When Love Breaks the Rules
It was Valentine’s Day 2001. The outside air was warm, and thick with words unspoken between the two friends who wanted to be much more.
There was no denying Joel Paulraj and Sridevi “Sri” Kuzhandaivelu had a connection. Their friends could see it. And the two had spent nearly every day of the last two months together after being paired to work on a fundraiser for Madras Community College in India, where they met as classmates.
Joel still remembers the bright orange dress Sri wore the first day of class, earning her the nickname “Fanta girl” among the many who’d taken notice of the outgoing new student. She’d transferred to Madras at the beginning of their second year.
“I knew of her as one of the prettiest girls in the school,” Joel says.
Sri was taken by the guy who was “sweet and kind, always looking after others.” Their friendship looked a whole lot like dating. But to admit their burgeoning feelings would mean unspeakable betrayal to both of their families, and turning their backs on some of the most deeply held tenets of their culture.
“Obviously, the crush did happen, but I was sort of brushing it away,” Joel explains. “We both had that barrier in our hearts [of] it’s not going to work, so why go there?”
Joel and Sri can’t help but to marvel looking back. The couple, both 38, now live with their three daughters on the north side of Chicago. They just celebrated the 12th anniversary of a wedding they still have a hard time believing actually happened.
February 14, 2001 was the turning point. But their story started long before then, as two kids being raised in the same town -- but different worlds -- in Chennai, a coastal city on the Bay of Bengal in southeast India.
‘It’s never going to work out’
Sri grew up in a middle class family practicing Hinduism, the predominant religion in India. Hindus embrace many deities. In Sri’s home, her family worshipped Ganesh, Shiva, Saraswati and Lakshmi.
“For every festival, you have to make some food, and put it in front of the idol before you eat,” Sri recalls. “We burn incense and sacrifice the food to god and then we eat. That’s how we grew up.”
Though her parents were more cultural than devout Hindus, Sri readily adopted the belief system as her own. She prayed regularly to her personal god Ragavhendra, particularly on exam days at school, and attended the Hindu temple near her home on Thursdays.
One of her first exposures to Christianity was through a neighbor, a heavy drinker who claimed to follow Jesus. He circled the neighborhood daily, Bible in hand, pronouncing judgment on everyone within hearing distance.
“Bible tells us we have to believe!” Sri remembers hearing his drunken voice bellowing at four in the morning. “If not, you’re going to hell.”
The message took root, if not the intended one: Christians just want to force you to convert. They just want to fill their churches. They just want your money. Though Sri remained more open minded, her father developed a deep hatred toward Christians.
Several miles away, Joel was being raised in an Indian Christian home with strict parents who were “very strong believers.” His father even spent a short time as a missionary.
“I grew up going to church. When I was a teenager, I went to youth camp. That’s when I got saved.”
Joel’s Christian faith always put him in the religious minority in India, but his parents were active in their efforts to bring others to faith in Christ.
Despite their different religious backgrounds, both Joel and Sri’s families would have agreed on two key positions: marriage should be arranged, and only to someone within your own faith.
“Culturally, India doesn’t do love marriages,” Joel explains. “If somebody married or found a spouse on their own, we talk about it like ‘they ran away from the house.’ That’s how they say it. It was always frowned upon. I grew up with that fear that if I liked a girl or even if I felt a spark, it was always like it’s never going to work out. My parents are not going to agree to this.”
Sri faced added pressure as the only girl in her family, with two older brothers. In Indian culture, it is an unspoken rule that the brothers cannot marry until their sister marries, no matter her age.
“That’s the thing with our culture, especially my family,” Sri says. “Right after you graduate, before even you go to college, they will start looking for a boy and make you get married.”
Shortly before Valentine’s Day 2001, Sri’s parents surprised her by calling her into the living room of their house, where a prospective husband and his family were sitting perched on the couch waiting to meet her.
“I felt like I don’t want to marry this guy I don’t know,” Sri remembers thinking. She couldn’t risk “disrespecting” her mother and father. But in her silence, a crazy, unthinkable, idea began to take root.
“That’s when it sparked in my mind. I want Joel,” Sri explains, her voice lifting with excitement. You know in the movies, you have like a spark or a bulb? That’s the thing for me. I’m like They’re going to get me married? No! I can’t live with anyone other than Joel.”
Sri made a plea to hold off on marriage for a bit longer, ostensibly to give her more time to focus on her career. Her parents reluctantly agreed.
‘I think I like you’
On February 14, Sri and Joel met up at one of their favorite spots - a sprawling seating area outside of the city library. It was there where Sri finally worked up the nerve to put words to what they’d both been feeling for months.
