ANITA RANI: ‘I did what was expected of me, not what I wanted’

Growing up, ANITA RANI was under constant pressure to have a traditional Indian marriage. In this searingly honest extract from her new memoir, she reveals how being caught between two cultures pushed her to breaking point

Dress, Amanda Wakeley. Earrings and bangles (right arm), Tilly Sveaas. Bangles (left arm), Dinosaur Designs.

When it comes to matters of the heart or sexuality, Asian kids of my generation are often screwed. And I don’t mean the fun kind! No boyfriends or girlfriends allowed. Ever. But marriage is a MUST. So how the heck do we learn about relationships?

The problem pages of Just Seventeen were pure porn to my sheltered Indian eyes and the only brown couples I saw on telly were on The Bill and usually involved a domestic abuse storyline. The only place I experienced any kind of romance was Bollywood. Every Saturday night, we’d rent a (usually dodgy) VHS copy of an Indian movie. Every film is a love story, where boy meets girl, they can’t be together because of the SHAME it will bring, but after a healthy splattering of incongruous song and dance numbers with at least seven costume changes, spoiler alert: true love always wins out and/or someone dies. At least, that’s the Bollywood I grew up with. For most Indian girls and boys of my generation, boyfriends and girlfriends were a no-no. Romance? Denied. Sexuality? Hai hai hai (OMG). Sex? Ney ney ney (no, no, no; there’s a lot of repetition in Punjabi for added drama). So, to get around the small problem of no dating, we simply lie to our parents. (Although from what I saw, it was clear boys had it much easier than girls.) Who’s that boy on the phone? Oh, just a friend. They could never know he was a boyfriend. You’d be locked away, have your ass whupped or, worse, be married off!

What you need to know about my own mum is that she thinks of herself as an open-minded Indian mother, because she’d say, ‘You can marry anyone you want, aaaaannnyyyybody, you are lucky I’m so open minded, other girls’ mothers are much stricter than me, you can pick the person you want to marry… as long as he’s Indian.’ This was her obsession – marrying, and marrying Indian. She was liberal enough to allow me to pick for myself, but also told me ‘no one knows where to start with you’ (like I was going to let anyone else do it) as long as he was a boy from a family from any state in India, which was really useful in suburban Bradford. The worst crime I could commit would be to bring home someone non-Indian.

What’s the worst that could happen if you fell in love with and wanted to marry someone who didn’t fit your parents’ expectations? For some Asian girls, falling in love with the wrong man is a crime. Back in the 1980s, I used to lie on my granny’s sofa pretending to sleep but actually listen to my two aunts have a good old gossip about which of their friends had run away from home, usually with a boy. Probably to escape a forced marriage. Punjabi parents disowning their daughters was commonplace when I was a tot. Mainly because they’d dared to make their own choices about their lives.

Anita as a toddler with her parents

Anita as a toddler with her parents

There’s no such thing as unconditional love in some Asian households, unless you are a son of course. Here’s the deal: you bring shame, we disown you. You don’t even need to bring home a person as shocking as someone white, black, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh (depending on your religious perspective) for Bollywood-style melodrama to ensue. Even someone from the wrong caste can result in children being outcast. A person who has the same religion, same food, same language, same culture, same customs – you are the same s***ing people, but three generations ago your ancestors did a job that Britain decided would help define you, and now here you are refusing to speak to your own child because they made their own decision about who they want to spend the rest of their life with. Utter madness.

What’s the worst that could happen? The worst? The worst is the worst. I knew someone whose husband was doing time for killing his own sister because she’d fallen in love. A so-called honour killing. I fail to see the honour. Shame, shame, shame on those who treat their daughters like chattel. Who place the burden of being the family’s pride on their daughters, who suffocate their existence, who crush their souls, who believe their only use is to bear sons and make roti. Shame on you, I say. I’ve seen so many crushed wills, I watched all my aunts and cousins bury their own wants and desires to keep their parents’ heads held high. I too was filled with this nonsense. The moment you marry is when parents can breathe a sigh of relief and proudly watch their daughter – the one so many said had too much freedom and would end up marrying white, or would run away – have a traditional wedding and marry someone Indian. Fulfilling her dharma, her duty. That’s the moment they wait for. As though bringing up a daughter is an act of danger and trepidation, a great, heavy joyless burden, until you can finally say she belongs to someone else.

