Perhaps no book can make a single woman feel as singularly out of depth as one on marriage. Especially if the woman in question is not willing to conform to failing concepts – traditional gender roles, endogamy and, some may argue, marriage itself. This may seem like a cynic’s approach to the institution, but is marriage still the gold medal one aims for in a loving, sexual relationship?
Which is why Knots for Keeps, an anthology on modern marriage edited by journalist and author Sathya Saran, is a tricky book to write about, even if it is an interesting read. Don’t be put off by Saran’s two-page meditation on what marriage is. Instead, look at it as a foreshadowing of what “happily ever after” might be – deceptively long and boring in parts, but a solid commitment that goes a long way. Saran’s introduction notwithstanding, the anthology boasts immersive essays and short stories by writers including Sharanya Manivannan, Neha Dixit, Kalyan Ray, Rita Mukherjee, Chitra Viraraghavan and Bulbul Sharma, along with the odd poem by Prasoon Joshi.
What makes a modern marriage?
For an anthology on “modern marriage”, the book does not really define what that implies. The obvious assumption then, going by most of the writing in the book, is that the modern marriage is urban, privileged and based on romantic love. There are Bulbul Sharma and Chitra Viraraghavan’s short fictional stories of two different urban couples – a pair that comes together in their differences and another that fights and eventually splits because of them – Krishna Shastri Devulapalli’s short story about an NRI husband and wife trying to assert authority over each other, Kalyan Ray’s moving essay on his and Aparna Sen’s bi-continental, long distance marriage of more than two decades and Modhurima Sinha’s aversion to rituals but a secret fascination for the sindhoor ceremony – all the stories are unabashedly upper class. The only variant is journalist Neha Dixit’s essay on runaway couples who try to find solace under the Special Marriages Act but are deceived by the gatekeepers of the law themselves.
But then again, is modern marriage so easy to delineate? Definitely not, when you read Noor Zaheer essay about what happens when Muslim women decide to opt out of living with their spouses. As much as the choice to come together defines marriage, the choice to part is also a way to describe its modernity – one is the beginning and the other is the end. Reading Deeksha Nagar’s essay on the many marriages that defined her childhood – love, arranged, secret, knotty – tells us that perhaps the rosy picture of marriages might just exist in our movies, after the lead couples have sung their duets, fought villains and declared their love. The ones we see every day are anything but simple; they’re complex and gritty. But even our movies have sobered up for the better. As much as a Veere Di Wedding is a marker of the modern marriage – affluent and privileged – so are Sairat and Kadhal, which showed us the grave consequences of love that is forbidden by society.
Single in India
Ironically, the essay that really stands out in a book about marriage, is one on living a single life. Sharanya Manivannan provides the kicker early on: “to reject marriage is not the same as to reject partnership”. She goes on to ruminate beautifully that to refuse matrimony, an institution that benefits men more than women, is also a fulfilling way to love and live.
However, Manivannan is far from alone. India’s single women are currently making history by being the largest number to ever exist in the country, at over 70 million. Realistically, a sizeable number of women will go through the motions as expected, but this is still a sea change for a country that always aims to put its women through the most ritualistic of experiences at any age.
Does this number tell us that marriage is a dying institution in India? Hardly so. The most recent Census data tells us that most women get married between 25 and 35, so the number may be an eyewash. Our Facebook and Instagram stories tell us that day after day that women still opt for glitzy ceremonies that not only celebrate tradition but also uphold endogamy. Arranged marriages make for 90 percent of all marriages in India and divorce rates currently stand at 1 percent. In the absence of a definition in the book, here’s what should come to define the modern marriage: the dismantling of prejudices and patriarchy, increasing the ease with which couples can opt for a civil ceremony and a light at the end of the tunnel should you wish to exit. After all, even if a couple isn’t bound together by law, they are bound together by the simple act of choice.
Knot For Keeps, edited by Sathya Saran, Harper Collins India.