Constancy; 1/7/10

by f

Sally Hawkins, from Persuasion

Disclaimer: You probably don’t want to read this post if you’re in any way related to me. This story is generic and I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. And none of the girls I’m discussing are actually related to me or know anybody who would read this blog. Seriously.

I realize this is going to be an inflammatory post. And I know that most my material comes from anecdotes and not hard numbers. But if this situation is true in one case, it’s still a grievous one, and it is certainly true in more than one case. As this is my forum, I feel that I should write it out of my mind. I’m going to restrain my anger here, but just. I mean, this is at least the twentieth time this has happened.

Anyway; I consider it urgent.

Here’s some context:

Say you’re a fresh-faced Brahmin girl with an interfering, intellectual and sometimes loving family. I’ll throw in the South Indian part. South Indian Brahmin girl, got it?

For the purposes of this rant, you’ve been “secretly seeing” a guy since you’ve been in middle school or high school. I guess they don’t call it middle or high school there, so I’ll have to amend that; a guy you’ve seen since you were in your intermediate or your tenth or even before that. He’s the love of your life. Most of the stupid Hindi songs you watch on TV make sense to you because, gosh darn it, you’re going to be in love until the end of time.

Even if it means listening to awful eighties vomit-inducing cheese for that same eternity.  Even if it means having to run around in a midriff bearing ghaghra while putzing around the Swiss Alps. I never understood that phenomenon. Someone out there is charged with having to explain that to me.

You move onto college and you and Mr. Love still have that intense Siamese connection. If you’re going to different colleges you make hush-hush train visits to meet each other in the dead of night at some coffee shop. You hold hands. Sometimes, if you’re involved enough, you take the thing back to his friend’s apartment. (He’s that friend who’s always partying in a pile of ladies.)

But after college, things start getting hairy. There’re advanced studies for you to pursue. Your parents realize that your uterus has a ticking time-bomb attached to it. They want grandkids. They want to see you settled with Nice (insert your specific sub-caste here) Boy, start a family, and situate yourself well enough to take care of them in their old age. You’re not unfamiliar with these expectations. Your family’s made you aware of them since you were quite young. You’ve heard stories about relatives who’ve had to give up their “secret boyfriends” and you wait in trepidation for the day when it’ll have to happen to you. Because it will, and you know it.

Yet you’re having such a good time. Your boyfriend is emotionally invested in you the way most people are invested in eating or going to the bathroom or making sure their nose isn’t congested with boogers. It becomes a habit, a deeply private personal thing that stems from the self. You feel like that, too, or you think you do. And you know that this relationship comes with an expiration date; either that or you think you can convince your parents to come around (they won’t).

The uteral time-bomb ticking is too much for your parents to ignore and so they start bringing up the subject. You resist mightily at first. It’s not that you have a boyfriend, you insist — liar — but you want to figure out what to do with Your Own Life! (TM) You tell them you will make up your mind after future studies. Your boyfriend notices that you’re tensed up about this, and you get drawn into some arguments, which end with reaffirmations of love and vows to stay together, to stick to the Your Own Life! (TM) plan. This cycle repeats itself. You graduate from college and go on for “future studies”. Your boyfriend does the same. You still keep in touch and things are hot and heavy beyond Penthouse’s imagination. On this fantasy high, away from your parents, you’re capable of any decision. In this age of the Liberated Female (TM), you’re nigh invincible. Or so you think.

Yeah, and then the world catches up with you.

Eventually this happens:

You’re flown Down South or Back Home, depending on the tilt of the Earth and your position on the globe. After years of separation from your family, you’re ecstatic to see your parents, your uncles and aunts and four million overachieving cousins you probably couldn’t stand when you were actually living with them. They take you out to weddings, to family functions, to concerts. At your own house, you’re royalty. This is part of the plan. By re-exposing you and reacquainting you with a life you haven’t lived for ages, they’re making passionate a case for their lifestyle. At first you see through it, but your folks are so genuine, you can’t help but buy into the fiction. They weave this unbelievably seductive tale of happiness and domestic tranquility; of being with someone who has everything in common with you; of somehow balancing yourself with the greatness of your larger rasamsambhar biryani-loving secret kakarkai-adoring culture. You have serious doubts about your ability to introduce your boyfriend to a life that’s so foreign to him.

