I know plenty of married people, of course. It’s just that they tend to be people I have only a slight acquaintance with or relatives or random young people my mother points out at gatherings and temples with the expressed wish that one day she would see her own offspring in such a state. In short, it is somewhat like death – a thing that happens to ‘other people’. Never oneself or one’s intimates.
But as a young desi female, I know that matrimony lurks around the corner. Either that or it is one’s fate to live a very long life with various busybody aunts forever astonished at one’s single status talking loudly about it in a manner calculated to convey an unkind pity to one’s whole family. Such is desi life. Untouched by any uncertainty and awash with the slightly claustrophobic certainty of the holy bonds of marriage.
A lot of people, perfect strangers among them, have often wondered in my presence why so many women of my generation are so against marriage. My answer is that they are not. Most of us would like an Other Half. Indeed, we grew up expecting marriage and children. But the nearer we get to it, the harder it becomes for most of us to see marriage as something to be cheered about when it is presented to us as this monstrous construct replete with familial bonds more resembling tentacles to pin us down and a hideous maw eager to swallow our identities whole.
All the old aunties and uncles agree that marriage is something natural and will make me happy. This happiness will come as I cook, clean, shop, watch morning soaps and Oprah, raise children, lose touch with all my friends, turn into a naggy witch, put on oodles of weight, emotionally distance myself from my husband, watch my children grow up into ungrateful little wretches who can’t wait to leave me behind, confine myself in my home, play unpaid nanny to a bushel of grandkids whom I will bribe with my money and lavish gifts upon before dying at a convenient moment so that I can become a faded photograph on somebody’s wall. Hooray! And God forbid that I might want to step away from this stereotype because that proves the worthlessness of my generation, forever trying to fix what ain’t broke.
Added to this amiable picture is the kind of pressure heaped upon young women by well-meaning mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and various passers-by who are convinced of two things: one, if you aren’t married by your mid-twenties, the chances of you finding a suitable boy are exceedingly rare as all the “good” boys get snapped up early; and two, those in such a situation are doomed to a sad and dusty life that will see you dying alone with only a cat or two for company, which will then eat your face before your body can be discovered.
Life, then, comes down to a debate as to which is worse: death by dreariness or death as catfood. And often it is not so much which option is worse that makes up your mind for you, but rather which option you can live with. It makes no odds, for example, if you feel that you would rather be catfood than a neglected wife if you feel that you could not possibly live with the burden of knowing that in making that choice you have effectively smothered the hopes of a great many people you love.
This tyranny of love is one of the greatest ironies of desi life. You family loves you and wants the very best for you – however, it wants what it considers best for you. This is not an arbitrary decision of theirs either. They are backed by thousands of years of social custom and the crushing weight of societal opinion.
The rare woman whose courage of conviction is immense enough to withstand this overwhelming love and concern then looks two scenarios in the face: in one she is a Poor Thing and left blissfully alone except for the odd pitying glance or two, and in the other her well-meaning acquaintance are unable to accept her singlehood and will always search for that perfect groom. But most women, smart and independent as they may be, when faced with the option of disappointing their families or acquiescing to the inevitable a little earlier than they would have liked, choose the latter.
Somewhere around my twenty-second birthday, open season was declared in the marriage mart of my generation. Almost every single girl I ever attended school with is now either engaged or married and quite a few of them have children. Some of them were looking forward to it, others really detested the idea and despised their future spouses but went along with it anyway and two (that I know of) were forced into it.
In the months leading up to each of their marriages, emails would arrive in my inbox from friends of their friends who were good friends of mine, always containing the same message: So-and-So is getting married (arranged, of course) and she “doesn’t feel very marriageable”, as my best friend once wrote. You might call it bridal jitters, but I wish you wouldn’t. A dreaded job interview or an important examination makes one jittery, marrying a stranger and preparing to share the intimate details of your life with him does not fall in the same category.
This tentativeness is not just in anticipation of marital sex – although when you think about it, it’s deeply problematical that girls are encouraged to view the opposite sex as potential rapists all their lives and then suddenly expected to jump into bed with an almost stranger. Rather, it arises from a variety of factors: learning to live with another person, his family, his past, his pets, his fetishes and introducing him to your own. Things that you can discuss ad nauseam before the formality of marriage but never hope to understand fully until you’re actually living together.
Unfortunately most of these marriages have not worked, despite all the will in the world and the lingering stigma attached to divorce. Granny, my friend’s grandmother who would love to see her ‘settled’, was alarmed enough at the poor rate of success amongst our acquaintance to assure us that not all marriages were like the ones we were witnessing at such close quarters. Too bad all the marriages Granny would point out as favorable examples took place roughly thirty years ago if not more.
Perhaps my uncle the psychiatrist was on to something when he recommended me to marry young because then I would be a lot more malleable and open to compromise. On the other hand, he could have just been a big old chauvinist. In fact, I rather think that is the case because the one girl I know who was married on her eighteenth birthday is today separated from her husband and living the single life while her child grows up at his grandparents’ and thinks his grandmother is his mother.
One reason why I know so many unhappy couples might be because so many of them married abroad. As part of the Great Upward/Westward Migration, a lot of girls find themselves stuck in sleepy little towns or condos where, after so many years of being treated a fragile flower and discouraged from so much as going out alone, she is suddenly expected to pull her own weight. Not so easy when you’re in a foreign country and it’s nothing like the MTV-land you fondly imagined but depressingly like Timbuctoo-under-blanket-of-snow and Mommy and all her sage advice is thousands of miles and a civilization away.
But the most likely explanation is that women, whether desi or not and consciously or subconsciously, are part of a global movement towards equality that pits them against the mores and traditions of an earlier age that is in direct conflict with their everyday world. These young women are as or better educated than their husbands, are individuals in their own right and very much aware of it, and know that it is neither wrong nor unusual for them to be that way. No matter what their family situation, they have not been immune to the sporadic progress made by gender rights activists. It has trickled in via the media, friends, music, schoolbooks, the romance novels they read.
This awareness does not make them anti-marriage or anti-men – but it does set their face against a second-class citizenship in a patriarchal society, such as the ones in which their mothers came of age. They are no longer in the market for lords and masters; they are instead looking for husbands and lovers. Girls don’t want to be catfood, but they don’t want to be little women either.
originally published at Chowk.com 2005