“Nobody ever knows what goes on inside a marriage,” says a mother knowingly to her daughter who is struggling to make sense of her marriage while on a leisurely walk through New York’s Central Park. This is a scene from the book Gardens of Love: Stories of a Marriage, by Meera Godbole-Krishnamurthy. What we do know, however, is that the modern marriage, in its many forms and shades, is a fascinating, lively subject worthy of literary examination, again and again.
The “New Indian Marriage” is acquiring a distinctive entity that is far more consciously experienced than it ever used to be, observes psychiatrist Vijay Nagaswami in an essay in the anthology Knot for Keeps: Writing the Modern Marriage. How do couples with equally fervent ambitions make a marriage work? How do the marriages in the generations before us affect how the younger lot view matrimony? How does a modern woman who resolutely turns away from rituals of marriage make peace with the fact that she holds but one tradition close to her heart? In three new books, I found fresh and compelling perspectives on marriage in a contemporary context. In a mix of fiction, nonfiction and personal stories, men and women navigate a blend of new and old world order in hope, and in good humour.
Gardens of Love: Stories of a Marriage
Written and illustrated by Meera Godbole-Krishnamurthy
I don’t know about falling in love with a human being instantly, but when I spotted Gardens of Love on a shelf at a neighbourhood bookshop, it could only be described as love at first sight. This is perhaps what the author intended: the book is a visual delight. I have been sneaking daily glances at the cover illustration ever since, enchanted by a beautifully winding tree lit up by specks of green and red and yellow, with a bench under its shade and a carpet of grass around. It’s a teaser to what lies within: marvellous black and white full-page drawings by the author accompany each page of text.
The book follows a young couple as they reflect on the conflict that has driven them apart in the last few years. She is a landscape architect, he has moved away from the same profession to photography, which she holds against him, among other things. She likes symmetry, he cares less for it.
We discover the broken pieces of the relationship as the author takes us on an intricate guided tour (informed by her own background in architecture): through the tombs of Lodi Gardens, the ruins of Forum Romanum in Rome, the intelligently designed lushness of Central Park in New York and finally, coming to a happy ending – and a new beginning – at the kitschy greens of the Hanging Gardens in Mumbai. The illustrations capture the artistic details of each of the landscapes. We see what the protagonists in the book see.
These four episodes that play out in architecturally very varied spaces follow conversations and silences between the couple, and also between the woman and her mother, and the man and his father. Along the way, our characters probe the ebb and flow of a marriage troubled by the burden of expectations and the clash of individual pursuits. These travels also reveal childhood memories and resentments and how they feed into the marriage in question.
Godbole-Krishnamurthy juxtaposes the landscapes of the four historic spaces with the ragged edges of these relationships, peppering the conversations helpfully with generous bits of history (some of it via the woman looking up Wikipedia on her phone, a nice touch). As the conversations flow, there is an intimate sense of catharsis through an ever so gentle, nuanced probe into modern marriage. All through the refreshing lens of the architecture of nature and history.
Knot For Keeps: Writing the Modern Marriage
Edited by Sathya Saran
A book cover designed like a wedding invitation in golden and silver tones invites us to ponder over a collection of essays on marriage made up of different hues. Like most anthologies, not all the writings are equally inspired but there are many worthy stories here that ride on themes of our times. Sharanya Manivannan’s opening piece, “Apportionments of Love” is an exquisite, immensely personal essay on what it means to be single, along with her humour-laced theories on the institution of marriage – and sex – in a modern, urban context, which I have to say, are spot on.
Kalyan Ray’s recounting (“My Bi Continental Marriage”) of making his marriage to filmmaker Aparna Sen work across continents, helped along by good humour and maturity (brought on by a few divorces between them, no doubt) has an old world charm and is the kind of love story everyone loves to hear at a party.
Rita Mukherjee, who died before the book was released, writes in “A Life Sentence” about how it is possible for love to soar when in fact the relationship is severely threatened by a terminal illness. And what happens when a corrupt system threatens to hold up marital bliss? Journalist Neha Dixit, writing in “The Cost of a Runaway Marriage” did not envisage what it entailed when she and her partner chose to marry through the Special Marriage Act. Linking her personal experience to the stories of runaway couples seeking to formalise interfaith marriages, she paints a grim and bewildering picture.
I especially liked designer Wendell Rodricks’s moving piece “Across Latitudes and Longitudes” on a “love doomed to live between the lines”. When he writes, “Heterosexuals have it so easy”, you know how much perspective matters. In Knot for Keeps, the personal stories clearly trump the fictional pieces, save for Milan Vohra’s plucky, stylised story “What I Hate Most”, written in the manner of a “he said, she said”, with a twist.
The Story of a Long Distance Marriage
Ira and Rohan are a likeable millennial couple. You know them. A pair of 27-year-olds who have low-paying jobs, just enough to pay the rent at their little flat in Delhi’s Shahpur Jat urban village and have a bit left over. They romance at JNU and the once-charming lake-facing cafes at Hauz Khas Village and settle cosily into married life.
Till Ira decides to quit her job and pack her bags to move to New York for a couple of years to study. Rohan, who works at a newspaper, believes he is a modern, supportive husband, who will care for the house and their dog, Momo, while Ira goes on to live her dream. There’s always Whatsapp and Facebook to count on to bridge the distance. But, as the days apart turn into months, it increasingly appears that he undermined Ira and her quiet demeanour, and indeed, the dynamics of their marriage and what it meant to her.
Inamdar writes this everyday story with much affection, with the little details and lived in feel that a reader who has lived in Delhi will appreciate. His voice as Rohan is dominant, offering us a protagonist who may not be as progressive as he thinks he is, but one who is willing to examine what it means to be an equal partner once the mask is off. In Ira, we have a modern woman who’s kind and compassionate but isn’t afraid to see things for what they are and say it like it is, in her own time. The book thrives on an easy, pacy style, creating a sweet story that stops short of being mushy as we watch a troubled marriage looking for meaning and depth in times when the norms are being redefined.