Monday, January 21, 2008

Just (not) married

My peer group, officially, is now divided into two. Those who have gotten married, and those getting married in the foreseeable future.

Initially it was one classmate. Then it moved to four. There were the cousins older than me. Then it became the cousins younger than me. Exs (all but one of them), school friends, new friends, office colleagues, former roommates, clients – you name them, I name the date and venue.

And then there was me. And a few other trusty souls, of course, like A, M, Lax and the boyfriend. At least, that’s what he tells me.

I was living in a world where marriage was something obscure, something that would never happen to me, like making a full house at a Bingo game. I never saw myself wanting it either – I didn’t quite see the “value add” of marriage in my life. Come to think of it, I still don’t.

In about 40 days and 40 nights, I will be 25. I will reach an age when things that happened 20 years ago will be in my recallable memory. I already find myself making statements like “Oh, but that was 10 years ago” and doing a mental double take. Still, it’s not that old. Not when you think of the fact that I’ve been in college till age 23 and the last 1 ½ years have passed in an entire blur.

According to my relatives, however, I should be receiving pension.

In my community, women are married by my age, partly because of the dwindling size of the community and the rare commodity status of the single ‘decent’ saraswat boy. Luckily for me, marriage talk in my house was non existent. Nobody ever uttered the M word – my Dad only addresses personal issues through my mother, my mother is still disgruntled over her own early marriage and the amount of compromises it forced her to make, and that was our own little universe.

I met my old pal SS for a drink and red snapper at Viva Panjim, one of my favourite restaurants. Being a divorcee, SS was not only at the bottom of the feeding pool of Saraswat arranged marriages (he claimed one woman he was referred even looked like a catfish), but he was also an expert on the subject of societal relationships.
We discussed the marriage disease. SS had boycotted the arranged marriage mela on the ground that he was being unfairly discriminated against on grounds of being a divorcee, with attempts to being set up with women who he’d have to “…fuck from behind, because if I saw their face I’d puke”.
Alright, so he was shallow.
I was amazed at the whole concept of arranged marriages. How did the information that you got about a person in a few meetings suddenly amount to enough to go through an entire lifetime with them? How did you ever know if they were “the one”?
SS exhaled harshly. “Do you think people really think about all that? Look at Pooja.” Pooja was a girl who worked in my old office, who had had a relationship with a guy in her college about 10 years ago which included trysts at the shady London Hotel with a pool table and rooms for rent, wink, wink. She had paid for the hotel room – the guy had receipts to prove it. The relationship never lasted but the London Hotel jokes certainly did. Pushing 30, she married a guy from a Karnataka based Saraswat family, far away from the google news engine that reared its head up everytime an arranged marriage proposal came about.
“She wears her mangalsutra on the outside of her kurta, flashing it around like its some kind of fucking Bharat Ratna. She gets so excited at the thought of performing the silly rituals – like applying sindoor and kumkum on other women’s foreheads, distributing those little matkis at those haldi kumkum parties.” [Haldi kum kums were the religiously ordained kitty parties of my community] “You have to understand. Marriage is the priority. The guy is only secondary. Marriage, apparently, makes you culturally complete.”

Which was true. Amongst Saraswats, for example, the first religious ceremony that a woman was allowed to perform was her own wedding ceremony. After the thread ceremony, a man was allowed to worship the idol of his kul-devta as and when he pleased. A woman was only allowed this privilege after she was married. I had been observing married women for decades (ha, ha). When a married woman came to our house for the first time, my mother would make her sit on a chair, the lady would spread her pallu on her lap and my mother would place a coconut, a blouse-piece, a envelope with some cash and lots of rice in it. Then my mother would put kumkum and haldi on her forehead, and touch her feet in blessing, no matter what her age was. It was the blessing of a “savashin”, the vernacular term for the Married Lady. Any married woman coming home would not be allowed to go without applying haldi and kumkum to her forehead, and in turn she would do the same to my mother. Women would fast on hartalika, the day before Ganesh Chaturthi, to get a good husband, and after marriage they would fast to secure him for the next seven lifetimes. When someone was getting married, during the anointment ceremony, he or she would be blessed by 5 married ladies who would anoint him or her with oil. And of course, the presence of one savashin was required at every pooja conducted.
A small fringe benefit, considering all the pain they had to go through.

