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Indian Relationships: A State Of Anarchy

I saw a Hollywood movie about relationships and love. In one scene, a man and a woman meet in a department store and strike up a conversation over the cash register which continues till they walk out. Standing on the sidewalk, they talk, like any two strangers who’ve just met, of things that interest the other and ooh and aah over what they have in common. Then, just on the verge of that crucial ‘ask for her number’ moment, the guy shrugs and says,

“I can’t do this. I’m married.”

It struck me right just then. They were following a socially accepted ritual. Then they reached a point where an expression of interest had to be made or not. And it could not be made since he was clearly unavailable. The social mores of their world dictated that he not go any furthur unless he was intending to take it forward seriously.

A few years ago, I was in Europe. After much teasing from my group, about Turkish delights and Greek gods, I returned to report that no man had flirted with me. But my mother, told me of one of our co-passengers had struck up a conversation and told her she was very attractive, adding with a snide look at my dad that he couldn’t say the same about her husband. She was highly surprised till we were told that in some western communities, it was considered polite, practically a social requirement to mock-flirt with a lady and compliment her on her fine form. This especially for a married woman, since it was quite clear that it was in light vein and was not intended to be taken seriously. Quite unlike India where it would be considered highly inappropriate to flirt or compliment a married woman. On the other hand, it was pointed out, that it would be equally inappropriate for the same men to have flirted with me since I was clearly available. Flirting would have been an indication of serious intent, a formal expression of interest.

We are still in a nascent society as far as dating goes. Our parents’ generation invented love marriages in this society; we are the generation that brings in friendship between the sexes as well as socially sanctioned romantic/sexual relationships before marriage. We haven’t quite learnt where to draw the line between friendship-comfort and attraction-commitment. We are still experimenting with how far we go with being funny/cool/charming and where it trespasses into flirtation.

Think about some of the relationship scenarios that are very real to us today. The ‘best friend’ of the opposite sex that makes the girlfriend/boyfriend so uncomfortable. The good friends (sister-brother…this is really the most convoluted one of all) who vehemently decree that other people have dirty minds. The older colleague/father of a friend/friend of father/husband of a friend who are really friendly, but perhaps a little too much sometimes?

Don’t we all know a guy who promises the world to every second girl, believing correctly, that she’ll keep it to herself because, it still isn’t done for a girl to admit that she’s been with a guy? There is nothing to check him from repeating the same over and over again, no one to brand him for the cad he is. Even after the crime is complete and guy is far away, possibly chasing a whole new set of girls or actually married, how many of the women he has wronged are actually going to speak up? How about the committed ones who pass off their behaviour as harmless friendliness? There’s a general ‘kehne mein kya harz hai?’ syndrome working here. The problem is that people do fall in love, hearts get broken, trust is rended and lives are shattered. You can deny those are very real crimes, nasty things that people do to people.

As modern women, we are expected to be ‘okay’ with a certain degree of liberal expression. The question how far does that stretch? It’s okay to know a lot of guys, it’s fine to go out with them, even flirt with them, get into relationships with them. But all of that provided it ends in the institution of marriage or at least a ‘stable, steady relationship’. But from meeting a guy to ending up in that last socially sanctioned comfortable relationship, it’s a long way. We stuff our best-looking side into our public persona and bury our insecurities. We put up with a guy who is ‘comittment-phobic’ for months and months because we don’t want to be nags. We’re okay with the ‘just good friends’ tag. We even tolerate cheating and tell ourselves patience is a virtue. You can be sure a crime of sorts has been committed but who’s going to haul in the offender?

And if you’re thinking this is equally true for women, I agree. With one small exception. Men who have been wronged in this manner can speak up about it and they do. Where else do we get such nasty phrases like slag and tease from? On the other hand, a woman who has been wronged cannot speak up. Liberatedness be damned, when such a social crime is perpetrated, the woman (more often than not) doesn’t dare speak up since even friends would call her stupid for having believed such a guy in the first place. Well, you live, you learn.

We are a society in a state of transition, this is true. Many of us feel like we’re stuck in the stiff rules of conservative India while being seduced by the liberatedness of the West. We navigate our lives through some complicated mixture of the two. But while trying to have the best of both worlds, we have the safety of neither – not the security of a protected society, nor the societal support system of an individualist one. The touts that flourish in any anarchy are well and alive in this one too. Let me end this by just saying that glorious as this rule-free state may be, the very lawlessness of it leaves each of us vulnerable to social crimes.

