December 2017: Kristen Roupenian’s viral short story ‘Cat Person’ in The New Yorker—about a short relationship that is constructed via texting and ends with bad sex at the end of an awkward first date—addresses issues of sex, gender, power and consent in present-day American dating. I go on an exploration of the complex paradigms of love, dating, sex and marriage in new-age India.
The central theme of ‘Cat Person’, IMHO, is expectations—how they differ from person to person, and from reality. In the beginning, one sees Margot’s burgeoning hope, an "incipient crush" developing on Robert, a man whose character she is guesstimating around their texts. On their date, he is colder than she expects him to be. Midway through their drunk sub-par sexual fumbling she turns, feels "her revulsion turned to self-disgust and a humiliation"; he, on the other hand, flush with post-coital closeness "started talking about his feelings for her". In the end, he is shocked at being rejected and abuses her when she doesn’t respond to his texts a month after the incident.
In India today, the idea of an ‘ideal man/woman’, and worlds of love, dating, sex and marriage are fraught with a whole host of different expectations from varied schools of thought and influence. On the one hand, we still have child and arranged marriages (although I am told that the latter is not as it used to be). Then there’s love—the ‘aankhon hi aankhon mein ishaara ho gaya’ variety, the ‘Friends’ variety, the online dating variety, the list goes on. Then there’s Shaadi.com and the ‘self arranged’ brigade. Plus there’s Tinder and texting. Add Bollywood, global culture, the internet and porn to the mix, and there you have an incredibly complex and confusing gender dynamic.
The Ideal Man/Woman
First, consider the expectations each person/gender has for themselves and is seeking from the other (in a heteronormal scenario). By and large, I have found that women, newly exposed to liberal ideas and education, have more expectations than their foremothers did—whether to wear jeans, to work or to expand their worlds in other ways. Within their cultural milieus, they seek liberal husbands and hope for more egalitarian marriages than their parents had a mere generation ago. This is causing pre- and marital strife as many males, like all privileged parties, would like to retain the systems that favoured them—pre-conceived notions of ‘a good wife’, subjugation through the ideas of virginity and honour, the packed tiffin boxes, the lack of domestic and childrearing load, the control, etc.
This is true across classes. In a poor household I recently studied, all five brothers had barely studied till the 10th grade; the four sisters were all postgraduates. Trapped in their home and allowed out only occasionally with a male guardian, the women kept themselves busy doing correspondence degrees—in secret, until they needed permission to attend exams, when all would be revealed to and accepted by the family males. What did they plan to do with this education? “Sapne bahut hai. Bus, dekho, shaadi kahan hoti hai…” said one. As much as the sisters loved them, I sensed that they hoped for men better than their brothers. Tellingly, one of their sisters-in-laws had left because: “Woh padhi-likhi thi, usne job bhi kiya tha. Shaadi ke baad ghar pe baithke unka man nahi laga.”
Not that women are entirely done with the pre-existing paradigms either. Many still enjoy jealous boyfriends, and want older husbands who earn more than they do—cognitive dissonance sometimes seen even in the most examined of feminists. As we’re all negotiating who we are and what we want for ourselves and from others, things can be confusing!
The Meeting of Cultures
A close friend was telling me about someone who was going to marry a woman he had met through parents. “Ewww,” I said, displaying the disdain for arranged marriages I carry as a result of being the child of an inter-religious love marriage. My parents met on a road when the dog my father was walking jumped on my mother. They went on dates and kind-of lived together before they married four years later, despite religion-based familial differences.
I had several issues—one, arranged marriage presumes that all those from similar backgrounds come out similar; two, the social pre-approval perpetuates a conservative cultural cycle; three, there is the matter of consent and agency; and then there is the decision-making over chai-samosas as one had seen in the movies… “Those last two points are rubbish,” said this friend, who had lived with, then married a man her parents had introduced her to, “you know it’s not a forced or instant decision anymore. They’ve even travelled abroad to a festival together.” So then arranged marriage setups are now family-approved long-term dating?
Or maybe not. A friend went for a few dates with a family-introduced man, only to have him communicate, via the parents, that he would like to date for a couple of years before he made a decision. A couple of years? My friend and her family thought this meeting of the arranged and dating cultures was unacceptable, so that was that. A divorced family friend gave up trying to find himself a match on Shaadi.com: “Invariably, by the third date, the women would bring up if/when we would get married… I was seeing it more as longer-term dating with intension.”
And the varieties of love. I sat chatting with the fiancée of one of my father’s country cousins at a relative’s wedding. “So, how did you meet?” It was at a daytime disco in New Delhi, when she’d borrowed his mobile to call her home. The next day he called and asked for her. “I love you,” were the first words he said, à la some filmy hero. They’ve been together ever since.
While some of us in urban India date and mate at will with wanton Western abandon like the characters of ‘Cat Person’, the newspapers are bursting with stories of vengeful jilted lovers in small towns, unable to accept that women are seeing futures for themselves beyond the men who covet them. Desperate men flock to Tinder in the hopes of meeting some wild women, asking for pictures of ‘vagine’ and ‘bobs’. Not that the consensual dating-mating is simple either—what do I really know about this person? How much does texting count? Sex on the first date or on the third? What if it’s bad sex? Just casual or is there something here…? Are we a couple? The ‘L’ word? How does one break up?
As these styles of relationships with their unique protocols meet in blaze of cultural chaos, we are bound to fumble in our interpersonal dealings. The trick is to be kind, empathetic and simply polite, and communicate the in best way possible.
This article was commissioned by Mumbai Mirror in December 2017.