There is a new breed of people out there and they are a helluva lot better to be around than the others. They are the 30-something war veterans of relationships. They are divorcees. They’ve lived in without marriage and borne the backlash from family, landlords, friends and service people. They’ve been engaged and sent out wedding invitations only to have to retract and learn to say something no one in their families had to say.
“It’s over. I’m sorry. No, umm, it didn’t work out. No, there’s no wedding. Sorry.”
It used to just be me and one or two of the other local urban legends (“There was something wrong with him always”, “She was always a fightercock”, “He must have cheated”, “She must have had something going on with the neighbor”). Now I’m losing count of the number of people starting to drift into this group.
We are different. Our battle scars don’t just define us. They’ve made it necessary for us to shape lives that have no references. We are the generation of Indians that had limited career choices imposed on us. We are the ones who began speaking English earlier, went abroad earlier, dressed ‘like MTV and Hollywood and don’t you know that is not our culture??’. We celebrated Valentine’s Day and got into political trouble for it. Then we succumbed to arranged marriage or love marriages with twenty thousand rituals borrowed from Bollywood and ageing family matriarchs/patriarchs. We sank or swam in the open sexuality of new media which swept away the prudish touch-only-spouse-and-only-in-private attitudes we had been brought up with.
The compromises we made in our twenties, were supposed to be our prodigal returns from the rebellion of our satellite TV/internet bedecked 90s adolescence. Things were supposed to turn out fine. We were not prepared for dowry disguised as expensive rituals paid for by the girl’s family. We didn’t expect to have to compete with pornography or gaming, for our partners’ attention. We didn’t think we’d need to decide between dual-career-no-marriage or single-career-resentful-marriage. We didn’t forsee that mismatched libidos and opposed political views would enter our kitchens, our bedrooms and our relationships.
And we are dealing with who we are becoming in the dealing of these things. We are so different.
Yesterday I asked out to dinner a woman I had met a couple of times. “Just you and me?” she asked. “Well, why not?” I replied. We talked about mothers who called if it crossed 11PM and we weren’t home. We spoke of bitchy colleagues making our lives miserable when they heard about this. We discussed unsatisfactory exes and what made a woman good in bed and why this should mean we had to do things we didn’t want to. We brought up menstrual cups and younger men and how wonderful it was to have a conversation with someone who used the word ‘schism’ casually and correctly. And then we clinked our Cosmopolitans (what a throwback!) and went home.
Last week I met a man who once wore the tag of ‘boyfriend’ and has always brought along an air of fresh cologne and protective warmth to our friendship. Right now he’s walking around under a cloud of messy divorce and alimony induced gloom. I hugged him. He shrugged and told me,
“I’m looking at it as the price for my freedom.”
I hugged him again. I understood and I know he knew I understood. Only someone who’s been in that war will ever understand all the nuance in his statement. Then we went out to the shops. He helped me pick out a new pair of shoes. I stood with him while he smoked an only-during-bad-times-cigarette. And we enjoyed our meal more than the hundreds we’ve shared in the past decade. Because, who knows what poison might infect his system or mine soon?
Yet another friend has climbed his painful way out of that abyss, quit his corporate job and gone off to chase a longtime dream. Last year I asked him out. He didn’t say yes. He didn’t say no. Now, he may never return from the place he has moved to. But he sends me photographs of his life there. We both know something that people who aren’t like us, do. There is relating and that goes way beyond relationships. It took divorce and abuse and alimony and broken engagements to learn that.
We’ve seen too much to believe that rituals are romantic. We’ve borne too much to pretend that families always know what’s best for us. We’ve been through enough and more that something deeper in us, even the least aggressive of us, has sat up and said, “Enough.” It’s the amiable friend who remarried and didn’t invite anyone because he was done with the tamasha. It’s the ‘good wife’ who shed her burqa for a high-low dress and finally got herself a business card telling the world about the business she had run for six years. It’s the quiet colleague who moved to another city to start a bar and live with two bachelor friends.
This for me is the new India. It didn’t have to live through Independence or Emergency or most of the big wars. But it has had to make its way through outdated social rituals, oppressive familial references and being thrust into a volatile international economy that it was not prepared for. It has been on Shaadi.com as well as Tinder. And guess what, it hasn’t crashed as yet.
