Recently a very brave friend of mine decided to have a baby. This in itself, is something that I think of as extremely brave. Taking responsibility for a new human life and all that. She did something else alongside which made this braver in my eyes. She and her partner decided not to get married, and not even to pretend like they were married.
And so this post is dedicated to her. And others like her who have decided to go against the tide of our increasingly intolerant society and create a family on their own terms and in ways which don’t conform with societal expectations.
They did what I couldn’t do for reasons of cowardice*, sentimentality and practicality.
This brave friend wrote a funny, intelligent and delightfully experiential account of her decision, some of its consequences, confusions and the rationale behind her decision. Her account was reprinted on Firstpost and gathered a lot of trolls. And this is part of why I write this. This attempt to make sense of my own confusions surrounding marriage is my way of showing my solidarity and trying to counter the pointless anger and hatred I see directed at her and others like her.
Many people have written about the harassment women face on the internet, the downright violent misogyny of it. And I don’t want to repeat their arguments, inadequately summarized and mediated through my understanding of them. I also know the cardinal rule about the internet and trolls – Don’t feed the trolls. So I’m not going to. Much as I want to scream my frustration at the blind hatred and inability to read and engage with her thoughtful essay displayed in the comments section, I’m not going to rant here. Instead, I’m going to respond to this disturbing anger in the best way I know how. Add my voice, my two bits worth from my own experience to voices like hers. Here goes.
As someone who is deeply uncomfortable with marriage as an institution, but got married all the same, I want to talk about my discomfort with marriage.
I grew up proud. Proud of something that was not my achievement, as many of us are. I grew up, taking pride in the fact that my parents had married for love, that they had had a ‘marriage of choice’ rather than an arranged marriage. And so marriage was always a rosy-tinted ideal of true love and commitment, the foundation stone of a happy family, to my mind. Any violence, abuse or exploitation I heard of in marriages, I dismissed as an aberration from this romantic ideal.
It was only when I came to college that I began to have trouble with the idea of marriage. Living in the hostel during my time as an undergraduate student, I noticed that many of my seniors were concerned with marriage as an inevitable part of their lives. For most of them, this was not a relationship they were entering into so much as the end they had been preparing for all their lives. This troubled me. The fact that marriage seemed to be compulsory for women in a way which limited their ambitions.
Later, as a relationship I had entered into rather lightheartedly became deeper, I questioned marriage as a religious institution. My partner was not Christian, and as I had always believed that God was not so narrow minded and insecure as to damn people for not conceiving of him in the Judaeo-Christian tradition of thought, I began to wonder whether he (God – though he was genderless in my imagination) would mind if I married this man without his sanction via the church.
As a feminist, newly come to research, I questioned marriage as it was legislated upon in India with its deliberate insertion of a clause exempting husbands from the crime of rape if they raped their wives and as an exclusively heterosexual union.
Even later, as I explored my attraction to women, and my partner and I questioned monogamy as the only means of experiencing romantic-sexual love and companionship, I became increasingly uncomfortable with marriage.
And today as polyamorous and queer, I find marriage an impoverished institution. Impoverished as a result of its history of being used to control women’s sexuality and reproductive labour. Impoverished as a result of its use in maintaining caste and class. Impoverished as the only legitimate expression of sexual love and indeed sexuality.
I am often ashamed at my own cowardice in choosing marriage – the easy way out. No more lying to family about living arrangements, no more need to be defensive around neighbours and house-owners… no more worries when we travel together, about authorities who threaten to call parents. Some things have become simpler. I deeply resent that it took entering into a patriarchal heteronormative institution to do away with these problems.
In itself, as a commitment and an affirmation of love, I have nothing against marriage. But as it exists today, a coercive institution cementing heteronormativity and entrenching boundaries of religion and caste, I cannot reconcile myself to it. And I wish I could have remained outside its ambit.
I chose not to, of course. I didn’t want to hurt my parents any more than I had. Somewhere, deep down, in a place at odds with the principles I hold, I wanted to walk down an aisle. And someday my primary partner and I want to adopt babies together. So we did it.
We signed the paper, tied the thaali and walked down the aisle. I did my best to make the blessing ceremony sound queer-inclusive, as a sop to my conscience and to keep the expenses to my parents down (though I did not succeed on that front).
I am very proud to be part of both a legal (the Special Marriage Act) and religious (the Blessing Ceremony of a Civil marriage) practice that seeks to be accepting of, and celebrate love outside the boundaries of religion… but I am still deeply uncomfortable, passing as straight and monogamous and being tacitly part of the coercive societal edifice of marriage.
My apologies if this has become a self-involved justificatory monologue. I did not intend that, but it may have happened anyway.
I only wanted to add my voice to those challenging institutions like marriage or at least complicating the notion of marriage and asserting our right to form relationships and families in alternative ways. In my own – perhaps cowardly – way, I too try to challenge some aspects of marriage. Monogamy and biological parenthood are my sites of protest. And perhaps reformulating marriage from within the institution may be valuable. Who knows?
And yes, perhaps some of our formulations of relationships and family won’t last through our lifetimes and the stories of such ‘failure’ will be greedily grasped by those trying to discredit such attempts… but perhaps lasting a lifetime need not be the sole measure of ‘success’, whatever that is, in relationships. That need not undermine the fact that some try, daily, to write new scripts, to clear new paths and in the trying perhaps, create something that celebrates and expresses our particular loves… which is the best we can do, for ourselves, for each other, for our children and future children and for society at large, pushing it to accept more. One live-in relationship, queer partnership, unmarried parent, polyamorous relationship and so on, at a time.
So here’s to my brave friend and her new baby daughter. She will be loved, whether her parents remain together forever or not. She will be raised with love and strength.
Here’s to my other brave friend who told her parents she was living with her partner and does not intend to marry him.
Here’s to those negotiating jealousy and the intoxication of love whenever and wherever it appears.
Here’s to the others, coming out to their families about their sexual preferences, gender identity or even their desire not to quit their PhDs and marry.
Here’s to the ever-new margins of society as they challenge respectability.
* This is not all bad, in my book. Cowards die a thousand deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once, says Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I always** thought that sounded sensible and circumspect of the cowards. They clearly imagined several deaths, the dangerous outcomes of their actions and avoided these deaths by avoiding those actions. Clearly an intelligent and sensible way to approach life, as opposed to the possibly more noble but ultimately foolhardy, fatal acts of the valiant.
No, I am not calling my brave friend foolish. Go back and read the post. This footnote is a pointless aside, reflecting on the survival value of cowardice. Nothing else.
** Okay, fine. It was my father who first expressed this idea to me.