July 2014: Breaking the taboo of divorce in largely conservative India.
A Bit of Background
Last year, I put up this status message on Facebook: "Today, the 15th of February, is the 10th anniversary of my first wedding. It's interesting how far both of us, my ex-husband and I, have come since our divorce in 2006. And how different life—lives—would have been if I had stayed. Oh, thank god!"
People have always asked me why I talk about my divorce, including this article featured in Mirrors across India a few weeks after I got remarried two years ago. I have several reasons.
I got married to Shiv when I was 19 and he was 30, back in 2003, when the world was different, I was different. After one failed attempt in July/August, we got separated in December 2005, when I moved to Mumbai, and divorced 10 months later.
First, a caveat. I spoke casually about being divorced much before I got remarried, much before I found love with Sahil. I spoke about it when I was down, devastated and broke; when I was single; to friends and strangers; and at job interviews. I even spoke about considering one the very first time I met a woman who is now a friend—a young divorcee herself, she said (and I remember this vividly), "Are you sure, Tara*? I find now that I am perpetually ‘<Insert her own name> the Divorcee'." I put that in right upfront, as I realise it could seem convenient to talk about it now, when all has turned out okay. For instance, though there were many years in between, my grandparents didn't tell anyone in Dehradun, the small town in North India in which they live that I was divorced until I got remarried (the veritable ‘happy ending').
[I realised this when I had gone for my granddad's 80th birthday celebrations a few years ago, only to be startled by questions of "Shiv kahan hain, beta?", "Aapke husband Indonesia se nahi aa paye?" ("Where is Shiv?", "Your husband wasn't able to come from Indonesia?") That's when I pieced together the story they had been telling, or letting brew, partly grounded in the truth—my ex-husband is, indeed, currently in Indonesia, just with a different wife.]
Because of this, I've been asked this over and over, from the curious as well as the concerned ‘what is the need to wash dirty linen is public', I'll tell you why I speak about it.
From a personal point of view, it is because I believe in being the same person in all situations (which does not mean one doesn't respond to context). I never had a word for it, and so use my friend Jordyn's one: ‘integrated personality'. Also, secrets that don't really make a difference to ones life are overrated, and too much baggage. I have been divorced; that's one of the things that has happened in my life.
Perhaps I needn't remind/inform the thousands of ‘friends'/followers on Facebook and Twitter about my divorce. But, at the risk of sounding pompous, I do it for grander sociological reasons. A) I'd like to help relax the social stigma around divorce for those concerned and their families—there's still a lot of that in India, and B) I want people who are going through it to know that, well, it's okay, even at the worst times.
Stigma-Shigma & Blah
To be fair, I have never faced much social trauma about the divorce.
Surprisingly, though it was my progressive father who pointed out the flaws in my marriage, it was he who told me to go back the first time I left. To be fair, he was dying then, and knew he was leaving Ma and I with nothing: so having me ‘settled' was important. Nonetheless, I left about a year before he died, and he was okay, as long as I was focussing on my career. My grandparents, older people in a small town, probably felt the social stigma more. It's no wonder then that, when Sahil and I were living together refusing to get married, my grandmother gently said, "He's a lovely boy from a good family, he loves you a lot. Shaadi kar lo, bete, tum toh divorced bhi ho." ("Get married, child, you're even divorced.") Without malice, she was tenderly implying that I wasn't that eligible a match anymore.
But personally, I faced nothing. Not in my career, not from my family, not from friends (handpicked liberals anyway), certainly not from my best-friend-turned-partner-turned-husband, and not even ever from my lovely in-laws, who'd known about it from minute Sahil and I had become friends. I realise I could have had it worse, much worse. And I know people, particularly women, across India and other traditional countries do.
In my first workplace in Mumbai, about eight years ago, many people in my office were divorced, four-five of twenty. This was probably a function of being at a KPO, at that point, and soon after in the English media, young industries teeming with educated urban youth, and not in more conventional ones like banking or manufacturing. But recently, on a family visit to Dehradun, my aunt sat counselling our lovely neighbour, whose wife wants a divorce. The bit I overheard was her gently telling him that, though we belong to a traditional family (well, I'm probably the exception), two of my father's first cousins; the only grandchild, me; and so many others we know are divorced. Clearly, divorce is an urban epidemic.
I know ideology is immune to reason. So I don't expect to convert conservatives, traditionalists and conformists, but, nonetheless, I ask this: so, socially, what is the big deal about divorce? A woman lost her hymen (which I hope she wasn't preserving for marriage anyway); a couple lived with each other, someone thought s/he'd be happier elsewhere (or worse, the partner thought s/he'd be happier elsewhere), and they separate to live independent lives. So? So fucking what.
