Shwetha Srinivasan knew that she would be married off before she turned 23. Early marriages are the norm in her family, and she had broken a barrier by waiting until she hit her twenties.
However, she wasn’t going to let marriage and children get in the way of her studies or career. She knew she would have to be clever about planning her life. She would eventually have a lucrative run in the IT industry, do her MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, and segue into brand management for a well-known company—and have a child before she turned 30. This is the story of how she did it all.
‘I have one cousin, who’s six to seven years older, and she was married off in her third year of B.Com.,’ she laughs, ‘so, I pre-negotiated terms with my parents. When I was in the twelfth, I told them I would mess up my board exams unless they promised to let me finish my degree in peace. In college, I gave them that choice again. Finally, they said they would give me two years after my Bachelor’s degree, in which time I could work, do my MS, stay at home, whatever. But they would start looking in the second year, and would get me married by the end of that year. When I turned 22, my entire family was in a panic about me.’
Shwetha was not allowed to date—‘my mother would have thrown me off the balcony’—and, anyway, she says she couldn’t seriously see herself with anyone. ‘When you’re 21—22, the guys who are into you are 23—24. Their idea of love is DDLJ. They’ll watch that, and come give you a bouquet. And seeing that bouquet would give my mother palpitations.’
As her time began to run out, Shwetha gave her family ‘a lot of KPIs [Key Performance Indicators]’ that her prospective husband should satisfy.
‘My first condition was that he should be from my school. My family persuaded me to consider people from an equally reputed one. Then, my second was that he must have done his engineering degree from a good college—no Dindugal College of Engineering types; it had to be Anna University. And he should have at least one degree higher than I did. I was already a B.Tech. And I knew a guy with all this would most likely be in the US, so I gave them one more condition—I would not marry anyone who was outside India.’
Her parents managed to find a groom with a PhD, who lived in Bangalore. She made a final attempt at putting off marriage, saying she wouldn’t marry anyone who was more than four years older than she was—the groom her parents had found was seven years older.
‘And then, they said no one could have studied as much as I wanted them to study by the time they were 25—26, so I would have to wait a few years if I wanted to limit the age gap to four years. By that time, boys like this would be snapped up. I couldn’t argue with that logic. So, I made two big compromises—school and age.’
The two of them spoke to each other over a month, getting to know each other. ‘That itself was apparently too long, by our parents’ standards. My mother said that within a week they knew from the way we were talking to each other that this would work out. There had been only one guy before him, and I really didn’t like that one at all. So anyway, at the end of the month, we thought we were calling the shots and announced that we were okay with marriage. But the parents went, “Oh, yeah, we knew. The engagement is on such-and-such day, the wedding is at such-and-such venue”, and we were like, hello?!
How does one figure out whether someone is right for one? ‘You don’t know!’ Shwetha says simply, ‘I could give you some gyan like, “Ohhhh, you look into his eyes and you just know”, but fact is, you don’t. 3fou go in blind. Especially at that age, at 22—23, unless a man is psycho and brands you with cigarette butts, you won’t’ be able to even make the decision to walk out. It’s a risk, a big one. You have no clue, you don’t know anything about him, all you know is it’s a leap of faith. You do the math. If the family backgrounds are similar and you’re from the same caste, you assume you won’t have problems with cuisine. Then you check horoscopes, and do your permutations and combinations of what is right and what is wrong, and you have it in black and white. So, that filters out some of the risk.’
Though it isn’t particularly modern to believe in horoscopes, Shwetha feels they give one a sense of clarity. But she was firm that she did not want horoscopes coming in after she had met someone. ‘I told them to do their homework, examine his hair, check his teeth, do whatever, and then put me in touch after they were satisfied with everything. Don’t check horoscopes and say it doesn’t work after telling me this awesome guy exists, or making me meet him. I don’t want that sort of mess. I don’t know how many matches passed me by because of the horoscope thing, but I didn’t feel the frustration of knowing this was standing in the way of a good match because my parents didn’t tell me about any prospect unless the horoscopes were compatible. Thing is, everyone is scared of what people will say if something goes wrong after marriage. The first thing people want to know is, “Didn’t you check horoscopes? ” And it’s mostly out of fear of that, that people check, I think.’
However, all the math and checklists in the world can’t prepare a woman for marriage, Shwetha says. One assumes a similar background means a similar home, but the way the in-laws run a home may be very different from the way one’s parents do.
‘There will be a lot of problems in the beginning—a lot more protocol, a lot more permissions,’ she says, ‘Marriage brings some amount of liberty, in the sense that you’re considered grown-up enough to make your own decisions. But now and then, something crops up, for which you’re expected to consult everyone. Little things come as a shocker.’
In Shwetha’s case, her in-laws had far more conservative views than her parents. Her mother-in-law sat her down and told her they observed a certain code of conduct when women were menstruating. ‘It was considered unclean in their house. At my place, it was no big deal. It was a private thing. You wouldn’t go to temples, but you don’t announce to everyone that it’s because you have your period. I was completely bewildered when my mother-in-law told me this, because my trip was—why should everyone know?’
