A year on, I wanted to settle down, so I told my father I wanted to find a traditional Indian girl to marry. Despite all my adventures, I’m proud of my culture, which is very valuable to me and very easy to lose. I’m keen to preserve it and pass it down to my children. My father put an ad in the paper asking for an ‘alliance’. It’s such a funny word, but looking back on my marriage to Suba, it now seems just right.
I knew nothing about her, but our astrologer told my parents we were a good match. We seemed like opposites — I’m loud, energetic and full of ambition, while Suba’s shy, quiet and calm — but the astrologer looked for compatibility in the long term and like the spices used in Indian cooking, the strength of one is mitigated and enhanced by the subtlety of the other.
Suba sent me a studio photo, but she looked too serious. The first thing that attracts me in a woman is her eyes. They speak a lot of things, but I couldn’t tell from this photo, so I asked for another one and she sent one of her with her young cousin. I could see her playfulness and smile. We exchanged letters, which took two weeks to arrive, and phone calls, but didn’t meet until ten days before our wedding. I couldn’t afford the time or money to fly to India for our engagement. Just three months passed between the ‘alliance’ being formed and our marriage. The engagement photos arrived just as I was leaving for India. Our traditional wedding in Chennai, in July 1987, took two days, with thousands of people attending. It went on a bit too long for my liking, before our three-day honeymoon in a hill resort called Kodaikanal. Finally Suba and I had a chance to talk.
I came back to Australia for work and my wife followed three months later with my mother. The astrologer sent my mother, saying she had to stay until Suba and I understood each other. She was the bridge. He told her, ‘You’ve got to control your son and be supportive to your daughter-in-law and shield her from this devil,’ which is me. I call a spade a spade and I’m pretty blunt, whereas Suba’s the opposite.
My father-in-law said, ‘My daughter’s a great cook,’ but after we were married, I discovered she didn’t know how to cook. I asked him, ‘Why did you stick up for your daughter?’ Of course Suba’s a great cook now, although she’s still vegetarian.
Suba’s so sharp and strong. She’s behind all my success: the driving force and strength in all the decisions we make. Now she corrects me all the time and she’s my biggest critic. She wrote the twenty-first anniversary menu for Abhi’s. That’s how well she understands what we do. I am so proud of her. Suba is my spice girl and a must spice in all my endeavours.
To have such a happy worklife and family is the sweet balance I’ve been looking for. We are a very close family and we still have quite a strong relationship with our astrologer. He’s close to 80 now and still tells me do this, don’t do that … He’s even advised us when our children should be married. We trust him completely. After all, he was right about Suba and me.
My initial impression was Kumar was full of life and seemed so worldly. On the second call, he made a lot of suggestions, such as driving and photography courses. After a while we both began to look forward to our calls, then Kumar asked his younger brother to go see me. He turned out to be an absolute contrast to Kumar and told his elder brother, ‘She’s too good for you, you got more than you asked for’.
I was shocked when I discovered he ate meat. It never occurred to me, but it’s inevitable if you’re a chef. I started to accept it and because he thoroughly understands and respects the background we come from, he’s fine with the fact that I remain vegetarian to this day.
Kumar asked me to design the twenty-first anniversary menu for Abhi’s. Can you imagine it, when I’m still a vegetarian? It was such a success. This is how he brings out my strengths. I have become an integral part of his life, his business and everything around him. Kumar and I are now so dependent on each other, and our children have seen the success of our lives and how we balance each other. We have a wonderful, close family and we are so proud of our children. It’s amazing to see what we’ve achieved from an arranged marriage. Even today, when we go to see our astrologer he recalls how we met and says, ‘See, I told you’.
Images and edited excerpt courtesy of From India by Kumar and Suba Mahadevan, with photographs by photographer Mark Roper (published by Murdoch Books, $59.99).