Familiarity breeds…Thoughtlessness

Posted: July 21, 2010

Recently, I heard that a distant relative, a young woman, had married a paternal cousin (though not a first cousin). The news surprised me, and not just because of the health risks of consanguineous marriages. In the South Indian community that I hail from, marriages between cousins are not at all uncommon, provided they follow certain norms.

Until a generation ago, it was very common (in fact, even expected) that a girl would marry her mama or athai’s (bua’s) son. Marriages between the children of two brothers or two sisters are however strictly forbidden, since such children are considered true siblings, not cousins.

Which is why this marriage I heard of surprised me. Knowing fully well that the genetic risks are no different whether one marries a cousin related in one way or another, nevertheless, it seems less ‘strange’ to marry a cousin related through a maternal line. Because that is what is familiar. And familiarity breeds thoughtlessness. (Even among educated people, it seems.)

Then, I came across this video (thanks, IHM for the link!) and was appalled to find children as young as 5 and 6 talking about being ‘polluted’ by those from Dalit families.

Why? Obviously because from a very young age, they have been so familiarised with the concept of untouchability that even without fully understanding what it means, they know how it works.

Years ago, while working as a market researcher, I was conducting focus group discussions at a remote village near Muzaffarpur in Bihar. Everything went well and I was winding up for the day when a group of the more educated villagers (‘BA pass’) gathered to chat with me.

We discussed peaceably the issues the village had and the attractions of city life when one young man piped up. “Madam, people say Bihar is lawless and unsafe; what do you think? Haven’t we treated you well? Did you have any difficulty?” And then he delivered the coup de grace. “That’s why you must interact only with people of good caste, like us. Then you will know how good the people of Bihar are.”

No doubt that young man was once like these kids in the video with their shining eyes and laughter and pushing and shoving.

When thinking about caste and other taboos, my own reaction to a distant marriage in my family showed me how easy it is to be thoughtless.

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

Learn More

Emergency Contraceptives - All You Need To Know



  1. Right on with you on marrying courins being wierd, paternal or maternal though the former is definitely very very rare.

    I saw this video on IHM’s blog and expressed my views there also. It is really sad that such learned people tune themselves all their lives to believe that they are far more superiour more so they quote the religious scriptures and support their arguments so well, it is difficult to argue it out with them.

    On an aside, a famous south indian playback singer also married his paternal cousin, if I remember correctly.

  2. Prejudice is easy. Thoughtfulness takes a bit of time.

  3. I feel two consenting adults marrying even if they are cousins is better than either of them marrying someone they don’t like. And maybe they don’t plan to have kids…

  4. @ Shankari – I too find it difficult to argue with such people, more so because of the ingrained practice of not arguing with elders, and not show “disrespect” – the worst is when family members talk like this.

    @ Banno – well said!

    @ IHM – oh yes, I am not talking of ‘banning’ such marriages (although the no of couples in India who don’t plan to have kids is still far and few…)

  5. I agree with the point on intra-family marriages being thoughtless. I’ve been a witness to two of them in my extended family and can see that some of the off-springs show gaps in their mental abilities. And, yet I agree with IHM that it’s far better to live your life with a likable person than one who’d help produce perfect babies…

  6. Long back in our town there was a hushed whisper about a girl marrying her paternal cousin. The brothers got their children married somewhere in the south and were reluctant to face society for quite sometime. They had stopped talking to each other. We then lost touch. Years later the couple’s daughter happened to study with my daughter in college and old wounds had filled up with time. The girl was well adjusted and loved both sets of grandparents dearly. So while it is biologically risky to marry first cousins there is no distinction between them whether paternal or maternal. Muslims marry paternal cousins and no one finds it odd.

  7. Familarity with certain ideas definitely make it more acceptable. Recently, somebody was doing a pooja, and asked everyone except her 2 year old granddaughter to come and take the blessings. Apparently the little girl was not allowed because she was ‘parayi’. Nobody else felt anything, while I was appalled. It was so familiar a concept for everybody else present there, that nobody thought that it was weird at all, while it was totally unacceptable for me.

Share your thoughts! [Be civil. No personal attacks. Longer comment policy in our footer!]

NOVEMBER's Best New Books by Women Authors!

Get our weekly mailer and never miss out on the best reads by and about women!

#NoRegrets Blogathon