“Do you remember So-and-So?” my mother asked. “Auntie Such-and-such’s daughter?”
“No,” I said. I never did.
“We went to her wedding,” Ma reminded me.
In all my life, I’ve never wanted to attend the wedding of anybody. Consequently, I do my best to forget all about them as soon as decently possible. “Nope.”
So, of course, Ma proceeds to give me all the details. It took place at that venue, I wore that dress, I argued against it this long, and this funny thing happened when we got there.
“Oh yeah, I remember,” I say at last, just so she’d stop. “What about it?”
“Well, she got divorced.”
I thought about it. “Wait, didn’t this take place last week or something?”
“Three months,” she sighed. “She apparently doesn’t want to relocate.”
“She didn’t know she’d have to move before they got married?” I asked.
“That’s what I said!” Ma said, pleased to hear me display proper feeling for once.
“Is that long enough for her to keep the wedding gifts?” I asked. A girl’s gotta know these things, just in case.
At one point in our lives as young things, it appeared that the average life expectancy of a marriage amongst people of our generation was roughly one year. I do not speak of celebrities with their Las Vegas prank weddings or whatever – I’m talking about people as ordinary as you and I.
Cousins married their long-term partners and were divorced within months; friends had carefully arranged marriages that collapsed before the first anniversary. It was a freaking epidemic and for a while there in the mid-Noughties, this was all that concerned uncles and aunties could talk about: Why Can’t Our Children Stay Married? Things got so bad, my best friend’s grandmother felt compelled to take her aside and inform her that not all marriages were like these. Some actually did survive and hers might well be one of these, so she shouldn’t get turned off the whole idea, OK?
To this day, I feel like congratulating people my age who got married in their early 20s and are still making it work. The point being, divorce is no longer an exotic experience for a great many Indians, especially of the urban variety. There are a number of people out there who’re starting out on their second (or more) marriages, some of them with kids.
Now back in the day, at least as far as I’ve observed in my own family, when a couple got divorced despite the intense social stigma attached to the condition in that era, it generally did not point towards an amicable separation. You really had to loathe the other person to your very core and have a family who hated them right along with you before you could even think about dissolving your marriage.
And once you took that step, in nine cases out of ten, the mother might as well have been widowed because the father just disappeared. I know men who haven’t had any contact with their kids in thirty or forty years even though the children live in the same city as them, move in the same circles and pretty much live down the street. Wife gone, kids went with her.
Not that it was any better when the father won custody. Because then, the mother disappeared instead and was replaced within a matter of minutes by a stepmother who was then expected to carry the full responsibility of someone else’s kids.
Somewhere in the middle of all this are the kids, stuck in a limbo where they’re expected to play along to this game of parental musical chairs and keep any objections they might have to themselves or their psychiatrists if they have such a huge problem with it. Imagine growing up watching your parents battle it out, until one day your father just disappears, a new one shows up, you get a new surname, and presto! this is your new reality and nobody wants to talk about your old one, except this is India and everybody knows about it and you know they’re talking about it all the time behind your back.
It is bizarre. And awful. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt by imagining that they simply didn’t have an approved template of behavior for situations like these back then but…
These days, however, things are a lot better. The people I know who’ve separated despite having children are definitely making an effort to remain involved in their kids’ lives. I still hear about absent fathers and mothers who’ve been supplanted by grandmothers / stepmothers, but unlike the older cases, this is uncommon in my immediate circle at least. Baby steps.
Produced by Karan Johar, Siddharth Malhotra’s We Are Family, a remake of the Susan Sarandon-Ed Harris-Julia Roberts starrer Stepmom, is rooted in this new reality with decidedly mixed results.
Maya (Kajol) and Aman (Arjun Rampal) have been divorced for three years and have settled into an amicable relationship in which Maya does all the parenting while Aman plays support during weekends and special occasions. On his days off from being a dad, Aman has a sexy romance going with Shreya (Kareena Kapoor), a klutzy career woman who doesn’t know much about kids.
You understand early on that while Aman loves his children – Aliya (Aachal Munjal), Ankush (Nominath Ginsberg) and Anjali (Diya Sonecha) – they are not his priority; and the reason he can get away with that is because Maya’s life centers around them. His recognition of her superior parenting skills comes off as relief that there is a real adult in charge of the unpleasant things. It’s a dynamic that works for them but is thrown into instant confusion the moment a third person shows up to share responsibility.
“I don’t want to be your mother,” Shreya says. “You already have a mother.” It’s the extremely correct thing to say, of course, but the fact is when the kids are at their father’s for the weekend, their father’s partner will be an authority figure in their mother’s absence.
And despite her best intentions, this is the reality that bites at Maya after she invites Shreya into their home with the idea of training her as her replacement. Maya has already had to accept that she is officially her husband’s ex; now she has to stand by and watch as her kids leave her behind and move into the future with the same woman who’s taken her position in Aman’s life. Even supermoms aren’t that saintly. Maybe especially supermoms.
Kareena, as the somewhat reluctant other woman, is pretty darn good, particularly when Shreya is calling out Maya and Aman on their respective blind spots. She stands up to the Kajol juggernaut and comes out unscathed, which is more than you can say for poor, delicious Arjun Rampal.
Rampal, yummy as ever, mystifyingly chooses to underplay his role by cutting his expressions in half, leaving him with just one: tortured. Maybe it’s because he knew the women were kicking his ass all over the place. Aman furtively slinks about the place, hoping nobody would set him chores, and even leaves it to Maya to inform the kids about her illness. Of course, the one time he has something pertinent to say, he chooses the absolute worst moment. Aman is just That Guy and, as far as that goes, Rampal nails it.
Kajol, obviously, walks away with the movie. She is, by turns, perfect as the Mama Bear, the jealous ex-wife, the bitchy housemate, and the shattered cancer patient. She even cuts into the ham in the hospital scenes.
And unlike the rest of the cast, she only annoyed me a little bit at the end when the interminable Okay-Let’s-Hurry-Up-And-Wait-To-Die segment began, festooned with large helpings of cheese. Which, I realize, is the reason why I disliked Stepmom as well, even if Susan Sarandon didn’t get to float about in a starry sky.
Should have listened to Aliya when she said she didn’t want to do it, movie. Smart cookie that one.