Marrying within your culture is the ultimate. Then there are degrees of acceptance depending on who you go for. To marry white is often accepted, probably because some Asians aspire to whiteness. Although there’s the threat of the watching, judging eyes of the community to keep you on track, we still feel to be married is a level of acceptance and, for the fairer-skin Indians, a way to vanish your identity should you want to. There will be beautiful fair-skinned, mixed-race babies with a white person and everyone will live happily ever after.

Anita on Countryfile, 2020

Anita on Countryfile, 2020

Then there is what is rarely accepted, that will put Indian Hindu or Sikh families into a tailspin – to marry Muslim, to marry black, to marry black and Muslim, and to come out as LGBTQ+. The levels of prejudice within sections of the Asian community are shocking. Don’t get me wrong, things are changing and more and more families are happy to accept their children and the choices they make, but for every family whose son or daughter has come out as gay or married who they’ve wanted to, many more could never bring themselves to do this for fear of abandonment.

So how on earth, then, if marriage is the ultimate goal and you’re not allowed a relationship, are you ever meant to meet someone? In my family, up until me, every single person (well, every woman at least) had an arranged marriage. My uncles left home and married white women, free to do what they wanted. Oh, the privilege of having a penis! But if you’re a girl, your parents, along with the aunty network – the ‘illuminaunty’ – would find suitable matches for you. The illuminaunty have been the reason for most Indian marriages for centuries. I opted out of this system, which was a great source of consternation for my aunts.

At 16, I was at a wedding. Don’t ask me whose wedding, I have no idea. Indian weddings are more than a family affair – you invite everyone you know, or everyone who has ever invited you to a wedding. You’d easily have 1,000 guests. This wedding was a seminal moment in my life. It was where I swore to never attend another wedding. I was sitting next to my mum, tucking into my second packet of Walkers cheese and onion, when the illuminaunty clocked me. A blob of shimmery sarees and enough gold to sink a ship, all whispering ‘kussur pussur, kussur pussur’ (gossiping), glided towards us, like a horror movie monster. Five sets of beady kohl-covered eyes all peering at me. One set of eyes spoke to my mother while the other four continued to stare at me.

‘Kuri ki kurdiyeh?’ What does the girl do?

‘Kuri di ummar ki?’ How old is the girl?

‘Munday bhaterey hayge ah.’ There are plenty of boys.

‘Can she see that I am sitting right here, mum? Tell her I’m only 16.’

‘Don’t mind them,’ my mum tried to calm my outrage. ‘It’s just our culture. But… they did mention a boy who rides a motorbike and one family has a fleeeeeeeet of Rolls-Royces.’

‘The aunty network sounds great,’ my single white friends in their 30s would later say to me. ‘It’s so hard to meet people. Why not have a system where someone has gone through a basic checklist before you go on a blind date?’ Maybe the illuminaunty need to branch out into other cultures. Maybe they could create a marriage bureau app and call it Preetinder (an Indian name meaning God of love)? Their tagline could be: ‘200 per cent success rate. Love comes later.’

★ ★ ★ ★

I considered leaving out any of the bits of my life that involved dating white boys. There would be quite a few blank pages. Don’t panic, Mum, not LOADS, but a few. There was always the slight issue that any white boyfriends fundamentally didn’t understand a huge part of my identity. ‘Why can’t you just tell your parents about us? Can I come round for dinner?’

I knew I wasn’t allowed to do it. To date anyone, really, but definitely not someone who wasn’t Indian. Our strict Asian parents made it all the more tempting by banning it, so it’s their fault. All that repression, what did you think was going to happen? Some of us were never going to toe the party line. But the inner conflict does mess you up somewhat. All the control and manipulation I’d experienced growing up: ‘What will other people think?’, ‘This is not how girls behave’, ‘You are lucky you have such a lenient mother’, to list a few of the classic one-liners, had only gone and worked. I was guilt- and anxiety-riddled. How on earth was I going to be the right sort of girl at university? The one I was expected to be, or the one I wanted to be.

