Public Display of Divorce by Tara Kaushal

July 2014: Breaking the taboo of divorce in largely conservative India. 

Conceptual photograph courtesy Sahil Mane.

Conceptual photograph courtesy Sahil Mane.

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.

DINK, Forever by Tara Kaushal

May 2013: Like us, more and more Double Income No Kids couples today are choosing to stay that way. Why, and why not?

Shortly after we hit our first wedding anniversary, the questions started. First, it was family, asking us for the euphemistic ‘Good News’. Then, it was ‘just curious’, well-meaning friends: “When are you guys planning kids?” Soon, Facebook too jumped on the bandwagon, and has started targeting me for maternity wear and baby product ads. To its intuitive algorithm and society alike, recently married plus over thirty equals wannabe mommy.

Maybe not. When we tell people that Sahil and I don’t want kids, most are gobsmacked, others are more curious; and all want an explanation. So here’s ours: I don’t really like kids (Sahil does, but others’), and neither of us wants the responsibility. We love our full, chaotic lives; we’re workaholics who socialise like we’re 21 and travel at whim. We’re impatient and self-involved. The idea of a tiffin-school-bus routine at 6 AM makes us baulk. Plus, there’s the daunting expense. We like being Double Income No Kids and involved pet parents.

When I recently spent the day with a childhood friend who is now a full-time mother of two under-fives, I was further convinced. She’s a beautiful, patient parent, catering to their every whim, a high-stress 24x7 job that leaves her with not a minute for herself. As we walked around the park pushing the stroller, one eye on her son playing, she said, “When friends tell me there’s family pressure to have children, I tell them this is something they should do for themselves, no one else. If you’re going to resent your kids for the five-six intense years and a lifetime of responsibility, don’t do it. You’re bringing up human beings.” And I was thinking: being a favourite aunty is one thing, daily parenting is quite another.

There are counter-arguments to every pro-child argument. I don’t buy in to this idealising and romanticising of pregnancy and the motherhood myth, and don’t see parenting as ‘the most important thing you can do with your life’. Unguaranteed eternal love and support in ones old age for a lifetime of responsibility does not seem to be worth it, neither is there undisputed evidence that kids ‘bind’ couples together. Legacy, family name are inconsequential issues (an auto driver I had a long conversation with in Delhi said I was shunning my "duty").

No one is genetically perfect, and eugenics isn’t fool-proof anyway: remember the anecdote, variously attributed to Nobel Prize-winner Anatole France and dancer Isadora Duncan, playwright GB Shaw and Duncan, and even playwright Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. She, the beauty, apparently said to him, the brain: “Would it not be wonderful if we could have a child who had your brains and my beauty?” His reply was, “Yes, but supposing it had your brains and my beauty!”

One could argue that our sex drives naturally exist for procreation. But I believe we must evolve psychologically and socially beyond biology. We’ve taken the first step: most of the sex we have is for pleasure. The second step is realising that the human race does not need to produce more young; if anything, our race is under greatest threat from an exploding population, and its impact on the planet. Is a desire for ones own young important enough to leave a carbon footprint as large as a life?

To my mind, the only compelling argument is evidence that the woman’s body needs to give birth to fend off certain cancers and other diseases.

These are our reasons. In what could be a sign of impending demographic change, I know three or four other similarly inclined educated, urban couples, whose reasons vary from not liking kids, to not feeling mature or wealthy enough to have them, to a whole combination of arguments listed above. One couple, married over 10 years, talks about how its childlessness is assumed to be a problem, not voluntary. Pushing public-private boundaries, people have asked them if they’re undergoing infertility treatment and put collective social pressure on their personal lives. “They cannot fathom that this is what anyone would choose or that this is a choice we have the right to make.”

We all know people who should never have become parents, whose kids you cross your fingers for. I am reminded of lines from my favourite poem, ‘Right To Life’ by Marge Piercy. It is pro-abortion, and focuses on the wellbeing of both mother and child: "Every baby born has a right to love/ like a seedling to sun. Every baby born/ unloved, unwanted, is a bill that will come/ due in twenty years with interest, an anger/ that must find a target, a pain that will/ beget pain." If there was less pressure and obligation, if saying you don’t like children and want none wasn’t treated like abject blasphemy, if having children was treated as a choice and not an assumption, if childlessness wasn’t presumed to be a medical problem to be treated with pity, perhaps more people would see having children as a lifestyle decision, much like having a pet. They would ask themselves if they’re each ready, emotionally, financially, if child rearing is right for them, not just the indoctrinated, unreasonable, socially ingrained "bacché toh karne hi chahiye" statement I got from my domestic help.

Minds change, mistakes happen, so maybe we’ll end up having an adopted or biological child or two. But I ask Sahil if we’ll wake up one morning, past my childbearing years, and want a child. “We can always adopt then,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Genetics are a funny, unpredictable thing anyway.”

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in May 2013.