For the first time you start to do the unthinkable.

You wonder if it’s worth it after all.

At this point it’s still a bald statement, but you’re having those palpitations. Whenever you can you make the secret phone calls from your house at two in the morning, when you think everyone’s asleep. “I can’t wait to get away to be with you,” you say at first, but after a while, you don’t mean it. Your gag reflex doesn’t automatically start working overtime when your parents start mentioning one well-situated suitor after another. You, the queen of your options.

Now the boyfriend, the devoted sap who’s been following you around, who’s spent a million dollars a month on phone calls, who knows you by heart and your favorite color and your television shows and the fact that you secretly find dutch ovens amusing, just doesn’t cut it anymore. Mr Love’s like a Corolla in a Benz Dealership. A Suitable Boy TM* makes him look like a Pinto on a Maserati floor at Javitz during the April car show. You forget the happiest hours of your life and think about a future to which you’re entitled to by birth.

Between this time and the time when you dump your boyfriend via blog/phone/text message/or short phone plea it’s a gap of about a month. Two months, tops. Your heart breaks, but you know what? You’ll end up in a comfortable set of arms. With smiling parents to look on as your extended family munches their way through your parents’ life savings. With at least ten costume changes, jewelry enough to fill an emperor’s treasury. This is what you envision. And after the circus is over, you’ll settle with this love of your life and have a million kids. The boyfriend will move on and live a happily ever after with some nice caste-appropriate female.

This is your happily ever after.

This sounds almost sympathetic to your cause. I mean, seriously. What a cute little crisis of faith to be resolved in the most Bollywood parent-approved manner possible. I mean, seriously! This is great.

There are no consequences. And nobody will ever wake you up from the great harm you’ve done to someone else so in a while, the pain becomes an even fond memory, of things that could have been if society was different and the world was perfect and Newtonian physics took that vacation to the Swiss Alps.

*

Now you get to wake up, you dumb females. (You don’t even deserve to be called ladies. You don’t deserve to be called human beings.) Politically correct? No. Am I grossly misrepresenting culture? I don’t care. Am I glossing over some very delicate nuance here? No. Don’t put nuance where there isn’t any; the justifications I’ve just posted stink so much I’ve had to open my windows in thirty degree weather to air them out.

Let me tell you the story about the boy you left behind.

This is the same boy who slogged through a good part of his life thinking that he was going to make a living to support you. Who was quite all right with your three-in-the-morning insecurities, rhapsodizing about your favorite raspberry ice cream at a bakery so far away from your house that it was just obscene. Who went to college and felt smug and secure and happy that while his friends were single and had to prank call hookers and go to peep shows just to amuse themselves, he had a golden line to a foxy lady who could always be counted on to (pretend to) wear sexy underwear. He was in love.

Contigo.

Boyfriend (TM?) busted his butt to get himself into some good grad school so that he could get to you in time. Truth is, he’s not a moron. He knows that you’re going to get snared in the jaws of family. It’s his top nightmare. (Number two has to be the one where Adriana Lima suddenly morphs into his eighty-year-old Science teacher from the second grade.) He fears the day you’ll go back to your family. Like the non-moron he is he knows you’re going to be eaten alive but prays that you are better and stronger than that. Because, you know, a deep and abiding love for a little more than a decade should trump any possible problem.

Ah, well. He’s wrong. You suck.

You cocoon yourself in your house until you can emerge as a properly married butterfly. That’s right. Within three months of your breakup you are married to some amazing guy who makes a killing and is also an alchemical wizard. It’s guaranteed that his and yours will get together perfectly. That’s your happy ending.

You know what your boyfriend does?

He calls me.

He’s about to fall apart, at three in the morning. For months. Crying. [The awful] Chetan Bhagat wrote devoted his 2 States to this phenomenon; our man Googles various methods for suicide. Melodramatic? I don’t know. Is it this first time I’ve heard that? No.

The main question is: What did I do? But that’s the wrong question, because your boyfriend didn’t do jack. The only mistake he made was ever going out with you in the first place. But how did he know that, when you were that fresh-faced Brahmin girl who thought she could defy expectation?

