On Marriage

There are certain things I hadn’t imagined. One of them was me being in India Today’s annual sex-survey issue. Read it here, illustrated by a sketch by FN Souza (whee!). For those who are lazier, et voila:

 

Let’s play a game. What comes to mind the moment you hear the word marriage? Matrimonial ads detailing caste and complexion? Weddings that leave families bankrupt? More bills to pay? Jokes about hen-pecked husbands? Counselling? Meddling in-laws? Messy children and/ or messier divorce? If you’re among the tiny percentage that thought “happily ever after”, go give your spouse a hug and/or return to your Mills and Boon.

Given what we hear and see of marriage around us, it’s a wonder this institution has any takers. In popular culture, being married is basically an excuse for family melodrama. Real life isn’t much better. The happiest of couples will tell you it’s “hard work” and invariably end up using words like “responsibility” and “compromise”. Worse than those who gaze longingly and say they miss their single years are the ones who talk about the fun they had as a newly-married couple like they’re discussing the Indus Valley civilisation – with nostalgia shimmering in their eyes, making it patently obvious that fun has left the building. And then there are the separations, divorces and alimony scandals.

With this sort of a publicity campaign, it’s not surprising that the next generation of adults isn’t tempted by matrimony. According to this year’s survey, one fourth of India’s youth (aged 18-26) have been in a relationship for more than four years, but are still not married. It’s the sort of statistic that strikes terror into the hearts of middle class parents. But if the best we can say about being married is that it starts off as fun and within a few years, is either boring or headed for a divorce, we’re really not selling the institution very well.

Marriage’s biggest problem is that it evolved into a romantic institution in the middle of the 20th century, when events like the decline of imperialism and the World Wars disrupted the existing status quo all over the world. Women stepped out of households in India and abroad to engage in politics and public affairs, only to discover just how little society thought of them. It must have been alarming for men as well – whether sensible or foolish, they had to rethink what they knew of society as they encountered women who challenged the long-standing patriarchal belief that the other sex is weaker and therefore less worthy.

Had it not been for at least some men seeing women in a new light, marriage would have remained an alliance between families and a smokescreen for assets changing hands. Fortunately, it shape-shifted. In those years, when our grandparents and great-grandparents were falling in love, marriage was redefined. Behaviour that had been condoned and even dismissed – like infidelity, abandonment and abuse – was first frowned upon, then criticised and finally criminalised. None of this would have happened had people not fallen in love with the ones they married.

This marriage, powered by romance, is a delicate, young thing. It’s also rare. Marriages in which people stay together even though they’ve never felt love for one another – that’s 14% of all married couples in India – or the 67.8% that wishes they were with someone else are an archaic and arguably more common version of the institution. Of course the young want no part of this institution. Especially if you are in a loving relationship, why would you want it to devolve into this unhappiness?

But imagine a marriage in which the two of you can be yourselves. Imagine a life with someone who takes pleasure in looking at you, no matter what you wear or weigh. Imagine living with the one who can brighten the darkest of moods in another person’s life simply by being there. Imagine having someone who won’t give up on either you or the argument the two of you are having; the one that ends in either giggles or make-up sex (or both). That’s the kind of marriage that we have conjured into being over the past few generations. That’s the kind of marriage that’s worth having.

Can you find all this in a relationship without getting married? Of course you can. Will it hurt less if your unmarried heart is broken? No. There’s something teetering between pragmatism and extreme caution that lurks around that statistic of young people not wanting to get married, even though they’re in committed relationships. It’s disconcerting. Because what kind of a youth won’t throw caution to the wind and take a chance, especially in matters of love? What sort of a society have we created where men and women in their early 20s aren’t prone to romantic flights of fancy? Why is this gen-next so afraid of being hurt? Or is it simply disinterested?

Of today’s young adults, a considerable number have sex freely, think porn is sex education and go to the hook-up site Tinder in search of jobs. If that’s the lot that isn’t getting married for love, thank god. If they did, it might really be the end of marriage as some of us imagine it. Here’s to the 75% that (one hopes) is less jaded.

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