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* An earlier version of this post is here. A version is also posted to Yahoo! Real Beauty.

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The Married Male Friend

It is a fact that the social environment is very different today than the one in which my parents met and started their relationship. Neither mum nor dad really have independent friend circles, let alone know too many single people of their generation. I belong to several social circuits that include couples, some where I’m friends with the guy, some with the girl.

Friendships themselves have changed. While my parents would never even consider introducing a flirtatious note into their discussions with their social groups, my generation itself seems to be a flirty one. Sex, attraction, relationship are all a little too ‘out there’ if you ask me. Romance, privacy and intimacy have been sacrificed to free expression, enhanced comfort zones and devil-may-carishness. I do enjoy being a part of this world, it works for me. But I think in an attempt to get it all out there, we’ve meandered so far into the grey that we may have lost sight of black and white.

Being as I am, an independent woman who’s also friendly and approachable, I find my social circuit quite expansive and complex. The Married Male Friend is only one of those many dark alleys in this complex terrain. How do I treat him?

If he was a friend before he acquired the ‘married’ label, then the situation is relatively simpler. I take heed of how his wife feels about his women friends and our friendship accordingly moves along or away.

How about if the Married Man is someone I’ve met later? Do I treat him like I treat all the other guys? The friendly-flirtatious tone does need to be dropped, no matter how innocent. But what about when the guy is flirting with me? Much to my alarm, I’m frequently propositioned, flirted with and pursued by married men. It’s not just the fact that they’re married and flirting with me that shocks me so much. It is the cool rationale that they feed into it.

I’m not referring to the liars who feign their single status. Nor even the occasional ‘my wife and I are not really in love’ guy trying the sympathy routine.

There is another type of man who is not just unabashed about his cheating but actually derives confidence from it. This man usually has a breakproof logic about why it is legitimate, reasonable and valid to commit adultery. There is the elaborately constructed dialogue over today’s moving social order liberally spiced with statistics about divorce rates, paternity suits and pre-nuptial agreements. There are references to Freud, Darwin and Einstein in a discussion about people’s relationships. There is the sweeping confidence that makes you alternately wonder whether you’re being old-fashioned and how he can be so cold and hot at the same time.

He camouflages these in ‘normal’ intellectual conversations, the kind that we often get into with anybody intelligent. But the flirtatious, slightly dangerous tones lace every word. It’s hard to extricate oneself from such a situation. Does one slap a man who has just been talking to you, who hasn’t said anything explicitly offensive? The last time I got roped into one such talk, I found myself plaintively protesting,

“I don’t want to hear about whether the institution of marriage is valid anymore or not. It has sanctity for me because I say it does.”

I hated how whiny that sounded and how powerless that made me feel. Furthermore, it bothers me is that I (an outsider to that marriage) seem to be carrying the onus of fulfillment of commitment. When I say no, this man just takes his interest elsewhere. And whatever woman chooses to say yes, will be branded that horrible name – the Other Woman, the one that messes with married men. This man knows this fact and takes full advantage of it.

Now let’s pull back a few steps. The above is when it reaches that critical point of deciding which way a friendship is going to go – platonic or otherwise. But how about that vast, grey area before that? How do you know what’s appropriate and what’s not? Where does normal friendliness end and the reek of infidelity begin? Is it okay to watch a movie with a guy friend who just happens to be married? Is it okay to meet him for dinner? Coffee at midnight? Don’t these smack of dating? But is it fair to treat a married friend differently from an unmarried one?

The old ‘it is the intention that matters’ doesn’t hold. That’s not what real life is about. Real life is about human beings who experience attraction and relationship in fluctuating, varying tones every minute. The world has gone so grey, sometimes I miss the black-and-white times when everything was clearer.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

*An earlier version of this post is here. A version also appears on Yahoo! Real Beauty.

Relationship Lawlessness & Social Criminals

I recently saw a movie about relationships and love. In one scene, a man and a woman meet in a department store and strike up a conversation over the cash register which continues till they walk out. Standing on the sidewalk, they talk, like any two strangers who’ve just met, of things that interest the other and ooh and aah over what they have in common. Then, just on the verge of that crucial ‘ask for her number’ moment, the guy shrugs and says,

I can’t do this. I’m married.

It struck me right between my eyes just then. They were following a socially accepted ritual. Then they reached a point where an expression of interest had to be made or not. And it could not be made since he was clearly unavailable. The social mores dictated that he not go any furthur unless he was intending to take it forward seriously.