With her whippet Rafi earlier this year

With her whippet Rafi earlier this year

I was forging ahead with my education, trying to make (kind of) astute decisions to progress myself in the right direction. When it came to lads, however, I had no critical faculties whatsoever, often dating the first bloke who would show any interest in me. Was this because I had zero confidence in myself and zero belief in my attractiveness to the opposite sex? Was it because I’d never been taught that you are allowed to have standards and think about the qualities you want in a person? Was it because everyone else seemed to be hooking up so I thought it was the thing to do? Was it because I was just an average young woman, making plenty of dating mistakes, as everyone else did? Or was it because my only criterion for a man, the edict that had been ringing in my ears since the beginning of time, was that he HAS to be Indian? It was explained to me that if I didn’t study, I’d be married off. Marriage was a threat, a terrifying threat.

★ ★ ★ ★

SPOILER ALERT: I do get married to the dream Indian son-in-law and you will be invited to my massive Indian wedding. But, for the first time in my life, I will admit that standing in my wedding regalia at the doorway of the gurdwara, looking at the backs of the 450 guests invited to my own wedding and about 100 or so gatecrashers, what was honestly going through my mind was: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’

My husband-to-be is sitting in front of the holy book waiting for me to walk down the carpeted aisle, to take my place cross-legged on the floor next to him, so we can begin our beautiful Sikh wedding ceremony. What happens at this point in the movies? Butterflies in your belly? Everyone turns to smile at the beautiful bride? A full-blown song and dance sequence for the happiest day of your life?

I’m freaking out.

I’m looking out across the scene in front of me, serene, calm, quiet, and I am anything but. This was not how I’d planned life to be. I am 32 but I wasn’t supposed to be getting married yet and, when I did get married, I wasn’t going to have a big, elaborate, traditional Indian wedding. So how had I got here, a place I knew I didn’t want to be, having my big bonanza wedding?

I want to say that after years of feeling like the ugly duckling and making epic relationship mistakes, I eventually fell in love and lived happily ever after. Isn’t that what everyone wants to hear? I’ve denied the reality to myself for a long time. It was actually my husband who said to tell you, the reader, the truth. To not pretend I was skipping around with white doves floating around me and a sitar playing sweet music. That I felt like I was making a mistake. Not because I hadn’t met an incredible man (he’s a gud ’un), just getting married seemed so final. Did either of us really know what we were getting into, or were we just taking a punt and hoping for the best?

I want you to understand just how powerful my South Asian upbringing, with all its rules and regulations, really was. That no matter how successful and independent and high-achieving and freethinking I thought I was, I was still under a huge amount of pressure based on my ridiculous need to please and not let anyone down. This meant I did what was expected of me and not what I wanted.

★ ★ ★ ★

When I met the lad who was to become my husband, I’d been living in London happily for nine years, carving out a career as a presenter. I’d managed to buy my first home. I loved life in my little flat. It was just the adventure I wanted. I was free. I went out when I wanted, which wasn’t very often, because I enjoyed pottering around my house. I was pedalling away at growing my presenting career and did I mention I was free?

Anita with her husband Bhupi Rehal in 2018

Anita with her husband Bhupi Rehal in 2018

I was travelling up and down the country filming as a reporter for The One Show, I’d got a gig on Watchdog, I was even standing in for the regular presenters and DJs on Radio 5 Live and – my favourite radio station – 6 Music. Life was sweet and I was having a great time.

I spoke to Mum on the phone regularly. The conversations always, ALWAYS, went the same way:

‘Aunty Pushpa’s sister’s husband’s brother’s daughter has had a baby.’

‘Oh.’

‘How did you get home tonight?’

‘Tube and then walk.’

‘Oh, be careful. I’m so scared of you walking home alone.’

‘Mum, it’s fine. I’ve lived here for years and I’m 30.’

‘Yes, yes, 30 and single.’

Sigh. ‘Yeah, but I’m happy.’

‘No.’

‘Yes.’

