One day, at the beginning of the year that I turned twenty- four, I wept terribly as I came to terms with the knowledge that I would never be a young mother, the thing I had wanted all of my life. When my birthday arrived a few months later, I spent most of it with a couple who did not want me to be alone that day. At some point that afternoon, I leaned over or looked down during our conversation in a garden café, and noticed how one’s big toe softly caressed the other’s. They were both smiling, and a feeling of having intruded flared in me: Even when keeping me company, they were alone together, whereas I was alone solely.
As I write this, eight years have passed, but I have not forgotten the memory of accidentally sighting their feet casually grazing one another’s under the table, and how it made me feel.
This much deeper into an unpartnered life, this is the second thing I must tell anyone who wonders how this paradigm is possible – the ache will not go away.
But before that, here is the first thing I must tell anyone about finding a meaningful paradigm for an unpartnered life: It is possible.
Why should the natural state of the adult human being be partnership?
Let me be very clear. To reject marriage is not the same as to reject partnership. There are plenty of people in committed partnerships who prefer not to marry for any number of reasons – legal, ethical, emotional and otherwise. But to be unpartnered despite the desire for it, even with political sensibilities that critique the institution, is an experience of its own. The sharply honed critique does not fill certain voids; it does not put its arm around you as you sleep; it cannot slow-dance with you or hold your hand on a turbulent plane. But what it does is recalibrate your own sense of self-worth and how you move in the world, what you make possible for yourself – and for others.
To arrive at the state of non-partnership as a socio- political tool, one must work backwards, beginning with the interrogation of the institution of marriage. There is extensive feminist literature on the same, which tackles not just the deeply problematic nature of heteronormative household dynamics but also everything from sexist etymology (did you know the English word “husband” has its roots in agriculture, from Old Norse words that meant someone who owned and tilled land, the woman being a part of his property, and from which the term “husbandry”, as in “animal husbandry”, comes from?) to the clear-cut sexism of many ceremonial wedding customs we are now conditioned to think are romantic. Each patriarchal culture has its own set of specificities. In India, the practice of dowry despite its criminalisation and the continuing legality of marital rape are but two.
The deep intertwining of marriage and sexuality must also be challenged.
Consider the absurdity of the term “pre-marital sex”. What is that except the presumption that sex before marriage is out of the norm because marriage is an eventuality? These are not theoretical issues – not when you’re a sexually active woman in need of gynaecological attention, for example. Chennai – the city I live in and, significantly, spent my twenties in – is notorious for pharmacies refusing to stock emergency contraceptive pills. There is no logic to it besides moral shaming.
The profound shame of being a sexual woman, that shame deeply enforced by family, peer groups, one’s own lovers, random strangers, workplaces, authorities and organisations of all kinds – how that doesn’t radicalise more people into feminism, I do not understand.
Heterosexual cis-men benefit from marriage, a fact even health studies have proven. Is it in their best interests to challenge the institution? I would argue that it is. Subjectively, to have more equal partnerships is to have a richer life, and more broadly, to contribute to social justice is also to have a more meaningful life. But for women, the interrogation of matrimony and the prevailing systems it is built on and sustains is more than just a cerebral or experimental exercise. It is necessary for the survival of the sovereign self. Unpartnered or otherwise.
When I was five years old, my father reprimanded me gently once: “If this is how you disobey your father, is this what you will do, when you grow up, to your husband?” I hung my head and said, “I don’t want a husband then.” I remember this so clearly. It was a moment of awakening, of dual clarity – about what it meant to be a wife, and about how certain I was that I didn’t want such a role for myself. And as vexed as I have been by some of my failures in affairs of the heart, I also know there was never a time when I carried myself otherwise. I wear this like a scar on the chest, at once a matter of pride and a terrible wounding.
My theory of modern, particularly urban and middle- and upper-class, marriage in India can be explained with the fire trampoline analogy.