Dealing with the in-laws: pick your battles
Shwetha didn’t have to live with her in-laws, since she and her husband were based in Bangalore, and the in-laws in Chennai. But she did have to stay with them on certain occasions, like Pongal and Deepavali.
‘My idea of waking up early is 5.30 in the morning,’ she says. ‘But the entire household would be up at 4 a.m. That’s a little too much, no? The worst part is no one will tell you these things. They expect you to sense it. It’s not like they’ll come and shake you awake or splash a bucket of water on you. They will be up and about, and you know you can’t sleep in, because then it’ll be like, “Ooooh, the daughter-in-law is still asleep!” If they tell you what to do, you can follow it. But there’s this austere, disapproving, deafening silence.’
The toughest part of the deal was coordinating her siesta timings. Her in-laws would wake up at 4 a.m. and then sleep from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Shwetha’s day would begin at 11 a.m. irrespective of when she woke tip, and she would feel ,sleepy by 3 p.m.
‘Just when I’m about to doze off, they’ll wake up and gasp because there’s no coffee in the house. Aaaaaaargh!’ she shudders.
But being a young bride doesn’t mean one has to be a timid bride, and Shwetha says it is important to lay down one’s terms, She had to travel frequently between Bangalore and Chennai on work, and her in-laws expected her to stay with them and not with her parents, ‘When my husband is around, I can understand that I must stay with my in-laws. But even when he’s not there, they’d want me to stay with them because I was supposedly their property now, and that’s the protocol. I said, well, balls to you.’
She told them she would visit them, but would stay with her parents. ‘If I’m in Chennai for five days, then maybe I’d spend one night at their place. That became a big fight. You ask your parents, they’ll tell you that you have to adjust. And your husband will have no clue how to tackle this. He can’t go against his parents and say, “Let my wife do what she wants”, because then they’ll be like, “Ohhhhh, she’s got him wrapped around her little finger!”’
Shwetha’s husband told her to deal with it however she saw fit, and opted to stay out of the controversy. Her in-laws resented her insistence on staying with her parents in the beginning, but over time things settled down.
‘The thing is that you can’t take crap from your in-laws. Even now, eight years after I got married, they say stuff like, “It isn’t proper for your parents to visit you so often.” I immediately I retorted with, “What do you mean, it’s not proper? They come here to help me with the baby. You didn’t offer to, so why do you have a problem with my parents stepping in?”
The moment you say that out loud, you become the bad guy. But then they’ll know you’ll give it right back to them, and they won’t mess with you. For all this to happen, it’s important to have your husband’s support. If he says, “How dare you speak to my parents like that?”, of course things will get ugly. It’s with these small things that your husband will really help you. Sometimes, he says do what you want. Sometimes, he’ll say, “Why do you want ta -bother getting into a fight now? Just compromise this once, no?” So that’s how you figure out whether he’s right for you.’
Shwetha also found a support system in her husband’s brother’s wife, who has it easier, since she lives abroad. ‘She comes in for ten days every year or every two years, and she won’t bring jeans along. She has an ‘India wardrobe’, with some ten saris and salwars. And when she’s here, there will be some wedding in the family, and she’ll put on her nine-yard sari, and be the picture-perfect daughter-in-law. Once, my parents- in-law asked me to take a cue from her. I told them outright, “I can play the dutiful daughter-in-law for ten days a year too; I can’t put on an act all year round.” They were shocked. But then, they went and stayed with her for some six months, and finally figured out they had two terrible daughters-in-law.’
With a laugh, Shwetha says she and her sister-in-law are really good friends. ‘Once she does that weekly Skype chat with them, she calls me up, and laughs for some five minutes non-stop. She tells me everything they’re going to crib about, and we get it all out of our system. So, when I speak to them, I can be all silent and downcast, without getting into hysterics.’
It also helps that her parents-in-law are too inexpressive for tiffs to turn into shouting matches. ‘When they’re elated, you’ll see a halfway smile on their faces. When they’re pissed, they turn quiet. With my father-in-law, well, if you want to understand how he operates, I can draw a parallel to the programming world. He’s like a simple “C” program. He initializes himself at the start of every year, allocates around 400 words in his memory space. So, it’s ‘ptr = malloc (400)’, That’s all he speaks, and it’s distributed evenly among children, daughters-in-law and everyone else. From that, you take off Happy New Year, Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary, Happy Deepavali, Happy Pongal and all of that, and then you have 200 left. That’s spent on hi, hello, how are you, come in and so on. After that, even if he wants to speak more, he can’t, because the word limit is exhausted. It’s what happens when you move the pointer beyond the allocated memory—the “C” program tries to dereference a null pointer, and core dumps. So he will core dump if he talks more. Instead, he sends me all these emails, stating which areas I’ve disappointed him in, and where I must improve. I find it hilarious. He has his own list of KPIs, and he puts down details of why he has the perception that I don’t love them enough and so on. Now, my theory of 400 words holds good, so he can’t talk to me, he only writes. It’s just too funny!’
