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Aparna quickly became an extremely polarised personality. Even I who completely identified with her, understood why her existence would shake up the vital pillar of casteism and patriarchy: Arranged Marriage and that made her dangerous.
There’s a scene in the 1997 film Aastha by Basu Bhattacharya, where the character of Reena, (Daisy Irani) tells Mansi (Rekha) to not miss any opportunity, and “grab at all chances of happiness with both hands.” Mansi looks at her in great wonder and exclaims that she (Reena) “sounds exactly like a man!”
I will come back to this later.
I watched the docu-series Indian Matchmaking when it was released in 2020. It was sharp and witty and drew attention to all things wrong about the caste and class endogamy that is the Indian Arranged marriage market. But what one didn’t expect was to find the rare diamond in Aparna Shewakramani amongst all the lumps of coal.
Aparna, 34 then, is a lawyer, confident, self-assured, outspoken and so completely unexpected a figure in an Indian set up let alone a documentary on arranged marriages, featuring a face reading, horoscopes and a matchmaker who clearly hates Aparna. Negative, picky, choosy, greedy, adamant, stubborn were some of the adjectives thrown at Aparna. It became clear very early on that someone like Aparna would be the arch nemesis of the arranged marriage setup.
Consider these lines spoken by Aparna, “Oh, do we have to see our husbands all the time (that we are married to them)?”
I burst out laughing. Aparna was turning the tables on patriarchy. Every ball and chain wife joke cracked by every uncle on WA groups was finding its counterpoint in Aparna’s disingenuous and tongue-in-cheek humour and it was making the uncles and the matchmakers of the world extremely uncomfortable. Aparna quickly became an extremely polarised personality. Even I who completely identified with her, understood why her existence would shake up the vital pillar of casteism and patriarchy: Arranged Marriage and that made her dangerous.
The matchmaker, Sima Taparia, was equal parts horrified and befuddled. She couldn’t understand Jotika, Aparna’s strong-willed mother, who should have been the matchmaker’s staunchest allies, but instead calls one of the suitors fixed by the matchmaker a ‘Loser’ much to the matchmaker’s chagrin.
In her world it’s not the bride’s family who can dare to make such comments.
The ‘face reader’ / astrologer chap even assures the matchmaker that the kind of partner who Aparna will marry will be someone who will be okay with being beaten up by her, equating a strong woman to a violent shrew.
And so I was curious to see what Shewakramani’s book, She’s Unlikeable And Other Lies That Bring Women Down would be like, coming in the wake of the furore she created with her role in the series and just as news of the series’ second season begins to do rounds.
As I read the un-humble recounting of her vast and varied education, her obstinacy at going after the things that she desired, managing a chronic illness, her bloodline of strong women- her mother who migrated to the US with her two small daughters as a single mother, her fierce grandmother who travelled alone to the UK, determined to provide her son with a first class British education, I smiled.
The dialogue of Rekha’s from the film Aastha came to mind.
Shewakramani speaks in an unhurried tone of someone so self-assured, that one has only seen this quality in men prior to this. And this makes me both sad and happy at the same time.
How sad it is that the same qualities that we deem ‘positive’ in a man are considered negative, rude, picky, stubborn in a woman. How tragic that whenever there’s a woman who speaks her mind, exhibits no coyness or fake humility, we immediately qualify these qualities as masculine ones. Even women, with our millenia long conditioning, find these qualities hard to digest in another woman. It’s no surprise that the matchmaker had little or no kind words for Aparna or her family. Difficult-negative-difficult-negative was her constant refrain.
The biggest shock for Shewakramani, as she writes, was the amount of hate she received from both men and women. And even a death threat. The worst is that many of the things Shewakramani said on the show were funny, and in a man they would have got praise and a fan following.
As confident as she begins the book, Shewakramani becomes less certain. She takes great pains to explain why she a strong, assertive feminist would seek marriage or a partner or even participate in a matchmaking show.
