Who is the male and who is the female in a heterosexual relationship?
This is a two-pronged question because you are asking about both identity and role. In other words, you are asking what they bring to the table and how they behave when they come to the table. These roles shift across landscapes, generations, and economic conditions. We see the effects of these shifts across time and space, but dealing with them is not easy for those who are going through them!
I’ve been a card-carrying member of the punch-in-punch-out tribe for a few years. And frankly, I hate it now. I feel overpaid for work that a high-school student could do just as well. The corporate world with all its regulars – the sycophants, the status-quo pushers, the climbers, the back-stabbers – I am through with them. The obsessive hunt for profits above all else, especially at the cost of our loyal customers, doesn’t energise me anymore. At this crossroads in my life, can I choose to stop caring about the big bad world, and stay at home? I’ll raise the kids and cook the meals while my wife goes out to work instead?
Before you start off on a diatribe about how I’m a selfish person and a heartless husband who does not think twice about putting his wife out to work, please hear the case out completely.
My wife loves the corporate world. Where I see only rags and mangled torsos festooning the upper reaches, she sees fairy lights and Santa Claus. All the stuff I hate about that world gives her a warm fuzzy feeling that I feel only at home.
When I am by myself, I enjoy my reading and writing. Not having my own career to worry about lets me join her wherever her career takes her, sharing all the ups and downs together.
How is this a bad thing?
– “Will the writer’s mother please take the witness stand?”
– “Ma? You? I thought you would be on my side!”
– “Whatever gave you that dangerous notion? As soon as I heard about your stupid plan, I came rushing down. You will do no such thing, son! Oh, the shame!”
– “Shame was the last thing on your mind when you let me – nay, encouraged me to play with the maid’s children when I was a kid. If caste and class hold no importance for you, why this sudden U-turn on gender roles?”
– “For starters, you’re the man! Why on earth would you even be thinking about taking care of the kids? That’s the woman’s job. And if she can’t hold her job and her kids at the same time, then to hell with her career!”
– “Wow, that is really sexist, ma. Her kids? I thought I was born to both you and Pa!“
– “I knew you’d get that one on me. Fine, what about money? She’ll be making a lot less money than you are, won’t she? How will you manage?”
– “Oh, the sexism doesn’t stop! She’s making twice as much as I make right now. I bring home the small change, and she takes care of the house payments. Gone are the days when women were paid less than men!”
– “And what if she runs away with some suave, dashing man from her office, while you’re sitting at home in your pajamas, drinking tea all day long and changing nappies?”
– “No, ma. I trust her not to.”
There’s a difference between rules and conventions. A rule is: “Don’t drink rat poison if you want to live”. A convention is: “Lets all decide to drive on the left side of the road so that people aren’t confused about which way to go”. It is the same thing here: it’s a convention that men work and women cook, not a rule. We’re free to break it if that’s what makes us happy.
Newscaster: “In a moment straight out of the 2016 Hindi movie Ki and Ka, a young couple in urban India has decided to swap roles in the husband-wife relationship. We go to Aarti, our reporter on the ground, for more details. Aarti?”
Aarti: “Hi, Mongu. Unfortunately, the couple themselves have fled town to escape the media attention, but I’ve got some people here with me who knew them well. Good evening, sir. Please tell us your name and how you knew the couple?”
Bystander: “Hello. I am Bhaskar. I’ve been friends with them for four years.”
Aarti: “So, do you think they did the right thing?”
Bhaskar: “Right? What is right?”
Aarti: “Right? I-I-I mean…”
Bhaskar: “Do you think you’re doing the right thing?”
Aarti: “What am I doing?”
Bhaskar: “Needlessly meddling around with people’s personal affairs!”
Aarti: “But, sir, surely people deserve the right to know!”
Bhaskar: “People want the luxury of being titillated, and you fulfill that need. You bring out the Peeping Tom in all of us. There was always a need for gossip in our society; we are social animals, after all. But you kick it up several notches, making voyeurs out of us. You, the media, are exactly like us, with the same needs and desires, but with one massive difference. You have the unfortunate power to galvanise public opinion on just about anything.”
[Bhaskar takes a deep breath and continues:] “You asked me what is right. This was a decision made between husband and wife. What happens between husband and wife stays between them, and it doesn’t behoove us to meddle in it. Come, I’ll buy you lunch. Let’s talk about other things instead.”
Aarti: “Yes, that does sound like a good idea. Lets go!”
Newscaster: “Aarti? Aarti! Hey, come back! The nation still wants to know what happened between husband and wife!”
– “So is this what you really want to do? Stay at home while I’m out working?”
– “Yup. I’ll take care of the kids, and cook. So you can go out do what makes you happy.
– “But why?”
– “Remember how perplexed you used to be when you met someone who threw away a career after marrying?”
– “Yeah, it happened just last week too. I’ll never figure that one out!”
– “I’m beginning to understand that there is a counter-argument to leaving one’s career.”
– “And that is?”
– “People look for happiness in all kinds of places. You could find it in your hearth and home, enjoying good health, in the company of people who love you. But most people choose to venture far and wide in search of fleeting glimpses of fame and money, hoping that that will give them happiness.”
– “Are you trying to insult me? Because it’s working!”
– “Au contraire, madame! I’m merely stating that there are different perspectives on the subject of happiness. Who are we to judge the merits and demerits of either approach? We can only try to make sense of it at best.”
– “Back up a bit. So you’ve already decided to do this?”
– “No. We have to concur first. For better or for worse, marriage is a two-way street.”
– “And what if I don’t accept?”
– “Then I go back to my job.”
– “And if I agree, what about people? What will they say?”
– Remember Aesop’s fable about the man, his son and his donkey? I’ll never forget its lesson: “Please all, and you will please none.”
Cover still from Ki and Ka (2016)