‘But I won’t be happy until you are settled.’

‘Mum, I’m happy, I’m settled, I like being single, I don’t want to get married.’

‘I will never be happy until you are married. Only then my burden will be lifted.’

‘I don’t want to get married.’

‘I know, what can I do with this girl?’

‘Let me live my life?’

Every single time we spoke: ‘I won’t be happy until you’re married’. That is the killer line. When all you have tried to do is make them happy. It’s the final and most effective control method, their suffering. In the pursuit of your own freedom and choices, you are still controlled by that innate drive, which means mothers can turn the screw whenever they want, consciously or subconsciously. All they can think about from the minute you are born is the day you will get married. Finally, they will be free of the daughter. There’s no consulting or interest in how YOU might feel about it. There’s a life agenda and you have to fit it. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to meet someone too, but in my own time, in my own way, maybe with a bit of romance, with my own twist thrown in.

It was a Friday night in 2008 and I was planning a lovely night in: a YouTube musical journey, with a bowl of pasta. My brother Kul – who was living in my spare room – wasn’t having any of it. ‘Anita, you’ll become a cat lady. Come oooooon, let’s go ooooout.’

I’d been invited to a warehouse party in Dalston. As I climbed the concrete stairs, I was already happy. Everyone was happy. But hang on, this place was different to any club, pub, rave, festival, secret gig, any social gathering I’d ever been to, because 80 per cent of the kids in this room were brown like me! It’s like all the Asian misfits from around the UK had congregated in this room. In here, it was us against them. In here, we were seen. In here, I met the lad who was to become my husband.

How did I clock him? It was hard to miss him, seeing as there was a bright light shining out from inside him. And, of course, he was well fit. We got chatting when I was ready to leave but he insisted I stay as he was about to jump on the decks to play a set. Now he really had my attention! The first record he played was one of my absolute favourites, M J Cole’s ‘Sincere’. There was no way I could leave now.

I called Mum to tell her I’d met someone. ‘What’s his name?’

‘Bhupinder . . .’

‘BHUPINDER! Indian!’ It was as though all my mum’s Diwalis and Vaisakhis had come at once. ‘Now get married, jaldi jaldi.’

The message from all my aunts was the same, as soon as they found out I was dating someone Indian. And not just Indian, but a Punjabi. This is precisely the reason no Asian kids ever reveal to their parents that they are in a relationship, whether they’d approve of it or not, because as soon as they know, they expect you to get married. The idea of long-term dating or, shock horror, moving in together? No, no, no, no! That’s something for the ‘Western world’. For Asian parents, you meet and, if you’re not put off immediately by any kind of terrible body odour, you wed.

A year later, we were getting married.

There was a specific moment that propelled our relationship along. Grief can do that. It was Christmas 2008, four blissful months into our relationship. Mum called with the devastating news that my favourite uncle, my dad’s little brother, had died. He was only 44. I’d never lost a loved one, let alone the uncle who was the closest relation to me and Kul, who meant the world to us. I’d never experienced grief and, even now, I still find it very hard to talk about.

The lad drove Kul and me back up to Bradford on the same night we got the news. It was surreal walking into my mum and dad’s home at midnight. Everyone was in shock. Then the lad did something that came to him instinctively and I was amazed: he gave my dad a hug. Not an awkward back-pat kind of hug, but a proper, meaningful, supportive, deeply thoughtful and moving hug. He held my dad. His capacity for vulnerability, sensitivity, compassion and kindness was something I’d never seen in a man, and I was astounded. And, remarkably, my dad hugged him back. I’d never seen my dad hug like that before. In that moment, I thought – yes.

Two months later, on a snowy mountain in the Alps, he proposed. Did I cry? No, I just felt really awkward for most of it. I cringe at big romantic gestures! I love giving but I’m terrible at receiving and I hadn’t yet made friends with my own vulnerability. So, marriage was always going to be an interesting exercise. We then snowboarded, or rather, attempted to snowboard, down the mountain towards the rest of our lives.