“SS, come on. Getting a cultural identity can’t be the only thing that drives these people…”
“I’m not saying it is. There’s also the license for sex, and of course the fear of dying alone. Parental pressure nothing but a force propelled by these reasons.”
Parental pressure is also what got SS married. His initial uncertainties were dismissed by optimists who said that “you’ll feel attracted to her, don’t worry”, and “you’re just nervous” and “this is what your destiny has ordained.” Six months later, SS found himself impotent – in every sense of the term. The annulment followed soon after.
“Arranged marriages,” he continued, after a refill on his RC – Coke, “are the safer bet, because these reasons are always a constant. They will never change. Love Marriages, on the other hand, are even more skewed because all everyone is trying to do is arrange their own fucking marriage.”

The next day, I found myself at a family get together this evening, and when I reached down to touch my uncle’s feet, he asked, to no one in particular: “When are you getting this girl married?”
Note please how the question was not even “When are you getting married?” Note also how the question was asked in the same tone of voice as “When will you put the trash out?”
As the question was not directed to me, I decided to shut up.
His wife chirped up 5 eligible bachelors whose parents had even politely inquired about me. Matchmaking was kind of her thing.
Again I smiled politely.
Uncle goes on “I don’t see the point really to this delay. What is her problem?”
My mother volunteered: “Well she is planning a lot, she’s practicing now but she might want to go abroad to study…”
“Whatever it is, why can’t she do all this after marriage? Who says she can’t study after marriage?”
“Well then she needs a guy who will understand that!”
“So what are we there for? We’ll find her a guy who understands! Who doesn’t understand? Everyone understands!”
Another aunt chirped up “This is unacceptable. This is not any way to behave anyway, leaving her like this on her own.”
Holy cow! Alone? Hell, I could take better care of myself, albeit not financially, then any of the men I knew.
The other aunt began trumping up boys who lived abroad.
As the subject of this brewing storm, I decided to speak up and make the crucial mistake of attempting to use a little humour.
“Anyway, mama, I think getting married before the age of 25 is child marriage, don’t you think?”
The family gasped collectively.
“Who says?”
“It’s a new law!”
My Uncle stared. “The law is 21 and 18. There is no 25 age limit now. There is no such law.”
My aunt squawked. “Unmarried till 25? This is ridiculous.”
My mother intervened. “Nobody did me a favour by marrying me off early, for sure.”
The indirect vent at her elder brothers patriarchic stance went unnoticed by all, except me, even while I was mentally noting that my sense of humour must have definitely come from my Dad’s side.
“What law is she talking about?”
“I was JOKING”, I smiled.
My mother’s sister cleared her throat: “How can you be joking at a time like this? Don’t you realize how serious this is?”
My eyes widened. My mother’s brother, who had started this whole hellhole, was recovering from a gall bladder operation that he had put off for 2 years and it nearly killed him, or whatever it is that a bad gall bladder can do to you. And now suddenly I was the one with the emergency status?
The matchmaking aunt decided to be helpful. “Maybe she has someone?”
Now shouldn’t this question have been directed to me?”
“Hayn!” said Mom, the Konkani displeasure word, shaking her head violently.
“What someone? How can she have someone? We can’t be having some outside brought in!” screamed my mother’s youngest sister, the aunt I loved the most.
Suddenly, I imagined all of them taking out stones and pelting me to death, for refusing to get married by age 25. Everyone thinks Goa is progressive because you can walk on beaches topless. Well, if you are a Saraswat, you’re no better off than a Pashtoon tribal lass.
“I just need some time.” I said.
“For what?” boomed everyone.
“To figure out my sexual orientation”, is what I should have said.
“What’s the big rush anyway?” I asked, irritated.
“It’s something you have to do.” said my uncle.
“You won’t get a boy later on,” said the matchmaker “besides, you have to start looking early. You’re very well educated, and also, you have a bit of a height problem.”
I am 5’2”. The shortest guy I had ever dated was 5’9”.
I opened my mouth to say this, but then I thought about the stones.

On the way home, I was amazed at how suddenly, I was four again. I could talk, but other people were asking questions about me to my parents. Remember “She’s so cute…what’s her name?” Twenty years later, life comes full circle. Your opinion still doesn’t matter. You still don’t know what’s best.

As I stepped out of the car, my aunt warned me:

“You have to get serious about this now”

A phrase I hadn’t heard since my Board exams.

When you’re a kid in the throes of adolescence, everyone is out to keep you juvenile. You’re brought a dairy milk every time a relative comes over, at birthday parties you’re made to wear the party hat and stand along with the other kids and sing “Happy Birthday” in return for the party favours bag, and all you want to do is sit in a corner and sulk like you see all the adults do. And when you’re all grown up and you realize that all you want to do is savour the moments that you have and live your own life, all everyone wants you to do is grow up and take responsibility, and more importantly, get married. We all are expected to, as Russell Peters would say: “Be a Man. Do the right thing.”

And my friends wonder why I just don’t sit around in Goa and chill.

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