“I think I like you. Why don’t we get married?”
Sri chuckles remembering how sad Joel looked when he heard those words. He couldn’t fathom the idea of her marrying anyone else, but also couldn’t resolve in his mind the impossibility of their relationship.
“Let me think about it,” Joel replied. And with that simple, unsatisfying declaration, the two left the library and spent the next few days alone with their thoughts.
“I spoke to one of my best friends, and we were basically strategizing on how am I going to say no without hurting her feelings,” Joel explains. “I’m contemplating really hard in my head this is never going to work. My parents aren’t going to be happy, why all this trouble?”
When they met two days later, Joel was determined to tell Sri it couldn’t work between them. Instead, he surprised himself by going “off script” and spilling out how he really felt.
“I don’t know what happened,” Joel says. “I said you know what, I love you too. I don’t care how it’s going to go. We’re going to work this out.”
Joel made a commitment that day to marry Sri. But he needed her to know one more thing.
“For me, God is very important,” he told her. “I can’t break away from my faith.”
A lovestruck Sri proposed a solution.
“You want me love Jesus? I’ll pray to Jesus,” she blurted out, eager to do whatever it would take to make the relationship work. “I don’t care who you ask me to pray to. I will do it. I want you. I can be a Christian.”
Joel was aware of the stereotype of Christians who try to force their faith onto others. He was wary of “fake conversions.” As much as he wanted Sri to become a Believer, and for them to one day raise their children together as Christians, he knew this wasn’t the way to do it.
“I could never do that to you where I would just ask you to become a Christian,” Joel explained to Sri. “It has to come from your heart where you come to know Jesus.”
The newly committed couple tabled the faith conversation for a later date. They also pushed back the difficult talks they both would need to have with their families, who would most certainly oppose the relationship.
‘We lied almost every single day’
Sri had heard too many stories about what happened when girls went against their families’ wishes. A friend’s mom threatened to commit suicide when she found out about her daughter’s forbidden relationship. Another family she knew beat up their daughter’s unauthorized boyfriend. Not to mention the shame and ostracization.
For Joel, it was the fear of his parents’ disapproval for what they would surely see as him going against the will of God by being “unequally yoked” with a non-Christian (2 Corinthians 6:14). As a Christian, to marry a Hindu would be to blatantly reject everything he’d ever been taught.
Sri and Joel decided their choice to be together would need to be kept a secret. For two years they “lied almost every single day” to see each other.
“As parents now, it’s not something we would recommend,” they both are quick to point out. At the time, they saw no other option.
Joel and Sri both took jobs in the same Chennai neighborhood, to increase their opportunities to see one another. Joel’s training in Information Technology landed him a position doing computer repair, including at Sri’s family home.
“I did go to their house more often, to find more reasons to meet her, to see their computers,” Joel recalls, laughing at the irony. “Her mom became really friendly with me. She thought I was a good kid.”
After several years, Joel was given an opportunity to leave India to come to the U.S. to work. It was a “childhood dream” realized and both Sri and Joel decided he should take it. They’d have to make their secret relationship work in separate time zones.
‘I’m getting baptized’
They relied on skype and yahoo messenger and long distance phone calls at weary hours. At times it seemed too much, like they were wasting their time. The cost to their families would be too great. With a brother waiting in line to get married, the pressure was mounting for Sri, and she was running out of time and excuses not to wed.
Still, while Joel was working in the U.S., Sri was beginning her own new chapter in India, visiting different Christian churches, to explore the faith she still only knew as Joel’s.
“I never heard anyone speaking about God in my whole life,” Sri explains of her first visits to church. "That was the first time for me. All the HIndu gods, I have no idea how [they] came. But this... getting more knowledge about God. I was like wow. This is so amazing being in the Lord’s presence.”
Sri started attending Christian church every week, though she told her parents she was going to work or to visit friends. She began to slowly read the Bible. Over time, she says “God started working in me every day” and she developed a newfound kindness toward people that she couldn’t explain. Next came the surprising decision to get baptized.
“Just going in the water and coming out, that was amazing.” It was that day, when Sri says she truly became a Christian. It wasn’t about Joel anymore. This was between her and Jesus.
On the other side of the world, Joel had no idea what was happening with his girlfriend, and was battling his own secret doubts. He had a personal relationship with Jesus, but says his relationship with Sri was the one thing he couldn’t bring Himself to pray about.
“In my heart, I was thinking, maybe I’m not doing what God wants me to. It felt like I’m making a mistake. For that reason I didn’t pray.”
A single phone call changed everything.
“[Sri] calls me one day and says ‘hey, I”m getting baptized. I accepted Jesus,’’” I was like What?!” That was huge for me.”