Of course, women bear the brunt of the social censure, as they do for most things under patriarchy. And just as one of the reasons for the divorce epidemic in urban India is women's earning power and independence (we don't need to take shit anymore), it is this very aspect that will immunise you against the social censure you could face from family and society. Family is whatever family is, but generally, surround yourself with people who'll understand and support you, or at least mind their own business. Grow a thicker skin, and get and stay financially independent.
No Gain Without Pain
Not dealing with social censure is not to say that divorce was a cakewalk. It wasn't. At 22, I left Chennai for Mumbai with little money, a broken heart, no job, an on-and-off boyfriend and no maike** as my parents were without a home during my dad's illness. There were days of crying and hopelessness, but at the base of it all was an understanding that this was a choice. I would rather be here, braving the pain and the pressure, than be back in a marriage I did not want. (And, I know this is simplistic to say about divorce, but hey, I've been through enough painful breakups to know this: even if your spouse is the one who wants out and you think it's being lumped on you… would you really want to stay with someone who doesn't want to be with you?) Though times were much worse than in the marriage, I knew that, eventually, I'd be happier. Eventually.
When the Mumbai Mirror article came out, I didn't even know. I was in Delhi on work, not that I would have known if I were in Mumbai as I read the newspaper only later in the day, much after Facebook and Gmail-checking (heck, I go online even before I brush my teeth)! So when I went online, I was damn surprised to find an unusual number of friend requests, messages, followers. Huh? What was going on?
Before I could get to reading the messages, my mother-in-law called. The article was out, and she wasn't happy, neither was my mother. (Though when I asked my mother why she was unhappy—wasn't she the one telling me to use my writing to make a difference to people's lives?—she couldn't say why.) Then, I read the messages. Some were from people, both men and women, who weren't divorced, just commending me for being so "gutsy". But quite a few were from women who empathised, talked about the pain they had been or were going through, and generally just talked. And this divorced aunt who'd fallen apart after her divorce—well, she called me and said she was happy to see hope. Go figure.
Divorce is painful. Do I go so far as to recommend it?
A long time ago, it's been many years, I read a little snippet in The Times of India's juicy ‘World' page. It was about this divorce lawyer in America who was drawing flack for printing t-shirts that said ‘Life is Short, Get a Divorce'. I've remembered this line all this while, and it is truly what I feel. If you're unhappy, and you believe whatever you think lies ahead after the divorce (don't focus on the immediate pain and chaos) is better than where you are, go for it. I totally recommend it.
If I could go back and do it again, would I?
If I could go back and correct the course of my life, would I have got married, at 19, to Shiv? No, I wouldn't. I think one must choose life partners more wisely than I did, if at all, at a more mature age than I did. Shiv is a great guy, don't get me wrong, just not the guy for me. But hindsight is always 20/20.
But if I could only go back until a point after the marriage, would I get divorced? Hell yes, I would get divorced, definitely. Those that find love and happiness in their first marriages have better EQ than I did, or are plain lucky (my second husband certainly is, and our relationship, with or without the ‘marriage' tag, is certainly ‘it' for us). But giving love and, indeed, life another chance by getting divorced has totally been worth it. It was worth it when I was bawling my eyes out; it was worth it when I dated the nitwits, despairing about finding love again; it was worth it when I thought I would stay single, big deal; it has been worth it in the long run. And so too for Shiv: he is remarried to someone much more suited to his personality and lifestyle, and has two children as well.
So far, I've only talked of the advantages of getting divorced in relation to being unhappily married. Through the divorce, I also discovered that it has advantages over never having been married. Really!
For one, it freed me from a lot of social pressure. No more was it anyone's responsibility to protect a social ‘ideal' and my modesty, and that I was no longer a virgin was no longer a secret. So I could party, fuck, and be free.
Secondly, it cut out the traditionalists, conservatives and judgementals from my life. Anyone who wanted to befriend or date me had to be chilled out and liberal, and see me for who I am as a person.
Finally, through the experiences of a failed first marriage and divorce, I grew. We are all living creatures, changing and evolving. What we see and deal with changes us, makes us richer and deeper.
A long time ago, Sahil had said something very beautiful. Though he wished I'd never have had to go through the pain of the divorce, he was damn glad I did: "It's your journey that makes you the person you are, and I love you the way you are," he said. "And, if you hadn't got divorced, you wouldn't be with me!"
So, yeah, focus on your silver lining. And smile!
**Maike: A married woman's parents' home, culturally considered a place of solace or refuge, where she returns to get pampered right before and after delivery, and during marital trouble.
This column appeared on 3QD in July 2014.