Beaming like a newly wed bride, Gargi eagerly shows me around her 1BK apartment in Model Town, New Delhi. The small apartment is decorated with black and white pictures of her and her partner Sree. Carefully tended money plants are blooming in wine bottles. Sree plays with a small kitten on the zebra-print futon. It is nuptial heaven in this small apartment, except Gargi and Sree never want to get married. They have been “living in” for the past 14 months.
When I ask Gargi about her thoughts on marriage, she grimaces. “I don’t believe in marriage. Marriage stagnates. It slows you down. I believe in living life in small installments.” Sree adds, “We believe in living life light. Marriage makes things so heavy. This is much simpler. Who wants to bear the brunt of eventual marriage, eventual in-laws, eventual children, eventual grief?”
Gargi and Sree, who have been ‘living in’ for 14 months, don’t believe in marriage. “It makes things so heavy,” says Gargi
Gargi, 26, is a lecturer at St Stephen’s College and Sree, 27, is finishing his PhD at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “For the past six years we have practically been living together in Sree’s hostel room. Getting an apartment together was the natural next step. We give each other a lot of space because we know that people have a high propensity of each taking over the other’s life. We don’t want that.”How was their “live-in” relationship viewed by their community?
“It was a little problematic in the beginning. Most realtors immediately denied us when they found out we were not married. There was communal dissent,” says Sree. “But now our place is party-central, all our friends are following suit,” quips Gargi.
As for parents, Sree shrugs. “Her parents are cool. They know she is a career-oriented woman and they have always respected her decisions. I don’t talk to my parents about my personal life. And they don’t ask.” The notion that the best marriages are those that bring satisfaction to the individual may seem counterintuitive. After all, isn’t marriage supposed to be about putting the relationship first?
Not anymore. For centuries, marriage was viewed as an economic and social institution, and the emotional and intellectual needs of the spouses were secondary to the survival of the marriage itself. But in modern relationships, people are looking for a true partnership, and they want partners who make their lives more interesting. Burgeoning divorce rates all over the country are supporting the flagging marital ideal as people today question the concept of wedlock.
Young Indians are looking for new models of relationships, such as “live-in” relationships and “open” relationships where each individual looks for self-expansion and expression. The traditional relationship-makers: security, trust, acceptance are simply not enough and marriage is no longer the end-all and be-all of all relationships. People are pausing to consider – how well does marriage actually work?
Sociology professor Renuka Singh plans to remain single
“People are moving away from socialisation to individuation,” comments Renuka Singh, a professor of sociology at JNU and author of a forthcoming book on relationships. This means that individuals are opting for relationships that are emotionally satisfying and inspiring as opposed to those which are deemed appropriate by religion or community. Singh says, “This shift has occurred because women have become economically stronger, which has led to a change in aspirations. Women feel whole through education and work, they don’t need a marriage to make them happy.”
Singh, who has chosen to remain single, adds, “Women today are more assertive, more self-aware, more in tune with their bodies. There is an increasing tension between motherhood and the concept of eroticism that is unhinging the traditional concept of marriage.”
Shammi and Suganda were married at 21 after being introduced to each other by their parents and agreeing to marry after one meeting. Ten years later they have come to a mutual understanding of an “open marriage.”
I speak to Suganda at her apartment in Gurgaon. She is in the midst of launching a fashion label and our conversation is constantly interrupted by her ringtone, the popular Black Eyed Peas song I gotta feeling.
“We have both had affairs, but remain committed to each other. We are both open-minded individuals in creative fields. We have an open relationship, one in which we are free to explore connections with other people while remaining honest about what is going on in our respective lives.”
Do friends know about their arrangement, I ask. “People are shocked. I don’t care though. Our relationship is honest and happy, that is a lot more than most of our friends can say about their marriages! Ours is a case of modern love,” she says while furiously tapping away at her BlackBerry.
By opting for an arrangement of non-committal convenience, do we stand to get brutally hurt? asks Ira Trivedi
Shammi is a DJ at a Gurgaon nightclub. A large eagle tattoo is embossed on his sinewy bicep. The loud music in the nightclub, coupled with the distracting tattoo, make me struggle to hear him.
“Suganda and I were very young when we got hitched yaa. We did it for our parents, not for ourselves. That’s cool though, we really love each other, but life is all about experiences, and we don’t want to deny that to each other.”
What all of these proposals – live in relationships, open marriages, multiple relationships – have in common, is an attempt to wrestle with the traditional concept of marriage.
