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As a thirty-year-old Indian woman, following your own drums when it comes to marriage can mean breaking the hearts of those who love you most – your family. Are you ready to do it?
My mother called me thrice at eight in the night. Editing an article, I thought something had happened and picked up on the third call. After some small talk about my writing and asking if I was ever going to take up a job, she said she wanted to talk about something.
As a thirty-year-old unmarried woman in India, I recognize this ‘something’, like dogs can sense tsunamis, for at least five years now. This something — without any exception — is marriage.
To humour her, I asked what she wanted to talk about. She said she always worried about me and often cried because she could not do anything else. That she didn’t know what my life plans were. That nothing made sense. That I must be lonely. Didn’t I like having a family? Was there anybody? That why couldn’t we — mother and daughter — share everything with each other?
These sentences stumbled out of her mouth as she choked.
Now having had many similar conversations on the issue of marriage, I knew better than to get angry or irritated or rebel. My mother would have cried profusely, would have blamed me for not listening, and would have hung up. Then my father and other family members would have called to instruct me to handle the situation better. They would have asked me how I would feel if something happened to her.
So, I hopelessly explained and justified my choices and my rough plans for the future, like I had millions of other times.
To help you zoom in on my story, let me turn the wheel of time eight years back to 2010.
When I graduated, my parents didn’t attend my graduation ceremony with an expensive, red bridal lehenga clutched under their armpits, like most the other Indian parents. But the peace wasn’t too stretched out. In a few years, though I don’t remember the first origins, the marriage dinosaur started popping up whenever they saw someone else getting married in reality or on TV. Or when the my age flashed in front of their eyes via something completely unrelated. Or when we hadn’t talked about marriage for a few days. Or when my married siblings or I went home.
The silence of a stark Thar-like night, which was intensified with the tick-tock of the peacock wall clock, creased eyebrows, two pairs of wide eyes zoomed in on me, and not a smile to be seen until far-far away were the backdrop of the impending “when-will-you-marry” and “how-will-this-happen” conversation.
The first year, maybe 2012 or 2013, I said that I was too young and that we would talk about marriage the next year. I was twenty-five and switching careers and jobs. Having said that the topic should be out in the open, they obliged to my request, though the conversation still sprouted up a few times. But then they focused more on stopping me from opening a rustic pizza place or going to Italy for a culinary course and pushing me towards a corporate job.
I accepted a high-end job in an investment bank and settled in Bengaluru until I figured out the rest. I turned twenty-seven after a couple of months of joining the formally dressed, number-crunching workforce. Also, I started to fall in love with a three-year-younger guy. As soon as I entered the corporate army, the parents decided to fight the devil-against-marriage in me.
My live-in ex-boyfriend and I would be watching the Avengers on a bright Saturday afternoon when a distressed call from papa and mummy would throw us off-balance. Soon, instead of enjoying Robert Downey’s Elon-Musk-like style, I would think about the seven rounds around the raging fire. Now what we are all forgetting in this hunky-dory picture is the consensus of the ‘boy’.
The “right marriageable age” in Indian society for women is 22 to 28 and for men is 24 to 30. He still had a marriageable window of about five years, which he treated as a privilege, like many other Indian men. He said he didn’t want to get married. “I can’t think about marriage,” “I am too young,” “you can’t force me,” and “you decide what you want to do” were regular dinner table conversations. We shouldn’t blame him. You cannot force someone if he or she is not ready.
I wasn’t prepared myself. But amidst all the emotional over-hype about marriage at home, it seemed wrong to not want to get married. And that boy was what I had the closest to make myself believe that I wanted to get married and I could get married soon.
Being an over-optimistic person, I maintained hope in the relationship, haggled with my parents for more time, dreaded visiting home, and flirted with the corporate-ness of life.
The haggling tightened; the relationship stifled. In my mind, my life was staged with the backdrop of a spacious independent house with pink bougainvilleas hanging off the balcony, a vegetable garden, a husband who loved chicken, my innovative, flavourful kitchen, and frequent road trips. But real life never plays out like the movie on-screen. My ex still wasn’t sure. My parents and brother had filled my bio-data on a matrimonial website.
I was in love, but I was not blind. Marriage wasn’t the problem; the relationship had wider gaps. Rather than bridging them or concluding that they might not be fixable, I tried to whirl that relationship in the direction of marriage or at least a joint future.
I now know that I never wanted to marry the guy. He was just my scapegoat, for else I would have had to find a new groom soon. The more I was pressured by my parents, the more I tried to construct the walls of a home around that guy, and thus pushed him away even further. He moved out. After what seemed like an era and many fall-offs, we broke up. I focused on my passion for writing and traveling and decided to go to South America.
Hell broke loose. The tears of my mother could have filled the Indian ocean. My father strongly expressed his disappointment with my decision and asked how I would get married if I went to South America.
That’s when they advertised in the matrimony newspaper — a groom wanted for a Hindu Agarwal girl, IIT Delhi CS, 28, 5.6.
While I waited at the Mumbai airport browsing through the biodata of half-bald investment bankers that I had received, my mother lectured that I was running away from the family, that I was making a mistake, and asked me why I didn’t like any of the homely-valued Agarwal boys residing in joint families in Delhi and NCR.
