Vaidehi Raman, 38, is among the proponents of a reasonably late marriage. She dismisses the notion that getting married early allows one to grow with the person one marries. ‘You grow out of it very quickly,’ she says, wryly. A technical writer and quality controller by profession, Vaidehi married when she was just 21, right out of college, and before she had taken up a job. Her husband was seven years older.
Marriage threw her into the world that was entirely different from the one she had grown up in. Her father was in government service, and so she grew up mostly in the North. When they moved to Madras, she spoke very little Tamil and was far more comfortable with English and Hindi. Marrying a man who didn’t speak Hindi was something she could deal with, but she was to find out the milieu she was marrying into was drastically different from the one she was raised in.
‘I grew up wearing jeans and skirts, but there were all these ground rules when I got married. He forbade my wearing chikankari salwars. I used to love them, and I would always wear them with a slip, but he wouldn’t allow it. Jeans were not allowed. And there were these other instructions—don’t stand outside the house, don’t talk to my friends … the thing is, you won’t take any of it when you’re older, but at 21, I was very innocent. I would think, “Oh, my husband should be happy, I should do what he likes, I should be what he wants me to be.” It’s only later that you realise there’s nothing wrong with wanting happiness for yourself”
She hadn’t spent much time with her to-be husband—-she was married to him within two months of the first meeting—- and so she had no idea what sort of person he was. ‘We didn’t spend time together at all. He never took me out. His reasoning was that, if people saw us together, and then the marriage was called off for some reason, no one else would marry me. If someone says that when you’re a bit older, you would sense the paranoia and conservativeness. But as a 21-year-old, you don’t realize that it makes no sense. It all hits you in retrospect.’
While Vaidehi hesitates to make a blanket statement and acknowledges that everything depends on the kind of person one marries, and whether one is able to adapt to a new situation, she believes maturity is a crucial factor in knowing how to handle a relationship.
‘It also depends on the way you’ve been brought up. If you’ve seen a lot of conflict in your family, you know it happens, and that it gets resolved. If you’re coming in from a cocoon, and you’re suddenly exposed to a conflict situation, you don’t know what to do, and then the trouble starts- In my case, it had been just the three of us—me and my parents—all my life, and we never had big disagreements; Everything was just. Of course, we had small fights, but no one ill-treated anybody.’
The rules she had to follow in her husband’s home were bad enough, but Vaidehi began to feel the lack of support intensely when she became pregnant, soon after marriage. ‘My mother- in-law used to make one big vessel of kara kuzhambu (a type of spicy sambar) in the morning, and some oily vegetable, and I would have only that to eat till night. I wasn’t allowed to cook. My husband’s salary went directly to his mother, and I wasn’t earning, so I had no access to money, and I couldn’t buy food from outside. What do you do when you’re not able to handle something when you’re pregnant, or when you find it too repulsive to eat? Are you supposed to starve the whole day?’
Her husband didn’t come to her defence; he expected her to toe his mother’s line. She had no one to turn to, except her parents and they would ask her to adjust. ‘They would tell me you have to pull on, things will be fine. At that age, you can’t discuss these things with your friends. You feel so ashamed and so disgusted that you’re in that kind of situation and that you can’t do anything about it.’
Often, she would find herself sitting alone, in tears. Things got worse when she bad to handle a baby, on top of a complicated relationship, at 22. Her husband would go out with his friends on weekends while Vaidehi was left alone with the baby, and her mother-in-law, who didn’t help much with the child.
‘Every time I asked him to take me out, he would say it was too expensive, and that I didn’t know the value of money because I wasn’t earning. It used to hurt me very much back then, but then you slowly get hardened to these things. Time has a way of moulding you. The more and more you’re exposed to hardship, the fewer things pierce through your armour. It’s the tougher things that hurt you. After a few more years, even those won’t hurt you. And then, finally, you start giving in to your situation. It can turn into Stockholm Syndrome almost.’
Vaidehi speaks of cases in the newspapers, where women are ill-treated by their in-laws, especially when something untoward-—such as a death—occurs soon after the wedding, and that is associated with the ill luck a bride brings.
‘That’s another problem in our society. People illogically blame the woman for everything,’ Vaidehi says. ‘Even in my case, my husband didn’t get along with many of his relatives; but the neighbours used to think they didn’t come home because I wasn’t warm enough. These things are especially hard to endure when you’re too young to know the world.’
Of course, there are women who go through emotional and physical abuse, who are not even allowed to stay in touch with their parents and siblings, There are those who are so traumatized they commit suicide, or who succumb with docility to everything they must endure, and blame it all on fate. Most fall into severe depression. And such marriages are not restricted to uneducated women, or women from low- income families.
Knowing what a bad marriage could do, Vaidehi was tempted to walk out of her own. Every time she brought it up with her parents, they would talk her out of it. Eventually, they
came to live with Vaidehi, so that they could help her out. That came about by chance.
Raman had always wanted to marry a working woman, but once he met Vaidehi, he changed his mind. However, he began to insist that she go to work, after marriage. She did take up a job but found that her toddler wasn’t being looked after well enough by her mother-in-law. ‘Thankfully, my sister-in- law wanted her to come live with her, and so she moved out. When Raman wanted me to continue working, I insisted that I needed my parents to move in with us. So, he had no choice. Luckily for me, my parents agreed. They sold their flat, gave me the money to use as down payment for a bigger flat, and moved in.’
