way we live

For the Love of Marriage

Lakshmi Chaudhry has worked at or written for almost every liberal rag in the United States, from the Village Voice to to the Nation. She currently lives in Bangalore where she's working on getting a life.
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It is easy enough to blame much of what went awry on an antiquated model of marriage, yet those who married for love in my generation don’t seem to have fared any better.

It’s easy to blame what went awry on an antiquated model of marriage, yet those who married for love don’t seem to have fared any better.

“I am having a love marriage,” I announce to my parents and to underline the seriousness of my intent, all members of my entire extended family. I am barely thirteen, but when three cousins and my brother get hitched in quick succession, the prospect of being married off to some suitably suitable boy suddenly looms large in my horror-struck imagination. My parents receive the news with their usual air of distracted bemusement, but other relatives are more opinionated. “You’re a very silly girl,” snaps an irate uncle.

At the time, collective wisdom on love marriages could be summed up in a short series of declarative sentences: ‘Love marriages always end in divorce;’ ‘Girls who marry for love expect too much;’ ‘Marriage is about adjustment;’ ‘Real love comes after marriage.’ Through much of my childhood, concerned relatives would reiterate the same, ad nauseam, to little effect. I’d already picked my team.

Among girls of my generation, class, and education—i.e. those privileged enough to put choice and marriage together in the same sentence—you were either the ‘arranged marriage’ or ‘love marriage’ type. (Boys rarely considered the vicissitudes of matrimony till they hit their twenties) For the latter, marrying for love represented an inchoate, muddled declaration of freedom. No, we didn’t want to ‘adjust,’ a word that encapsulated the traditional ideal of a ‘good wife,’ tending to home, kids and the husband who brought home the bacon. Yet even girls who disdained a love marriage as impractical or unwise hoped to forge a modern relationship—more egalitarian, perhaps, even romantic. But none of us knew what those adjectives would entail in practice.

The generation that came of sexual age in the eighties was essentially driving blind. We were pinned between the absurdly imaginary and the hide-bound real; the overheated romance of Bollywood/Hollywood films or Mills & Boon novels and the still-rigid conventions of ‘old’ India. We wanted ‘more,’ ‘better,’ ‘different,’ but our world gave little hint of what any of this could/would look like or demand of us. Our conception of love was, therefore, unsurprisingly hazy, as were our expectations of marriage. At its clearest, our desire for a different kind of marriage expressed a newfound individualism that would later come into full bloom in new, post-liberalisation India. Like Frank Sinatra, we wanted to do it our way, whatever the hell that meant.

Those of us who married for love felt daring, and the ones who opted for tradition secure: what worked for our parents would surely do well enough for us. None of us twenty-somethings foresaw a future that would look entirely different from our present. As it turns out, we were clueless not only about the future but also our future selves.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” says Prithvi, a thoughtful, articulate marketing executive who dutifully married a girl of his parents’ choosing when he turned twenty-eight. Ten years into his marriage, he was unhappy, lonely, and disappointed. She’d immersed herself fully in motherhood and domesticity, while he wrestled with his yearning for a very different kind of life-partner. “We have no intellectual rapport at all,” he says, “I can’t talk to her about anything because she has such a narrow view of the world.” His wife too wants more: a desiring, attentive husband who makes her feel loved, not just a dutiful father and provider.

Prithvi praises his parents’ arranged marriage, yet when I point out that his father likely never required an intellectual connection with his wife, he shrugs, “What the hell did I know about what I wanted back then. I got married because it was the thing to do, what was expected of me.”

Malini, on the other hand, took a few precautions, as did her family, before making the leap. A talented dancer, she completed her graduate degree in the United States in 1992 and returned home to anxious parents. They’d found her a prospective mate with the right credentials: a highly educated man from a liberal family looking for a career-minded wife. Initially opposed to the very idea of an arranged match, Malini soon took to her marriage and husband with the enthusiasm of a new convert, putting aside her free-spirited creative side as a childish affectation. Over the years, however, her fervour dimmed, accompanied by the growing resentment of a spouse who has little interest in her “artsy” side. “It’s not just that I love dancing or the arts. It’s a different world-view about what is important, valuable, interesting,” she says. “When he dismisses all of that, I feel like he is dismissing me.”

We were the first generation of upper middle class kids to be raised by our parents to value our ambitions, our needs, our selves, and yet expected to embrace tradition. So we picked our mates the old-fashioned way, armed with the age-old checklist—same community, good family, right education, similar background—and information gleaned from abbreviated phone calls and meetings. The time for modernity, like love, would come after. We would make of an arranged marriage what we wanted, updating the institution to meet our newfangled desire for emotional fulfilment. It worked for a number of us, but many found that good intentions and a fresh attitude did not guarantee a personal connection, nor did the tried and tested methods of compromise and adjustment. Neither playing the good wife/husband nor being married to one satisfied our more complicated needs.

The institutional expectations that offered security to our parents left us feeling resentful and unappreciated. “All my life, I’ve been the dutiful daughter, wife, mom. I’m just sick of it,” Malini says, “And he just takes it for granted, like it’s my job.” Prithvi’s complaint is almost identical. “There are three things wrong with my marriage. My wife doesn’t understand me. She doesn’t respect me. And she doesn’t appreciate me,” he says. “So, I think, why the hell am I trying so hard to be a good husband. It doesn’t make me happy, and it certainly doesn’t seem to be making her happy.”

There are a myriad individual reasons why one marriage succeeded and the other failed, but the odds were stacked against us precisely because we entered adulthood at a cultural tipping point, trapped between the new and the old. Perhaps we could have more easily made peace with our lot if we were still living in ‘old’ India. We have instead stumbled into middle age in a culture driven by choices, opportunities and expectations that were unimaginable in our youth. The nagging sense of having ‘missed out’ heightens our dissatisfaction; our willingness to settle for what is eroded by constant reminders of what might have been—and perhaps still can be. An old college mate inquires wistfully after a friend who chose never to marry. “Is X happy with her life?” she asks, adding after a pause, “I really wonder sometimes if marriage is really...” The thought left unfinished, trailing off in a sigh.

Traditional wisdom held that expectations were a matter of choice; that in an arranged marriage, we’d be more likely to pare them down to fit our circumstances. However, unlike previous generations, our personal, most intimate needs have proven impervious to marital necessity; they reflect an inner self that we are unwilling or unable to sacrifice at the altar of matrimony. It is easy enough to blame much of what went awry on an antiquated model of the arranged marriage, yet those who married for love in my generation don’t seem to have fared any better. “We were such fools,” laughs Ragini, a 42-year old divorcee, “We thought it was going to be like some bloody dream sequence in a movie. It was such bullshit.”

[In Part Two: Love, Freedom and Delusion]