From a very young age most of us are given to understand that we will have to marry someday, whether it is for love or because of the social norms that surround marriage. When the threat of forced cultural integration sent me running from marriage, I realised the rights afforded to non-marital love were not at par with the rights of the married. A central government guideline governing my partner’s job mandated our marriage, but should that be allowed to happen?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
The first time I got engaged, no one asked me. My partner and I had been together for many years at that point, but I was very young and also I had no intention of ever marrying him (or maybe anyone). We had a relationship that was separate from our lives back home, we lived separately and did our own thing. However, we had been together long enough that we introduced our mothers, and left them alone to have a cup of coffee. When we came back, my mother took me aside in a panic and asked me if I had insinuated to my boyfriend that I was ready to get married. Given my extremely vocal anti-marriage stance, I knew for a fact that I had done the opposite. It wasn’t until then that I started to see that my partner and his family’s “tolerance” of my wild and independent ways was the leave I was given until we were married. Being 23, over-worked and completely overwhelmed, I let this play out for a couple of months.
Around me people discussed my marital future, my mother told me to leave the country so I could delay getting married for a few years (god bless her), my boyfriend pretended to me that nothing in my life was changing even as he suddenly tried to take me to dinner-parties with his married friends (since I was younger than him, he had many) and pick out compulsory jewellery. I kept saying, to no one in particular, that I didn’t want to do any of this and I didn’t want any jewellery put on me. I didn’t want to do anything except work and then smoke a cigarette while I sipped coffee on my balcony at the end of the day. It felt like no one was listening. They were telling me to just wear a suit or leave the country and work elsewhere as they packed fruits in a basket with glitter on it. Every morning I woke up with the queasy feeling of betrayal in my stomach but I wasn’t sure who had betrayed me.
I realised it was me.
As I sat beside my sisters in an ugly room that had been painted green and lit with flourescent lighting, dressed in a red suit that I had been forced to have fun buying, while three generations of my family stood before me in every shade of pink that the human eye is able to perceive exchanging gifts of fruit, gold and wine with my boyfriend’s family, I felt the most visceral urge to start chewing my arm. It was the most traumatic moment of my life (and when you rack ’em all up and measure, it’s a fair fight). I realised I had let my fantasy life play out into reality. On some level I must have always known that relationship was a fantasy. It was a terrible relationship in all the ways, but I hadn’t realised it was also an impractical relationship. He did not go with my real life. With me, between us, he was a suitable match for me, but out in the world our conception of love and togetherness were so different. His made my eyes bleed and smelled like aarti, mine just consisted of rain. The cultural reality of a person has the potential to not matter in a relationship, but not if one party sees this cultural integration as mandatory for the success of the relationship.
Culture, or the shorthand we use for a combination of socioeconomic status, religion and lifestyle, play a large role in real-life, adult dating in India. The men we can marry are not the same as the men we can take home after 10 PM. We have to convince our families to accept cultural differences, and sometimes that leads to loss of life. If we do convince them, we have to either adjust to the culture of another person or convince them to adopt ours, but for me, this wasn’t an option. I am thoroughly uncultural and extremely proud of it. In a marriage, it shouldn’t be a big deal that I won’t attire myself in suhagan-wear on the correct occasion or that I won’t run around a fire or stand before a priest to seal the deal. It shouldn’t matter that Diwali to me is just a day I can’t breathe. It shouldn’t matter that I don’t intend to change how or where I live after I marry. I don’t intend to change my name or title. It shouldn’t matter that I don’t intend to buy new plates to signify my status as married. It shouldn’t matter that I don’t intend to suddenly stop using the pile of clothes on my floor as a closet. It shouldn’t matter but it does. Cultural integration is integral to most marital relationships. I didn’t realise that until I took my fellow street-performer into a green-room to prepare for a show that absolutely could not go on.
I had to end the relationship (for many reasons). Even that was a bigger deal to people than it was to me, I thought I had just broken up with a guy I once loved, but the questioning was so dire, it was as if I had taken his spleen with me. Since we had sat together in a room where gold had been exchanged, it was more serious. It was a permanent mark on our records, and I didn’t even know it. After that I was pretty sure I was never heading in the direction of marriage again. Not because I have a fear of deep commitment, no, I have a deep fear of being asked to wear ironed clothes and there’s a lot of ironing involved in weddings. I decided to date for the goal of love and love alone.
Four years after that, I got married.
Now if you are expecting a fairy tale, this would be the point to stop reading. I did not change my mind about marriage, I still believe in many ways it is used as a method to enslave women. I do not believe it is necessarily a celebration of love as much as a restrictive social force. Love is its own celebration.
Why did I marry, then?
I was forced. I was not forced by my parents or my family, though they were pleased that I did get married. I was not forced by the social environment that cannot stand a woman past a certain age who hasn’t even had a socially-sanctioned pregnancy scare. I was not forced by my partner whom I love deeply. No, I was forced by a strange guideline applicable to central government employees.
Let me explain.
About six years ago I met a man who is employed by the Indian Army. We had one of those instant connections in a profound moment that you know, even as it happens, is changing you forever. As love goes, it was top-notch. We are equally uncultural, thoroughly compatible and extremely likely to laugh at the same things. It was wonderful. It still is wonderful. However because he is an employee of the central government and I was not his wife, when we wanted to move in together, we couldn’t move into his house because I wasn’t allowed to live there. At the time this was not a problem, we were in a big enough city and we just rented a house of our own. We rented a house in the civilian part of town and lived happily in it for a long time. Of course there were parts of his social life I was excluded from because socially speaking, communities like the Indian Army don’t recognise relationships that are not cemented by blood or legalese, but it didn’t matter, we had a life together.
However, the nature of his job is that every few years he has to go recreate his life elsewhere and as that day drew closer and closer we realised we were cornered. He was destined to be posted to a location where he wasn’t allowed to live in a civilian area (hello, J&K) if that even existed, and as his girlfriend I couldn’t live with him in the government housing where he was mandated to live. At this point I had to make the decision to either live separately and have one of those long-distance forever relationships or get married so we could continue to be together. Fortunately my job allowed for much more flexibility than the norms of marriage in India do and we decided that if the right to be live in the same physical space has to be bought with marriage, we would do it. It means nothing to me to be married except the fact that an actual policy-based mandate existed to force me into it.
In India we refuse to recognise the sanctity of relationships that are not marriage. For the many years that we lived together we had the life any couple would. We had the same bed, friends, pets and finances but when it came down to it, we had to get married to continue enjoying the apparent privilege of cohabitation. Love is not enough in our country and when it isn’t social or culture forces in the shape of your neighbour forcing you to do it, it’s the rulebook of your partner’s job. The truth is that I hate being married, not because I don’t love the relationship between my partner and me, but that relationship never changed. What changed was our socio-legal status and I didn’t ask for that, it was forced on me, because we refuse to see love in any format except marriage.
Love is not marriage.
Love should be afforded the same rights as marriage.