Picture it. The pleasure of having, of setting alight, many flames – followed by a skilled escape. Pseudo-liberalism allows for it: sex and dating, even full-fledged relationships, with an expiry date implied. No accountability is expected, and there may be a reward for bad behaviour. In other words, you can set a person’s house – or heart – on fire, jump off into the safety net you knew was waiting for you, look up and shout, “I always told you I’d marry a woman/man of my parents’ choosing!”
In tandem with the fire trampoline is that oxymoron, the arranged-cum-love marriage. The aspirational spin of romance put on the basic set-up of orthodoxy. A round of applause for the bride and groom, for the coincidence of falling in love within their sub-caste, for the coincidence of their matching birth charts, for the coincidence of how feudal it all seems (but it is only a coincidence, they shrug).
The mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his iconic conversation with Bill Moyers, spoke of marriage as a form of spiritual union. Among other things, he said, “When you make a sacrifice in marriage, you’re sacrificing not to each other but to unity in a relationship. The Chinese image of the Tao, with the dark and light interacting – that’s the relationship of yang and yin, male and female, which is what a marriage is. And that’s what you have become when you have married. You’re no longer this one alone; your identity is in a relationship. Marriage is not a simple love affair, it’s an ordeal, and the ordeal is the sacrifice of ego to a relationship in which two have become one.”
To paraphrase, if I have understood correctly, if you put the idea of being married, with its vast manner of contents and conveniences, as the foremost thing, if you aligned to it conceptually instead of adapting it to your subjective nature, you could basically make it work. I understand the romance of this idea, but I am alarmed by its fatalism. I think in particular of one man who looked like the sky had fallen on him in his wedding photographs, who I watched affirm repeatedly and to all and sundry how much he and his wife – his “chosen” one, his ordained consort – were in love with each other.
It’s not an unfamiliar story. “Say it long enough and maybe you’ll believe it too,” I hissed sardonically (out of earshot) at first – until I realised that it was true. He had chosen to be married. The to whom was incidental. The why was a mystery I conferred theory upon theory, and turned over and over like a pebble in a pocket. The how is the thing I cannot picture at all – the tedium of partnering, coupling and co-parenting without true love and respect.
This is why we are wrong to begin an original dismantling and reassembling of the institution of marriage from the angle of sex, even though it seems to be the most logical one.
It seems logical only because orthodox marriage is held to be the beginning of sexual activity, a milestone that is artificial in nature – and in fact, contrary to nature. But the discussion or performance of sexual liberation alone is insufficient if one ultimately still relies on and tiptoes around the security – perceived or otherwise – of the institution.
We must begin instead with the less apparent, the most deeply insidious and systematic, that comfort zone within which our immediate needs are taken care of as long as we perform the role adequately, be it groom or bride, father- in-law or new mother. Which is to say that before we begin to reshape the world, we must begin with ourselves.
I said earlier that a sharply honed critique cannot make up for a lack of partnership, particularly the physical and practical aspects of the same. But what it can do is firmly contextualise an unpartnered person as being a challenge to existing hegemony.
To be single can be radical, if one has enough of both self-awareness and empathy to be so. There is a new archetypal idea of the independent, unpartnered woman, largely fashioned through American television shows. She is outspoken. She has no qualms about spending her hard-earned money on what pleases her. She invests her time in her friendships and career, and seeks romance, but only in parallel to an already full life. She is sexually liberated.
I raise a toast to this epitome (and we know she’d never turn down a toast, particularly if it were in the form of a pink martini), which paved many a great path, but I also offer a fresh, indigenous archetype. Let me try and describe her, this blueprint for an unpartnered woman of this century.
She is as compassionate as she is passionate. She considers her privilege, and seeks to equalise it, so that more people can benefit from and access the routes she has been able to choose or pave for herself. She identifies ontologically with the Other without appropriating from them. She always considers the larger framework, be it the environment or the imagination. And yes, she buys her own jewellery. Yes, she lusts; yes, she travels alone. But that’s not all. That cannot, in so insular and hegemonic a time and place, be any more than the first impression.