‘Self Arranged’: The Online Matrimonial Mantra by Tara Kaushal

April 2013: How urban Indians use matrimonial sites has changed, and what these changes mean.

I recently met an old friend, and we got chatting about how he met the person he had married. “We met online,” he said. “Don’t tell me you met on,” I exclaimed with my usual disdain of arranged marriages. “Actually, we did… I saw her profile, liked what she said about wanting an equal partner and being feminist, paid three and a half thousand to get her number, and called her.” Rajiv and Niharika dated for two years before marrying last November.

Several of my other friends, all around 30, are on online matrimonial sites. All of them: A) claim to be coerced in to registering themselves by friends or family. (“It keeps mum and dad off my back,” one said. Another’s friend made his account, and even shortlisted a few interesting prospects.) And B), will only grudgingly admit it. Because, for a generation that scoffs at the idea of arranged marriage as seeing each other over chai and samosas with hovering parents, the very idea of meeting someone on a matrimonial site is problematic, as an idea.

Increasingly, though, I realise that, to a certain section of urban India, the function and utility of these sites is changing. It seems that being on an online matrimonial site only indicates that one is on the lookout for a serious relationship, and most of my friends who’ve met people through them have dated for a while before settling down—or not. And by filtering matches according to the parameters people are looking for—age, religion, etc—there’s a system-generated adherence to social mores. For some, these ‘self arranged’ matches have the best of both worlds—unlike in real life, where love can happen inter-caste/creed/religion (heaven forbid!), the people one meets here check the right boxes straight off. And then one gets to date a person with similar serious intentions, but not necessarily ready to go straight from keyboard down the isle. “From the start, you know the meeting is not about friendship, which changes the equation of the interaction from the beginning,” says 31-year-old Sangeetha, who married someone she met online.

Self arranged the online matrimonial mantra ed.jpg

In other countries, this function would be served by online dating sites. There are a whole host—from those for those looking for casual flings, threesomes and swingers even, to those for those with serious intentions. But simply calling them ‘dating’ websites would make them too Western in the Indian scheme of things; the idea that marriage is the ultimate agenda makes them easier to for families to palate.

What Does this Environment Mean for Women?

On one level, online dating can be empowering for women. Aside from the photograph, a great deal of the initial communication is online, allowing the development of a personality-based connection beyond pressures on appearances. “Meeting online allows two disparate people, who would never exchange numbers at a party, to explore a deeper connect,” says a Jordyn Steig, who met his wife Pamela through Facebook. 

Does being allowed to ‘self arrange’ empower women, giving them some degree of freedom to choose their own partners from within a family-approved shortlist? Not really. For the most part, women aren’t allowed to negotiate this world unchaperoned either. Fathers and mothers remain the gatekeepers, dis/approving potential partners. And, unfortunately, the gender inequality of conventional dating rules still applies. “You can’t ask for guys’ numbers; it’s considered too forward,” says a 30-year-old architect. “You can’t be too comfortable or proactive. Guys will be more forthcoming, and the onus remains on them to make the first moves.” The men will—and can—write to a whole host of women, hoping that someone will write back.

Interesting, for an environment that, you would think, demands high levels of trust, Indian matrimonial sites are chock-full of players, and, worst still, scam artists. Players troll matrimonial sites, looking for the gullible and the desperate, with a purely sexual agenda. A Mumbai-based friend has encountered several of those. One wonders at the desperation of the Indian male—in the early days of Couch Surfing, I’ve heard stories of how potbellied sickos would appear for meetings, waiting for the foreign women to get drunk and loose. Are there not enough places for people with sex on their minds to connect with others similarly inclined? My personal experience on this front is a little dated, but I'm sure the internet continues to offer many such avenues.

On serious dating websites abroad, one tends to encounter more scam artists than players. My mother, a young widow, who I bullied onto these sites in India and Australia (where she lives), encountered a fresh-faced 50-year-old in another Australian city, almost too good to be true. In English that raised several red flags, he told her he was soon leaving for Central Africa for a mining contract. He’d be too busy to call her before he left; would she be okay if they spoke once he reached, of all places, Nigeria (another red flag)! I was certain he had never been in Australia—and sure enough, one phone call and my mother knew too. “He’s black, Tara*,” she said, not being racist but simply stating that he wasn’t what he seemed. Mum stopped responding to his plaintive emails, so the expected ‘I’m in trouble, I need you to wire me some money urgently’ email never came. The site soon sent her an alert about this profile. (Incidentally, my friend never managed to get the administrators of an Indian site to take her complaint about a fellow user—with a misrepresentative profile and sex on his mind—taken seriously, and he continues to hold an active profile.)

‘Matrimonial’ sites allow urban Indians to bridge traditional and modern worlds, one click at a time, but continue to bear the unfortunate baggage of gender inequality. With time, perhaps, our culture will evolve beyond needing the subterfuge of dating under the guise of seeking an arranged match; and our players will find enough willing and sexually liberated playmates in appropriate places, without needing to feign serious intent.

An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in April 2013.