I finally said yes to a proposal at the age of 29, as my patriarchal conditioning made me feel I was a failure if I didn’t get married by the age of 30.
After a long time, I watched a show on Netflix – Indian Matchmaking. This post is not a review or critique of it (enough about that already) but the memories and thoughts that it triggered in me.
I had been through this arranged matchmaking circus in my 20s. The proposals started coming when I turned 21-22.
In those times (early 2000s) people didn’t really register on matrimonial sites. There were always people who were interested in matchmaking, like Sima aunty on the Netflix show. So all the proposals would come through someone or the other who would tell the boy’s family about mine. Then the boy’s family would contact my dad and would ask for a time and day to meet.
I hated this system. I remember the first time I noticed matrimonial ads in the newspaper. I was all of 10 years old but I still remember feeling horrified and thinking to myself, at that age, ”who would get married like this?!” It seemed so clinical and depressing!
And here I was, at 20, facing the same fate. I remember that no matter who I crushed on, I couldn’t imagine living a life with them. I wondered if something was wrong with me. In none of my love relationships was I able to think about living a lifetime with that person. I always chickened out when it came to marriage. Maybe the karma of broken hearts followed me later.
The only other option it seemed was an arranged marriage. What if I found my person through it?
Although there was a niggling voice in my head that said ”my person” would not be the type that looked for me through an arranged match. I had high hopes of having a ”love” marriage like my parents did, but since I wasn’t finding ”my guy” anywhere in college or at work, I thought what if he came about like this?
This idiotic self-doubt, not being able to stick to my values and intuition, would be the #1 reason my life later fell off track. Never ever distrust what your heart tells you!
After the first ‘pennu kaanal’ (‘’girl-seeing ceremony’’ in Malayalam), I told my dad that I felt like a goat being taken for slaughter. But I remember my dad telling me, “But which boy can say no to you?!” Ah, the blind and naive love of a father!
I had my first “pennu kaanal” at the age of 21. The boy was a dentist, just a few years older than me. He came to see me with his mother, younger brother and sister, and father was abroad. We met at the Mahe family house. We never got a chance to talk one-on-one, somehow. His family and my parents were always around us. I took them to the back of our house, showed them the Arabian Sea and Mahe river, like a tour guide, spoke a bit about this and that, and they left.
I told my parents no and was 100% sure the boy also would say no. After all there was no ”chemistry” between us and we hardly even talked to each other!
I only had a feeling that this was not the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. The feeling that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life playing housewife with kids in a small town even though I only dreamt of a romantic family life. That I still wanted to do more with my life but I had no idea what.
My grandfather and both my parents are doctors and my family is full of academicians or professionals. I was reminded me that “I was only a graduate” (so I had to be humble?) and my grandmother said that “but all the boys want engineer or doctor girls now and you are only a graduate”.
My heart sank. I wondered, does my lack of a higher education rob me of the right to say no to a boy who is more educated than me even if I don’t like him?
Then the boy’s family called in the evening and his mother said they all liked me. Their answer was yes! I froze again. I told my dad no, absolutely not. But the boy’s family invited my family to visit their home. My grand-uncle came back raving about their large mansion and all that I needed for a comfortable life. But these were not the things that impressed me. Was I a spoilt brat for wanting more, non-tangible, non-material things? Definitely that was something that my dad would hear a lot later. That he was ”pampering” me and spoiling me and that’s why I was saying no all the time!
Anyway, my dad stood up for me and let this go. He continued to do that for every proposal that came my way that I said no to, for reasons ranging from the boy being a smoker to working in Afghanistan, even when others thought my reasons were outrageous. He always went by my wishes but finally, when I turned 29, he lost his patience.
I think society and patriarchal conditioning is so insidious that it got to my dad and to me when I had just one more year to turn 30. My dad refused to listen to my vague arguments anymore. I can’t blame him. All I could say was the same old “it doesn’t feel right”.
But I had nothing else to back it up with. No fancy education or career as an excuse. Yes, I had worked from the time I was out of college, first as an editor and then as a trainer in a startup in Technopark, one of the first IT parks in India, but to everyone, it was just a ”timepass” until I got married.
Long story short, I said yes to a proposal at the age of 29. I had really started feeling I was a failure if I didn’t get married by the age of 30. Everywhere I went, all that people had to ask was about my marriage!
I finally said yes, with the blind belief that what has to happen will happen and it was for the best. Met him just once, spoke a few minutes, then met him 2 months later on the wedding day. I was so numb that I felt like I was floating above my body on that day. I smiled and nodded and was polite and the docile bride.