While enjoying island life in Chile, I fake-approved some of the matrimonial men to peace-out my parents. My father insisted on talking to some men whose biodata I had rejected because of their receding hairlines. He said that all men lose their hair by thirty; he has been ready to marry me to anyone for a few years now.
I gaped. I cried. I dream of a man who had Malinga-like hair. I have nothing against the Shane Warne’s, but it is just my choice in men.
While this tug-of-war went on for six months, the teach-English volunteer program that I had gone for ended. As I informed my parents that I had decided to stay on in South America, even the inactive Latin-American volcanoes erupted.
My mother’s nagging, weeping, blaming, and shouting suffocated me so much that I thought of getting married to end the drama; I didn’t care if I had to divorce the guy later. As I backpacked through the driest desert Atacama, I paid and registered on a matrimonial website while I sought suitable men around me. But even that train-of-thought derailed when an Indian-American ‘suitor’ told me over the phone that he didn’t want to change though he spent all his money by the middle of the month. There were more like him.
My South-American friends promised that they would find me a Latino man and make me stay there. But I was forced to return to India; otherwise the emotional abuse by my parents would have given me a brain tumour. And as per my sister, I was to blame if something happened to our high-blood-pressured mother; a Latino son-in-law was pushing the limits.
If you think that this is just my story and that I have been selectively unlucky, you are a little bit right. But as Indians know, this is what our youth goes through, with everyone’s version of South-American trips and writing dreams.
The concepts of arranged marriages and “getting-married-at-an-appropriate-age” and that “there-is-no-life-without-marriage” have flourished within the Indian culture for thousands of years. In earlier times, girls and boys stayed at home and were kept away from each other. We didn’t have a dating culture, and parents were the only way to find a life partner.
But no one understands that in this social-media world where we all go out, work, and socialize, we don’t need our parents to ask around for a life partner. That marriage is a part of life and not vice-versa. That love doesn’t have to be approved legally or by society. That if you have to break off, you would — even after getting married. That age is only a number. And you are as old as you think you are.
We don’t have the option to stay single or live-in. We cannot take our relationships slow. Because until they don’t materialize into marriage, they don’t hold any value to Indian parents. Getting married should be our ultimate and only goal. The cherry on the ice cream is that we have to marry within the same caste and the same sub-caste and keep in mind the states we hail from and the educational, economic, and age differences and even physical features, sometimes.
So, even though we are 1.2 billion people, we always struggle to find someone who could be approved by our parents. Some of us ignore these checklist items and go out with anyone we like. While couples of the world look forward to moving-in or traveling together, we Indians plan to break up as we have to get married soon but we can’t get married to the boyfriend or the girlfriend. Then why do we go out with those people in the first place? No, we are not idiots. In India, only an immortal god such as Thor can wait for an ‘appropriate’ match and find one in his lifetime.
Many male and female acquaintances acknowledged their mutual romantic interests but backed off due to the expected family drama. A lot of Indian men, a.k.a mamma’s boys, told their many-year girlfriends that they could not go against the wishes of their parents. Maybe, there are such women too; luckily, I don’t know any. If they hadn’t backed-off and had fought for their ‘inappropriate would-be partner’, their emotionally blackmailing parents would have threatened to disown them; and they do. A funeral-like aura envelopes the happy moments of the couple. Let us not dig the deep dirty holes of honour killings.
If you do find someone ‘appropriate’, you are not given enough time to enjoy or understand the relationship before the wedding drums beat up.
To delay all this for a few years, many of us persuade ourselves to do an expensive MBA, an MS, or join a multinational firm and go to the US. These fake education-enthusiasts then find love on matrimonial websites or back in the bay-area or while attending semantics lectures in Berkeley. And tie the knot as soon as they complete graduation.
In the end — willingly or unwillingly — almost all of us get married.
As most of the married Indian people never even thought of an alternate life, how do they know if marriage was what they wanted?
I told my parents that I would get married, would find someone on my own, and asked for some more time. No newspaper advertisement has been given since then. I am not against meeting men on matrimonial websites, but after the limited exposure I have had on them — I know they aren’t my cup of tea. The conversations on these sites start with your views on marriage and if you are a teetotaller. I still prefer the old style of meeting someone naturally and falling in love and then making it work.
But this personal choice comes at its own cost.
At the end of every few long days of writing and editing, I have prolonged, agonising conversations with my parents. My mother asks if I would wear the obstacle-removing taweej (amulet) that our family pundit has suggested. I laugh.
While she peeks into my Whatsapp, I hide away my love life as the pressure to get married would over-boil any still-simmering relationship. To fulfill this eternal, forced need to find a husband, I tell every guy I date that marriage is an integral pass-over if we take our relationship forward. That if I never marry, my parents wouldn’t be happy; and that might be the only reason for me to get married.
The bright skyline of the years of my struggle is that I have started doing what I feel right — even if I have to defy the whole world and my closest people. I allow myself to love. I stand up for it. I bend the rules. I break hearts to do the right thing.
And nothing has taken my faith away. Nothing has taken my faith away.
All images via Unsplash
First published here.
Priyanka Gupta is an itinerant writer, a travel blogger, and a poet at heart. She
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