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    Marriage of two cultures

    An Indian father who espouses tradition finally accepts his daughter's choice of an American husband.

    [Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
    Surrounded by their parents Saturday, Sonali Patel and Scott Darby exchange flower garlands signifying the marriage of the minds, bodies and souls.

    By BABITA PERSAUD

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 17, 2001


    TAMPA -- He is a champion of Indian culture in Tampa, donated the land in Carrollwood that became the Hindu Temple of Florida, and was the primary contributor to the Indian Cultural Center in Hillsborough.

    Any event sustaining his native culture -- from a sitar performance to a Festival of Lights celebration -- Dr. Kiran Patel is there. He does it so Indian children raised in America learn the traditions.

    One of those traditions is for Indian fathers to help arrange the marriages of their daughters to worthy Indians.

    But who did his 27-year-old daughter, Sonali, fall in love with?

    An American. From New Jersey.

    She called her father last July and told him how Scott drove all the way from his medical school residency stint in South Carolina to New York, where she was staying, to propose.

    "Isn't that romantic, father?" she asked.

    "What do you want me to say?" Kiran Patel fumed, before hanging up.

    Patel wondered how his daughter could do this to him. He never gave her permission to date, much less become engaged. He planned to help her find a mate after she finished medical school.

    "I have always felt that marriage is a marriage of two families," he said.

    Father and daughter fought for seven months. The argument went like this:

    Daughter: If the guy is good, if he doesn't smoke, he doesn't take drugs, he's educated, he comes from a good family, he's a doctor, like you, what's the problem?

    Father: If two people are of the same background, going to the same church, same temple, eating the same food, it is a lot less chance of things falling apart.

    Daughter: Marrying an Indian doesn't guarantee I won't get a divorce.

    Father: Think about your children. They will be on the playground and other kids will ask them, why are your parents different?

    Daughter: The world is changing.

    "What about you and mom?" Sonali asked.

    Patel met his wife, Pallavi, in medical school in India. She was in a different caste and Kiran Patel was not selected by her family.

    They have been married 28 years.

    "You went out of the system, even out of the norm for those days," Sonali said.

    Answered Patel: "But I didn't go totally out of the system."

    For months, Patel thought his daughter would, as he put it, "snap out of it." He thought Sonali and Scott might break up. "Maybe she would bump into a handsome Indian fellow," he hoped.

    Finally, Sonali's father relents to her choice

    Sonali Patel was not looking for someone when she met Scott Darby Judd five years ago at medical school in the Caribbean. They took a gross anatomy class together, studied together, and then, "out of blue I had feelings for him," she said.

    He is three years older, has brown hair and hazel eyes and is a Methodist.

    Sonali was born in Zambia and spent several years in India, but she has lived most of her life in Tampa. Her family relocated here in the early 1980s.

    Only a handful of Indian families populated Hillsborough County then, and Sonali grew up in white suburbia, attending Berkeley Prep.

    But she and her younger brother, Shilen, and younger sister, Sheetal, spoke Hindi, wore vibrant Indian clothes to religious functions and knew the spiritual songs of their homeland.

    To introduce Scott to her father, Sonali asked whether he could join the family for dinner on her 25th birthday. Patel refused.

    "It was an end-of-discussion-why-is-this-even-going-on no," Sonali said. But she persisted and he finally said "fine."

    During the meal, the usually quiet Scott brought out topics of interest, such as medicine and golf, to the usually talkative Patel, who responded with one-word answers.

    Months passed and it got to the point where "everyone was digging into my skin," Patel said. His wife, his other daughter and son. Even his mother was approving of the union.

    But Patel stood his ground. "My role as a father was to make her think and think hard," he said.

    He asked himself: "Is it my own personal ego, that I am a hotshot in society and I have to do certain things?"

    Then he realized, "at the end of the day, if she is going to do something good or bad, she is going to pay the price for it or get the rewards for it.

    "I showed her the problem and if I have done my job right, I have really tried to guide her, make her understand the consequences, then at this point I have to leave it to her. It is her life and I have to let her live her life."

    He announced the wedding to the Tampa Indian community in an engagement ceremony on Feb. 18.

    "It was a very difficult decision for me," said Patel, removing his glasses to wipe away tears. "I didn't want to lose my daughter."

    Wedding lasts from Wednesday to Sunday

    When Kiran Patel, cardiologist, owner of Well Care HMO, puts his mind to something, he goes all the way. The wedding ceremonies spanned five days, beginning Wednesday with a music festival. The main ceremony was Saturday, and today there is a family brunch.

    Caterers flew in from New York. Photographers drove from Orlando.

    Of the 900 guests, 30 represented the groom.

    "It's more than overwhelming," said Scott's mother, Linda Judd. "But it is also exciting." She wore a maroon sari and a bindi, a small dot on her forehead, during Friday's blessing. She also bought a book from Borders: Teach Yourself Hinduism.

    The wedding Saturday lasted three hours outside the Indian Cultural Center in Carrollwood, under an enormous white tent decorated with pillars and three-tier chandeliers.

    Sonali was carried in on a rose-covered platform, like an Indian princess. Scott, also in traditional Indian clothes, rode on a vintage Mustang convertible, with drummers and dancers around him.

    He wore pointy slippers, had his feet rubbed with milk during the ceremony and had his nosed pulled by the bride's aunt -- a gesture that he should look straight ahead, not at other women.

    Rings were exchanged, as well as a garland of roses and carnations.

    Sonali's little cousins, many born in Tampa, cheered. "Sonali married a non-Indian, so can we!" But their fathers have already lectured them: Sonali is not precedent.

    When Patel saw his daughter at the reception Saturday night, she was presented as Mrs. Sonali Kiran Judd. Her middle name belonging to her father. Her last name to her husband.

    The couple are honeymooning in Aruba and plan to live Tampa as family practice physicians after finishing three years of residency in Columbia, S.C.

    Patel, meanwhile, still has one unmarried daughter: Sheetal, 24, also in medical school.

    She is open to meeting Indian guys and he's already started to look for her. He is not going to be caught off guard this time, he said. "I'm going to wake up early."

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