At the reception, my dad pulled me aside and told me not to dance ”too much” because I was the bride and everyone would be noticing how I behaved. He praised my cooking skills to everyone but I was heartbroken he never once said a word about my writing, which he had always been so proud of and so supportive about, ever since I wrote my first story at 8 and first poem at 12. And still all he had to say to my in-laws was that I was a good cook? That hurt. But then I understood, this is what society expects from a woman. This is the sign of a potential good wife. My dad was playing by the rules. But how I wish he hadn’t!
By then, I had given up hope on ever finding what I was looking for in life. I convinced myself it did not exist. It seemed so elusive, so hopeless, and 30 seemed the end of the world for women anyway!
Long story short, I left my marriage, with my son in tow, in 2014. There was no dowry harassment (there is no dowry in our Thiyya community in Malabar anyway), no domestic abuse, no violence, no infidelity, no financial problems. But there was also no empathy, no chemistry, no companionship (both ways) and a lot of patriarchal expectations to adjust and compromise even more than what I was already doing.
Throughout my marriage, my dad has patched us up innumerable times. Taken us to marriage counseling. Talked with him and with me. But in 2014, August, when I called my dad from my husband’s house, crying on the phone after yet another raging fight, and told him I can’t stay there anymore, he never asked me the reason again. All he said was, “Come back home”.
I did not want to live with my parents when I walked out of my marriage because my fundamental belief is that adults should NOT live with their parents. Also, if I had lived with them, they would have babied me and pampered me so much that I would not know how to be an adult.
This is a very controversial opinion in a country like India, I know. I will look after my parents, and even my in-laws, but I still want a home of my own. I can live near them but not with them, no matter how much I love them. It can be one floor above or in the next-door flat or house but I need my own space, even in my old age. This is one reason why I know that I won’t be an ideal daughter-in-law or wife in India, seeing that marriages are more between families than individuals and women are just expected to live in joint families. No can do for me.
It took me 6 years to make up my mind that this is the right decision for both of us. It was doubly difficult for me because if I had not walked out, I am 100% sure he would have had no problems continuing in that empty shell of a marriage and we would one day be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary! It was only after 4 years of living separately, when he finally said, why continue like this, let’s divorce, that the weight of the guilt fell off my shoulders.
My parents did not pressurize me to patch up after 2014. It took me 6 years of living separately, in a rented apartment on my own with my son, to be able to navigate through my own guilt, insecurity, and fears to finally file for a divorce by mutual consent this year.
I think I have given my dad enough grief and guilt and regret for not listening to me this one time when I said I didn’t want to marry. We had enough fights over this. It’s the only thing I feel guilty about now that he is no more (he passed away just 2 weeks before my writing this). It did not in any way dilute the love between us though.
Last year I told my dad that it was juvenile of me to hold him responsible for how my marriage turned out. It was on me, not on him. It taught me certain lessons about myself and my life and I don’t think it could have been different.
I will be getting my divorce finalized this month. I only regret that my dad did not get to see that I got the closure that I wanted. Though he knew I was on the path to getting a divorce, when I finally filed for it, I did not tell him because he was going through his chemotherapy treatments and all. So I thought I would tell him when I got it finally in June. Then the lockdown happened and the case got postponed to July. I got the new date exactly one week after my dad passed away.
You don’t need to know ”the next steps” or exactly what will happen or how things will work out. Sometimes you just have to take the leap and hope there will be a net to catch you by the time you land. My biggest fear was whether I would be able to financially sustain myself without depending on my family or ex. Anytime I talked about alimony, he threatened a long court battle, by the end of which I just agreed to a monthly maintenance till Riyaan is 18 and his fees being paid until his PG.
When I was growing up, aside from having a vague idea that I wanted to do some meaningful things with my life, I had no idea what it was. More than anything, all I wanted was love and a happy family life. This led to my not being very career-focused which was a huge setback later.
I have no one to blame for my lack of career ambitions because I grew up being fully supported to study as much as I wanted to by my parents. I have a doctor mom, a family full of women who have careers, and which never discriminated against girls wanting higher education or careers, as my cousins can testify to. This was my own undoing.
So when you ask me if women should fight for alimony when we also fight for equal rights, I would say it helps to level the playing field because sometimes the patriarchal conditioning, even if not from family, but from the culture at large, is so bad that women don’t have access to equal resources as men do. So when they leave a marriage, especially if they haven’t worked for years and have solely concentrated on the family, they do deserve to get some support. However, as in my case, you can live on ”a wing and prayer” as Bon Jovi famously sang and get away with it!
In these 6 years, I have been able to make an independent living with my writing alone, by some miracle I cannot explain, without anyone’s recommendations or influence. First with a client from a job portal, then a client from a writer whose creative workshop I attended, then word of mouth from one client to another. Then 2 years ago I got my first full time job in a leading fintech company in the content and brand marketing team. All with a degree in Zoology!
