Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Franklin Roosevelt and HG Wells share a common link, one that goes beyond the obvious fact that these men were exceptional in their respective fields. They all married their first cousins.
That’s the path 25-year-old Ayesha Riyaz Nadaf’s family chose for her. Her parents were elated when she consented to marry her paternal aunt’s son. The reason was that she would be well-looked after in her new home. “When I was single, I received plenty of marriage proposals, but my parents accepted my relative’s offer immediately,” says Ayesha. There was little adjustment post-marriage. “We were not strangers and I knew his likes and dislikes,” she says.
While many cultures, especially in the West, baulk at the thought of marrying within the family, the situation is slightly different in India. Our law accepts unions between first cousins, if the family and community members have given their consent.
But keeping it in the family is a risky business as the children of non-related couples have a 2% to 3% risk of birth defects, as opposed to those of first cousins, where the risk is as high as 6%.
“When marrying a person belonging to the family, it is strongly advised that the couple should consult a geneticist first. If the family has a history of any genetic disorders, there is a possibility that the children may develop complications,” says Dr Jyoti Unni, gynaecology department head at Jehangir Hospital.
Gynaecologist Dr Anshu Kulkarni says that the progeny of first cousins, who get married may develop disorders such as colour-blindness, haemophilia and thalassemia.
Ayesha and her family were aware of these problems and they consulted a gynaecologist, who gave her the go-ahead to start a family. “I have a five-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. They’re perfectly healthy children,” she says proudly.
It was a different story for 29-year-old Pushpasheel Thakar, a practising lawyer. He fell in love with his first cousin and married her despite opposition from the families. “Initially, our parents didn’t agree to our marriage, but they had to give in. We didn’t face any problems from society either,” he says.
For Thrity Dadabhoy, head of corporate communications at WLC College, marrying a first cousin was no big deal. “As our community is small, unions with first cousins are quite common. In fact, my grandparents were also first cousins, and were the children of twin brothers,” she says.
In the north, inter-family alliances are rare occurrences.
“In Delhi, where I stayed earlier, this is rare, and I faced a lot of censure,” says Thrity. But despite being happily married for 29 years, with three healthy daughters, Thrity does not recommend people marrying within the family.
“In those days, there was little awareness. Now, it is a known fact that one’s offspring might suffer from medical complications, I would advise against marrying your first cousin.”
In some pre-arranged unions, accepting a cousin as a spouse, takes a lot of adjustment. Dr Kulkarni says, “One is born and brought up in the same family as the cousin and both parties have to be mentally prepared for a major shift in family roles.” Family conflict always exists and marrying within the family may lessen it. “Getting married to a cousin also calls for a certain amount of adjustment. It is like any other marriage, compromise is a part of it,” says Thrity.