I did not want a big Indian wedding in a hotel in Bradford, which is what pretty much everyone I knew usually went for. We wanted a Hackney register office with a tiny group of our closest family and friends, and a small party afterwards. Fat chance. As me and the lad both came with a Punjabi mother, the wedding was swiftly taken out of our hands.

I did not want a big Indian wedding in a hotel in Bradford.

We also had this wonderful idea of getting married in India, in my favourite state of Rajasthan. But I was marrying a British Indian who had never set foot in India. My Rajasthani dream was ditched.

I did not want a big Indian wedding in a hotel in Bradford.

The next most obvious choice was the place where my heart resides and I feel most at peace, in the beautiful open expanse of the Yorkshire countryside. I found the perfect place, a stunning manor house surrounded by the verdant rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales. This place was picture perfect AND it was big enough to have 250 people for a sit-down meal. Two hundred and fifty people, I hear you shriek! This, let me tell you, is a minuscule number for a Punjabi wedding.

‘’OW MANY?’ Dad blurted out when he heard 250. Then he just laughed. ‘No, no, no. That’s not nearly enough space. Where are we going to put the gatecrashers?’

My parents explained that Punjabi weddings are a celebratory feast, a tradition left over from back in the day when we lived in villages (actually, not that long ago – my dad was literally born in a barn) and the entire village would be invited as a way of connecting with your community. Most importantly, however, it was what my mum and dad wanted. They wanted the honour of doing things the traditional way and even though I’ve spent a lifetime fighting to carve my own independent place in the world, they are my Achilles heel. Ultimately, I didn’t want to upset them. I wanted my mum and dad to have the day they’d always dreamed of. The day they’d waited for all my life.

I went from the girl who was never getting married to the girl who would have an intimate wedding to the girl who had what I call ‘My big fat Punjabi sweat fest’.

It was to be a week-long affair. The henna ceremony, the wedding bangles ceremony, the getting covered in turmeric ceremony (to beautify me before the big day). Then a Sikh ceremony at the gurdwara in Bradford followed by a reception big enough to hold 450 – you heard right, 450 – of my nearest and dearest! Yes. I was having a big Indian wedding in a hotel in Bradford.

Me and the lad decided as long as the two of us were there, we’d let them do what they wanted. And it was a hoot. My friends had an incredible time going from parties to ceremonies to rituals, to costume changes and chicken tikkas and seekh kebabs and aloo tikkis, to bhangra dancing and henna applying and curries and rice and chappatis and naans, borrowing sarees and being draped in all the bling they could get their hands on, and legitimate bindi wearing.

A full two hours after the ceremony, we made our entrance at the reception. This was my touch and a first at an Indian wedding in Bradford: we came in dancing behind the 14-piece Bollywood Brass Band, with two booming Indian dhol players, all blowing out Bollywood classics. I’ve never seen an Indian wedding party turn into a rave, with aunties and uncles and sarees and turbans bouncing all over the dancefloor. Finally, I relaxed. All of a sudden, I was having the time of my life.

★ ★ ★ ★

I have never regretted my marriage, only the way I was pushed towards it. At the time, I thought, maybe they’re all right. Maybe it is time I settled down. Whatever that means.

For the girl who had only ever craved freedom, I felt as though I was walking into a trap. It’s all very complicated and exposing to admit… as a married woman. But marriage has also been the only place that has truly helped me explore who I am. What the life I want is, what I will and won’t accept. The older I get, the more I’m challenged and the more I understand. But my life checklist remains the same: I still want adventures and a tattoo and to live my life to the fullest. Now, I’ve got a partner along for the ride – one with a great record collection.

This is an edited extract from Anita’s memoir The Right Sort of Girl which will be published on 8 July by Bonnier, price £16.99*

From top: Anita as a toddler with her parents

and with her husband Bhupi Rehal in 2018

  • This is an edited extract from Anita’s memoir The Right Sort of Girl which will be published on 8 July by Bonnier, price £16.99. To order a copy for £15.12 until 25 July, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.  
  • PICTURE DIRECTOR: Ester Malloy. FASHION EDITOR: Sophie Dearden. MAKE-UP: Sarah Jane Wai O’Flynn using Charlotte Tilbury. HAIR: Michael Douglas.