* 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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Recently a friend explained why he doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage. He can’t stand the political dynamics that are natural to any family, the complication of multiple opinions and agendas and the excessive rituals. I can’t say I agree. I know there is a common notion (further popularized by pop culture) that women are programmed to love the idea of marriage, due to the paraphernalia of weddings. But those aren’t my reasons for believing in marriage.
First of all, I 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.
Let’s look at 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 thousandfold for every other aspect of life above food.
This alone tells me that the only sensible way to start is to do it in an organized manner. Marriage signifies just that, with several of the supposedly meaningless rituals providing a framework for two people to undertake this arduous venture. I’d say that’s 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. I think 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.
What then of two lives that were joint together (or at least attempted to)? The division of those aforementioned assets is yet another 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 of the relatively easier things like possessions and even that’s not easy. A formal ritual strikes me as the 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.
Personally, I may have the temerity to go against society and the strength to survive a messy breakdown, outside the structure of marriage. However, I cannot guarantee the same for my children. It doesn’t feel fair for me to thrust my life’s choices and their consequences onto my 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 I ever have children or not is immaterial. This is far too important for me to overlook what might be even a remote possibility.
I won’t (and haven’t) run around desperately in search of a partner to sucker him into the grand party of a wedding. I’ve lived a reasonably happy single life for many years. However, if I decide to build a lifelong relationship with a man, marriage is the only way I’d consider going about it.
A version of this article is posted at Yahoo! Real Beauty.