When you rub up against the friction of a society that seeks to put you in what it deems to be your place every day, you’d be surprised how easy it is to become this woman.
I wish I could say that it is as easy to become that man, her perfect equal. But like for pearls-in-oysters and diamonds- in-coal, there has to be enough rub or pressure to create them, which is simply not there within the mechanism of heteropatriarchal society. That often leaves the independent woman more independent still.
In India, seven decades since the end of British colonial rule, we like to think both love and feminism are Western imports, and are wrong on both counts.
To work towards a homegrown political consciousness about the problematic institution of marriage, it is BR Ambedkar we must go to first. In a paper delivered at Columbia University, in 1916, called “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, he said, “As for myself I do not feel puzzled by the Origin of Caste in India for, as I have established before, endogamy is the only characteristic of Caste and when I say Origin of Caste I mean The Origin of the Mechanism for Endogamy.” In fact, he quite clearly elucidated the following: “I regard endogamy as a key to the mystery of the Caste system.” In this concise paper, one of the few points that hasn’t aged is about the practice of sati, which Ambedkar delineates using a theory about “surplus” women and men, about widowers being allowed to continue their sexual and household lives, while widows were killed or at best ostracised, explicitly showing in a local context the sexist (if not misogynistic) bedrock of the institution. All the rest of it, unfortunately, remains relevant.
A 2016 report from the National Council of Applied Economic Research found that only 5 per cent of Indian marriages are inter-caste. What this means is so obvious that it hardly requires explanation. For all our pretensions about progressiveness, for all our insistence that we believe in love and romance, the vast majority of Indians ultimately marry and mate in ways that confirm and perpetuate prejudices.
My parents had a film-style “love marriage”. They met in a medical college in Madras in the 1970s. He walked out of his family and abandoned his significant inheritance, taking a passport for the first time to go to her home in Sri Lanka to ask for her hand after close to a decade of courtship. He married into her family, incidentally the custom of the matrilocal, matrilineal society she came from on the east of the island. My family had that bafflingly intriguing mixture of conservatism and lack of convention that many highly dysfunctional ones do.
Suffice to say that my sisters and I were raised neither to know we could seek out and find love, nor to expect matrimony to come to us on a platter – approved and arranged; with betel leaves, vermillion powder and a sweet.
Have I wanted to marry? Yes, yes. Despite cautionary tales, despite intelligence, despite defiance, the conditioning is hard to shake loose. You fall in love and don’t realise how unthinkingly, how artlessly, you also fall in step with that trajectory, the idea that marriage follows love as hour follows hour.
But it was only for one year of my life that I really wanted it – in abstraction, without a locus of love in sight. In hindsight, I was at exactly the age (the rockstar’s treacherous twenty-seven) when most people make that decision, fearing societal disapproval and biological ticking clocks, although my reasons for it were darker. Bewildered, severely traumatised and in need of restructuring my entire life, I tried to put myself on some path that was not as untrodden as the one I’d always known.
I complied to the remedies that organised religion and the marriage-minded offered. In Tamil Hinduism, there are two kinds: the veynduthal and the pariharam. Veynduthals are votives; pariharams neutralise karmic complications. Doing the latter, you ask for absolution. Doing the former, you simply ask. I did a number of both things that year, obediently traipsing to temples with my parents, who, themselves bewildered, were only obediently traipsing along too. Varied prophecies, proved patently false, accompanied these expeditions. Not a single such entreaty worked, and in the few years that followed, my disappointments were compounded by how they seemed to work for almost everyone else. Including, most painfully of all, some of the objects of my affection. You don’t need to believe in the institution of marriage in order to be devastated by a beloved’s wedding.
