A very hot July afternoon had forcibly pushed both of us inside a fancy Delhi mall. The air-conditioner was bringing some relief to us. We were walking side-by-side looking at glittering shops when my fingers touched his hand. He smiled at me and our fingers were entangled within seconds. As we were browsing through glass windows of shops showcasing their finest work, I realised that a fidgety figure was walking beside me. I looked up at him and he smiled nervously at me. I smiled back and quickened my pace but after a few seconds I again found him next to me. Before I could say anything or react he said, “Excuse me?” I turned towards this strange man and stared at him. He continued talking, “I am sorry but are both of you dating?” I scanned him and turned towards my partner: he was absolutely expressionless. I said, “That’s none of your business.”
The stranger piped up with some urgency, “I am really sorry. I am not trying to be a jerk but was curious if you guys are involved as we don’t see many couples like you.” Obviously, this statement was followed by a nervous smile.
I am sure I looked disgusted as I said, “Yes, we are. I don’t know what you mean by ‘couples like you’. But yes we are very much a couple.” I grabbed my partner’s hand and walked away. A minute later, my partner turned around and hugged me and said, “Does it really matter? People will always talk, just let them be.”
True were his words that people will always talk, but why? What was so wrong with us? Was it because he was shorter and I was taller? Or was it because that when we hugged he was more in my embrace than me in his? Or was it that I had to bend a bit to kiss him? Strange how perceptions work about couples – no matter which identity one conforms to.
The incident in the mall definitely made me think of the idea of ‘standard couple’ vs. ‘odd couple’. The guy in the mall recognised that we definitely had something going on but because of the height difference he had difficulty accepting this fact. And this is true for most people around us. They see us but they only tend to see the height difference and nothing more. I know this because when people see our pictures they don’t exclaim, “What a sweet/gorgeous/cute/adorable/awesome couple!” but I always receive a hesitant smile followed by a bland “Nice”. We definitely don’t fulfil the criteria of a ‘standard couple’ because he is not tall, dark and handsome in the conventional sense and I am not delicate and petite in any sense.
Most people think of us not just as an ‘odd’ couple but a couple where the man is not ‘man enough’ and the woman is not ‘woman enough.’ Somehow direct linkages have been drawn between masculinity, power and height. This means that the taller person wields power over the shorter one – woman in this case – and invalidates his masculinity. This is because in a true patriarchal world men will always be taller. On the other hand, women are supposed to be submissive, timid and built in a way that men can protect them. Therefore, we are not a couple from any fairy tale but of a true tale – which seems to agitate people around us.
We are a couple that people think can never make our relationship last because something is ‘wrong’ with us and that something is way too ‘off’ than the issues (if I have to call it an issue) most other couples experience. My partner and I have had a healthy relationship for many years now. He has understood my values and ideologies and I have understood his struggles and joys with utmost respect. We have shared our experiences and have never felt that there is anything missing. There hasn’t been a moment when I have been bothered by the height difference between us but there hasn’t been a single time when we are out in public and haven’t experienced sniggering and sexist comments. What disgusts me the most is when people ask me, “ How are you going to live as a normal couple?”
What is a ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ couple? Is it a couple who look perfect on the outside with all their human rights being thrown out of the window? I have friends and family where the woman compromises her rights everyday and the gender roles are so strictly etched in stone that the man doesn’t even enter the kitchen to get a glass of water. I also know of many women who experience domestic violence and public harassment from partners on a regular basis and yet in the mirror and in pictures they appear perfect. Somehow appearance has a larger acceptability than the idea of compatibility, understanding and respect. I remember a friend of mine saying, “Everything is fine now, but you will realize that this height difference is a bigger baggage once you have a kid. The kid will be teased in school because both of you will look so ‘odd together’. How will you deal with your own child hating you?”
Even as an ‘odd couple’ we are expected to meet the norms of a ‘standard’ couple – no discounts there. When people realize that his manhood and my womanhood isn’t being challenged, my motherhood and his fatherhood are challenged. I don’t understand this argument. Why do people assume that we want to be parents? Also, if I do plan to have a kid, won’t our parenting matter? Will it only be bullies in school who will define my child’s life?
I have cousin who was arguing with me regarding the height difference between my partner and I, using the same argument as my other friend. I very calmly stated, “I don’t want to be a mother; rather I don’t see motherhood as the ultimate reason for my existence.” I could see her eyes widened and she retorted, “Maybe you won’t be able to. Don’t know if proper sex is possible between couples like you.” Again the argument was ‘couples like you’. All I could do at this point was laugh. I know many people wonder if sexually we are compatible. But let me assure people that there is no connection between height and sex. Many tall men have sex with much shorter women so why should it be any different for a tall woman and a short man? But people assume that either one of us has some hormonal imbalance and that if we have been able to dismiss society’s rejection of us as a couple then definitely biology should fail us so that our relationship can be ‘naturally’ proved wrong.
The journey with my partner has been met with questions, sniggering, jokes and harassment – especially in a city like Delhi, which I have always felt to be a very masculine and aggressive space. We have had to justify our togetherness in many ways. I am a feminist and have never thought of identities, specially superficial ones, to be a limiting factor when it comes to relationships of any kind. I never thought a guy shorter than me would make me feel any less of a woman or incomplete.
I know most of our relatives were shocked to see us together. I know their brains were looking for some rationalisation from either of us but it never came. Every time he meets my relatives they all smile at him and say, “How boyish you look”. I really don’t understand who has given them the right to comment on anyone’s appearance. But they immediately shut up when they hear that he is working in an impressive institution with a good salary. What the relatives consider to be lacking (height) is compensated for by finances. Maybe, that’s the rationale that people look for. It’s not looks but money. Also, I know some of them think I am a cradle-snatcher even though he is a year older than me. It sometimes still hurts me to hear these things but like my partner says, “Just let them be.”
To be true to both of us, patriarchy has put a lot of pressure on every couple to appear perfect, but I see that my partner is incessantly pushed to prove himself much more both in terms of achievements and masculinity. He has to be more of a beer drinker, soccer lover and pink hater than most other men. It is outrageous that something like one’s height can put so much pressure on a person.
Something even more disappointing is when your feminist and very liberal friends also react to this kind of issue as if it’s a disease. They somehow or the other have always ended up saying, “You might be ok dating a shorter man but I won’t ever be able to.” It’s then when you know how deeply patriarchy has entered into each of our psyches.
Both of us, have recently, decided to get married and will be in a marriage that I like to call a subversive marriage. Subversive marriages are based on an uncompromising equality and negotiations that serve for the betterment of both the partners. We have never believed in traditional gender roles and in conforming to them. We have shared work and responsibility both within and outside of the household. I know that on the day of the wedding people will find their own reasons for understanding why it is that we are marrying each other. But for me it is because we are both staunch supporters of equality, rights and justice.
I have never experienced violence or disrespect from my partner. We have differences which we resolve or negotiate but never wield power to bring them to an end. We walk together and have never cared who looks at us because the odd-ness in our relationship makes me hopeful of a less superficial, stringent and heteronormative society where love truly is unconditional and is not accompanied by societal baggage. I hope for a marriage for us that is filled with negotiations and odd-ness because being perfect entails too much pressure.
Note: My partner and I met when we were 19. I have thought about these issues for many years and writing this piece hasn’t been easy because somewhere you know that making height (or any factor for that matter) an issue to make someone uncomfortable with their relationship is outrageous, especially when there are more pressing matters in the world. I remember a photo (given above) where a little African-American girl is saying, “All the problems in the world today and you’re mad ’cause my parents don’t match?” I wish all of us could be as smart as this little girl.