I still don’t know what will happen to me in future, how I will sustain myself financially, if I will ever be able to afford a roof over my head, a car of my own. I had all these things before, never had to worry or think about making a living when I was married, or even when I was single with my parents, but now I have to. Still, I would rather be stressed and single than stressed and married. I wouldn’t trade this life for that life, no matter what. So don’t let your fears decide your life choices!
Marriage is a hugely patriarchal construct that is only necessary in a world that is unequal for women. Unfortunately, our social and legal systems are set up to only benefit married couples. This is why even people in the LGBTQ community, who have the courage to go against the norm, still fight for the right to get married. Believe me, I often look at them and wonder why the hell do they want to get married?
If you have someone you love and who loves you, isn’t that enough? Of course, when children get involved, you would want to safeguard their interests, but that is something that you should be able to work out between yourselves.
Do you think that marriage guarantees loyalty or commitment? People often want to get married to their lovers in order to bind them for life, so they can’t run at the first instance. But if someone wants to run, why the hell do you want to stop them in the first place, no matter how much you love them? Isn’t it better for them and for you to leave?
Then the arguments are that society would devolve into a mess if people kept changing partners on a lark, that children would not get any stability, that it would ”become like the west”, that Indian culture is so strong precisely because people get married and can’t leave each other.
Oh please. You think that all the marriages you see are stable, loyal, and healthy?
If you do meet someone you want to bond with for life, then would it matter if you are married or not? Of course, by all means get married, but not getting married also does not mean you are less committed to a life together.
In the episode of Indian Matchmaking with that beautiful Punjabi divorcee Rupam, Sima aunty tells her that because she is divorced with a child, she has to compromise when looking for a husband as she has less choices than an unmarried woman.
Basically what Sima aunty is saying is that if you do meet a man who wants to marry you even though you are a divorced woman with a child, then you better throw your ”preferences” out the window and just thank your stars he deigned to marry you and say yes.
No thank you, Sima aunty. Even if Prince Charming came my way now, I will say no to being a wife and daughter-in-law in this messed up Indian culture. If he is willing to walk along with me and my son as my equal and I love him as much as he loves us, I might say yes, but he will be as lucky to have me as his partner as I will be to have him! But if not, I will be perfectly happy living and dying by myself!
For God’s sake, marriage is not the be-all and end-all of life. Better your child be happy and single than married and miserable.
Get to know the person you’re agreeing to marry
Never ever marry a stranger even if your families match, horoscopes match, backgrounds match, caste or religion match.
Know and love yourself first
Know yourself inside out. Be comfortable with yourself enough to be ready to live life alone and die alone, if need be. If you do meet someone you want to live the rest of your life with, that would be great, but it should not be mandatory for your happiness.
Ladies, be financially aware and financially independent. Learn how to spend, how to save, how to grow your money. Do not ever depend on anyone for this.
Better to separate than fight in front of kids
Peaceful co-parenting is any day better for your child than toxic joint parenting. You don’t need to be together under one roof to provide your child with a happy home and a stable upbringing.
Children can easily sense the dynamics between parents. Children get more f*ked up when parents are always fighting or not even talking to each other than if they live separately but are happy independently.
If your marriage is broken but you don’t want to divorce for the sake of your kids, don’t think that it is enough if you don’t fight in front of them. If you think not talking to each other maintains ”the peace” you are mistaken. That kind of passive aggressive silent treatment between parents can do as much damage to the child as constant fighting.
So if you are going to be together, then take yourselves to a counselor or therapist or whoever and try to heal your marriage and then only continue. You can’t fool children for long.
”Fights” or arguments are normal in any marriage. I have seen enough between my parents in their 44-year marriage. It is healthy and it is necessary. But whether I was a child or an adult, till the time my dad breathed his last, I could sense the deep love and fondness that my parents had for each other. If you don’t even LIKE your partner, what is the meaning of a marriage?
Author’s note: Anyone wondering why I am sharing such a personal story so publicly, it is because for most of my life, I felt there was something to be ashamed of in me-first because I was unmarried and then because I was separated. Now I am getting divorced and I am so done with this feeling. I know there’s a stigma around women who are unmarried, divorced, separated, independent, bold, outspoken, free, what not. And I am done with it.
So this is me being visible, reclaiming myself and my space in this world, with my head held high. This is me saying I am good, I am worth it, and there’s nothing wrong with me, nothing to be ashamed of, no matter what others say or think!
Image source: a still from the film Thappad
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Karishma has been writing short stories since she was 8 and poetry since she was
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