“When you give him his afternoon coffee…” my cousin said, and I zoned out, laughing in my head. A popular 90s Tamil ad for Leo coffee flashed in my mind – a married woman doing her wifely and religious duties, diligently giving her husband filter coffee that makes him burst into a beatific smile. Didn’t my cousin know me better? Years ago in college, I had emphatically declared to my best friend that I would never make coffee for my husband; he would make his own coffee, and I would make my own Milo. I have now graduated to tea from Milo, but I still don’t make coffee for my husband, the seemingly quintessential task a Tamil married woman does for her marital partner, a celebration of everyday joys, a celebration of marriage itself.
Marriage, within the boundaries of societal norms, is easily one of the biggest celebrations of sexuality. Of the obvious components of sexuality – socially-sanctioned sex and reproduction. But also of others like gender roles (as long as you stick to them), sexual acts and fantasies (as long as it’s within ‘propriety’ and only with your partner), and power and agency (watch it, don’t go overboard!).
Marriage also feels complicated when one approaches it through the lens of feminism. Marriage throws in two people and often their families into a system designed to perpetuate patriarchy, subjugate women, and bind men and women (in heteronormative marriage) into strict roles in the marriage. Add culture, caste, religion, upbringing and other such factors, and what you get is an inflammable mixture of an institution that is so precarious and yet, apparently, the ‘bedrock’ of society.
I entered into marriage by choice a few years ago. I say “choice,” but let’s face it: how many of our decisions are made entirely with free will? Aren’t they instead complex negotiations based on our situation at a particular point in our lives?
Growing up, marriage and motherhood had seemed inevitable; all I could hope for was some choice with regard to whom I married and when. I had simplistic ideas of equality. When I was a kid, my mother would joke that when I would cook rice as a married adult, I would expect my husband to pour an equal measure of water into the cooker as I did.
As I grew older, I understood feminism and equity a little better, and realised that we’d both bring in societal conditioning on gender no matter our ideals or values. Equipped with this, I thought my partner and I would have deep conversations to arrive at decisions, like tying a neat bow by bringing our different ends of the ribbon together. “Tada!” I’d say, smug. “Look how we’re equal partners in this marriage! It’s possible!”
Of course, it hasn’t been that easy. Our conversations on key issues have been fraught, each one bringing their biases to the table – I, my “feminist bias” as he calls it, and he, his “spirituality bias” as I call it. They affect our discussions on who does what (and how!) in the kitchen, our relationships with our families, whether we want to raise children, our travel, heck, even whether we should keep that lampshade. “How do you bring gender into everything?” he asks, baffled; I roll my eyes and ask a similar question about his belief systems. Some decisions are those neatly-tied ribbon bows, but many are one-sided decisions that one of us gives in to with a huff, even if we may later grudgingly agree that it worked out well after all.
Working on gender and sexuality, and all the intersections they feature, both brings confusion and adds clarity to my interactions in marriage.
The confusion, first: I’m surprised by (and want to spurn) the sudden respectability that marriage accords to women, something that their life experiences may never give. Once I was married, my opinions carried weight. I could suddenly participate in rituals that are closed to unmarried women or widows. I could easily use the excuse of household chores or say that my partner was busy to get out of social situations. I get irritated that my much-older relatives refer to my partner using avar, a third-person pronoun of respect. And then there are these amusing and exasperating expectations like I have to know exactly what time he’ll have his coffee or how many rotis he’ll have. Or that one time my father asked me to take the newspaper to him in the morning. “He can take it himself!” I said, but my father only looked back at me puzzled.
I find frustrating the societal assumptions of monogamy, and of an expected motherhood at some point. I’m sad that I’ve grown to enjoy cooking, which as a young person, was the most ‘anti-feminist’ domestic activity to me. I get bored with the blatant heterosexuality on display on Instagram, from the saccharine wedding photos to the “it’s hectic but still precious” stories on motherhood. I want to roll my eyes at discussions of saas-bahu (mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law) power equations or whether married women should wear the thaali (a necklace worn as a marker of marriage). “Get over it!” I want to scream. “The discourse has to move beyond this!”
I enjoy many privileges on account of marriage, like in a bank or a hospital or in finding a house to rent. And yet I feel guilty and angry that these have come to me largely due to marriage, wondering what it would be like as a single woman or a queer person. Sometimes, I ‘test’ things, seeing how far I can go in certain conversations without having to ‘reveal’ that I’m married. In other situations, I shamelessly use it to get the person to pay more attention to me, be respectful, or for me to feel safer.
I’m not the first one to have felt these confusions, of course; generations of people explore what it means to be in gender-equitable spaces while carrying the load of gender conditioning they grew up with. My partner and I regularly discuss this; for instance, when family visits, why do I believe that my house needs to be perfect? And when it isn’t, why do I take it personally? Is it my individuality or is it my gender? And then, tentatively, we wonder if he would, after all, like it if I gave him coffee every day?
In the book Detransition, Baby, a character describes the tone of her divorce as “an ennui of heterosexuality.” Reading the phrase felt like a lightning strike on my soul, like someone explained the discomfort and anger many like me feel about marriage, as also the guilt, privileges and happiness that it brings along.
The same work on feminism and sexuality also gives me clarity. That life is not so black-and-white and we can’t categorise lived experiences and choices as truly feminist or truly queer while rejecting those that fall in the greys. To recognise the multitude of lives we all live, and see the tiny but important ways that even cis married women subvert marriage. Multi-partnering. Non-heterosexual. Have kids early and get on with their career. Get a degree at 40. Run an erotic social media account. Divorce when it’s really not going the right way. Feminism and sexuality also remind me to be kind to those of us who still talk about saas-bahu equations or their discovery of the pains of mothering, and to be kind to myself too.
And that’s how, amidst idealism, arguments, and conversations, my partner and I drift towards what we see at this point as our lives together as individuals. We learn from each other’s belief systems and value working hard at the relationship, struggle with it, storm off, come back together.
And that’s also why, recently, I’ve come to make tea (it’s still not filter coffee!) and hand it to him without thinking that this simple act assaults my principles and very identity. Perhaps someday I’ll start making coffee too. But there are also those regular occasions when, as I jump from one call to another, he quietly slides a mug of chamomile tea on my desk.
Cover Image: Pixabay