Friday 22 June 2018

Bondings: An arranged marriage with a bit of added spice

Nepalese couple Shiva and Lina Gautam's arranged marriage is still going strong 21 years, two children and a popular city centre restaurant later, writes Andrea Smith

Shiva and Lina Gautam own Montys of Kathmandu restaurant in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren
Shiva and Lina Gautam own Montys of Kathmandu restaurant in Dublin. Photo: Mark Condren

Most young Irish people would find the idea of their parents choosing their life partner terrifying, but restaurateurs, Shiva and Lina Gautam, are very happy with the decision their parents made 21 years ago to put them both together.

"Outside of yourself, who knows you best?" asks Shiva. "Your parents. Whether it's a 'love' marriage or an arranged marriage, both people have to have a willingness to make it work. You can't run at the first sign of trouble. When we started our restaurant, we were only together for a year and it was very hard. Lina could have left but she didn't and we worked through it. What I have learned over the years is that things find their own way, so you give it time and stay positive."

Shiva (47) and Lina (45) were both raised in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, but had different experiences growing up. When he was 10, Shiva, the eldest of Keshav, a civil servant, and Kashabi's four children, was one of five youngsters chosen from 2,000 to study in England. It was part of Pestalozzi, a UK-based charity that offers life-changing opportunities to academically gifted young people who have limited educational prospects in their home countries.

He lived in a student house within the Pestalozzi International Village in East Sussex, and could return home to Nepal only every three years. Although he was very young, Shiva looked upon it as a great adventure and didn't miss home too badly. "Once a month, all 12 students in the house would sit together and write a letter collectively home," he says. "We were a family and I loved that time. We had to cook, clean and wash for ourselves and we had house mothers."

Wanting to become a civil engineer, Shiva received a grant to go to Hastings College to do a diploma in building studies, and then entered the graduate programme in Surrey County Council for civil engineers. His family had a friend in common with Lina's. who went to her house and told her mum that he knew a guy who would be a really good match for her. Her mother asked the man for pictures and inquired about Shiva's family background, so he returned that evening with Shiva's graduation picture and certificate. Then Shiva's parents visited Lina and her family, and they sent her photograph to their son in England.

Lina is the eldest of Geeta and the late Lokendra's Dhakal's three children. Her brothers were sent to boarding school in Darjeeling, while she attended school locally and then completed a degree in economics at Tribhuvan University in Nepal.

"Shiva called me after he saw my photo," Lina recalls. "I was very nervous, particularly as he was talking to me in English. Shiva had been forced to speak only English from a young age and I had learned it at school."

It was very important to Shiva to have a wife who was able to speak English, and he had advised his parents of that in advance. "The men can describe what they are looking for but the women can't," he explains. "My parents got married when they were seven and nine, but then they went back to their own parents' houses until they were of age. They were 17 and 19 having me."

Lina says that there is pressure on parents around arranged marriages, in case they don't work out. "Nobody really knew what Shiva was doing in England so the pressure was on my parents," she says. The girl and boy actually meeting is a final stage, as the arrangement is more or less done at that stage. I could say if I didn't like him but it would cause a bit of a problem. The matchmaker was a friend of both families, so there was an emotional attachment there."

Shiva says that his family hoped that he would decide to accept Lina as his wife before he met her in person, but he didn't agree to that. He went to Nepal to see her on May 25, 1996, and fortunately he and Lina decided that they were happy with each other. They got married a week later, aged 24 and 26. "I liked him but obviously it wasn't love yet," Lina explains. "He was very honest from the beginning, which made it easier for me to trust him, and the love slowly grew. Our parents did well!"

"There was definitely a physical attraction there," Shiva chimes in. "When people get married in the western world, it is at the peak of their love. We were starting from the bottom and building up. When you have a child or spend more time together, your affection grows and you bond through the years."

By marrying Shiva, Lina was also committing to moving to the UK with him. He explained to her in advance that life there would be harder.

