way we live

The Bespoke 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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We’re all shoppers now, armed with a long list of requirements for the exactly right kind of car, dress, cellphone, computer, or life partner.

We’re all shoppers now, armed with a long list of requirements for the exactly right kind of car, dress, cellphone, computer, or life partner.

Ordering a sandwich at an American deli is not for the uncertain or undecided. A simple request for say a veggie sandwich is cue for a lengthy interrogation. What kind of bread: white, wheat or rye? Cheese? American, cheddar, Swiss or provolone? Mustard? Yellow or french? Mayo? Onions? Slaw, salad, or chips?... In America, the pursuit of life, liberty and nutritional sustenance requires patience, focus and a deeply held opinion on bean sprouts. Such is the tyranny of choice.

The lowly deli sandwich is an apt symbol for 21st century consumer capitalism that promises to give us what we want, exactly the way we want it. It’s what we define as ‘happiness’ in this era of globalisation. We’re all shoppers now, armed with a long list of requirements for the exactly right kind of car, dress, cellphone, computer, or life partner. As the continual barrage of advertising/media pablum assures us, we deserve no less—especially so in the matter of matrimony. “Young couples are pushing boundaries, challenging the acceptable, and creating new rules for their partnerships. They’re changing our ideas of what it means to love, to be married, to be together,” writes Divia Thani in a Vogue essay extolling the “new rules” of coupling. “Like a bespoke dress, marriage is being altered to our specific taste, style and comfort. It’s difficult to find the perfect fit, but... this is India in the 21st century: Nothing is, or should be, impossible.”

Not only do new Indians require a custom-made partner, but to also secure him/her at minimal expense to their busy, upwardly mobile lives. BharatMatrimony CEO Murugavel Janakiraman is eager to oblige with PrivilegeMatrimony, a high-end matrimonial service “for busy professionals, successful and affluent people or those who do not have the time to search for a suitable life partner.” As he describes it, “BM Privilege is an answer to the ‘personalised service generation,’ who are looking for a quick and hassle-free way of finding a life partner.” Unlike Thani’s tongue-in-cheek essay, there’s no hint of irony in Janakiraman’s sincere endorsement of such divine narcissism.

Now that CorporateSpeak imbues all aspects of national discourse (Hail to Brand India!), why should our most personal relationship remain sacrosanct? Even therapists, who supposedly deal with messy human emotions, have embraced its language. Here, for example, is how Vijay Nagaswami describes the institution in his book The 24x7 Marriage: “Marriage is a partnership, a contract between two consenting adults who are both in a state of preparedness to each other’s growth and personal development by creating a safe, loving, respectful, and trusting space as joint venture.” This isn’t to knock Nagaswami’s book (which contains a wealth of common sense and insight), but to mark how we now sell intimacy to a generation of free marketeers, who need to be assured that “a smart marriage is not about compromise or sacrifice. Nor does it need to be a burdensome enterprise...”

Yet when Nagaswami wades into the nitty-gritty details of relationship management, there are indeed many compromises to be made, a number of them fairly burdensome. His solution: to recast sacrifice as a temporary accommodation of marital exigencies that can be reclaimed at will, lest the frail reader can’t countenance the less pleasant aspects of coupledom. Sorry, darling, that clause 107(b) of our contract just isn’t working for me any more. Why don’t we renegotiate the same like the cool-headed, sensible adults that we are.

In keeping with the market-driven frame of discourse is the idea that we behave—or rather ought to behave—as self-interested, rational actors, much like those mythical creatures we encounter in economics textbooks. Nagaswami avers the “purpose of marriage today is emotional fulfillment,” an elusive, ineffable goal that can be attained by “reformatting” and “configuring it appropriately.” We need to become “rational problem solvers” who “work smart at owning your marriage and addressing the issues therein with clarity, rationality and self-assurance.” Reading The 24x7 Marriage is a bit like watching your well-meaning shrink make a PowerPoint presentation selling marital happiness as a handy-dandy, easy-to-use product for discerning customers.

The unappetising reality of a good marriage is that it is just like us: mortal, ever-changing, in turns exhilarating, disappointing, boring, resilient, frail, and inspiring. Its essence perhaps better summed up by the hero of the Buddhadeva Bose novel It Rained All Night. “Marriage! What a complex, difficult, necessary and fantastically durable institution it is—yet so fragile. Two human beings will spend their entire lives together. Not five or 15 years, but their entire lives—what more atrocious a tyranny, what more inhuman an ideal could there be,” bewails the hapless Noyongnanshu.

Marriage is no picnic, yet neither is it a car or computer to be traded in or upgraded when our spouse fails to satisfy. Nor in this modern era, can it remain simply an obligation to fulfill. Matrimony has always been a crap shoot, and more so now when it is a personal commitment between two individuals than a social contract engineered by our families. “A happy marriage is when, at the end of it all, both people think they lucked out,” observed my husband in a rare moment of emotional wisdom. Perhaps we should think of a good marriage not as an arrangement, institution, or contract, but a shared sentiment; an enduring sense of good fortune that persists through the highs, lows, and merely tedious. It’s not about getting lucky, but feeling lucky even after you discover that your carefully selected sandwich has the wrong kind of cheese, no mayo, and a liberal helping of sprouts. And I really hate bean sprouts.