“The feminist in me cringed at my own desire for this very ‘traditional’ reason…”
“I had to come to terms with the fact that I have to do this alone. I had to plan my whole life around the prospect that I would potentially never have a partner.”
“My friends told me their husbands were their biggest cheerleaders. They were after all a unit. Hearing this I had honestly never felt lonelier.”
Sometimes as feminists it is extremely hard for us to admit that we too need love and support. Our conditioning of cis het romance, the logical end of which is marriage, is a very hard one to erase. And even though marriage is the exact patriarchal pillar many of us wish to dismantle, it doesn’t make us feel less lonelier.
As cis het women, whom can we seek as a partner other than our peak oppressor, the cis het man? Feminists are a reviled lot, and single feminists even more so. Is this world a safe space for a single woman?Aparna received so much hate and even a death threat for merely being articulate.
Marriage offers a physical and emotional sanctuary and it also protects us from the onslaught of the world that fears and hates the women who don’t conform. As Indian women, the only time we are allowed to express our sexuality is within those respectable confines. And so it’s understandable that even someone as bright as Aparna would be drawn to marriage and all its trappings.
“…Misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred toward women- instead, it’s about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t.”
Towards the close of the series, in her sneakiest move of all, the matchmaker sends a ‘kindly’ astrologer to meet Aparna and advise her to ‘calm her fire’. He suggests she wear a gemstone on a particular finger as a therapeutic measure against her own self. Indeed, Aparna looks more docile and willing to listen, which seems to satisfy the matchmaker greatly. This broke my heart utterly, because there were just too many forces that a vulnerable woman was fighting, who just wanted to be loved at the end of the day.
“…I understood that your partner could amplify your strength to make these huge life moves, figuratively and literally…the lesson I had to learn was clear. Of course, I wanted a partner, but I had to learn how to live my life without any reliance on one. This was about independence. This was about belief in my own strength and capacity to survive. Nay, to thrive. I could do it alone.”
Today, two years hence, Aparna Shewakramani remains single, unshaken in her demand of a partner who would match her exacting standards. Whether partnered or unencumbered, I do know that Aparna would thrive.
Be Like Aparna, women, do not settle/ adjust/ compromise. Raise the standards so high that the world has no choice but to rise to meet them.
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Hema Gopinathan left a blight of a corporate career to homeschool her two children. A teacher trained in the Waldorf/ Rudolf Steiner pedagogy, a writer, an artist, a crocheter, Hema spends half her time in read more...
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As he stood in front of his door, Nishant prayed that his wife would be in a better mood. The baby thing was tearing them apart. When was the last time he had seen his wife smile?
Veena got into the lift. It was a festival day, and the space was crammed with little children dressed in bright yellow clothes, wearing fancy peacock feather crowns, and carrying flutes. Janmashtami gave her the jitters. She kept her face down, refusing to socialize with anyone.
They had moved to this new apartment three months ago. The whole point of shifting had been to get away from the ruthless questioning by ‘well-wishers’.
“You have been married for ten years! Why no child yet?”
I huffed, puffed and panted up the hill, taking many rest breaks along the way. My calf muscles pained, my heart protested, and my breathing became heavy at one stage.
“Let’s turn back,” my husband remarked. We stood at the foot of Shravanbelagola – one of the most revered Jain pilgrimage centres. “We will not climb the hill,” he continued.
My husband and I were vacationing in Karnataka. It was the month of May, and even at the early hour of 8 am in the morning, the sun scorched our backs. After visiting Bangalore and Mysore, we had made a planned stop at this holy site in the Southern part of the state en route to Hosur. Even while planning our vacation, my husband was very excited at the prospect of visiting this place and the 18 m high statue of Lord Gometeshwara, considered one of the world’s tallest free-standing monolithic statues.
What we hadn’t bargained for was there would be 1001 granite steps that needed to be climbed to have a close-up view of this colossal magic three thousand feet above sea level on a hilltop. It would be an understatement to term it as an arduous climb.
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