In 2008, the Supreme Court gave live-in relationships the same legal status as marriage. Going one step further, the ruling stated that the children born to such parents would be called legitimate. Divorce, a word that just a decade ago sent cold shivers down our spines, is no longer the horror that it used to be. Divorce rates in metro cities have doubled over the last five years. In the capital city divorces are up by 150 per cent since last year. As young people, particularly women, experience economic and social freedom, rigid boundaries of family duty, financial security and community acceptance – boundaries which have governed the structure of marriage, are beginning to collapse.
In the realm of eligibility, Mumta has a lot to offer. She is pretty, well educated, and has a promising career as the head of sales at a luxury retail outlet. She walks confidently and speaks enthusiastically as she shows me the around the store. The spunky 30-year-old singleton talks of her career plans and her dream of starting her own store. Marriage is not an option at the moment.
“I love my job, there is no space in my life for marriage. I know myself, I need my space. I see friends around me and they are all divorced and jaded.” Asked if she would like a partner, she says, “I would love to be with someone – someone who inspires me, someone who helps me discover who I am, someone I can travel with. Maybe someone I can live with. A relationship could be nice,” she says wistfully, running her fingers over the Swarovski-studded bridal lehengas that she brings to market. “Yes, a relationship – with no strings attached. That would be perfect.”
Alyque Padamsee, adman and theatre personality, comments: “Marriage has never worked. I have tried it three times. People are finally beginning to talk about these problems. Earlier they just swept it under the bed.” Padamsee adds, “My father had nine mistresses or “keeps”, women had no choice but to accept it then. Things have changed now.”
As urban Indians challenge the traditional model of marriage by exploring “modern love,” the enduring question is – does this newer, simpler, and thinner understanding of relationships ultimately lead to greater overall human flourishing, or is this leading to the downfall of the stolid, Indian culture of which marriage has always been the cornerstone? What are the implications of this newly acquired social freedom to family structures?
Divorce rates in India are still 50 per cent lower than most countries in Europe and the United States, but one wonders if we will soon see an indigenous “divorce revolution” such as that seen in the 1950s in the United States. Are we as a culture moving towards a more liberal and empowering structure or are we simply being careless with our newly found freedom? Are we as a culture, regressing or progressing?
Ira’s question Renaissance or the dark ages? I recently read a quote, “I just want to be me, whoever that is,” scribbled carelessly on the tabletop of a coffee shop that I regularly visit. This quote resonated in my mind as I interviewed over a dozen couples for this story. In the simple words of this quote is inscribed the deep desire for a change, and a desperate search for identity – precisely what young Indians are looking for today. A crucial step in this search seems to be a suitable relationship or maybe just the lack of one.
With the recent economic growth, Westernisation and burgeoning middle class, there has been the definite erosion in the traditional social fabric of our nation. Old norms are making way for the new. Young, educated Indians are migrating from smaller towns and cities to the metros, in search of jobs, and for the first time they are experiencing freedom. Once that financial, economic and emotional freedom is experienced, they don’t want to give it up. This has led to a change in the nature of relationships – from the traditional Indian arranged marriages to new forms of relationships – casual dating, relationships with multiple partners, live-ins and open marriages.
As I spoke to individuals and couples, what was shockingly refreshing was the candour in these conversations. Each person spoke as if they were the protagonists of a glorious drama – defiantly and proudly. The “haw or shame factor” did not exist and solid middle class couples spoke about the barriers they broke and of the reactions of their families and friends to their choices. There has always been a flagrant sense of hypocrisy when it comes to relationships. Dating is fast becoming a norm, but it is never to be discussed with parents or families. Affairs, cheating, divorce are swept neatly underneath the carpet. This hypocrisy is now being questioned and people are bringing these issues to the table. The openness and confidence with which people revealed their private lives was a breath of fresh air and a bright sign of progression.
The enduring question that I was left with is: what will the collateral damage be? For there will be surely be some. No change comes without repercussions. What do these new forms of relationships mean to families and to children? Will children carry the wounds of divorce and polygamy, or will the future generation be so desensitised to these notions through television, social media and their environment that they won’t even bat their eyelids?
What about the emotional health of our own hearts? As we waltz from one relationship to the other, at a very deep, personal level, we expose ourselves to wounds that are acutely characteristic of break-ups. It is true that with each relationship we get a chance to explore our innate nature while we learn about another. In the process we do mature as individuals. But by tearing apart that comfortable chrysalis of marriage and opting instead for an arrangement of non-committal convenience, do we stand to get brutally hurt?
The brave new India is shining and we are at an inflexion point in many ways. We all want to be who we want to be. That is the motto of this decade. The freedom can be liberating, even intoxicating, but we are the custodians of culture and values for the future generations. Are we ushering a renaissance of relationships, or is it simply back to the Dark Ages? Ira Trivedi is the author of What Would You Do To Save The World? and The Great Indian Love Story. Her latest book is There is No Love on Wall Street
- From HT Brunch, June 5
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