Growing a backbone, obviously, wasn’t an option.

Unplugging yourself from the fantasy wasn’t an option.

True love is fiction.

But these phone calls and tears are real.

Boyfriend’s not unique. To my readers who are not of Indian descent, Boyfriend can be any one of thousands of men. I can think of exactly twenty relationships in which this exact scenario played out; it was the girl who didn’t have the backbone. It was the girl whose ultra-conservative South Indian family said no, and it was the girl who backed out of ten years of emotional investment. That should be criminal. You should sue for something like that.

All right, that’s the American in me talking.

When I hear Indians discuss this exact scenario amongst themselves, they express sympathy for the injured party but note that the girl was somehow justified in what she’d done, that things would smooth over, that it’s an unfortunate cultural anomaly. But I can’t help but look at the injured individual, at the man who thought that he held something that he was forced to let go.

Note that I am not saying that the man is never to blame. As a matter of fact I can think of instances where the situation is completely reversed and to that I can say that it’s equally not right. But I focus on our role as women because, as a woman, I expect better. I want to know how someone who is so similar to me can be so callous.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot makes a similar decision; she refuses to marry Captain Wentworth because she’s warned that his lack of rank is objectionable. She doesn’t marry him. Nor does she marry anyone else, because the decision haunts her life so. The toughness of singlehood, of being deprived of the person she truly loved made her into the soft and experienced twenty seven year old (positively ancient!) who realized her mistake and what she needed to do to rectify it.

And then she comes to this conclusion about constancy:

” ‘Oh!’ cried Anne eagerly, ‘I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you,  and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue  the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures!  I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment  and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable  of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal  to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance,  so long as–if I may be allowed the expression–so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you.  All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one;  you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.’ “

Persuasion, Jane Austen

For me, this has always been the gold standard. Looking around, I realize that that is no longer the case. Prove me wrong. Please, please prove me wrong.

___

Note: I am not against arranged marriages (in general). I think arranged marriages can be a great way to find a wonderful husband or wife. I’m just against breaking up with a long-standing and loving partner in order to satisfy family expectations.

Note 2: I am absolutely not trying to make female Tamilian Brahmins look bad as a class of people. I’m friendly with many of these lovely ladies and I’m sure the vast majority of them would never think to behave this way. I’m focusing on particular cases of which I have first-hand knowledge. If you’re afraid that I’m talking about you, I’m probably not.

Note 3: It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. It’s a fantastic book and encompasses this delicate dynamic in a much more coherent and artistic way than this rant.

2 Comments to “Constancy; 1/7/10”

  1. Great post, F. Indian women are not the only ones that do this to men, although the majority of non-Indians that I’ve known to have similar problems are not due to the specific circumstances. I think some women are just callous and do what they think is easier. This is not central to any one culture or religion or caste. The difference is that some women have a more readily-made excuse for it. I’m sure the boyfriends never thought their girlfriends were that callous, and perhaps the girlfriends didn’t want to think of themselves as that callous, either. But, when the chips are down the true colors come out. It’s too bad that so many people are left by the wayside, thunderstruck and crying, wondering how this could have happened to them. They were supposed to be the ones that made it, after all. Breaking up is one thing, but these sorts of situations aren’t the sort of typical break-up that people generally go through in America. These situations are a lot more callous.

  2. I loved this post the first time I read it, and it has grown on me even more. This sort of callous behavior is unacceptable. You happen to have noticed a trend for it within your community, than is unique to that culture and its variants. These girls are raised with the message that a husband will be chosen for them and that this is the only acceptable option. They go into relationships with Boyfriend both as a way of rebelling–and as a safe option while time ticks by. As you said, they know there is an expiration date. They have an easy way out. Just blame it on the parents and you can end the relationship in no time, AND get someone else to do the heavy lifting of choosing a life partner for you.

    I think arranged meetings are great, but that the two people involved should always have the final say. Parents can set you up on dates, and give you their two (bajillion) cents, but ultimately, they need to butt out. (I know, I know, try telling that to a nosy auntie!)

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