However, the hardest part of a marriage is not so much dealing with in-laws as putting food on the table, Shwetha says.
Irrespective of whether one has a cook or not, it’s the wife who has to plan for it, buy the groceries and confront the realities of running a house.
‘For me, it was especially difficult, because I had never been away from home, either while studying or while working, for two years before marriage. And things were crazy after marriage because I was constantly travelling. So for some two years, we continued to live in his bachelor pad. You know how that is—he thought a doormat needn’t really be a doormat, it could be an old banian!’
Studying after marriage
Shwetha had always wanted to do an MBA, right from when, she was in college. Her husband had had the luxury of time to finish studying before marriage, whereas she hadn’t.
‘See, I was adamant-—-read, foolish—-enough to say, if I don’t do an MBA from IIM, I would not do one at all. Waiting till after marriage was not a choice. My courtship with CAT was long enough to make a The Bold and the Beautiful season … don’t judge me, I didn’t really watch those. But seriously, that ambition to do an MBA was always there, and didn’t go away when I got married.’
Though she had to devote a chunk of her time to running the house, and share the rest between herself and her spouse, Shwetha’s desire to get her IIM-branded MBA stayed strong. She says her husband encouraged her to go ahead. ‘Well, actually, it was the reverse psychology that totally worked. I got in.’
She was juggling work and a part-time MBA. At this time, she decided she could throw a baby into the mix. She was getting older, and she wanted to have a baby before she hit the ‘30 barrier’. Shwetha explains, ‘When you go to a gynaecologist, the first thing she’ll ask you is how old you are. At 25, you just have to do the basic blood tests. Once you cross 26, they ask you to do a gestational diabetic test, and so on. Once you’re 30, there’s trouble—you have to do a lot more.’
All around her, colleagues and classmates who were in the 28—29 age group were rushing to have their first children before they turned 30. Seeing them all have babies, take three months off and come back, reassured Shwetha that she could do it too.
‘It worked well for me, but again, it was a big risk. Thankfully, you’re allowed to take a break for a quarter or two, while doing a part-time MBA. Also, doing all this can get stressful, and you need to be careful about your health when you’re pregnant. So, I gave up my job, and just saw to the MBA and having the baby.’
With time on her hands, she found that she could study a lot better. Once she had the baby, she needed help to finish her MBA. Her mother used to travel to Bangalore from Chennai every alternate week, so that Shwetha could go to classes on Fridays and Saturdays. The other two weeks, her husband would work out of home on Fridays. ‘My baby was only four months old. Without that sort of support, I couldn’t have completed my MBA.’
Even so, it wasn’t easy. She would study while rocking her baby to sleep. During class, she would find herself rocking back and forth, from force of habit. But she chose to do all of that.
Shwetha says, and she had to deal with it. When asked what women who plan to study after getting married and having a baby, should keep in mind, she’s quick to list out pointers:
(a) Don’t waste time!
‘For you to be sitting in class and listening to a lecture, some five people are working in the background. Make the most of it’ Shwetha says.
The constant guilt that she shouldn’t be wasting time made Tier more efficient. Compared to her school and college days, she worked much harder, faster and with more concentration. She even topped some of the subjects. And then, I regretted that I wasted sooooo much time back then,’ she laughs.
(b) Don’t crib
Yes, you don’t have time, Yeah, life is hard. Yep, we get it, you didn’t sleep all night. But you made a choice—stick to it.’
(c) Don’t let anyone else waste your time
There will always be people who ask to meet, who want you to take time off for lunch, who grumble that you don’t make time for them. Ask them to take a hike, if they can’t understand your situation. Get out of friendships that cause emotional drama. State in clear terms that there is no more room for drama in your life. Real friends will understand and stick by you.’
Following these rules herself she found she could take the time to actually focus on her course of study. She made time for introspection, decided she wanted to switch from the IT industry to brand management, and spoke to her professor about it. She interned with him, and eventually got an enviable job at a reputed Company.
Smiling, she says it helped that her husband took over as her minder. ‘He took up exactly from where my father left off. If I was chilling out before an exam, he would come and switch off the TV and ask me to go study. I’d say oh, come on, it’s an open book exam, it’s case-study based, I want to go out… but he would be all like, “What the hell? If I were you, I’d have locked myself up in a room and be studying”. Guilt-tripping works.’
A marriage is what one makes of it, Shwetha feels. It’s possible to do a lot of things after marriage, but one should be ready to handle the responsibility and the realities that come with it.
‘Parents will just try and paint a rosy picture. Your marriage and children are items for them to tick off. They will try and finish of their checklist asap. You need to figure out whether you’re ready to run the show, to work towards a happy marriage.’
She doesn’t want to frighten people off marriage though. There are entirely good sides to it, such as companionship, especially while travelling. ‘My parents were super-worried when I was single and travelling with friends. And though I didn’t marry Hulk Hogan, they were somehow under the impression that travelling with my husband was a lot safer!’