There is a temple on the East Coast Road in a village called Thiruvidanthai, where Vishnu is Nithyakalyana Perumal – the Eternal Bridegroom. This temple is the ultimate failsafe for Hindu Tamils seeking matrimony; able people of all genders and ages participate in a ritual meant to expedite the same. The ritual consists of the following: Two garlands are bought and given to the priest at the sanctum sanctorum; one garland is given to the Lord, and the supplicant puts the other one around their neck and circles the temple nine times; this worn garland is then stored safely in one’s home, and its wearer brings it back to the temple with their partner once their marriage has been solemnised.
I have heard only two stories in which the supplicatory ritual has not yielded a wedding within months. One story belongs to one of my closest friends. The other is, of course, mine. I remember distinctly the December dusk in which I performed those circumambulations, as MS Subbulakshmi’s unmistakable voice on the speakers cantillated the 1008 names of the presiding deity. It was a beautiful hour to be in a 1,300-year-old temple. The garland I wore that evening hung in my home’s prayer room for a while. I believe my mother kept it in a drawer somewhere when it began to parch into potpourri. It must be dust by now. Flower dust. I don’t mean that as a metaphor at all.
Let me tell you about remedies.
For a glitch in the seventh house of your horoscope, wear a rose behind your ear. For the shame the “settled” force upon you, swallow tea steeped so long that the bitterness dreamed itself sweet. For jealousy, dance to music set to lyrics in a language you cannot understand except with your body. When that body reminds you it has neither homed a nestling ever nor a lover in so long, rub the violet grains of a kernel of pearl millet between your fingers and let the wind take them from you.
On the day when the one who has currently leased your heart ties the knot around someone else’s throat, place your feet in seawater. Watch the tide venture and recede over the silver you bought yourself: nuptial toe-rings, belled anklet vines. For the way it feels to fall asleep alone, fill the spaces you lodge in with the scent of bergamot. For long celibacy, bare your arms to the light as often as possible; let the sun sing to your skin. In this and all seasons, learn to love the singe.
Oh, and finally – the only cure for love is love.
It’s been a long time since I thought of the word yuanfen, but I was once shattered by the concept. I remember nothing else about the novel I came across the Chinese word in as a teenager, except that it was explained as something like this – the apportionment of love one is meant to have. I have come to accept, not without rue, that in my life this apportionment of mine is both smaller in dimension and larger in nature than I ever imagined it could be.
The human heart has a capacity beyond comprehension, and it can proffer just as much as it can hold. It regenerates. That no one has come to fill my heart in a certain way, that it has sometimes felt diminished by all those who sipped from it but did not stay, changes nothing about its nature. One learns love as a verb and as a state – in work and in art, in dialogue and in altruism, at home and in the world.
Those divorced after long marriages, and those who raise children on their own after having done so with a partner, have different stories to tell.
I wonder about that sometimes: to be agreeably embraced by the system and then to either willingly reject it or to grow comfortable with one’s rejection from it. I have never wanted, without doubt, to be inside – neither would I likely have been allowed it (for long, anyway). I have no sense of what that is like, for even in my most deferential and devoted apportionments of love, I have always been on the periphery. I would say the same of those I know who were married only briefly, and those who married only for the bureaucratic expediency. I would say the same of those who are partnered, but who resolutely reject heteronormative paradigms of what that should look like. I would say the same of everyone who is queer, especially in situations where it is not safe to be.
But I will also say that there are things no one can know about long loneliness without having lived it. Without the years turning page after page until you stop counting how long it has been since.
But the more I’ve talked and written about this, about all of the vulnerability and volition of being a romantic who refuses partnership or matrimony for its own sake or on unequal or unhappy terms, the more I’ve met with people who wanted to be reassured that this too can be a way to live and to love. Deeply. I have hungered for beaten paths too, for things to be easier, to have to explain myself less. In seeking to find a map, not knowing I would have to make so much of it up as I went along, I would like to think that I have at least helped one come into being.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Apportionments of Love’, by Sharanya Manivannan, from Knot for Keeps: Writing the Modern Marriage, edited by Sathya Saran, HarperCollins India.