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Consent, Marriage and the Family

Headshot of a woman, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail and wearing a backless green blouse

It was at the end of the first week of October (2013) that my maternal uncle and I went to Pradeep’s house to meet him and his family. My uncle had met with them a couple of times before and insisted I come and see ‘the boy’ and his family. This was well after a six month period of incessant bickering with me for being nubile and not having found someone I could ‘settle’ down with. The first meeting with Pradeep and his family was sort of cordial; I spoke about who I am, what I believe in and do not believe in, my politics, what I see for myself ahead in my life, the nature of my work, etc. Crucial in all this was my insistence on not a wanting pompous and ritualistic wedding, wanting a strong emotional connection with my partner and the space to do good work and not be tied down by familial expectations.

After this I headed back to Bangalore for work and Pradeep and I exchanged phone messages regularly for a week in an attempt to get to know each other. In essence, it was more of me telling him about myself than anything else. I found him to be pleasant yet reticent in nature. The next weekend I was back in Madras and we met twice. Considering the pressure I was under from my family, I kept telling everyone that I had no opinions about Pradeep. When Pradeep told me that weekend, that it was a “Yes” for him, I told him I had no reason to say “No” but it did not mean “Yes” either. Immediately after this, I had to leave for Orissa to work in districts affected by the Cyclone Phailin. During the time that I was in Orissa, there was immense pressure from my family, and in a moment of frustration, I told Pradeep that I told my family to go ahead with the proceedings, when in essence I texted my family, “Do whatever it is that you have to do to formalize this. I am not ecstatic about it. I am making the biggest mistake of my life”. This was construed as consent for the wedding itself! I boarded the flight back to Madras with the hope that I could come back and spend quality time with Pradeep to figure things out for myself with him. But I was in for a shock as I was put into constant interactions with Pradeep’s family instead.

It is here that I would like to elaborate on what someone might go through when they are making up their mind on whom they consent to be with within the rigid framework of marriage in a subtly and latently patriarchal Tamil Brahmin family. This is notwithstanding the fact that I was brought up by my maternal family, as my mother and I lived through years of an excessively abusive relationship with my father. So in addition to my mother, I had two aunts and two uncles whose hopes and dreams I had to contend and deal with. This family was every little girl’s dream: immense love, affection, belongingness, identity; it was indeed like a pot of manna from heaven.

I could do what I wanted, as long as I subscribed to the conventional roles of being a responsible daughter. Yes, shackles of a kind that one hardly sees, let alone acknowledges, when one is in that space. All these years of growing up with them, I knew I was to be married according to their choice. I was so heavily conditioned that even my attempts at dating/relationships weren’t healthy for a myriad reasons but also because of the fear of disappointing the family and facing their ire. As my aunts, uncles and grandparents stated with complete conviction that this was the best thing that had ever happened to me, I was pushed into a state of aggressive discontent. Then, I could probably for the first time, relate to the conflict that many women and sometimes men go through at such a juncture in their lives, in my own way. Sadly, this was the case despite my calling myself a ‘feminist’. So, though the rational, conscious and discernible part of me kept telling me, that October, that this matrimonial match was a disaster in the making, I could not help but feel a flutter of hope that it might work or I might be able to make it work, as it seemingly brought the most happiness to my family.

Back to the series of events in 2013: as my impending engagement drew closer, I panicked and grew desperate to find out more about Pradeep and our compatibility with each other. Time was limited; I had a week, and so I would constantly go over to his place and meet up with him to get a sense of what I could expect. But as I spoke to him, I realised that this relationship was not going to be one of emotional compatibility. And though I did mention this to him, I did not really get my message across and he wanted to go through with it. I broke down a night before the engagement and asked my family to stop it all. Unfortunately, I was not supported in that call, and out of fear of breaking ties with my family, I went through with the engagement. Soon after, the wedding arrangements were made and the date was decided for within a month of the engagement.

I was very dejected at not being able to live up to my family’s insistence of marrying Pradeep. A few more meetings, I tried to somehow connect with him emotionally, but it never worked out. I had strong thoughts of running away from home all through this time (even on the morning of the wedding) but couldn’t bring myself to do so, despite being perceived as a strong, independent, educated and empowered woman, simply because of the fear of the adverse consequences for my relationship with my family. I was a distressed and very unhappy bride.

I went through the wedding with low blood pressure, something that I have had no history of. After the wedding, aggravated by my clear signals of wanting physical, mental and emotional space, my predicament finally seemed to signal alarm bells to Pradeep. He let his family know and they immediately questioned me. I was emboldened to then tell them, much more blatantly of my state of mind. I told them that it was becoming exceedingly difficult for me and I thought that the gap in compatibility would never be bridged.

As to what made me that loud and blatant after the wedding, I have no idea. Maybe, I was suddenly in a place where I knew nothing worse could happen. I knew then that I had given up my voice. I felt helpless. Many of my so-called friends had judged me. Many thought I was throwing a tantrum. Many others sympathized simply cause I was a ‘product’ of a broken family that had seen a fair share of its own trauma. I suddenly became brazen about being loud and clear, without mincing words about what I did not want, crystal clear, about the manner in which I had consistently spoken to my mother and maternal uncle about the arrangement. I had no more filters for the rest of the world, anymore.

Pradeep’s family tried convincing me, coaxing me, even got angry. I continued to live with Pradeep out of their insistence and a sense of guilt but was still unable to make the relationship a functional one. I was disturbed to the extent that I had to seek help and went for counselling. Within a month of the wedding however, Pradeep and his family turned hostile and aggressive. They asked me to leave their home. Taking only what belonged to me, I went to stay with my friends, and then later began to stay by myself. Pradeep and his family apologised for their behaviour and asked me to come back to their house but I refused to do so. We met once later, when I told them that I was in a bad shape and all I wanted to do was to take care of myself, by myself and think about nothing else. Presently, the final hearing for a mutually consented divorce is in process. A mock divorce for a mock wedding, in my eyes!

At no point of time when I speak of my family do I intend to discredit them for what they are or have been. That they did not listen to their 26-year old daughter’s voice, whose opinions and world views were far different from theirs, who was independent, educated and privileged, also by virtue of being nurtured by them, who dealt with the whole world mostly by herself is truly disconcerting and diabolical. What mattered to them was that they had found the best match, economically, spatially and culturally; and used it as an opportunity to also keep a check on my unknown and probably unbridled sexuality. Even today, they believe they did everything with the best of my interests in their hearts.

My family and I are on speaking terms and we meet often, yet the manner in which we process the series of events leading up to the ‘wedding’ and later, are diametrically different. I still do not know how to process and cope with the family that believes I am a child who made a bad choice and hurt and disgraced them. I still cannot fathom dealing with the accusations of being a ‘fickle-minded’ girl, or a traumatized girl of a broken family vintage. Many of the conversations I have with them are futile. Many others just end up with a request of not wanting to dig up the past. I have no real method to help me navigate through this nebulous space I am in with my family.

The one thing I do know is that this is a choice I am making. The choice to rebuild this relationship with my irreplaceable family, however complicated and twisted it may have been, but in the process, redefine the boundaries, space and meaning, hoping that one day, I may very well convey the responsibility we all collectively share through the events of a meaningless and mock wedding and divorce.

I continue to be a person of privilege. I have had spaces to write about this, talk to some new and some old friends. My social network has been both disappointing as well as supremely supportive. I have had the privilege of people validating my choices. I have had the privilege of being able to process this by myself. I continue to do so. I have had the privilege of being able to deal with the guilt that pricks me of hurting another family. I have had privilege, unlike many, many others.