There are more of us and we are all around you. You’re related to us. You’re dating us. You’re working with us. You’re falling in love with us. You’re living next door to us and borrowing daal from us. You’re sharing parking space and theatre seats with us. You’re asking us for advice on what to wear, which college to go to and if we’ll give you a reference at your next job. You’re selling to us. We are not the others anymore. Many of us are the ones making pathbreaking choices and while they’re not comfortable, the generation after us looks up to us because we’re displaying the rebellion they’re losing in their twenties.
Divorce is not an evil word anymore. Living in is not a sin punishable by death. Sex is not a bad word. Virginity is not a prize. Men are not freer than women. Women do not make better parents. In-laws are not the same as parents. Big weddings are nothing more than expensive PR campaigns. Older people are just older people, not wiser people. Rituals do not ensure happiness. Intelligent people are not sorted-out people. An IIT or an IIM degree does not guarantee a good spouse or even a good life.
It’s time you revised your myths.
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This is a revised version of an earlier post titled ‘To Marry Or Not To Marry, That Is The Question‘.
A lot of my friends, especially recently, say that they don’t believe in marriage. This global, centuries-old institution is losing favour because of the political dynamics natural to any family, the complication of multiple opinions, conflicting agendas and excessive rituals. The world is starting to split up into hostile factions on this point, each side tossing barbs to the other (“You’re stuck in fairytale land!” clashes with “You’re commitment-phobic!”).
First of all, let’s distinguish the wedding from the marriage. The wedding is the formalization, the ceremony that symbolizes that two people are henceforth bound together, socially and legally. Customs may vary but this is the fundamental purpose of every single wedding ceremony conducted over the world. It is a ritual and like all other rituals, it only has as much significance as the people carrying it out, attach to it. It is true that no paper or custom can ensure or create a fulfilling union between two people. That has to be built by the two people in question, bit by agonizing, confusing, wearying bit.
Now let us consider marriage itself, beyond the rituals, beyond the superficialities of sindoor and rings. It is the meeting and combining of two people’s lives. It is the merging of assets, of tangible ones like money & possessions and of intangibles like career, eating habits, lifestyle choices etc.
Take the most basic human action of eating. Everyone does it. It’s difficult enough to decide on one meal to be shared by two people (eating place, seating, cuisine, taste, spice, vegetarian/non-vegetarian etc). How much more complicated it would be to repeat this for the rest of the two people’s lives? Multiply that several thousand fold for every other aspect of life above food and we start to see just why marriage is such a complicated affair.
This alone tells us that the only sensible way to start, is to do it in an organized manner. All the supposedly meaningless rituals provide a framework for two people to undertake this arduous venture. I’d say that it is a template at best and can (and should) be customized to the couple’s requirements.
Considering what a massive undertaking this is, it’s only prudent to account for issues and breakdowns. It’s a fool’s errand to go starry-eyed into something as big as a lifelong relationship and assume blithely that everything will work out in a ‘happily ever after’ way. Marriages are not always happy. Unions are not guaranteed to work. Compatibility may not last. While a relationship should only be undertaken with the hopes of it working, the possibility that it may not should also be borne in mind.
A discussion about marriage, especially one that attempts to be objective & rational, is incomplete without talking about divorce. What happens to the two lives that were joint together, if things don’t work out? The division of those aforementioned assets is a complicated exercise, one that often consumes the people involved, completely and leaves everyone dissatisfied. There’s no easy way to unite or to end emotional involvement; that bit is always going to be bloody. It seems wise to at least sort out the relatively easier things like possessions and even that’s not easy. A formal ritual is a process that can be closed most cleanly. If at this juncture, the law must be brought in as an impartial third party, it is only fair to have it be a party to the union right at the start, which is the legal wedding ritual.
Then there is the question of children. You may have the temerity to go against society and the strength to survive a messy breakdown, outside the structure of marriage. However, can you guarantee the same for your children? It doesn’t feel fair to thrust one’s life’s choices and their consequences onto one’s children, even before they choose it for themselves. Society still isn’t easy on the children of a single parent, especially an unmarried one, never mind an unmarried mother. Whether a couple ever has children or not is immaterial. This is far too important to overlook what might be even a remote possibility.
You should not have to run around desperately in search of a partner. You shouldn’t need to sucker someone into the grand party of a wedding. Singledom works for a lot of people as do non-conventional relationship structures. However, if you do decide to make a lifelong commitment to another human being, marriage is a clean, convenient way to do it.
