An Unconventional Love Story by Nidhi Pattni

An Unconventional Love Story

An Unconventional Love Story

Chhaya and Sanjay: An Unconventional Love Story

When I interviewed my aunt for this blog post, she had tons to say. In fact, we sat together for a few hours taking a trip down memory lane over a cup of tea. And when I tried interviewing my uncle for his side of the story, all he said was “ask your aunt”.

Chhaya and Sanjay Bhatia are two of the funniest people I have had the pleasure of calling my aunt and uncle. They are the life of every party and pillars of support for their friends and family. There is never a dull moment when either one of them is present as they make sure everyone around them is laughing and having a good time.

When you look at them together you see two people who continue to fall in love with each other every passing year (It’s their 20th wedding anniversary next month!). But the way they express their love for each other is deeper than that of Nicholas Sparks’ books or advertisements for discounted valentines’ day candy.

They continue to show each other how much they care in small gestures. For example, every now and then my uncle brings home my aunts favorite chocolates and hides them somewhere in the house to surprise her. And my aunt, being a strict vegan, still prepares an omelet for him every morning knowing it’s his favorite breakfast.

unconventional love story
Chhaya and Sanjay on one of their many adventures

They’ve taught me many valuable lessons about healthy relationships. Some lessons I’ve learnt from observing them in their home, some I’ve picked up while sitting in the backseat of their car listening to them argue about the most random things. Healthy tip for couples heading towards marriage: you driving over the speed limit might have impressed her in your twenties, but it becomes less ‘living on the edge’ and more ‘sleeping on the couch’ the older you get.

I asked her what are the topics they usually argue over. To my surprise, she sent me a laundry list of examples. 

The Story Begins

Although everything is great now and the only problems they have are fights over which bread to buy, their story did not start off that way. Chhaya is my mother’s youngest sister and their family was conservative. In fact, talking to boys was frowned upon in their household, so you can imagine what dating one would cause. Arranged marriages were the only road to finding a partner and although most members of our family had agreed to that rule, Chhaya knew from early on that she would not entertain that as an option. She grew up seeing arranged marriages play out around her and it was not her idea of what her future was to look like.

Move aside Rose and Jack

When I asked her what she had thought of marriage as a concept, she said “those days marriages were very different, and the expectations from a wife were different as well” As a result, she rejected the idea of marriage completely and decided that she was to remain single for the rest of her life. But like any Bollywood love story, in came the knight in shining armour (or in this case, jeans and a Pablo Escobar moustache) at the right time to change everything she thought she knew about love and relationships.

The process of them getting to know each other began in the same way it occurs today, on the phone. However, instead of a right swipe, it was late night calls from his cellphone to her landline. They were both college students at the time and although she was strictly forbidden from forming any kind of friendship with a boy, she couldn’t deny the connection she felt with Sanjay. They spoke for hours on end about anything and everything. And he knew his feelings were growing for her by the day but Chhaya was still a bit unsure.

Shortly before they started speaking, he had ended a relationship with another woman. And Chhaya was afraid that he was jumping into a relationship with her too soon. Therefore, it took her longer to believe that their relationship was real and that he was in it for the long haul. But he was ready to commit to her and told her that he was in love with her one year after they had been dating. However, she had a dream one night that changed everything.

She dreamt of a picture-perfect life: coming home to someone who made her happier than she could have ever imagined, he made her laugh, took care of her and held her hand through thick and thin. In her dream, it was Sanjay she saw. And as cinematic as that sounds, it is how she knew he was the one. They then dated for another two years before he asked her to marry him to which she of course, said yes. However, the rest of their story was not as smooth-sailing as they would have hoped.

Family Drama

As we have established, our family was conservative. My cousins and I laugh at stories about how our moms were not allowed to speak to boys let alone go on dates with them. And meeting potential husbands only took place through their parents arranging matches for them through awkward chit-chats over tea and snacks. And as backward and un-romantic as that sounds, it was the acceptable procedure, there was no negotiation. Chhayas older sisters had followed that principle before her and soon it would be her turn.

So, you can imagine the apprehension Chhaya felt before telling her parents that she would be breaking this age-old practice and marry someone she actually loved. It did not go down well. Telling her sisters was not hard but her older brother, Praful who was almost like a second paternal figure in their lives did not take the news as easily. He was extremely worried about how their father would react, so worried in fact that he lost sleep over it. Yes, very dramatic.

Sanjay and Praful today, the best of friends.

He spent days and nights thinking about the most suitable way to tell his father that his youngest daughter had found her own partner and was not going to marry anyone but Sanjay. Before he told their father, he broke the news to their mother who had the most cinematic response of them all. She did not speak to Chhaya for about a month as she was incredibly upset with her for sneaking around and breaking the family norm.

The atmosphere in their household was tense, the whole family barely spoke to one another. Chhaya barely ate and resorted to her room any chance she got, her brother was still deep in distress and all the meanwhile, Sanjays family was ecstatic.

That to me is the funniest part of this entire situation, on one side there are celebrations taking place that a boy has found the woman he loves and on the other, we have a silent black and white film where no one has smiled for 3 months.

Turn of Events!

But like all great love stories there came a turning point for the couple. Chhayas older brother finally broke the news to their dad, and to everyone’s surprise, he was absolutely fine. He didn’t cry or yell and in fact, he had the least dramatic reaction out of the entire family! So, from then on it was all sunshine and smiles. The wedding preparations began, dates were set and both families of the bride and groom met to hammer out the details. Chhaya was one step closer to her dream becoming a reality and she could feel it. 

unconventional love story
Sanjay and Chhayas Dad before the wedding

On the 4th of July 1999, Sanjay and Chhaya were happily married! Two families became one and the long-running pattern of arrange marriages in our family was successfully broken. In fact, this was not the last ‘love-marriage’ that our family went through.

After Sanjay and Chhaya got married the non-traditional way, every couple followed their path. There has not been a single arranged marriage since. You could say that they revolutionized the concept of marriage in our family!

THE BIG DAY!

Although, I find their love story incredibly entertaining, I feel a sense of gratitude. Because of their bravery and refusal to give up on each other, everyone in our family after them was able to enjoy the freedom of choosing their own life-partners. And I am part of that group of people who has benefitted from their union.

And thanks to their perseverance to make their relationship work during such a difficult period of time, I have the coolest aunt and uncle anyone could ask for. And our entire family has a couple that remains the glue holding us all together and keeping us perpetually entertained with their constant bickering.

The Big Fat Indian Family, years later

Advice For Couples in the Same Situation

I asked them if they had any advice to give to couples in a similar position where their families are unwilling to accept their relationship, to which my uncle replied “Keep going, don’t lose hope and let your family see how sure you are of your relationship and everything will fall into place”.

Chhaya and Sanjay’s story is heart-warming and every time I hear it, I enjoy some new details that they remember from that time. But my favorite part of the story is how Chhayas dream about a future with Sanjay is what pushed her to become sure that he was who she wanted to spend her life with. And I am happy to report that her dream came true to the very last detail. She found a man who supports her, loves her endlessly and who holds her hand through every rocky road life has thrown at them.

Before we wrapped up our conversation, I asked her where she sees their relationship in the next ten years to which she replied “unfortunately for Sanjay, I still see us being married,”. And that is my aunt and uncle in a nutshell for you: loving, absolutely hilarious, but most importantly, fiercely loyal to one another.

unconventional love story

With Love, Nidhi

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