Vaidehi says it isn’t easy managing a home that houses both one’s parents and husband. ‘Your husband will start complaining that your mother watches TV at home, your mother will start complaining that your husband doesn’t give the servant space to clean up properly, and everyone gives the maid a separate set of instructions. But, fortunately, rapport or no rapport, my parents have stayed on with me.’
Initially, her husband threatened to walk out of the house every time there was a dispute. Vaidehi’s friends told her it wasn’t a good idea to live with her parents. But she remained firm. ‘I’m very clear about this—they will stay with us. For one thing, they’re getting old and I’m their only child. For another, they are my support system, and they’ve kept me sane. And for a third, they sold their house so I could buy one… do you really expect me to ask them to move to rented accommodation?’
Her advice to women who are looking to get married is:
- First, get to know your prospective husband, make sure he’s someone you can get along with, you’re compatible with
- Lay down the rules, and see that you’re not simply taking over chores from his mother or maid or both—that is compromise with no hope of reprieve
- If you know it’s not working, walk out before it’s too late
- If you can’t walk out, turn to your parents, and keep them with you
‘Honestly, my parents are the reason I’m standing here, alive, with my child here today,’ she says, ‘And though there were times when I felt entrapped, I somehow mustered the courage not to yield to him. Say what you will, do what you will, if you want to leave me, you can; but they will stay.’
The parents’ role in the marriage
Though Vaidehi says her parents have been there for her, she isn’t able to get over her resentment against them for getting her married to Raman.
‘Even though my parents are helping me now, every time there is a disagreement, or unpleasantness, the first thing I do is blame them. And this is the first sentence out of my mouth—either you should have waited till I had got a job and was older, or you should have done a thorough background check to find out what he’s all about, or given me some time to understand things about him, or you should have let me leave him when I wanted to. It’s a life you’re playing with. It’s not like you chose a wrong subject, and can quit your course and choose the right one next year. It’s sad when a marriage doesn’t work the way it should.’
One of the biggest problems with the arranged marriage system is that a lot of parents feel getting their daughters married off is a duty they need to tick off a list, Vaidehi says, whereas the first thing they need to realize is that the issue is making sure their daughters are happy, not that their daughters are married.
In many cases, they may not even be willing to help the daughter out, or claim any ownership of or responsibility for her after marriage. There are those parents who would be too concerned about the freedoms they would have to give up—living in their own space, watching what they want on television, and having to accommodate the preferences of their daughters’ in-laws—to consider moving in with their daughters.
Vaidehi admits she is lucky that her parents did not hesitate to give up all of that. But she wishes they had; supported her when she first said she wanted to walk out of her marriage, a year into it. ‘If only they had said then that I could get a job, they would help me with the baby, I would be better off, I feel. At 22; you don’t have the guts to walk out into the street, alone with a baby. At least; I didn’t.’
However, perhaps because he was raised by her parents, her son has become part of her support system too. ‘Now, my husband has toned down because my son puts his foot down, and argues with him, and talks back to him in a way that I couldn’t.’
Knowing when to leave
While Vaidehrs marriage has got better with time, it isn’t the life she would have chosen had she been a few years older, she says. ‘Of course, even then, if I’d not been employed, I might have had trouble. Because the moment you start earning, it makes a big difference. You know you can manage on your own, you know you actually don’t need a man. What do you need a man for?’
And the most dangerous thing with being submissive in a marriage is that it can spill over to the rest of one’s life, especially when one is young.
‘Even at work, that used to happen to me. I would be a pushover. I used to be shocked at how people could behave so badly, how they could treat other people like that. But then I realised that’s how you should be if you want people not to walk all over you. It’s changed my perspective completely. And now, I give it right back to him when he tries to put me down. It gives me the satisfaction that at least I’m not a dumb witness to what is going on here.’
But she warns that this could take a toll on children. ‘When you’re fighting all the time, your kid won’t have much respect for either of you nor will he feel secure and happy. And however, determined you are, you will end up having arguments in front of your kids.’
Vaidehi feels it’s a bad idea to stay on in a marriage for the children. It isn’t healthy for them to be exposed to an ugly environment. ‘And I’ve been lucky in that my child stands up for me. The thing is, mothers tend to keep their children away from knowing about the turbulence in a marriage—we imagine they won’t sense it. Whereas, some men poison their children against their wives. There are a lot of women I know whose children despise them, and prefer the father. On the other hand, even if this is not the case, once the children get used to a particular kind of lifestyle, the kind that a double income will provide, it becomes too hard to leave.’
Yet, she says there are some things no woman should take—such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or infidelity—even if she has children. ‘You must walk out of something like that because even if they don’t understand now, they will understand why you had to do it later when they’re older. If something like that had happened, I would have left.’
It’s not that hard to figure out whether a marriage can work. ‘There are small things, insignificant things that men do for their wives. It could be as simple as making soup or hot rasam when you have a fever. Those are the little things that show you they love and respect you. Respect has to come from love, it can’t come without. So either you must be ready to say I don’t need love, from Day One. I don’t know if it would be a meaningful relationship, a true one. Anyway, the other option is realizing there’s no point living a farce, and walking out early enough.’