A version of this is posted to Love Beckons.
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* Image via Wikipedia
Getting married, let’s talk about that, shall we? Not the relationship itself or the state of being of its practitioners. That’s right, practitioners. Just because everyone does it, doesn’t detract from the fact that marriage is indeed, an artificial human construct, a social order and a belief system. Because it is all these things simultaneously, we find ourselves at the complex crossroads of ‘What am I supposed to do?’ and ‘What can I live with?’. I am talking about the WEDDING.
The fact is that human beings have evolved, and with them, the societal constructs. Why, then, are we stuck with the same template for matrimony that our ancestors seven generations prior, used? Let’s consider some of the better known rituals.
Dowry has now gained the status of a social taboo. Its premise of bartering human beings has been rejected as unethical and demeaning. Why are we then still holding onto ‘kanyadaan’ (which literally translates to ‘donating the girl’)? Doesn’t that jar on the ears just as much as a certain other word that has to do with a man who peddles women?
Then there’s jewelery, without which no self-respecting Indian wedding would be complete, the larger, blingier and more expensive, the better. Traditionally, gold was investment, supposedly the wealth given to a woman to assure her financial security. Now, first of all, gold is not an investment anymore. Jewellery that is bought, essentially becomes a sunk cost since the emotional upheaval associated with having to sell it is an impenetrable exit barrier. Associating too much status value & sentimental attachment with gold has thus devalued it as an investment commodity.
Secondly, it is not the only source of financial security available anymore. Wouldn’t property or bonds or even money in a bank account be wiser than a physical piece of gold that can easily be stolen, damaged or mislaid?
Thirdly, (and need I even say this?) the origins of this archaic practice of covering a woman with gold stem from the same root as concessions made to the ‘weaker sex’. Admittedly, there are any number of women willing to be waited on hand-to-foot so they don’t need to do any work. Propagating regressive attitudes isn’t solely a male thing. Add to this, the massive marketing machinery, that ironically enough, contorts jewelery into a symbol of women’s empowerment rather than its exact opposite. Being a woman (and a vain one, at that) myself, I’m adequately appointed with enough baubles & trinkets to look shamefaced about it. I live with myself with the (albeit weak) stand to limit these to non-precious ‘artificial’ jewelery. I also baulk at the idea of expensive jewelery as a gift. (I mean, would you expect me to be grateful if I were gifted a ball-and-chain?).
Finally, let’s talk about the elaborate rituals that vary by caste, community and geography. Who even knows what they mean anymore? Even among those who believe and insist on their practice – typically senior family members – how many actually understand what is being recited, the significance of a ceremonial fire, the value of that thread or the meaning of the rice-throwing, the turmeric/vermillion application? My bet is that this question will be met by one of the following:
- Stony silence
- Declarations of solidarity with faith, religion or country (mystifying, this last one)
- Accusations of being ‘too logical’ (mysteriously a character flaw at such a moment)
- Tears, angry words, threats or insults
- All of the above
And yet, none of them answers the question. Why are so many of us willing to embark on what might be the most poignant adventure of our lives, with practices that we do not know, understand, identify with or believe in? What bodes it for the future of a relationship that begins by buckling under pressure to appease a third party altogether? What does it say about a couple who make the commitment of a lifetime by pandering to other people, regardless of their own beliefs?
A ritual without meaning is just a farce. And out of context, it borders on hilarious. I’ve never seen a bridegroom on a white horse that didn’t look horribly uncomfortable and somewhat sheepish. Every single married friend I have testifies to the wedding album creation as an ardous, unpleasant process of photographers barking orders and plastic smiles pasted on for hour. Nothing strikes me as more artificial than the queue of people lining up for a couple of minutes on a stage to hand over a gift, shake hands with the couple (standing in front of the ubiquitous gilt chairs with red upholstery), pose for a photograph and then make a beeline for the food. Most ironical of all, food, that one surefire indicator of the ‘success’ of a wedding usually ends up being something that the bridal couple itself ends up having no time for.
What’s with the ‘success’ tag of a wedding anyhow? Since when did beginning a personal relationship get associated with providing mass-level entertainment, social pandering and budget overflows? I don’t see anything holy about this state of matrimony.
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