"In Nepal, if you are from a middle-class family, your life is quite easy," Lina explains. "When Shiva saw the lifestyle and that we had people to help in the house, he told me that it was very different in the UK. I liked him, but didn't like having to leave Nepal. My dad told me that you can retire after 10 years of working in the UK, so as Shiva had worked for six years, we would be back in Nepal in four years. I don't know whether he actually believed that or just told me so I would go. I remember being in the UK and saying to another couple from Nepal that we would be going back in four years, and they broke it to me that you don't retire until you're 65."

A few months after they married, Shiva, who had also been working part-time in a Nepalese restaurant, realised that he enjoyed the restaurant lifestyle and wanted to open one of his own. He decided to leave his permanent job in Surrey County Council, which upset both families initially, but Lina supported him. He had Irish friends, who told him to come to Dublin because there were no decent Nepalese restaurants there. He and Lina came over in May 1997 and opened their restaurant, Montys of Kathmandu, that September, so this is their 20th anniversary.

"The business was a struggle for us at first," says Shiva. "We went through a lot of hardship during the first two years, and that brought us really close together, We had our son Parth in September 1998. Our daughter Aditi was born in 2001. Becoming parents was very emotional, and it was difficult without our own parents there to help."

Shiva and Lina's children are growing up in a culture that is very different to theirs, and their parents don't know if they will want an arranged marriage. "They are too young to even think like that at the moment, but I don't think we would ever say no to them having a 'love' marriage", says Lina. "I would like them to marry Nepalese people, but if that doesn't happen, it's OK too as long as they are happy. We try to talk to them about our culture, but I want them to have the best of both cultures. I find that children here have a lot of pressure to find their own boyfriend or life partner at an early stage, but we had no pressure in Nepal. It was the opposite."

Montys has developed a real name for the excellence of its Nepalese food, and it now employs 10 staff members, including three of Shiva's cousins. The recession was tough and resulted in the closure of a second Montys outlet in Rathgar in 2012, but the original restaurant on Eustace Street in Temple Bar is still going strong.

Over the years, the relationship between Lina and Shiva has blossomed, but also, Lina has really come into her own. "In the early part of our relationship, I was the dominant person making the decisions and Lina followed," says Shiva. "Our relationship is now a 50:50 decision-making process. I have a massive respect for Lina, because she is truly hard-working and I don't know how she does it."

While she is involved in the restaurant's accounts and recipe development, Lina has become a familiar face on TV demonstrating the recipes that form part of her book, Lina's Nepalese Cookbook. While the recipes are all authentic, she wanted to make them accessible, using ingredients that are readily available in Ireland. She has also launched three retail meals under her Pure & Simple brand - Chickpea & Sweet Potato, Edamame & Sweet Potato and Nine Mixed Beans - which are available in a number of SuperValu stores. Using a range of herbs and mild spices, these dishes have an authentic taste of Nepal and are gluten-free, dairy-free, suitable for vegans and have no added sugar.

The family has made very good friends here, and now consider Ireland home. They haven't been to Nepal since 2013 as a family, but Lina's mum Geeta comes to visit and they all keep in touch via Facebook and Skype. They are currently renovating their home in Firhouse, and they help to raise funds for Nepal through a charity called Touch Ireland, because they feel they have been very lucky and want to give something back.

Lina says her marriage to Shiva has been a very successful one, and that he is very good and hard-working. He didn't grow up with his own family, she points out, so it can be difficult for him to understand the challenges of being a teenager and dealing with your parents.

What does Shiva admire about Lina? "It helps that she is beautiful, but she is the total opposite to me," he says. "I can be quite brash, but she is very calm, and she thinks before she opens her mouth, unlike me."

Montys of Kathmandu, 28 Eustace Street, Dublin 2. Tel: 670 4911, www.montys.ie; www.pureandsimplefoods.ie

Sunday Independent

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