are ready to throw in the towel much faster too. There’s not that much patience for trying to work it out.’
But be it an arranged or love marriage, what’s vital, Leena says, is being real from day one. ‘You can only be the perfect wife, the perfect daughter-in-law, the perfect cook, to a certain extent. But if that’s not who you are, the masquerade will fall apart soon. It’s best to be your real self – not to antagonise the other person, but so they know where you’re coming from.’
It’s key couples are on the same level, education and economic wise, they believe. ‘That makes it easy to communicate. Because initially things might seem great, but then the real challenges start cropping up,’ Saji says.
Follow your gut, Leena says. ‘During the courtship period everyone is on the perfect behaviour. And then the mask falls off. Step back at an early stage if you feel things are going wrong.’
‘It’s also not wise to have huge expectations from your partner,’ Saji says. ‘There’s no perfect man or woman. All those flaws? Accept them. And things will work out just fine.’
4. Syed Mohammad Zaid and Anam Zaid married in 2015 in Dubai
Anam and her husband Syed Mohammad Zaid say their meeting in 2014 was a mix of chance and destiny. He was in an office in Dubai for a meeting, Anam in the same office for an interview. Post meetings, with no taxis available, he being the perfect gentleman offered her a lift to the nearest metro station. That short ride never really came to a halt for the couple.
As they got to know each other, their mutual confidence grew. This despite the fact that they didn’t share a lot of commonalities be it background, language, ideas, lifestyle, temperament, and even nationality. Zaid is from Delhi in India with roots in Uttar Pradesh, while Anam is of Punjabi descent, who grew up in Lahore, Pakistan.
But while the odds were stacked against them, from the very start, they saw a life partner in each other. His honesty and commitment to responsibility and to start a family attracted her towards him. ‘Plus his killer smile,’ Anam says.
For Zaid, it was Anam’s intelligence and ability to shape up an interesting conversation that he found remarkable. ‘She always came across as a confident person, well aware of her surroundings and with the grace to tackle the initial awkwardness of a relationship.’ So he proposed to Anam just two months after they first met.
Once they’d decided on being together forever, their first priority was to get their families on board. ‘To marry a girl from Pakistan was certainly an alien thought for my family... my parents had their doubts and insecurities.’ But Zaid spoke to his family. Six months later they were convinced. ‘Consistent persuasion helped,’ he says.
In neighbouring Pakistan, Anam was trying her best too. A life partner from across the border was a tough deal for her family to accept. Approaching her father directly was out of the question, so she reached out to him through various confidants. Finally he agreed to meet Zaid’s father... and in December 2015, the couple tied the knot in Dubai.
Both families came to the UAE for the wedding. ‘It was a memorable day as our love for each other had finally triumphed over all the differences,’ says Zaid.
But while both of them felt they knew each other well, they are quick to admit that the real journey only started after the wedding. ‘The fundamental differences that can arise from a varied background was a realisation for us; we learnt a lot about each other with each passing day.
‘We faced many situations that couples of the same nationality probably wouldn’t. Be it planning for a holiday, visiting family, future plans or even household chores – we both seemed to have a different point of view. And so the initial days of our marriage were quite challenging.’
But rather than give up, they strived to make it a success. ‘With time, I learnt to find common ground with Anam, and she with me. A lot of times the minor squabbles were hard to get over, but the happiness we feel on seeing each other eases all the difficulties.
Keen to make their relationship work, Anam, wanting to have a strong bond with his parents and siblings, decided to live in India for six months at Zaid’s home. ‘Being a Pakistani national it was difficult for her to stay there for such a long time, but she managed it all so well,’ says Zaid.
Anam describes it all as a roller coaster ride. ‘I faced so many challenges, from cooking the family recipes to communication gestures. Just a small example – what’s called a biryani at my in-law’s place is a pulao in Pakistan,’ she laughs. ‘But Zaid was a huge support to me.’
Their son Zahroon was born in 2016.
Says Zaid: ‘If you love your spouse and there is a mutual understanding and admiration, then all difficulties and differences can be overcome with ease.
‘I now understand many words in Punjabi and Anam has a significant place in my family and friend circle.
‘Be open to all the cultural differences,’ says Zaid. ‘Plus it always helps to take an interest in the culture of your spouse. Be more indulgent, ask a lot of questions – I always ask Anam about Pakistani Punjabi culture and have learned a lot about it. This understanding of the culture has enabled me to better comprehend many facets of Anam’s personality, as I now have a better idea of their origin.’