But to move forward, they knew they’d have to do the very thing they feared the most: tell the truth to their families. Sri’s older brother was the first to figure it out.
‘It’s like changing Pharoah’s heart’
“Why are you not getting married?” he asked her one night as they sat on the rooftop of their home. “Do you love somebody?” After a long pause he added, “Is it Joel?”
Sri’s silence gave him his answer.
Sri’s brother revealed the news to their parents. To her utter shock, they reacted well. While her dad didn’t fully approve of a love marriage to a Christian, he didn’t oppose it either. It was Joel’s visits to their home to fix their computer that had allowed Sri’s parents to get to know him and earn their respect, without any hint that he’d one day be the one to marry their daughter.
“I don’t know how my mom and dad said ok for our wedding. They could have blackmailed me. They could have done anything. They did not stop me from this relationship. Somehow God...” Sri’s voice trails off as if still in awe of how to explain it. “It’s like changing Pharoah’s heart.”
Next came Joel’s mom. After meeting Sri and spending time with her, the two became fast friends. “Aunty,” as Sri affectionately calls her mother-in-law, was also in favor of the relationship.
Joel’s father was the last, most difficult conversation. His reaction was exactly what they’d been bracing for all along.
“She’s not a believer. This is not God’s will,” Joel remembers his Dad telling him. “I’m going to pray and she’ll go away from your life.” Though Sri was now a Christian, Joel’s dad wasn’t convinced and was deeply concerned his son would be drawn away from his faith in God.
“Initially it was very hard for me,” says Joel, who felt the crushing sting of his father’s disapproval. “I said Dad, I really believe God is going to reveal to you that she is the one.”
Joel’s father began a season of fasting and prayer with one goal in mind -- that the relationship would end. It was one prayer God didn’t answer, at least not in the way he was hoping for. At his wife’s urging, and after a lengthy holdout, Joel’s dad finally agreed to allow the wedding to move forward. He would attend, but only as a guest. He would not plan or participate in any way.
‘There was so much chaos’
April 26, 2007 was the long awaited day. If Sri and Joel thought their entrance into marriage would be any smoother than the years that preceded it, they were wrong.
Joel’s father was present but his opposition cast a cloud over the day. On Sri’s side, only a few close relatives and neighbors showed up for the ceremony. Most extended family boycotted. In their eyes, the marriage between a Christian and a converted Hindu who’d both gone against their families, was the ultimate source of shame and disgrace. A few older cousins who did show up, started a fight that ended in an all-out, rolling-on-the-ground, baseball bat-wielding brawl among the guests.
“I’m like, why is this all happening? Why are they all doing this?” Sri remembers lamenting as she and Joel watched, too anxious to even eat. “There was so much chaos.”
That night, Sri’s mom made a shocking decision. If her family could not honor her daughter’s marriage, she would have nothing more to do with them. Forced to choose between her daughter and tradition, she drew a line in the sand.
“Because of our wedding, because of me, my mom left everyone,” Sri says, the depth of the sacrifice not lost on her. “She lost her whole family… for me to have a good life.”
Sri’s mother never fully reconciled with her extended family before passing suddenly in 2014. Sri’s dad died four years later. But before passing they both expressed nothing but joy in seeing their daughter so happy in her marriage and so well cared for. “‘Even if we would have found a boy,” they told her, “I don’t think we would have found a boy like Joel.’”
‘God did every single thing’
Joel and Sri moved to the U.S. permanently shortly after getting married. But it was a trip back to India for a family wedding that finally brought the last piece of the puzzle into place. Per Indian custom, the newlyweds stayed with Joel’s parents. When Joel had to cut his visit short to return to work in the U.S., Sri ended up staying in India a few weeks longer, alone with his parents. At the same time, Joel’s father underwent a medical procedure that required a brief recovery. Sri stepped in to help, running errands, and even driving him to and from the hospital. An unexpected friendship was forged.
“Just seeing her and the way she expressed her faith,” Joel says, explaining his Dad’s radical shift. “My dad who said ‘I’m just visiting at your wedding’ [is] now saying ‘you’re the best daughter-in-law.’”
Sri has nothing but love for her in-laws, who are now a big part of her life and have become like parents to her. None of the journey was easy, she says. The fear. The secrets. The isolation and loss. But all of it brought her to love like she never even imagined. To Joel, of course, but also to a Love much greater.
“God did every single thing. I’m so important to him. To bring myself to him he did all these things. This is like overwhelming, unthinkable life for me what I’m living now. Because I have Jesus, because I have Joel and my family, Joel’s mom and dad. He just placed me at the right place. God is amazing. He’s so so faithful.”