~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~

Last year I went to Europe on holiday. After enduring much ribbing about Turkish delights and Greek gods, I returned to report that no man had flirted with me. My mother, on the other hand, told me of one of our co-passangers who had struck up a conversation and told her she was beautiful, adding with a snide look at my dad that he couldn’t say the same about her husband.

She was highly surprised (even though I spend all my time telling her that she looks at least a decade younger than she is – and she does!) till I added that in some western communities, it was considered polite, practically a social requirement to mock-flirt with a lady and compliment her on her fine form. This especially for a married woman, since it was quite clear that it was in light vein and was not intended to be taken seriously. Quite unlike India where it would be considered highly inappropriate to flirt or compliment a married woman.

On the other hand, my father pointed out, that it would be equally inappropriate for the same men to have flirted with me since I was clearly available. Flirting would have been an indication of serious intent, a formal expression of interest.

~o~o~o~o~o~o~o~

We are still in a nascent society as far as dating goes. Our parents generation invented love marriages in this society; we are the generation that brings in friendship between the sexes as well as socially sanctionable romantic/sexual relationships before marriage. We haven’t quite learnt where to draw the line between friendship-comfort and attraction-committment. We are still experimenting with how far we go with being funny/cool/charming and where it trespasses into flirtation.

Think about some of the relationship scenarios that are very real to us today. The ‘best friend’ of the opposite sex that makes the girlfriend/boyfriend so uncomfortable. The good friends (sister-brother…this is really the most convoluted one of all) who vehemently decree that other people have dirty minds. The older colleague/father of a friend/friend of father/husband of a friend who are really friendly, but perhaps a little too much sometimes?

Don’t we all know a guy who promises the moon and earth to every second girl, believing correctly, that she’ll keep it to herself because in the larger sense, it still isn’t done for a girl to admit that she’s been with a guy? There is nothing to check him from repeating the same over and over again, no one to brand him for the cad he is. Even after the crime is complete and guy is far away, possibly chasing a whole new set of girls or actually married, how many of the women he has wronged are actually going to speak up? And if you say you don’t know such a guy, give me a call. I have a private ‘Hall of Shame’ of these social criminals.

How about the committed ones who pass off their behaviour as harmless friendliness? There’s a general ‘kehne mein kya harz hai?’ syndrome working here. The problem is that people do fall in love, hearts get broken, trust is rended and lives are shattered. You can deny those are very real crimes, nasty things that people do to people.

As modern women, we are expected to be ‘okay’ with a certain degree of liberal expression. The question how far does that stretch? It’s okay to know a lot of guys, it’s fine to go out with them, even flirt with them, get into relationships with them. But all of that provided it ends in the institution of marriage or at least a ‘stable, steady relationship’. But from meeting a guy to ending up in that last socially sanctioned comfortable relationship, it’s a long way. Most men fall short far before that. Or I suspect a lot of them aren’t even intending to go that far but try and drag out as much as they can get before they need to rat-tail it ‘before it gets too serious’.

We stuff our best-looking side into our public persona and bury our insecurities. We put up with a guy who is ‘comittment-phobic’ for months and months because we don’t want to be nags. We’re okay with the ‘just good friends’ tag. We even tolerate cheating and tell ourselves patience is a virtue. What happens when he dumps you to go chase another girl and propose marriage to her in a week? You can be sure a crime of sorts has been committed but who’s going to haul in the offender?

And if you’re thinking this is equally true of women as well, I agree. With one small exception. Men who have been wronged in this manner can speak up about it and they do. Where else do we get such nasty phrases like slag and tease from? On the other hand, a woman who has been wronged cannot speak up. Liberatedness be damned, one of those aforementioned crimes was perperated on me. I didn’t dare speak up since I knew even our common friends would just think I was stupid for having believed such a guy in the first place. Well, you live, you learn.

Last month, I was flirted with by a committed man. I was unsure on when exactly I could draw the line and just relieved to get away without too much embarassment. As I’m writing this post, I’m being propositioned by a married friend. This relationship is sometimes questioned by my friends who believe (quite correctly) that he is a social criminal. I agree and yet I continue to be friends (only in every sense of the word) with him. But few relationships are this manageable and heavenaloneknows that this one wasn’t easy either.

Let me end this by just saying that delightful as this state may be with its glorious rule-lessness, the very lawlessness of it leaves each of us vulnerable to social crimes.

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